Wednesday, February 15, 2006

War: Before and After

One of the classic scenes in “The Deer Hunter” occurs early on at the wedding when the 3 steelworkers who are about to go to Vietnam cross paths with the Green Beret who’s already been there. I’m going to bring you that same "Before" and "After" contrast but with one man: John Wetteland, Portland private investigator and standup comedian.
The last time I wrote about John, I got fired from the Tribune – it was a couple of columns just prior to the Iraq War suggesting trouble ahead. In the warmongering atmosphere back then, few in the media wanted to write that we could be heading into a giant mistake. I was told that this anti-war sentiment was why my column was canceled. Although it was a drag at the time, I’m proud of it now, and ironically, because of those columns, the Tribune can say they weren’t along for the ride like the New York Times, the Oregonian and a slew of other papers. The Tribune was wise despite itself.
The way I approached the subject was to interview John Wetteland about his experiences in Vietnam. After I was canned he felt bad but it hasn’t affected our friendship. In fact, every time he goes into a Vietnam story now, I tell him to wait while I get out my resumé. If this post leads to me getting fired from this blog, we’ll know he was the problem.
By the way, he got off some great lines in the original version of the columns but - it being the Tribune - they were yanked. One was, “The only shot George Bush ever fired off in anger was a shot of Jack Daniels.”
So anyway, here is the "Before" shot of John on the first day:

Here is the "After" picture from 19 months later:

This is just a mild illustration of what war can do. By the way, John wasn’t an actual prisoner of war; he just felt like one. Thousands and thousands of soldiers will eventually be back from Iraq. Many of them will have a very tough time dealing with the experience. This war was a horrible unnecessary mistake, and the ones who dreamt it up go off to hunt quail, while the ones who fought it for real, can look forward to their own individualized versions of the "After" shot.


At 11:18 PM, Blogger Idler said...

War is hell. It forces you to get a haircut and causes you become sarcastic, apparently.

Maybe this guy had an awful experience, but as before/after photo sets go, this one is not exactly vivid. Maybe I'm missing something.

At 12:31 AM, Blogger Bill McDonald said...

Okay, a guy sends home a picture from Vietnam with POW written on it and you think that's sarcasm? You wonder if maybe this guy had an awful experience?
Wow, that's some pretty strong deductive reasoning.
How does Scotland Yard manage without you?
Now,see, that was sarcasm.

At 9:53 AM, Blogger Idler said...

Come on, Bill. The point was about the before/after contrast. I was expecting something like those meth before/after things they're putting up on Portland-area billboards with those almost Jekyll & Hyde transformations of users. Your "after" shot shows what to me looks like a normal guy with a shorter haircut than the "before" picture. Maybe he's put on a couple of pounds and aged a little more than the time specified would normally account for. Hard to tell.

The "POW" could be sarcasm, could be deep irony it could even be a light-hearted joke. How the hell do I know? Knowing the rest of the story as you do, the photo no doubt triggers within you something specific, detailed and highly meaningful about this guy's experience. The photo alone doesn't do that for me.

You can be as sarcastic as you like, but the problem here is the disjunction between your dramatic tone and what the illustration actually reveals, which is practically nothing in the absence of more information.

Being a conscript is always in some way like being a prisoner because you are coerced into a kind of captivity, generally of an rather unpleasant nature. Nevertheless, he spirit in which Wetteland meant it is obscure. He could just as easily have meant it light-heartedly.

People have all sorts of experiences during war. Some have a relatively easy time, some go through unthinkable misery and horror. Some people whose duties kept them remote from fighting can end up transformed and deeply scarred. Othes who were in the thick of the fighting can emerge relatively unmoved and even, believe it or not, enjoy their experience on balance. Reactions vary enormously, and humor of all sorts, including gallows humor, obviously, is common during war.

None of this is to make light of your friend's experience or of what that means to you.

At 10:23 AM, Blogger Bill McDonald said...

Actually, i don't like sarcasm, especially in print. I apologize for the tone of my comment but I thought you were overbearing about what the pictures didn't show. Remember, the Green Beret in the Deer Hunter appears in a nice uniform and what has happened is implied. How about this part of the post: "This is just a mild illustration of what war can do. By the way, John wasn’t an actual prisoner of war; he just felt like one."
You mention the POW thing "could be sarcasm, could be deep irony it could even be a light-hearted joke."
That's why I said he FELT like a prisoner of war in the original text. i hope you're not going to argue that some prisoners of war think it's a light-hearted joke. I thought I covered some of your criticisms in the original post, but if I didn't let me spell it out: John had a bad experience in Vietnam. it changed him forever. The person in the first picture, is not the same guy as in the second.
Yes, it would be easier to get if his legs had been blown off, but my point is that a lot of what happens in war, happens to the mind.

At 10:43 AM, Blogger Bill McDonald said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 11:27 AM, Blogger Idler said...

Bill, thanks for the kind reply. As it happens, when you mentioned The Deer Hunter I recollected unequivocal images of the changed man, not the externally normal, impeccably attired soldier as he returned.

But even if I had thought of the image you had in mind, my point still stands. Your before/after is not "a mild illustration of what war can do" it's a non-illustration, or at best an illustration of the inscrutability of war's internal ravages.

Perhaps it was simply indelicate on my part to make the observation in such casual terms. My apologies.

At 7:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Came across this on the internet.
I knew John back in those days...and we are still friends. He has always been smart, and funny as heck ...quick with a laugh and a joke. The Vietnam experience was indeed a rough one as it was on a lot of young men who "did their duty" instead of heading to Canada.
Some did not come home.Fortunately, you did not have to satisfy "idler" with a picture of his body bag.
My husband was in the military and afterwards, was in the March on Washington as one of the members of Soldiers Against the Vietnam Entanglement. There are many of us around who either served in the military or had dear friends go. CERTAINLY, those who went,like John, are entitled to tell those who DID NOT GO what they saw and felt and whether the blood of so many was worth the result. Good for you, Bill.
Wendy R.


Post a Comment

<< Home