On March 21, 1967, ten thousand miles from home and a million miles from nowhere, an American gave his life to save the lives of his compatriots, jumping onto the back of an escaping prisoner, forcing him to the ground and covering the man’s body with his own until the grenade the Vietcong had stolen from the man’s belt detonated, killing them both. Master Sergeant Charles E. “Snake” Hosking, Jr., in a moment of bravery inconceivable to most of us, saved the lives of the other members of his command group, an act of heroism born not so much of impulsiveness, but carrying with it the years of experience and informed prudence known to the ancient Greeks as metis, a wary heedfulness Gail Hosking Gilberg says was such a natural part of her father’s warrior mind “that he had committed his vigilance to the level of mere routine.” Hosking knew his duty and performed it.
Back home, surrounded by the turbulence of the anti-war movement, Hosking’s teenage daughter knew her duty and performed it. Without crying â€“ without any signs of overt grief â€“ seventeen-year-old Gail, the oldest of Hosking’s four children, picked up the remnants of her life and carried on, becoming, as she writes, the “real trooper” her father wanted her to be. “Years of rationalizing about my father’s death followed: I felt like my path was gone, dropped off the edge. I told a friend his death had been ‘all for the best,’ as if I really believed it. I said my father wouldn’t be happy in uniform or in civilian life.” With these words, Gail Hosking poignantly articulates the shroud of silence many children of Vietnam veterans have wrapped around themselves in their vain attempts to avoid the conflict of pride overshadowed by shame that is unique to any discussion of the Vietnam War. Years later, a chance encounter with a photograph taken of her father in Vietnam â€“ standing in front of piled-up sandbags, eating with chopsticks, his blond hair and fair, good looks contrasting with the dark, exotic looks of the Vietnamese soldiers surrounding him â€“ forced Gail to realize how very little she knew about her father. And so began Gail’s search. Beginning with her father’s photograph albums, meticulously archived over the years of his life, “as if he knew early on he’d need to document his life for the next generation,” Gail embarks on a journey into a life she has both known and not known. “At first, entering many of his photographs was like getting through a guarded gate,” she writes. “Behind the entrance sat the world a daughter can’t know intimately â€“ men and the military.”
The details of Charles Hosking’s life, provided by family members and soldiers who had known him, are revealed through the photographs Gail describes. In provocative little vignettes, the biography of her father unfolds, a biography that is, at the same time, both predictable and extraordinary. Born and raised during the Depression, Hosking was so anxious to join the fighting during World War II that he left home before his 18th birthday to become a paratrooper with the 509th Battalion, miraculously surviving the Battle of the Bulge. At twenty-five, Hosking married sixteen-year-old Gloria Walters, fathered three daughters in rapid-fire succession (followed years later by a long-awaited son), drank hard, trained harder, and began his climb up the enlisted man’s ladder, a climb punctuated by many moves, frequent good-byes, and a few demotions and detours, but always advancing toward his final destination â€“ Vietnam.
The photographs reveal the tandem lives of Gail, her mother and her sisters, lives forever touched and tainted by an unpopular war that allowed for no mourning. Walking through the emotional minefield of her memories, Gail describes a life that is familiar to those of us who were also born “army brats,” but alien and bizarre â€“ almost grotesque, in fact â€“ to anyone without an intimate knowledge of life in the U.S. military in the 1960s, an existence both misunderstood and abhorred. Painful as it is to describe her seeming nonchalance during the ceremony for her father’s posthumously-awarded Medal of Honor for bravery, it is precisely this dichotomy between anguish and indifference that separates the children of Vietnam veterans from all other children of war veterans since the beginning of time.
In no other age and time has it been so impossible for the families of war heroes to express their pride or experience their grief. Gail Hosking recalls her shock when a military archivist tells her that if she had known the army in the 1970s, she would understand “why they wanted to get rid of all that stuff â€“ why tons of records were shredded and what remained, if anything, was sent up to the National Archives in Washington, D.C.” Gail is stunned and mesmerized by his next statement: “I guess you could call it ‘forced amnesia,'” he tells her. “Forced amnesia” spurs Gail to “remember what this country wants to forget.”
The silence of the photographs Gail describes, visual but mute images soundlessly calling out to her over time, is the perfect metaphor for a nation determined to stifle the voices of the dead and imprison the survivors behind a code of secrecy in which even the misguided Rusk/McNamara “rules of engagement” don’t apply. Whereas an American soldier in Vietnam was ordered not to fire unless fired upon, the families of Vietnam veterans and war heroes are not supposed to fire at all. Gail describes her purpose in composing this biography/autobiography as her belated counterattack to the shredding and forced amnesia: “I am back in the field putting together my father’s mutilated body, limb by limb, remembering what was once dismembered. I am removing the masks of secrecy, stoicism, and denial I learned as an army brat. I am offsetting this forced amnesia.”
Snake’s Daughter is a testimony to a daughter’s love, but it is also a statement about the painful distorting of history that occurs when we refuse to face our mistakes and our shame, a distortion that has shaped and defined all that we have become â€“ and all that we have lost â€“ as a nation since the Vietnam War. It is a document of war and the aftermath of war as much as any history textbook, and certainly as much or more as any of the documents shredded by officials determined to force us to forget. In her walk through the nether world of Vietnam War memories, Gail leaves behind the intense colors of her life as a wife and mother to explore the black and white lives of a man and his daughter forever silenced, a chiaroscuro of images, light and dark vying for attention and explanation. In her journey to discover her father, she discovers herself, and just as importantly, cracks the code of silence about the Vietnam War which imprisons us all.