Mark Long, Jim Demonakos, and Nate Powell’s The Silence of Our Friends opens with Mark playing war in 1968 in Houston, TX. He crawls through the front yard pretending to be an American soldier as he searches for Vietcong soldiers before engaging them. His sister Michelle wants to join him, and Mark gets angry because he doesn’t “wanna play with no girls.” Eventually, after Michelle threatens to tell their mother, Mark acquiesces and they play together, pretending to be American soldiers fighting a war halfway around the world. Their play, informed by the war and the culture, gets upended though when they return inside the house and come face to face with the reality of the war.
Entering the house, they see their mother, Patricia, ironing clothes as she watches the news. On the television, Võ Sửu’s video of South Vietnamese general Nguyễn Ngọc Loan executing Nguyễn Văn Lém, a Vietcong member, on a street in Saigon, plays. Their mother turns, shocked at what she sees on the screen, and Powell’s panels display five images of the execution. The first is the image that Eddie Adams took of he moment that Loan shot Lém. The next two show Loan lowering his gun as Lém starts to fall and Loan holstering his gun as Lém hits the ground. The final two panels show Lém on the ground, blood flowing from his head.
Powell depicts Patricia, with only her eyes, wide open, and nose in the panel. She holds her hands up to her face, and we see her fingers on either side of her nose. In this image, the shock of seeing Lém’s execution shows in her face as she says, “oh my god.” This panel is small, situated on the right side of the page, and the panels elongate towards the left as the page continues. The next panel reaches to the middle of the page and shows Michelle comforting her mother, telling her not to cry, as Mark stares at the television, no emotion really showing on his face. The next panel is centered and larger than the previous two. It shows Patricia hugging Michelle as Mark still stares at the screen. The final image is part of the background which moves from dark at the top of the page with the last images of Lém to light at the bottom and silhouettes of the houses and power lines on the street.
The movement of the background, coupled with the fact that the family sees the images from Vietnam displayed on the screen and beamed into their living room in Texas, highlights some things I have been thinking about a lot lately, specifically after the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. I think about the ways that individuals, specifically children, react to such news and images, and during the remembrances of those who were murdered and those who survived those blasts, I thought about Koko Kondo’s comments a few weeks ago and about Lillian Smith and the campers at Laurel Falls talking about the bombings.
Kondo was eight months old when American pilots dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 9, 1945, killing 70,000 people initially and between 90,000-160,000 in the aftermath. Kondo told NPR, “As a child, I thought if they never dropped the bomb, many children didn’t have to become orphans. So I said, someday when I’m grown up, I am going to [get] revenge.”
Seven-thousand miles away, in Clayton, GA, campers at Laurel Falls reflected on the bombing, concluding that the children like Kondo had nothing to do with the war and that it didn’t “seem quite fair to children.” They thought about what would happen if people built bridges to one another instead of destroying the connections. Smith told the girls, “Sometimes geography–and distance–make it easier not to care,” and one girl said, “The man in the plane who dropped that bomb must have been glad they couldn’t see below them. Or maybe they’d never known a Japanese child, of maybe they just called them ‘yellow monkeys’ and that made it seem not to matter—like folks down here say Negroes don’t matter.”
Another camper responded, “When I say I try not to think about it, I mean I’ve cut my bridges. Because if I did think, my conscience would hurt too much, I couldn’t stand it.” To this, Smith told the girls, “We grow a lot of egg shells to shut the sight off, so our conscience won’t hurt.” As Mark crawls through the grass in his front yard searching for Vietcong soldier to attack, he is disconnected by geography and distance from Vietnam. As well, he is consciously disconnected because he does not think about the scenario involving individuals like himself. He lives far removed from the atrocities.
However, when he enters the house and sees Sửu’s video of Lém’s execution, it becomes a little more tangible. Distance and geography still separate him, and he does not emotionally respond to the image, yet the distance and geography have also collapsed because the television has brought what happened on a Saigon street into his home in Houston. At dinner. when he says the family prayer before eating, Mark prays that Lém will be in heaven. Patricia tells Jack about the execution and Mark tells his father, “he shot him in the head.” Mark’s face looks distraught, sad, and contemplative, especially once his parents start talking about President Johnson seeking more troops and the discussion about the Andersons’ son getting called up.
This discussion, along with Lém’s execution, cause Mark to really think about the consequences of war. He thinks about his own life and how easily it could be taken away if he gets called up, telling his parents, “I’m gonna go to Vee-et Nam and I’ll die too.” He thinks about Bill Patterson’s brother who died when a grenade blew him up, and his father tells him. “The war will be over before you’re eighteen.” In this panel, we only see Mark’s face, long and sad as he contemplates the future. He doesn’t say, or appear to think about, anything about Lém or those he may kill. He only mentions himself.
This is where the bridges need to occur, the bridges that the girls at Laurel Falls spoke about. Instead, Mark has ensconced himself in a egg shell, walling himself in and separating himself from others. In this manner, he cannot build bridges and he cannot, unless he breaks through the shell, see the North Vietnamese that he pretends to hunt and that he fears will one day kill him as human. He can only see them as entities that he must kill before they kill him.
In 1955, Kondo’s father and Capt. Robert Lewis, the co-pilot of the Enola Gay, were on This is Your Life. Kondo, then ten years old, was on the stage when Capt. Lewis entered. He spoke about dropping the bomb and afterwards the words he wrote in his log: “My God, what have we done.” This moment shook Kondo, and she started to think about the hate she held for Capt. Lewis and the dichotomy she had created of her being the good one and him being the bad one. She thought to herself, “He’s the same human being as me. If I hate, I should not hate this guy. I should hate the war itself, which we human beings caused.”
Kondo became a fighter for peace and an end to nuclear weapons. The encounter with Capt. Lewis built a bridge. She saw the man and his remorse. She saw that he, like her, was human. Technology and print media can connect us, but they cannot create the connections that work to build bridges between individuals. We must do that on our own with one another, not vicariously through shows, music, literature, or other avenues. These things help us understand and open our eyes, but there is much more that needs to be done to form the connections, to build the bridges, and to maintain them. There is much more that needs to be done to ensure that we do not merely build egg shells around ourselves.
Next post I will finish up the discussion of The Silence of Our Friends. Until then, what are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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