July 18th, 2011

... In which things begin to make sense ...

This weekend I was working on War Paint, my upcoming photo book about military tattoos. I was out at the Battleship New Jersey which is a floating museum, just across the river from me. The people at the Battleship were wonderful; they contacted veterans groups, arranged for free admission, the docents all knew what I was doing and they'd bring their tour groups past. I met a lot of people....

One of the people I met was Karl, who was in Vietnam very early, 1957 through 1959 -- before they called it the Vietnam war -- in the Army Airborne. In some ways, Vietnam was my war because it was the war I was most affected by -- my mother was in the Navy, my father was a United States Marine, he was in Vietnam during the first year of my life -- but in many other ways it wasn't my war; because I didn't understand anything about it. My father came home and as I grew up he told relatively benign stories about it -- he missed us but things were okay -- it wasn't something he spoke about a lot and Vietnam faded into the distance even though my father's uniform hung in the closet and we lived around Marines.

Saturday I met Karl ... right after Karl left Laos a number of men in his unit were captured by the Vietcong -- one turned up dead, beheaded, and the others ... nothing. Karl's spent the last fifty years of his life trying to find those men, haunted by the fact that he wasn't there to help them. Those twenty four months of his life have become his life and suddenly I had a feeling as though I might be understanding the smallest edge of what war actually is -- that it's something so powerful it can own your existence decades after you've left it.

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