An explosion in Vietnam devastates a Marine fireteam sent to a village to investigate the possibility of a bomb depot’s presence there. Only one of the five-man unit survives. Grossly disfigured, who is he? Burned beyond recognition, suffering from amnesia, and unable to speak, he has no more insight than anyone around him. But people back home in West Virginia are convinced they know, and a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.
At first glance, In An Empty Room seems like another Vietnam survivor story, but take a closer look. Think Johnny Got His Gun, another tale of war’s deadly impact on those who live through it, then add an introduction which begins with chapter profiles of the perspectives of the five original men who contemplate what constitutes humanity, lends credence and value to their lives, and has led to their mission in Vietnam.
Passages are packed with reflections on not just their participation in Vietnam, but the elements of war which contribute to their humanity or inhumanity (“All wars are us against them, the sanctified and blessed against the unholy and damned, the civilized against the wogs and barbarians. We demonize our enemy, making him less human than ourselves so we can kill him without guilt.”), the impact of weaponry that increasingly distances the killer from the humans he kills (“With each step in the evolution of weapons the simultaneous expansion of behavioral space allowed killing to occur at increasingly greater distances while remaining extensions of us as part of the body schema.”), and the effects of distancing oneself from body and mind over the ability to kill and survive (“If the illusion is all-encompassing then so are discomfort and pain, guilt and sorrow and delight, the fear of dying so excruciating as to seem transcendent, like a fleeting synesthesia arising from the foul odor of a dream.”).
After introductory chapters provide biographical sketches and philosophical reflections, In An Empty Room takes an even darker turn in Part Two, revealing a coal mining camp where the unlucky amnesiac survivor has returned to a putative home he can’t recall. A host of other characters receive their own chapters summarizing their lives, hopes, and dreams.
By now it should be evident that In An Empty Room, though comparable in some ways to Johnny Got His Gun, doesn’t begin and end with one man’s broken body and isolation, but embraces other lives and perceptions of life’s meaning and challenges in the face of war and peace. Those expecting yet another singular Vietnam War soldier’s experience will be in for a surprise, because as much takes place at home in the small West Virginia coal mining town as it does before and after the explosion changes everything.
Each character’s perspective adds a philosophical, moral, and ethical inspection to life’s processes. This means that readers expecting an adventure-packed Vietnam War saga should look elsewhere. The adventure here lies just as much in inner space and psychological development as it does in the series of events that lead the protagonist far from his life-changing Vietnam encounter.
The result is a powerful and highly recommended story of a man broken and changed, the world he returns to, and a series of characters who enter his life to change it forever, exploring the theme of disruption from cultural, ethical, military and psychological perspectives through the eyes and hearts of myriad characters.