The Journal of the Unitarian Universalist Association

Hell, Healing and Resistance:
Veterans Speak
By Daniel William Hallock
Farmington, PA: Plough, 1998. $25.00

Reviewed by Steve Watkins

Book Review July/August 1999

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From time to time Vietnam veterans at the VA hospital in Montrose, NY, will build what they call a “watchfire” on a peninsula, part of the VA grounds, that juts out into the Hudson River. As Daniel William Hallock explains in his book Hell, Healing and Resistance, legend has it that George Washington built watchfires all up and down the Hudson to call back lost patrols and help them navigate in the dark.

But for the Vietnam vets in Montrose, the fires have a different meaning.

They “are lit to call back the hosts of war dead: the multitudes of lives cut short by a senseless and stupid war, the thousands of MIAs and POWs still unaccounted for,” writes Hallock, a former Marine and a member of the New York Bruderhof, a socially radical Christian community. “Time has stopped” for the men around the watchfire, Hallock continues. “Inside, the clock is frozen in the year 1969. And they wait for a hand to set it going again, to give an answer to man’s inhumanity to man.”

Hallock’s book is itself a watchfire, a place where dozens of veterans from a dozen different US wars—and other witnesses, including ROTC members, civilian war victims, family members of veterans, and so on—are given a voice so that those who are lost might be summoned home. The book also tries to be the hand that sets the clock running again for the casualties of war: the soldiers and the noncombatants, the “willing” participants and the conscientious objectors, the families of the killers and the families of the dead. It’s a work of homecoming and of healing—but also of anger, largely directed at the US government and at big business, the only ones, Hallock charges, who benefit from war. “War is ultimately about greed,” he writes, “and it depends not only on myths which support and rationalize the destruction of people, but also on the presumption of moral and political rectitude.”

Built on the extensive oral narratives of dozens of witnesses, the book starts with a section titled “The Sell,” about the duplicitous recruitment of young men into military service. Hell, Healing and Resistance grows from there into an indictment of the US wars of this century, and of the political, economic, and moral machineries of those wars. Hallock examines how soldiers are “made” and how hearts and minds are twisted in the process, corrupted by military training and combat conditions. He quotes a Marine Corps boot camp chant: “Rape the town and kill the people, that’s the only thing to do! Watch the kiddies scream and shout, that’s the thing we love to do!” And he talks about, or rather lets the vets themselves talk about, the psychological and spiritual devastation of men who went to war, especially those who were drawn into atrocities such as the My Lai massacre.

Hallock’s book helps tear the veil away from America’s war myths, with chapters that have titles like “The Silenced Majority,” “God on Our Side,” and “America the Redeemer.” It also discusses the role, suffering, and sacrifice of our war resisters, people like the Berrigan brothers, now in their 70s and still putting conscience before personal cost. And Brian Willson, who lost both legs, an ear, and part of his skull when he was run over by a weapons train during a protest against America’s illegal and immoral support for repressive forces in Central America.

The veterans’ oral narratives give the book its strength and make it a valuable resource for peace activists. Ironically, they are also the book’s chief weakness, as some of them run on longer—or are allowed to run on longer—than necessary, sometimes considerably longer, digressing too often, focusing on unessential characters, anecdotes, and details. Still, it’s hard to fault Hallock for this generosity with his subjects. Indeed, a case could be made that the most important function of this book is to help redeem, by giving them a voice, the men and women featured in Hell, Healing and Resistance: people too many of us gave up on long ago as lost. 

Which, of course, is the idea behind the watchfire: No one is ever lost. It’s just that some of us need help, even if help takes the form of a 50-foot-high bonfire burning all night, or a book like Hell, Healing and Resistance, to find our way back home.

Steve Watkins is an associate professor of English at Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, VA and author of The Black O: Racism and Redemption in an American Corporate Empire (University of Georgia Press).

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