Claude AnShin Thomas: I was once a soldier - From the horror of Vietnam to the encounter with Buddhism

Claude An Shin Thomas (born in Meadville, Pennsylvania, in November 1947) is today a Buddhist monk but was a valiant soldier in Vietnam and this book narrates his life and his evolution, with a large quantity of anecdotes and critical considerations on his several lives.

It can be said that the text is divided into three parts, even if the first two are strongly intertwined.

At the beginning, the global existential situation that the author experienced in his first years of life up to adolescence, around the age of 17-18, is described. Born into a family where education was based on corporal punishment and practically zero communication, he soon learned the classic street life, getting used to defending himself and implementing habits that are unusual to say the least: among these, AnShin Thomas he enjoyed going into used car dealerships, stealing one and driving around as he pleased for the entire night, then bringing it back to its destination early in the morning.

This type of behavior, in the small town of Waterford where he lived, did not cause particular problems, despite his character which he himself defined as "wild". And precisely because of this wild character, when deciding what to do after finishing high school, his father told him to go and join the army (while he was leaning towards a career in sports in which he was very good). But “in the end I went into the military because I didn't know what else to do” (p. 21).

The first part of the book therefore describes family life with an alcoholic and abusive father, and a mother who had unexpected and unpredictable violent impulses and reactions.

The impact with military training opens the second phase of the story.

Predictably, the experience was not at all simple from the start AnShin Thomas found himself faced with a very harsh world characterized by difficult to understand rules: rules which, however, would probably have saved him over the following years.

Due to the environment and the punishments due to indiscipline he began to drink and was letting himself go completely when he had the idea of ​​volunteering for Vietnam: "I ended up becoming an excellent soldier and I also received many awards and decorations… That vulnerable boy, that scared 29-year-old? Off, gone!” (p. XNUMX). Trained to kill, he carried out his missions one after the other until, returning home as a sort of survived from Vietnam (after being wounded) he found himself no longer being what he was before and... still being nothing else.

Alcoholic, drug addict, completely lost but always armed wandering the streets, between 1968 and 1969 he began to approach the pacifist movements and, some time later, began to experiment with rehabilitation programs and psychological support therapy; but many years passed, and still in 1990 he felt that "Vietnam was not just in my head: it was in all of me" (p. 48), despite the fact that by that time he had already recovered from drug addiction.

Then the meeting with the community of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh who worked with those who were called the unstable veterans of Vietnam, and the slow, painful, progressive spiritual conversion of life and existential perspective.

The encounter with Buddhism meant for Claude AnShin Thomas finding an answer to the isolation into which veterans so often fall: "when I talk to other veterans about the war in Vietnam or the Gulf... with the soldiers of all wars, I always hear the same story. They say they are not understood, that civilians avoid coming into contact with them, that they resist any relationship that is not the most superficial” (p. 61).

The third part of the book describes the path of rebirth which, in the case of Claude AnShin Thomas, means having found himself in a normally human size, while continuing to fear and suffer in certain moments of life (the author tells how, decades later, the night was very often populated with terrors and ghosts).

In the 1990s Claude AnShin Thomas made several pilgrimages, the most important of which was the one that took him from Auschwitz to Vietnam: over eight thousand kilometers passing through twenty-one countries, in eight months.

It is, therefore, a book that can be read as a line that has its center in the experience of war and which then unfolds in return to the world through the meeting with an exceptional figure; in fact, it should not be forgotten that Thich Nhat Hanh (Huế, 11 October 1926 – Huế, 21 January 2022) was a presence of great charisma and carried out numerous activities around the world, including in Italy.

A book that examines in depth some faces of aggressive drive of the human being, of how this - if not regulated - can explode in the wildest ways and remain within the person who has acted it like a toxic substance for the entire life: “in the jungle, what remained hidden was always much more dangerous than what could be seen; the same goes for our emotions” (p. 112).

A testimony to the devastating effects of war trauma and an indication of one of the paths that a psychologically wounded and existentially demolished person can take to rediscover the meaning of life, and of themselves in life.

Andrea Castiello d'Antonio