Wendell Affield, the author of tonight’s book club selection, Muddy Jungle Rivers will be leading our discussion. Librarian Rhonda Culbertson interviewed Mr. Affield on the phone recently to learn more about him and his book. Here is what she learned:
Mr. Affield is soft-spoken and articulate. His voice has the distinctive cadence and faint accent that reminds me of his generation of the Minnesotans I grew up with. He and his wife live near Bemidji, Minnesota, in a log cabin overlooking a small lake that flows into the nearby Mississippi River. A pair of swans are summer residents, and great entertainment.
He had a difficult childhood on a small farm in Northern Minnesota. Both his mother and stepfather struggled with mental illness. At 17 he enlisted in the Navy, and while still a teenager he was deployed to Vietnam during the Tet offensive, as a member of the Mobile Riverine Force. He piloted an armor troop carrier through the delta of the Mekong river and then on the Cua Viet River, just south of the DMZ. He was seriously wounded in an ambush and was medevaced off the river. Later he was brought back to the United States for rehabilitation and therapy for his injuries. The emotional and psychological wounds took longer to heal. Not until retirement did he begin the process of writing his memoirs. He started attending classes at Bemidji State University to learn the craft of writing. Over a period of ten years he honed his collection of memories and stories into a book. Considering the vividness and detail of his writing, it is surprising that Mr. Affield did not keep a diary during his time in Vietnam.
Mr. Affield and I also talked about some of the moral and ethical challenges faced by soldiers in combat situations. Although he entered the navy with a fairly limited picture of the larger world, he felt that his childhood on a small farm and growing up near Red Lake Nation, an Ojibwe reservation north of Bemidji, gave him insight into the agrarian existence of the Vietnamese peasants. He was able to empathize with their plight, and imagine how people in his own community might react to the violent intrusions of war.
He feels fortunate that he did not have to fight in a context where he had to be the first to fire, or where the difference between soldier and civilian was blurred. He has a great deal of empathy for current soldiers who are fighting terrorists in an arena where the distinction is not always clear. One of the most gratifying aspects of sharing his story has been the contacts he has made with other veterans, many through social media. Veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress are particularly drawn to his talks and workshops. He makes sure to have information about local veteran resources at all of his appearances.
Mr. Affield feels that writing can be a powerful healing tool for anyone dealing with trauma; not just veterans. Several times he mentioned that the act of writing the trauma down ‘puts boundaries’ around an event, and allows the writer to start making sense of the traumatic injuries and to approach them more dispassionately. He recommends the book, Writing War: A Guide to Telling Your Own Story, by Ron Capps as an aid for those who would like to record their own experiences.
He hopes that accounts like his can help us, as a country, learn from the past. While reading H.R. McMasters’ Dereliction of Duty, Affield was outraged at the hubris and lies made by national leaders in the early 1960s—deception that dragged this country into the Vietnam War. He hopes that Mr. McMasters remembers what he wrote while serving as National Security Advisor for the current administration. .
Mr. Affield closed our conversation with an anecdote. He wanted to place copies of his book in his former business place. He felt he needed to warn the owner, a devout Jehovah’s Witness, that there was profanity in the book. The owner took a long look at the author and said, “Wendell, war is profane.”