War’s Rorschach Test

By Danielle Trussoni, the author of 'Falling Through the Earth: A Memoir' (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 11/01/07):

MY father once told me that he and his mother read the body count in the newspaper together. He didn’t tell me the exact day or time, or precisely where they were when they read it, but I like to imagine that they sat at the long, wooden table in the kitchen of the farmhouse where the Trussoni children, all 12 of them, used to eat. It was only a month or so before my father left for the war, the winter of 1967, a time of year when Wisconsin is cold and harsh and so dismal that the red barn sitting just beyond the house would have appeared as a splotch of divine color in a field of gray.

I imagine my grandmother pressing the sheets of crisp, ink-smeared paper against the grain of the kitchen table. The numbers were there, for both of them to see.

The farmhouse was a narrow stone structure, tall and close fitting, nestled between high bluffs just east of the Mississippi River. Row after row of corn and tobacco undulated from the back of the house, rising and falling with the curvature of the land. Like the rest of America, the family got its news from a black and white Zenith television set and the local paper.

Reading the body count in the paper was my father’s way of preparing for the war. The American dead, the Vietnamese dead, the Communist dead, each group had its own tally. Similar body counts were broadcast on the nightly news, and he would watch the images of fighting, trying to anticipate his own fate.

But my grandmother, I imagine, read the numbers to steel herself against her fourth son’s departure. She had sent three sons to Vietnam already — Richard, Albert and John — and would now send a fourth. A third of her children would be in a war zone and still I imagine she looked much as she did when I knew her: sharp, cool eyes steady, a perennial I’ve-seen-it-all-and-then-some look about her. My grandmother was normally imperturbable, but my father’s draft notice, this fourth boy conscripted, had shaken her.

The numbers signified different things to each of them. By the end of 1967, 15,000 American soldiers had died in Vietnam. For my grandmother this meant that 15,000 other people’s children had died. To my father, the numbers seemed decent odds: Yes, the American troops were losing men, but the Communists were faring much, much worse. Of particular interest were what he called the “kill ratios,” the number of Vietnamese to every American dead. For Dad, the high ratio of Communist casualties was a sign of hope. He believed, he once told me, that the numbers proved that “the good guys” were winning; the numbers, he said, meant that he had a “better shot” than the enemy; the numbers were “on his side.”

Years after his tour, when my father knew just how quickly the numbers could turn — he landed in Vietnam during the Tet offensive and fulfilled his tour during the bloodiest year of the war — he never hesitated to tell me of his swift disillusionment with the numbers. The distinct American advantage in the “kill ratio” said much about winning the battles — it was true, they were killing lots of Vietnamese — but little about winning the war: the Vietnamese were willing to give every man, woman and child for victory, a sacrifice that Americans were simply not prepared to make. In the end, for our 58,000 dead, the casualties on the Vietnamese side were in the millions.

There are no kill ratios in Iraq. We know very little about civilian casualties. But we do know that even as President Bush speaks about a new strategy for the war, more than 3,000 Americans have been killed in four years of fighting. And as I think of those lives cut short, I think of my father and my grandmother on that winter afternoon in 1967, a newspaper open between them, each with their own interpretation.

Perhaps my father is peeling an apple; perhaps he is gazing out the window at the endless frozen cornfields, the pane of glass so thin and ill fitted that a draft of freezing air slips through the kitchen, ruffling the edge of the paper whose reality will soon enough be indisputable.