Writing About a War You Never Experienced

Patti R. Albaugh

I wanted to write a story about the Vietnam War from the perspective of the wife whose husband re-enlists to serve as an advisor to South Vietnam troops. Could I really write a story based on the Vietnam War? Authentically? Accurately? Without offending those who fought in, lost someone in, or avoided the war? As a resident of SaddleBrooke, I know many who fought in Vietnam and a few who purposely did not.

I have just released Rebecca Benson’s War on Amazon.com. Rebecca Benson is a woman who can’t forgive her husband Adam for dying in Vietnam, in a war he volunteered to join. Rebecca struggles to honor her husband’s service, but she can’t ignore her growing anti-war sentiments. Torn between opposing positions, she agonizes over what to do and how to act. Rebecca’s relationships with a paraplegic veteran, a madras-wearing pot-smoking girlfriend, and the Marine who watched her husband die lead her to painful reflection. Her pursuit of the truth about America’s role in Southeast Asia reveals her naiveté about courage, patriotism, and the purpose of war.

Between the initial conception of the novel and the final click on “approve and publish,” I researched, interviewed, wrote and re-wrote … and worried. How could I possibly write a fair narrative about a controversial war in which I had no experience? Like actors, writers, or any student of human behavior, I tried to make an empathic leap into the minds of people who experienced the war. It wasn’t easy—I had no military background. I had never sent anyone off to war. But as I moved from sympathy (feeling sorry for someone’s misfortune) to empathy (being able to feel another’s emotions), Rebecca Benson’s War became a labor of love and grit.

I read many books and watched numerous movies related to the war in Southeast Asia. My research provoked neither a hawkish attitude nor a dovish posture. Reading about the Vietnam conflict made me more thoughtful about wars and the people who fight in them. The words and images of those I read about or interviewed gave me insight into realities and misunderstandings of a war fought by brave soldiers who slogged through rice paddies with leeches on their backs (and other places) in a foreign land where they could barely discern who was friend or who was foe. And I read the stories of those who opposed the war.

The more I learned and listened, the more I encountered the reality of the human condition: our need to survive, to have a purpose, and to measure up. I gained unlimited respect for people who served our country even when they doubted their purpose.

A quote by José Narosky says it all: “In war, there is no unwounded soldier.” Wounding happens to the soldier who comes home and carries unwanted memories and/or crutches, wounding happens to loved ones who worry and grieve, wounding happens to the medical teams who save some and lose many, and wounding happens to townspeople who argue about who is right or who is wrong.

In addition to the literature of the era (especially those books that Vietnam veterans recommended), I listened to the music of the ‘60s. Music is powerful. Song became a vehicle for restless youth who needed a voice to protest an unpopular war. Those who did serve found music to be a reflection of their experience and an expression of their frustrations and the horrors they witnessed. The beat, the melodies, and the lyrics of music can put us there.

The words of veterans, movies, and music reflect the patriotism and moral dilemma of war. When is war justified? How do we remind ourselves to honor those who have served? The answers are not always clear.