Heroes Never Rust #64 by Sean Ironman
Surrender in Vietnam and the Loss of the Real America
The beginning of issue three of Born shows various images from the Vietnam War: bombs falling from planes, a bridge filled with pedestrians blown sky high, American soldiers setting a Vietnamese village on fire, Vietnamese men and women dead in a ditch, and children burning at planes drop napalm. An unseen narrator comments on America being unable to give up just because America must show the world that they can’t be messed with. “Though we make the world despise us…Though we do things that will stain our souls forever…Though America eats its own intestines over this, cities riven with unrest, leaders inspiring loathing and distrust…We cannot lose.”
The war has been lost. Readers have seen that in the previous two issues. Frank Castle is the only one left at Valley Forge who cares to strike out at the enemy. The other soldiers wait out whatever days they have left getting high. It’s unclear who is speaking in the opening. It could be Castle, but it could be Goodwin or just a nameless narrator. I don’t think it matters. The opening does a its job—it presents the idea that there really is no reason why America doesn’t just call it quits. It’s all chest pounding. Just a bunch of men refusing to give up to show their strength, even though they no longer know why they are fighting.
Both of the main characters of Born, Goodwin and Castle, are forced to challenge their reasons for their actions. The first line of dialogue in the issue belongs to Goodwin. “Why can’t we stay out of the rest of the world?” Goodwin wants to keep his head low and get home. He doesn’t care for the war, but understands a man like Castle is needed. He spends most of this issue with his friend, Angel, who has given in and is constantly found in the drug den of Valley Forge. An hour before dawn, the two friends watch the rain. Goodwin lays into Angel about getting high. Goodwin tells him, “We shouldn’t have gotten involved here; all we’re doing is making an even bigger mess of the place than it was already. And we’re screwing up our own country. We’ve been tearing ourselves apart over this for the last five years.” Goodwin wants to focus on what he calls “the real America.”
This isolationist idea has been around forever. I hear it from time to time in today’s world when U.S. soldiers are sent overseas. Recently, I watched HBO’s John Adams miniseries and the same idea was discussed when England and France were at war. In Born, Angel shuts Goodwin up. “I keep hearin’ you talkin’ ‘bout this idea you got—this real America? It’s a fuckin’ dream, man. It belongs in the thirties. The twenties. Fuck, the Wild muthafuckin’ West. That’s the real America right there: back when you was shootin’ each other, rapin’ red Indians an’ callin’ me nigga…”
I wrote about this idea recently in a post about Captain America. The past is viewed as a simpler time. It seems like everyone throughout history is trying to make things like they were in the past, even if the past wasn’t so great. Maybe as children we see the love and goodness the world has to offer, and then we become adults and have to make concessions to our beliefs. The past, then, is viewed as pure and wholesome, but as children, we only see one side. Angel wants Goodwin to wake up, not to accept the reality of their situation in Vietnam, but to accept that this perfect America Goodwin dreamed up never existed.
Castle is in a similar situation. He comes close to tossing a grenade into a latrine that his commanding officer is using. The officer had just told Castle that he stopped requesting supplies and just wants to wait out the rest of the war and not draw anyone’s attention. He stops himself, but later he questions that decision. Castle has been changed by his three tours in Vietnam. Some readers have raised the idea that the voice talking to Castle is supernatural, like Satan, but I don’t buy it. There’s no other supernatural element. I believe it’s his conscience. He questions how he could “kill at the drop of a hat.” At first, he tells himself that it’s about the other men at the base. But he throws that idea away. The war has made him a killing machine. “That’s what’s got you worried? That urge you have, to give every motherfucker in the world exactly what they deserve?”
He seeks out Goodwin, and their talk quickly becomes personal. Castle tells Goodwin about his family. He has a four-year-old daughter and son on the way. “I sometimes think they might be my last chance.” Castle is afraid of himself. This scene comes directly after he questions his motivations for wanting to frag his commanding officer. I spoke in my first post about Born that this comic is supposed to be the real origin of the Punisher. That he was the Punisher long before his family was killed in a gangwar. But maybe Castle was always the Punisher. Maybe he just never had the means to kill. Just going to Vietnam doesn’t make a person the Punisher. We’d have a lot of Punishers on the street if that were true. Maybe Vietnam is just one of many events in his life that pushed Castle over the top. Maybe like Angel tells Goodwin, there never was this perfect time in Castle’s life. Vietnam didn’t destroy the good America, and it didn’t turn Castle into the Punisher. Do we really change so much from one event? Or do we just reveal more of ourselves? I believe that one event is not enough to completely change who a person is, but a series of events can. Like waves splashing against rock will, over time, corrode the rock. The issue ends with a Vietnamese army attacking Valley Forge. One more event they have to survive, and if they do, will they think one day that everything was so perfect before this battle, that they had no problems? I think they’d just be lying to themselves.
Sean Ironman (Episode 102) earned his MFA at the University of Central Florida. Currently, he teaches creative nonfiction and digital media at the University of Central Arkansas as a visiting professor. His work can be read in The Writer’s Chronicle, Redivider, and Breakers: A Comics Anthology, among others.