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At Hell's Gate: A Soldier's Journey from War to Peace

At Hell's Gate: A Soldier's Journey from War to Peace

3.6 3
by Claude Anshin Thomas

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In this raw and moving memoir, Claude Thomas describes his service in Vietnam, his subsequent emotional collapse, and his remarkable journey toward healing. At Hell's Gate is not only a gripping coming-of-age story but a spiritual travelogue from the horrors of combat to the discovery of inner peace—a journey that inspired Thomas to become a Zen monk and


In this raw and moving memoir, Claude Thomas describes his service in Vietnam, his subsequent emotional collapse, and his remarkable journey toward healing. At Hell's Gate is not only a gripping coming-of-age story but a spiritual travelogue from the horrors of combat to the discovery of inner peace—a journey that inspired Thomas to become a Zen monk and peace activist who travels to war-scarred regions around the world. "Everyone has their Vietnam," Thomas writes. "Everyone has their own experience of violence, calamity, or trauma." With simplicity and power, this book offers timeless teachings on how we can all find healing, and it presents practical guidance on how mindfulness and compassion can transform our lives.

This expanded edition features:

   •  Discussion questions for reading groups
   •  A new afterword by the author reflecting on how the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are affecting soldiers—and offering advice on how to help returning soldiers to cope with their combat experiences

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In 1965, after a difficult childhood and an unruly adolescence, Thomas, aged 17, joined the army at his father's suggestion. He put in a combat-heavy tour of duty as a door gunner and crew chief with the 116th Assault Helicopter Assault Company in Vietnam, an experience that left deep emotional scars. After coming home, he endured drug-fueled suicidal, antisocial and violent episodes before turning his life around in the early 1980s as a result of studying with the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. He now devotes his life to doing the work of "a wandering mendicant monk," and he wrote this short volume, he says, as a form of therapy, "something to help me keep a grip on my sanity." The result is a combination memoir, Zen primer and how-to book of meditative techniques. Thomas evokes his experiences in Vietnam and the emotional trauma he has gone through since the war with clarity and insight; the Zen lessons emphasize mindfulness and meditation. Thomas, unfortunately, repeats an egregious, unsubstantiated allegation about Vietnam veterans: that "more than 100,000" have committed suicide since the war. That is a myth, even though it is true that Vietnam veterans have had disproportionately high readjustment problems since returning from the war. (Sept.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher
"Thomas's presentation of this difficult experience is searingly honest."—Shambhala Sun

"This gripping spiritual memoir bears witness to the transforming meditation and mindfulness in the life of a Vietnam Veteran."—Spirituality and Health

"Let me start by simply recommending that you buy, read, and think about Claude Anshin Thomas's book, At Hell's Gate. It was a long time coming but worth the wait, especially in this time of war and rampant violence."—Turning Wheel

"What gives Thomas's perspective so much weight is that it carries the rare and undeniable authority of one who has seen firsthand the extremes of both good and evil that lie in the human soul."—What Is Enlightenment?

"This is a book of great power. Thomas's story has the power to heal, to inspire, to teach."—John Laurence, former CBS News correspondent and author of The Cat from Hué: A Vietnam War Story

"A powerful, wise, and genuinely profound spiritual odyssey from the insanity of violence (in the world, within ourselves, and in the assumptions of American culture) to the peace and compassion of mindfulness practice. Thomas beautifully models Zen teachings in his daily life, and by doing so he enlightens and liberates us all."—Charles Johnson, winner of the National Book Award for Middle Passage

"Claude Anshin Thomas has been an inspiration to me. Our world urgently needs to listen to him tell of his life in war and then in peace."—Maxine Hong Kingston, author of The Woman Warrior

"In these strange times, when fear and aggression often seem to be the only responses we can imagine to a perceived threat, this powerful book provides an honest, open-hearted, and very moving testimony to the power of Buddhist practice to break this cycle. Thomas is a hero in the truest sense of the word: having undergone an epic trial, he has generously come back to help others in need."—George Saunders, author of Pastoralia and CivilWarLand in Bad Decline

"Thomas's journey from the killing fields of Vietnam to the path of peace and pilgrimage testifies to his—and our—powerful urge to awaken. At the same time, this is not a pretty story. Anshin Thomas has lived in hell, knows its smell and taste, and continues to confront it every day of his life. Yet he remains undeterred in his work to make peace in himself and the world at large."—Bernie Glassman, author of Instructions to the Cook and Bearing Witness

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1: The Seeds of War

Imagine for a moment that you are standing outside in the rain. What do you typically think and feel as rain falls around you?

