Review

    Don’t Mean Nothing
    Short Stories of Vietnam

    by Susan O’Neill
    Ballentine Books
    2001
    252 pages
    $22.00

    Reviewed by William Siegel (Ethiopia 1962–64)

    READING SUSAN O’NEILL’S STRONG and unique stories of Vietnam as American troops are fighting yet another limited war in Baghdad is beyond irony. Today’s news lights up O’Neill’s Vietnam stories of nurses and doctors cutting and sewing up soldier’s flesh and comforting burned, maimed and dying American boys. O’Neill brings an intensity of feeling in her sparse salty dialogue, along with a hard cynicism that accompanies the witnessing of the never-ending parade of gory battlefield casualties. This is no TV MASH, made for laughs. I can’t help thinking this telescopic view of the war in Vietnam must still be going on at this moment in the medical tents of Iraq and Afghanistan. These stories, even though they are mostly about nurses, always include realistic and surrealistic medical-moments, blunt about the savage wounds the soldiers endure and the weary hopelessness of the medical staffs that attend them. We are exposed to the awful pain that inhabits the portable rubber medical hospitals that make up the three locales of these stories; where a narrative emerges that is sometimes as delicate as the damaged bodies that need to be patched and mended.
         After several stories that open the collection, “One Positive Thing” evolves amid the gory hospital nursing chores about a baby and cats and a first act of love, woven together in the tenderness and the savagery of war.
         In “The Exorcism,” a war-weary nurse sees a naked old Vietnamese peasant, who may or may not be a ghost, squatting in a graveyard where the nurse takes a break from her sewing up and sawing off and burying duties. This story is literally haunting and stayed with me during the remaining stories.
         The title story is about a soldier in Vietnam, who receives a strange gift from his estranged father, and then learns that his father has died. The soldier is real, the father is real, the war is real, and the strange sad ending is all too real. We’re surprised by how well we know these people. As the soldier dances on the edge of self-destruction, we understand why.
         In “Perquisites,” an uneasy friend of the narrator-nurse is a cynical clerk — a kind of confederate skinhead — who re-ups for another tour in Vietnam. “The truth, Lieutenant? I’m a clerk.” He shrugged. “What am I gonna do back in the world? Be somebody’s receptionist?” The nurse describes a sumptuous officer’s party that she attends with the clerk and finds she cannot be a part of the party there in Vietnam.
         “Broken Stone” finds another battle weary nurse making love to a young scared boy soldier in a makeshift church. While the war doesn’t make the soldier feel guilty, the sex does.
         There are always unique details that the author retrieves from this 30 years ago war — details that must be alive in our present war. The writing is crisp and the dialogue always to the point. Many sentences describe the war through the lives of the soldiers, such as “Secrets leaked through the cracks of his sleep and escaped in small potent cries.” Some stories are short; almost vignettes, but even these have the lost, musty smell and feel of the loneliness of war.
         In “Prometheus Burned,” we are alongside a trip through the hell of caring for horrendously burned G.I.s. One, Jim, jokes through his pain, and pleads for more morphine, not for the pain, but for death. What is a nurse to do when death is more mercy than life?
         In the “Perils of Pappy,” a female nurse swears off drugs and sex and tries to improve her mind. After trying hard at a college course — right there at the base — the toll of the war and its’ losses has the power to bring her back to comforts.
         In “Psychic Hand,” one of my favorites, two young soldiers ask a nurse to search a young Vietnamese girl thoroughly to see if she is carrying a bomb in some intimate place on her person. The nurse reluctantly agrees and then she and the girl, without a common language, begin to communicate through their mutual fear. A communication evolves that moves beyond the male soldiers, beyond the war, approaching human understanding.
         O’Neill, who worked as a nurse in Vietnam in the late 1960s, knows the territory and allows you to trust the narrator of each of these stories, though they are not all autobiographical. Only someone who worked and suffered right along with our soldiers and the people of Vietnam can render the reality these stories invoke.
         Don’t Mean Nothing is a collection that portrays the ache of people searching for themselves and each other in the total ruin and chaos of war. These are stories that are beyond the headlines of Vietnam 30 years ago. They are stories being reenacted beyond the headlines and TV images of today, stretching us into places we would not choose to travel, compelling us to share some of the grit of military life at war.

    William Siegel viewed the war in Vietnam from the protests marches in San Francisco and Berkeley during the 1960s.