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On war and peace

Kim Heikkila recommends these books by women authors about war and peace:

For Rouenna by Sigrid Nunez

Novel Without a Name by Duong Thu Huong

Visions of War, Dreams of Peace: Writings of Women in the Vietnam War eds. Lynda Van Devanter and Joan A. Furey

When Heaven and Earth Changed Places: A Vietnamese Woman's Journey from War to Peace by Le Ly Hayslip

A World of Hurt: Between Innocence and Arrogance in Vietnam by Mary Reynolds Powell

by Kim Heikkila

Most of what I think about peace comes from what I know about war. I interviewed 15 nurses who had served in Vietnam, whose job it had been to clean up the consequences of war. Their stories revealed the brutal truth: War is dirt and fear and death and crying out for mothers and the too-soon loss of innocence. High ideals about the politics of war, whether this side or that, fade with a dying soldier's last breath, "home" more often uttered than "right."

Collectively, these war stories have made me a proponent of peace. One woman's story in particular stays with me.

It was 1999 when I first met Lynn, an Army nurse who had served at the 71st Evacuation Hospital in Pleiku 1969-1970. She welcomed me into the home where she and her husband lived with their dogs and horses, surrounded by the serenity of the central Wisconsin woods. We sat at her kitchen table as she described her year in a war zone. On her first day on duty, she had had to cut off a young GI's arm. Things went downhill from there, she laughed. Having never wanted to go to Vietnam, she had been anxious to come home. But she couldn't adjust. When she found herself swearing at her children, she had sought treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, explaining to her counselor that "every day was a trauma for me."

Lynn recounted all of this in relatively good spirits, considering. She was especially passionate about the healing work she practiced as a professional. Things had changed by 2009, however, when I interviewed her again. Same house, same peaceful woods, same dogs and horses. But now she described herself as isolated and angry. She had lost touch with her friends, given up her healing work. She had tried to find a good counselor through a VA clinic, but didn't have the energy to establish a trusting relationship with someone new all over again. What was going on?

"This war," she said, referring to the war in Iraq, "has just done a job [on me]."

War creates victims anew, endlessly.

I left Lynn that day saddened by her lonely pain, having seen how war's effects recede and resurface but never quite resolve. Even the least troubled of the nurses I met said they think about the war every day. And these were war's survivors, non-combatants, those whose healing duties were beyond impunity. Yet the war lives on in them, spiritually, psychically and physically, every day, 40 years later.


"When will it end?" asked another nurse who is extremely proud of her honorable service, but just as passionate about never sending her own son to war. When will it end?

Kim Heikkila is author of "Sisterhood of War: Minnesota Women in Vietnam" (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2011) and teaches courses on U.S. history, women's history, the war and the '60s at St. Catherine University.

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