Love and War in Fred Rivera’s Raw Man
About two thirds of the way through Raw Man, his lightly novelized memoir of his experience during the Vietnam War, combat veteran Fred Rivera makes the following observation: “By now I had learned two things in Vietnam, and this was the first: Let go of things quickly. . . .But the other thing that I learned was that things you do let go of quickly never stray very far, and come back in their own time, and in their own way, and almost always with vengeance.” His beautifully written and constructed book bears stark testimony to his struggle on both fronts, both his struggle to “let go of things quickly” while enmeshed in the blood-soaked mud of Vietnam’s jungles and rice paddies, and his ongoing struggle to face and overcome their persistent, and persistently vengeful, return when he’s back in the U.S., where the war follows him in more ways than one. In the process, his book also addresses the generational burden of war, the sordid gift it hands down to successive generations of both combatants and noncombatants, and the effect of the Vietnam War on perennial ethnic and political conflicts in the U.S.—most specifically in the barrios in and around East Los Angeles. And, finally and crucially, it addresses the ravages of PTSD, that ghostly visitor capable of appearing any time, any place, to exact its vengeance.
While Rivera’s descriptive powers are more than evident in his gritty, yet eloquent, rendering of the combat scenes dominating the first half of the book, the undeniable power of the book ultimately issues from his unique perspective that works to give his narrative something of an epic sweep. As a “Mexican-American hippie rock star,” and son of a World War II combat veteran, he is able to telescope the cultural and political upheaval of the tumultuous 1960’s, while at the same time never losing sight of the much broader context of a generation raised in the shadow of two world wars and the imminent threat of nuclear annihilation. Of a nation at War on every front—with “world communism,” with North Vietnam and the Vietcong, with itself. War handed down from grandfathers, to fathers, to sons. A generation justified in feeling that war is humankind’s “everlasting” condition, and many, like Fred Rivera himself, even before his Vietnam experience, viscerally disgusted by such a condition. It’s no accident that the last word of his narrative is “everlasting,” resonating with the epigraph from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, one of the two epigraphs heading the book, ending with “War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him.” True or not, it hardly matters today whether war preceded man, or man gave it unholy birth; the very existence of Raw Man forcefully insists that war itself is the enemy that must be exposed, opposed, defeated—regardless of how quixotic or pointless the effort may appear. Fred Rivera’s book painfully, vividly, and graphically howls against the ongoing sacrifice of our children, of all children, to the bloody-mouthed god of war.
The presence of this generational burden actually informs the book’s structure, which begins and ends in the VA Hospital in Long Beach, California. In his brief but haunting Prologue, Fred, inconveniently suffering from a PTSD episode himself, is visiting his father who is in the hospital dying of cancer. Shaking with savage physical and psychological pain, he has dropped his bottle of Percocet, and “OD’d the sink.” At the book’s conclusion, it is Fred’s father visiting him in the VA Hospital some twenty years earlier, when Fred has been hospitalized after being beaten by Los Angeles Sheriffs during a Chicano anti-war demonstration that also famously took the life of the Los Angeles Times’ sole hispanic reporter at the time, Ruben Salazar. Between the work’s beginning and end, the narrative moves organically and gracefully through significant moments before, during, and after Rivera’s intense combat experience. Like Kurt Vonnegut’s immortal Billy Pilgrim, Rivera and his brothers in combat are engaged in a “Children’s Crusade,” as are all soldiers in all times. And also something like Billy Pilgrim, although, obviously, without such fantastic elements as zoos on the planet Tralfamador, Fred Rivera is unstuck in time. And that, after all, is what PTSD will do for you. Surely Vonnegut knew this well, and so does Fred Rivera—all too well. But the upshot of his masterful treatment of time in the work is that sense of an epic sweep already mentioned, the way the work renders a significant and tragic slice of American life and history from the inside out, from the perspective of one who is both, in several respects an outsider, and, simultaneously, as a young man sent to do the gruesome work of empire, more of an insider than the vast majority of us will ever be or want to be.
