By R. G. Cantalupo (reviewer)
by Marc Levy
(Winter Street Press, 2017)
I don't remember my dreams. Not anymore, anyway, not for a long, long time.
When I dreamt before, I dreamt trauma dreams. Dreams that were not really dreams, but re-enactments, a reliving of terrifying moments during firefights or mortar attacks I survived.
That was 1969, and I was in a hospital in Saigon or Yokohama recovering from brain surgery to remove shrapnel from my frontal lobe. The trauma dreams were mixed with Demerol dreams, spectacular, panoramic, Technicolor, psychedelic dreams akin to peyote-inspired experiences, where I morphed from Bengal tigers to snub-nosed monkeys to blood pythons to water buffalo, dreams where blown off limbs flying through a turquoise sky shape-shifted into kingfisher's wings.
So when I began reading Marc Levy's enriching book, "Dreams, Vietnam," that's what I believed - that all trauma dreams were a reliving of traumatic experiences (PTSD dreams). But what Levy shows in his dream journal, and what is invaluable, is the continuity and range of traumatic dreams over almost a forty year period from 1970-2008.
I doubt whether there is another book like Levy's in the lexicon of Vietnam War experience books. Certainly, I have never read or heard about one. Dream entries like this one from "28 June 1970. We're being overrun by sappers. They've gotten past the trips and Claymores and crawl forward. I wake up from the dream and see a boot tread near my face. Slowly, I take my .45 from its holster, pull the hammer back, aim it. Then the moon came out and I saw the boot treads were American. It was Jerry's foot..."
These images are jarring, startling. The language is stark, direct. At first, we're not sure if the dreamer wakes up to the boot tread, or if it's a dream within a dream, until we find out later in the entry that, "In the stillness I pointed the .45 straight up, pinched the hammer, re-holstered the pistol and went back to sleep."
Imagine what a terrifying moment that must have been and this is a re-lived dream of a real experience couched in a dream entry. Levy was a combat medic for D 1/7 First Cavalry Division, and the dream takes place in the bush, on the night before his company re-crossed from Cambodia back to Vietnam, when Jerry Bieck, his squad leader, slept head to foot with Levy. In his half-waking state, after dreaming of being overrun, he cocks his .45 and is ready to shoot his squad leader.
Such is the nature of PTSD dreams, where reality and dream-life overlap and morph into dangerous waking moments that often end in tragic events. It's like having an extended flashback where you don't know where you are, whether you're in the middle of a firefight or a 4th of July celebration.
Take another dream from almost 40 years later: "9 October 2008. My brother and I are in the jungle. My brother is new to Vietnam. I'm breaking him in. I receive a message from a pilot...in a reconnaissance plane. The pilot names a mechanical part he needs. I take out a pen, spread a napkin on the ground, and tell my brother to hold it flat while I write it down. My brother laughs at me. I take out my forty-five pistol. I say, 'If you do that again, I'll kill you.' My brother laughs. I shoot him...in the chest. I wake up saying, 'You didn't listen so I killed you.'"
There's a courage to writing down such dreams. As readers and veterans, we can look at them and see how damaged our minds have become by the horrific experience of war. We can see how a traumatic re-enactment of a real-life experience can morph into a violent reaction in a confused PTSD state. And, hopefully, the writing and recording of such dreams helps those of us with similar traumatic dreams to process them, to dilute or titrate the violence we all experienced, into some semblance of relief or resolution.
I honor Levy's dream journey. Reading his book invoked memories of my own traumatic dreams and pushed me to re-imagine and re-process them. I believe this is essential in our journey back toward a healthy assimilation of The World. I encourage anyone who has, or continues to suffer from, traumatic dreams to read it and begin their own dream journal. I believe it is one of the ways we as combat veterans can move toward reconciliation of the brutality done to us, and the brutality we perpetrated on others.
rg cantalupo, (Ross Canton), is a poet, playwright, filmmaker, novelist, and director. His work has been published widely in literary journals in the United States, England, and Australia. He served in the 25th Infantry Division as an RTO for an infantry company from 1968-69 and received three purple hearts and a Bronze Star with a combat V for Valor under fire.