All you need is love, even in war

Gerald Nicosia is the author of "Home to War: A History of the Vietnam Veterans' Movement."

IT is no secret by now that the Vietnam generation has produced the largest crop of writers of any group of American warriors, but the really interesting thing is that even at this late date, its veterans still continue to publish their first books. James Janko, 56, an Army medic who served with the 25th Infantry Division in Tay Ninh province and in the Cambodian invasion of 1970, makes his literary debut with the novel “Buffalo Boy and Geronimo.” It is a debut that seems to portend more fine work to come.

Nothing in the publisher’s biography of Janko suggests he is a poet, but his book is what used to be called, admiringly, a “poet’s novel.” Readers who seek a complex plot won’t find it here, but the lives of the two antiheroes, U.S. Army medic Antonio Lucio “Geronimo” Conchola and 14-year-old Viet Cong villager Nguyen Luu Hai, are rendered in such rich textures that one sometimes feels Virginia Woolf is writing them. Even more remarkably, the land of Vietnam and the animals, from whose viewpoint the story is sometimes told, come alive. Narrating from such unusual perspectives could be regarded as a gimmick, but it works beautifully here because poetry, mythology and folk tales are so central to Vietnamese life, as is the belief in the spirits of animals, the land and the dead -- all of which Janko uses in his narration.

The story of “Buffalo Boy and Geronimo” can be told in a few sentences. Hai and Conchola are lost and struggling to make sense of a world being torn apart, not just by the pain and brutality of war but also by the inhumanity and injustice of their respective societies. Conchola grew up on the poor side of San Jose, never having known his father, who was killed in the Korean War. He was raised by a Catholic mother whose answer to every problem was to pray to the Virgin of Guadalupe. In school, his lust turned toward pretty white girls who never gave him the time of day. So he developed an avid imaginary life, as “a Mexican-American Casanova, ‘El Rey del Mundo.’ ” He also imagines himself a half-blood Indian warrior called Geronimo, who, once drafted into the Army, would surely end up “the most decorated soldier of the Viet Nam War.” The only problem with this scenario is that “wounds scared him,” and in his heart, Conchola really doesn’t want to harm any living thing.


Hai too lost his father to war. He was a Viet Cong soldier blown up by a U.S. gunship; there was only a mangled body for his son to bury, a significant loss in a society based on ancestor worship. Although Hai longs to avenge his father’s death and pay back the Americans who appear to love nothing but killing his people and destroying their villages, he also finds the local Viet Cong cadre stupid, manipulative, arbitrarily cruel and as out of touch with natural life rhythms as the Americans. What the boy loves is his water buffalo, Great Joy -- his best friend, whom the Americans also end up killing -- and the girl with the widest hips in his village, Le Minh Thien, whose lovely body and face obsess him and whom he wants to marry with all the desperate passion and adoration of a pubescent adolescent anywhere.

Both Hai and Conchola, following their individual notions of altruism, end up inadvertently killing someone they care about: In Hai’s case it’s the old elephant man who loves large animals as much as he; in Conchola’s, it’s his platoon mate Billie Jasper, the only soldier who understands why Geronimo loves a Vietnamese tiger wounded by U.S. bombs more than any other being on Earth except, perhaps, his absent mama. Conchola goes AWOL just after his unit returns from Cambodia; he is captured by the dispossessed Vietnamese from Hai’s now-obliterated village; and the two young men, their roles reversed, continue the destructive dance of clashing cultures to the novel’s surprisingly upbeat conclusion.

Were that all there was to “Buffalo Boy and Geronimo,” it would not seem much different than a hundred other novels that have belabored the folly of America’s violent, swaggering intrusion into cultures around the world whose languages it does not speak and whose minds it will never in a million years fathom. But Janko, clearly, is using that frame on which to hang a much deeper tale.

Leaving politics behind for the most part, Janko’s book is about the universal absurdity of war. In a scene as good as anything in Vonnegut or Heller, Conchola’s platoon comes upon a heap of dead and dying frogs, fish, crabs and turtles, the unlucky targets of a typically misguided U.S. bombing mission. Platoon leader Lt. Bateson freaks out and decides that these wounded creatures must be destroyed “before the gooks have a picnic.” He orders them dumped in a hole and rigged with C-4 explosives. In a scene that surely will stay with most readers, Conchola insists on mercy for a crab missing its claws, and against orders tosses it back in the stream: He knew that “without its pincers it would die of trauma or starvation, but at least it would perish in the stream rather than be blown to ash by soldiers.”

Then, as Conchola peeks from behind a tree at the explosion, the fragments of fish and animals rising “in a maelstrom of dust,” he wonders “if the wounded animals felt a last burst of pain. Did the barest fragments of a thing shelter nerves and feelings, or did sensation require larger shapes: limbs, paws, fins, pincers? Involuntarily, he considered his own body, his limbs still strong and intact, his joints movable, fluid. He could not bear the thought of someone tearing an appendage from his body.... Maybe it would be better to be lost in an explosion, blown apart cell-by-cell so that pain might be lessened, made bearable, by infinite division. Conchola wondered how a body could escape pain. Did pain disappear when flesh disappeared? Or did it continue in the earth and air, in the heat of ember and ash, or in the presence of ghosts -- fantasmas?”

What both Hai and Conchola come to realize in such dramatically convincing scenes is the profound intertwining of the world and consciousness, and the fact that one cannot damage the Earth or any of its beings without inflicting pernicious damage on oneself. Both young men often find themselves in prayer, even if neither is quite sure to whom he is praying -- Hai to a vague Buddhist god or ancestors, Conchola to some blurred image of the Virgin and his mother. But that they can pray at all in such a world is the miracle Janko celebrates in this remarkably humanist novel.

Mysterio,” Conchola tells himself at the end, that’s all I have” -- like a kind of modern, alienated Everyman -- to explain why he’s chosen to survive by his wits, all alone among the wild animals in the jungles of Cambodia. “The world is mostly made of wounds, more than can be counted. Beauty is what surprises us. A tooth, a claw. A body of sound and light.”


Like Conchola, Hai has found the deepest secret -- that a man is “at least as large as [what] he loved” and that it’s love alone that enlarges us and our world to anything approaching being livable. We owe thanks to James Janko for reminding us of that. *