As a Mexican-American familiar with racism from childhood, Rivera is essentially an outsider. And, again, as a Mexican-American “hippie,” his outsider status is reinforced. However, as a rock star (whose group’s first album is released on the day he is inducted, the first of many bitter ironies) he is not only an insider but a celebrity to millions of young people at the time who would have given anything to be in his shoes. But this, of course, is not the case in Vietnam, where being Mexican is what matters, making him the target of racist abuse from young white soldiers who, apparently not having enough problems with the Vietcong, carry the ancient war at home into Viet Nam’s jungles. So much for brothers in arms. Their animosity, however, is nothing new or surprising to young Rivera, who instead finds companionship with black soldiers, those other perennial targets of mindless hatred. Among these black soldiers is a young man named Herman, who becomes Rivera’s closest friend. Together they encounter the agonizing deaths of comrades and the profound shock of discovering their own ability to kill. But the deep relationship growing between them culminates in one of the work’s most intense, vivid, and crucial scenes, when their armored vehicle, or track, is hit by an enemy RPG. Rivera himself, blown out of the track, knocked out by the explosion, comes to with Herman bleeding to death in his lap.
The searing pain of this moment continues to haunt Rivera throughout his time in Viet Nam and long after his return to the U.S. And it comes back “in its own time and in its own way,” along with the damage to his body resulting from the lethal attack. Besides losing consciousness, Rivera seems to have suffered no other wounds when he regains consciousness. However, a few weeks later the psychological and physical damage from the track explosion return together “with vengeance” when he finds himself suddenly paralyzed right before the eruption of a firefight with the NVA. In serious pain, he’s lifted out of the jungle by a Medavac chopper and flown to a field hospital in Saigon with a number of other wounded and dying soldiers. Although he had no way of knowing it then, his combat days would be over. Once in Saigon, recuperating from his injuries, Rivera makes a separate peace, vowing to himself and others never to kill again. Now a man without a country, a complete outsider, he sets out to find a band. On entering the military, he had hoped to join Special Services to play in a group entertaining soldiers in the field. Now, in Saigon, he’s determined to make music, not war.
Life in Saigon provides stark contrasts to life in the jungle, where Rivera’s “outsider” eye, sensitive to gross inequality, often notes the abject poverty and oppression suffered by the rural peasants. However, in beautiful Saigon, “The Pearl of the Orient,” where the war seems to be a thousand miles away, his sensitivity becomes even sharper as he notes with increasing outrage the disparity between rich and poor. Passing through an affluent area of the city, he comments on the area’s large, two-story homes, many built by the French. And although these homes present a facade of peaceful colonial elegance, he knows that, their inhabitants having the most to lose with Saigon’s fall, “There must be real fear behind those doors.” Only a few pages earlier, though, his sympathy for these upper-class residents has already been qualified by a trip through the squalid Chinese district, where the Chinese are “treated as second-class citizens,” where multitudes of small apartments, doubling as small manufacturing enterprises, house three or four families each. It makes for an appalling scene: “Shoeless and half-naked children ran among heavy machinery, their hair and clothes covered with dirt and grease. Old men sat on their haunches smoking opium while others, heavily under the influence, slept in doorways as the children scurried about them. Skinny, ragged dogs roamed the streets in packs, rummaging over trash heaps in the gutter. A resentment swept across my being as I watched a scene that played out every day.”
Throughout his jungle combat, Rivera fluctuates between sympathy and resentment, compassion and anger. But in “peaceful” Saigon, that fluctuation intensifies, with the anger often aimed at himself, when he surprisingly finds himself romantically involved with an extraordinary, multi-lingual young Vietnamese woman, Thieu, who shares his condition of being both insider and outsider. Indeed, Thieu is an enigmatic, and, ultimately, tragic figure. But their meeting is one of the work’s most beautiful moments, ringing with the clarity of truth. Setting out alone on a little sightseeing trip, Rivera says:
I walked over to Tu Do Street and saw many servicemen drunk and causing scenes
outside the girly bars. As I approached the first skirmish I heard a tiny voice say,
“Hey, cabron. Tienes dinero?” Surprised, I looked over and saw a small girl around
sixteen sitting on a stool.
“Did you just call me a cabron?” I asked incredulously.
“Si, señor,” she smiled.
I laughed at this and asked, “Hablas Español, hermosita?”
“Perfectly,” she replied in proper English.
“How did you know I spoke Spanish?
“I could tell. You have those high cheekbones.”
“You sit here studying Americans?”
“Only the interesting-looking ones,” she flirted. “I speak French, Italian, Spanish,
and English. Oh, and of course Vietnamese and Mandarin.”
