James Holbrook ’66 leaning over drawings with ruler in hand

Holbrook calculated the trajectory of artillery shells on plywood like this.
Courtesy of Jim Holbrook ’66

Twenty-five years ago I helped kill dozens of other human beings.

At that time I was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Grinnell College with two degrees in philosophy. I also was an expert in directing 100-pound high explosive projectiles to scream from the sky and burst among the living.

I have experienced the cusp of modern American history. From the backyard barbecues and fall football games of the 1950s, to the selfishness and cynicism of the 1980s and 1990s. And in between were the protests, marches, craziness, and killing.

Grinnell took a gamble by accepting me and giving me a scholarship following an unpromising first semester at MIT. I felt at home at Grinnell in its small town atmosphere and rural environs. I met many others who were both very serious and oddly zany. I felt stretched and expanded as I shed an old skin.

Grinnell taught me that life is full of inherent ambiguity and real complexity. I learned that not everything is worth wanting, having, or doing. I found an intensity and tapped an unsuspected reservoir of energy and creativity. Grinnell was the prism that refracted my little beam of light and truth into a rainbow of potentiality. I left Grinnell planning to become a college philosophy professor.

Three years later I was an artillery fire direction specialist in the United States Army in the Mekong Delta region of South Viet. I had enlisted in the Army despite a graduate deferment to go to Yale. I elected to be sent to Vietnam — the only promise the Army every kept. I left behind a wife, a life, and a career track in academia that I never recovered.

Why did I do this? Was I so unhappy in an unhappy first marriage? Was I ashamed of my father who had avoided military service in World War II by working as a railroad fireman until the fighting was over? Was I a patriotic child of America bound by duty to serve God and country? Was I curious as many others before me to “see the elephant” and observe my reaction? I really don’t know. It could be some of this, or all of it, or something completely different.

Somewhere I once read that the root cause of delayed stress reaction among Vietnam veterans is guilt. It has taken 25 years for me to sense the enormity of killing all those people and helping to destroy their universe. I still dare not look this fact square in the face. What would I say to the grandparents, parents, spouses, children, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, cousins, nephew and nieces of all the ghosts? How would I start? And where?

Having turned 50 this year has brought the past closer. I feel my own mortality and the presence of the ghosts heavy by my side. The weight is actually comforting. I will not collapse under its burden. It gives me some real measure of substance, stability, and purpose.

Earlier this year I pulled from a closet shelf the cigar box full of Vietnam memorabilia that I have carried with me all these years. I had the medals and insignia framed. The frame hangs in my office. On my desk is a brass Buddha from Vietnam cast from spent artillery shell casings. Close by is a replica of the “Thousand-yard-Stare” statue at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Grinnell seems further away than ever in my life. I don’t know whether I will make it back there again, or why. Instead, I need to visit the Wall, which I have avoided like a nightmare. I also need to return to Vietnam. I especially need to pay homage to ghosts at the “Wagon Wheel.” There, one afternoon, in the intersection of three canals near the Plain of Reeds, eight people departed this earth. Six thousand meters and 30 seconds away, I had plotted their demise. I am their witness and they must not be forgotten.

I wonder if we do have souls. And if those souls survive our bodies. And if those souls can communicate, and embrace, and apologize, and cry, and forgive.

Reprinted with permission from The Grinnell College Blue Book, 1996, as a web extra for The Grinnell Magazine, Winter 2009.

James Holbrook ’66

Share / Discuss