Mike Quinn – Graduation Speech 2022

Prior to taking this PCVI humanities class I had preconceived notions about a soldier’s ethical expectations and accountability during combat. Initially I had concluded that everyone who participated in the My Lai massacre was guilty of the most egregious of crimes. After hearing and reading some deeply personal accounts and getting a better idea of the psychological trauma that is involved in the shitty business of combat, I no longer know what to think. I’ve compiled the absurdity from the assignments that I read, experiences that were shared and the clips that I watched throughout this class, and this is my reaction to all of that.  

From the comfort and safety of your seats I invite you all to please try and imagine an existence depicted in these scenes that I have chosen to share with you today. 

Morality and accountability should not be the elusive targets that we have seen that they can be. Values, ethics and rules of engagement don’t always come so neatly wrapped and often leave us naked and vulnerable with unachievable expectations.  Uncertainty tightens the chest and shortens the breath. The placement of each step is consciously considered. Every small sound is amplified and the intensity of it all is a thing in itself. It is the unseen danger that not only lurks in the jungles but finds its way into the mind like a ghost and it soon becomes obvious that nobody had considered that there would be ghosts. Invisible and waiting. Always waiting. If not now, then when. Continuously it loops. Real ghost, silent, elusive and shapeless, unless you consider what it does to your fellow soldiers and how it affects your mind.  

Exposed and vulnerable, appearing on this day like ducks on a pond. From a deafening silence the plucking started, bodies fell, dropping involuntarily. Even from here I shivered, listened and watched as others dropped into the tall grass. Rising from the bloodied fields were the sounds from the fallen becoming mixed with the acrid bluish smoke, splatters of blood and shattered bodies. 

Rain had been falling hard, always falling. A heavy silence hung like a sodden fog about to burst. Musty jungle smells, soldiers crossing wet fields, shots rang out, bodies crumbled into the muck, releasing the shit. Yes, the shit. A stench gurgled, then lifted from the bullet riddled and saturated septic fields. A deadly chaos, then silence. One by one, faces begin to lift. Some didn’t, they couldn’t. Try pulling a face out of the shit, let it breath.  Noticing of all things, that one can no longer smell the shit, or taste the fear, or feel it in any way. Lying there, listening and waiting for whatever else might be left. I was thinking about all of this and so much more on that day that we went into My Lai.  

We were invited to glance over the shoulders as doors were being kicked in, homes being ransacked, children forced to cower in the corners of dark and dingy spaces. Through dusty forbidden alleys, dim huts and unpredictable rooftops, up and down the streets of Fallujah, Mosul, and Ramadi the chaos and uncertainty raised more questions than it answered. Definitions were hard to come by. React and retreat. Capture and release.  Confide in those who are untrustworthy and unproven and hope for the best? 

Adults pleading with frightened eyes and shaky hands. Afraid.  Everyone is afraid. Afraid of everyone and everything, and afraid of how easily that all of this could come to an end. Everyone, every situation and in every conceivable way, we, us, and them, are caught up in this strange reality. How could we not be? There is this. There is all of this and so much more.  

There are holes dug into the hills, disturbances in the roads waiting to become holes. Holes that toss, turn and set ablaze and there is the smiling child with big brown trembling eyes holding something and coming closer, closer still, until god damn  it, she had gotten too close. In this world seeing is always deceiving and we are usually left without believing. Here, they have ghost too.  

Trust can carry many times it’s weight when it’s on solid ground.  Shit happens. But still, don’t make me wonder what the fuck it is that I am doing out here? Mission, purpose? A soldier’s very existence is left vulnerable by a complicated set of rules. Bombs and bullets tear apart, dismembering bodies while the confusion and uncertainty bore deep into the head. Danger and confusion arrive simultaneously. Decisions must be immediately made. Pull or don’t pull the trigger. Right or wrong. Life or death. Any sense of humanity becomes conflicted, but we can’t let it interfere, not here, not now. Unresolved thoughts and actions become planted and fixed. Initially lying patiently where they settle and there they linger. Arriving like any passing thought but instead of leaving, they burrow in and find a vacant place. Like a worm, unresolved and shitty. Sitting in the minds shadow, waiting, hiding, always waiting. Until it’s not. It doesn’t matter whether or not you believe in ghosts. 

Millions of visitors, friends, relatives and fellow soldiers can be seen searching for names, solemnly gazing, tracing, hugging and crying and remembering as they experience their own story with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. It’s design and purpose are in honor of those who gave their all. I hear it’s a powerful piece that promotes deep emotional reactions. I can’t imagine the impact being unlike what I have been a witness to in this PCVI class. I sat uncomfortably over the past few months wedged between an open invitation and in fear of walking on sacred ground. Your thoughts and carefully chosen words in the telling of your own personal experiences came directly from the heart. You shared these experiences through obvious emotional discomfort and personal pain, which of all things rendered me uncomfortable, but still, I did appreciate being there. I sat wide eyed and silent, feeling that I had nothing to add. 

I used My Lai because of the absurdity of what appeared to be a non-negotiable, senseless, massacre of innocent people. Initially for me as was with the popular consensus at the time that it was nothing short of an inexcusable act of violence. And for me it was just that, but that was before I learned to consider the confusion, vulnerability, uncertainty, shit fields and especially the ghosts.  What I tried to convey is that a trauma laced existence can’t be understood and therefore shouldn’t be judged by those who have not had that kind of experience. People, just like me.  Nobody should have to experience these things or be forced to carry them for so long. To me the ultimate price has a fraternal twin. And when I say, thank you for your service, I truly do mean it.