“Of course,” I replied.
Although Thieu’s exact age remains unknown, with time it becomes clear that they are close to the same age, and their romance develops as it does for young lovers everywhere, with a trip to the zoo, dinner dates, first dance, kiss, and so on. But there are things about Thieu that remain unknown, such as the fate of her father, and what that might mean for her own fate. The Saigon government had imprisoned her father, a human rights worker for an NGO, for two years for exposing its mistreatment of indigenous people. The ironies are not lost on Rivera: the father of the woman he loves imprisoned by the very government that he’s been sent to kill and possibly die for; the woman he loves threatened by both the Saigon government and the North Vietnamese when the city falls, as they all know it inevitably will, to the communists. But it’s the latter irony that tears at Rivera’s psyche, filling him with guilt and driving him into profound self-examination. Everyone knows that relationships between GI’s and Vietnamese women are doomed, that most often GI’s have no intention, and no ability, to take a Vietnamese woman home, and that many Vietnamese women are primarily looking for a way out of Vietnam and the coming bloodbath. In short, love is poisoned at the core.
The first to confront Rivera with this these hard facts is one of the work’s most remarkable characters, an Australian pilot, living with other Aussies in the Australian embassy in Saigon, who assists the Americans by making flights into dangerous areas. “Gordo,” as he’s called, rather naturally becomes a father figure to young Rivera, having a son about the same age at home. In successive conversations, Gordo approaches the issue from both sides, first pointing out that Thieu might be “setting you up,” since, even if she is in love, in the end her greatest desire is to leave Vietnam. The other side, though, is the most deeply troubling for Rivera: “Son, you do what is right with that little girl. You ask her what she expects from this relationship and you don’t lie to her and promise a lot of things that you can’t deliver.” Although he knows Gordo is right, he decides to put the discussion off until the right moment. But in the brief interim, love and nature take their course. They share their first serious kiss, he tells her he loves her, and he’s immediately shocked and disgusted with himself. The disgust will later hit a crisis point when he discovers how deeply the war has wounded and warped him.
In short, in “peaceful” Saigon he learns that the opposite of war is not peace, which historically has amounted to little more than temporary suspensions of hostilities for warlords to realign alliances and rearm militaries. No. What he learns in Saigon is that war knows no peace, that it permeates consciousness, invading our most intimate affections and desires, that the opposite of war is not peace, but love—and that war’s greatest havoc is wreaked on human love, strangling that force of union that transcends boundaries, borders, cultures, ethnicities, and genders. But he also learns, thanks to the tragic and enigmatic Thieu, that love, even when strangled by war, has the power to save us from losing ourselves and becoming abject slaves to the the god of war. That love is deeper than war, regardless of how we have given war free reign to dominate our economies, our social relations, our history, our consciousness. That love, too, has the capacity to come back in its own time and in its own way, a fact that the existence of the book itself testifies to. In the end, Raw Man is every bit as much about love as it is about war.
Rivera discovers the vile inner reaches of war in the deferred discussion with Thieu. He tells her the hard truth, and she stands before him crying. And then his own hard truth explodes:
My mind rolled back two months ago to when I was in the field. Things were easier there. I was missing the adrenaline rush that came with walking the thin line of insanity.
Everything was crystal clear out in the jungle, where I constantly carried an M-16
locked and loaded with the safety off. If I had the Thieu problem in An Loc I would
have put a round in her head and walked away. She would be part of a body count
that I could abandon like the butt of a cigarette and move on.
What? What the fuck was I thinking!
Had I really turned into what the Army wanted—a trained killer who could take a
life and thinking nothing of it?
He sends her away, and he’s “devastated to see that I, indeed, had turned.” Gordo later gets the last word on their discussion when Rivera informs him that he followed his advice. And these last words are prophetic: “In this place, sometimes it’s better to be in love than to have a future.”
