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WAR THEN, WAR NOW: ONE VET'S ATTEMPT TO RECONCILE VIETNAM AND IRAQ

By       Message Randolph T. Holhut     Permalink
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DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- A couple of weeks ago, I received an e-mail from Gary Canant, a 61-year-old Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War who now lives outside Kansas City, Mo.

The war in Iraq was on his mind and he wanted to call my attention to a Web site he recently created. Each day on DearMaxie.com, Canant posts one of the letters that he sent back to his wife, Maxie, during his tour in Vietnam in 1968.

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They had only been married for a few weeks when he shipped out. His way of dealing with the pain, anger, boredom, loneliness and occasional danger of being in a combat zone was writing Maxie nearly every day. She saved every one of his letters, and taken together, those letters offer a glimpse into what one person 's war was like.

The letters sat packed away for years until he exhumed them in the mid-1990s. "Reading them was a trip through old emotions and feelings that seemed lost forever," Canant wrote in the preface to the book collecting these letters, "Dear Maxie: Letters From Viet Nam."

Thirty-eight years later, the Canants are still married. "Maybe the letters from Vietnam helped, but it was a hell of a way to start," he wrote me this week.

Canant was near the end of his four-year enlistment with the Marines when he was sent to Vietnam in May 1968. He was stationed near the Demilitarized Zone, first at Dong Ha, later at Quang Tri and lastly at a combat base halfway between Khe Sanh and "The Rockpile," the scene of the worst combat for the Marines that year.

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He admits he was relatively lucky. He only had nine months to serve in Vietnam, rather than the standard 13-month tour. As a sergeant, he avoided most of the menial and mindless work. And he was a clerk, so his combat exposure was limited to the periodic shelling of the forward bases he was at and writing up the condolence letters for Marines killed in action.

"That was the hardest job I ever had," he writes in the book. "Each letter had to be written to give a good description of the person and how he was killed, without going into gory details. There were general outlines for the content of each letter, but each letter was unique.

"It wasn't the requirement to type perfectly that made the job hard. These letters were for guys like me. People I knew who just happened to be in the wrong place. Typing a condolence letter was a job that had to be done. The problem was we never had a chance to grieve."

The other problem was the anger over watching people die in a senseless war.

"People are dying over here for nothing and I'm fuming," he wrote to Maxie on July 8, 1968. "When will it end? Will it make the widows feel any better to know that their husbands died defending a bunch of rice paddies. Why? Why? Why? It's not worth it. It's a bunch of crap. We're here because we are told to be here."

That anger got so intense in his letters that he finally had to tone it down to keep from upsetting Maxie. "I'll say one thing, hon," he wrote a few weeks later, "if the time comes when I don't get mad or upset when our people get killed -- then something is wrong. I don't care if he was the worst Marine ever, nobody should have to die in this place."

Those emotions over a war that became increasingly futile by the day were revived by what's happening in Iraq today. His oldest son, Kevin, went to Iraq as a platoon sergeant attached to a Army National Guard military police company.

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"The similarities are almost too much to bear," Canant wrote in the book. "He heard the big booms and felt the shockwave that hits you in the stomach more than the ears -- just like I did. He has had to pack up the personal belongings of his comrades after they lost their lives in a war that didn't have to happen -- just like I did. He left a new bride back home -- just like I did. I never envisioned that this is what from generation to generation really meant. This war is too much like Vietnam."

I asked Canant about the differences and similarities between his war and his son's war.

"One difference is that we were sent to Vietnam one at a time and hooked up with a unit once we got there," he wrote me this week. "Now they send over whole units. That has the drawback of stronger personal relationships. ... Now you are talking about losing people that are really your friends, who you have known before the war, who have probably saved your life several times over being killed by an unseen enemy who just happens to look like and speak the same language as the people who shot at you yesterday. It was dangerous enough in Vietnam to have a bunch of hotheads walking around with loaded M-16s; mix in the comradeship of close friends and it is a prescription for disaster."

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Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 25 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at randyholhut@yahoo.com.

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