Knowing she will be left behind, that their love has no future and her own prospects of survival are dismal, she offers herself for a night of love making. As it tentatively begins, he tells her that they shouldn’t, that it can’t change anything. But for her, it’s better to be in love than to have a future: “Haven’t you learned that in my country you have to live each day as if it’s your last?” She, of course, is right, and they spend their last and only night together absorbed in each other. At the end, as he fades into sleep, he reflects that “This was a woman whom only days before I had actually visualized shooting. I was happy, and for the first time in this country, I felt peace.” The next day his life resumes, playing music for the troops, doing what he can to stay alive long enough to end his tour of duty and get home to his family. But the effect of that relationship, of that night, will continue much longer than his blessed moment of peace. And this he begins to realize when his plane touches down in San Francisco. Seeing American women again for the first time in a long while, his mind is taken back to Thieu: “I was thankful that I had gotten to know Thieu. Our intense but all-too-brief relationship made me realize that some basic human trait remained in me, and I had not turned completely into an uncaring, empty monster as I had feared.”
No. He does not become an uncaring, empty monster, and, although his homecoming is difficult, that basic human trait left in him, the ability to love and be loved, apparently sustains his faith in life and in himself—at least enough so that he very quickly makes his way into Vietnam Veterans Against the War and the National Chicano Moratorium Committee, bravely taking the work of love into the streets in opposition to war. Later, his horrific physical and emotional war experiences will return, in their own time and in their own way, seriously threatening to destroy him again, and again. But, as the existence of Raw Man proves, he has not let go of those experiences, he has transcended them. He has transcended them by doing what genuine artists do, by transforming great pain into great beauty. By bearing witness to the destructive forces of our time in the faith that somehow our children will benefit from his witness. This is a book that everyone should read, especially those who have had enough of Children’s Crusades. In Raw Man, Fred Rivera, combat veteran, Mexican-American, hippie, rock star, and continuing survivor of PTSD gives us what we need—raw truth.
– Raymond LaCoste, Retired Professor of Comparative Literature, Long Beach State University of California
It starts with a rainy night and claymore detail. A man and his best friend make their way through a raunchy military detail in the midst of the Vietnam war. From there it winds through bravery and cowardice, near misses and catastrophe. Racism plays like music on his green guitars, and he loses faith in God along the way.
His name is Fred Rivera. His novel is Raw Man.
Yes, he is pretty raw. And his book is brutally so.
It took me a minute to find my way through, not because of the writing, but because of how strongly it hit home. I grew up well protected from war, despite my father being a Vietnam veteran himself, and that conversation was one of the first I had with Fred, and one of the strangest of my life. I didn’t want to read about the starving children, or the racism — the particular brand that forced a “Mexican hippie” to have to choose sides within the American Armed Forces.
I know only data about the war in Vietnam. I don’t even know if I’m spelling it right sometimes. But here comes Fred’s first published book. He hasn’t won any awards for writing, but I suspect he will. While he writes from memory, he writes scenes from over four decades in the past. He is open about this as well. “It is more accurate to call Raw Man a novel, rather than a memoir, but most of the things I write about happened in front of my eyes… seared into my hear and for me, 44 years later, are still real.”
It reads like the journal of that young man, not the older, wiser Vietnam veteran I’ve spent time with over the past few months. First person in every detail, in every confession, in every prayer for relief. Fred talks of the mud and murder with equal loathing, as are murdered children, anti-war protests with misguided understanding, black market operations and drugs. I loved every person he loved and disliked every character he did. His honest writing is as clear and honest as acid is dangerous to unprotected skin.
Still there is a beauty to his craft which draws you in, page after page. As a reader you feel every bit of his burden and injury through effective and powerful description that demands you see not only his story about war and redemption, but his perspective about war and his doubtful absolution.
His acknowledgements, foreword and epilogue are full of humble thankfulness to those who lived, to those who died, and once written, to those who helped him publish Raw Man. After a successful Kickstarter campaign, he listed the names of every contributor. One particular donor plucks at my heartstrings. Jerry Clark, brother of Gary Clark, whose name appears in the latter third of the novel. Gary was a friend of Fred, and the of A Word With You Press, who succumbed to cancer during the final phase of production and publication. His loss struck us all. It is in tune with the character and the man Fred Rivera to give Gary’s name to a character in the book so that, “Gary will remain with us in spirit, and wink at us when we come across his name.”
His book is oppressively honest in its darkness, while still hopeful for redemption. He pulls no punches, and for that, I said that Raw Man is a piece of barb-wired beauty that hits you like a shot of whiskey on a snowy night. For any child of a Vietnam Veteran, it is a must read with a warning, it will break your heart for your parent’s sake.
– Tiffany Monique, Contributor, A Word With You Press