For me, every time it rains I walk through war. For two rainy seasons I experienced very heavy fighting. During the monsoons in Vietnam, the tremendous volume of water leaves everything wet and muddy. Now when it rains, I am still walking through fields of young men screaming and dying. I still see tree lines disintegrating from napalm. I still hear seventeen-year-old boys crying for their mothers, fathers, and girlfriends. Only after reexperiencing all of that can I come to the awareness that right now, it's just raining.

For lack of a better word, let's call these events flashbacks. They are a reliving of experiences that I have not yet come to terms with. I could be in a grocery store, reaching up to take a can of vegetables off the shelf, when I'm suddenly overwhelmed by fear because I think that the can might be booby-trapped. Rationally I know that this isn't true, but for one year, my tour of duty in Vietnam, I lived in an environment where this was a realistic fear—and to this day I am unable to process that wartime experience.

But this is not just my story. This happens every day all over the world. Every day there are people reliving war— reliving their own experiences of violence, calamity, childhood trauma.

Before we can get to a place of peace, we have to touch our suffering—embrace it and hold it. This is something I have been learning in recent years. But for many years before that, all I learned was how to make war.

A conditioning to violence
For my first seventeen years almost all my experiences watered the seeds of violence in me. War was everywhere. I was raised in a small town in Pennsylvania. My father, like most of the men in my town, had served in World War II. When that generation talked about war, they didn't speak truthfully. Unable to touch the deep and profound wounds that war had left inside them, they talked about war like a great adventure.

So when I turned seventeen and my father suggested that I go into the military, I didn't question him. I also didn't know much about politics; it wasn't part of my life. Now I understand how important it is to know what is going on in the world. Though no long-term solutions to our world's problems are achieved through political ideologies, I am impacted by them, as is each of us, and a dear price is paid because of this kind of ignorance.

Today I understand that my father and the men and women of his generation were filled with illusions and denial about how deeply they were affected by their military service and war experiences. Having come home as the victors, they were thrust into a role: They became the protectors of our culture's denial about the profound and far-reaching impact of war—not just on those who fought, but on all of us. This cultural myth obliged my father's generation not to talk openly or directly about the reality of the individual war experience, and in a sense, for many of them, their inner lives had to be abandoned. Speaking truthfully wasn't encouraged in them or in me. But something unusual happened during and after the war in Vietnam: Many of us could no longer deny reality.

I volunteered to go to Vietnam because I thought it was the right thing to do. I didn't understand the nature of war or the nature of violence. Three days after I was in-country I began to understand. It was insane. It's difficult to describe what I saw. I could and can still taste and smell it and see the emptiness in everyone's eyes. It was like being in a surreal horror movie.

I was sent to Vietnam "unattached," which means that I did not have a specific unit assignment. My orders sent me to the Ninetieth Replacement Battalion in Long Binh. Each morning those of us who were there would get up, make our beds, eat breakfast, and then stand in formation for roll call. We'd then count off by fives or threes or something like that. Some days all the ones would get an assignment and ship out, some days the twos, and so on. For those of us who did not get a unit assignment, there were details such as cleaning latrines, which entailed hauling a cut-down fifty-gallon drum from under the toilet seat and then burning the human waste that it contained, or working in the kitchen preparing meals, scrubbing pots, that sort of thing.

One of these details was to clean up some of the huge warehouses full of stuff for the PX (post exchange) system. The PX is the military version of a Wal-Mart, where soldiers can go to buy food, cigarettes, and so forth. As I had not yet received a unit assignment, I was put on this detail and, bizarrely, spent my first three days in Vietnam destroying thousands of pounds of Milky Way candy bars (which were melting and rotting in the tropical conditions). With the encouragement of a noncommissioned officer in charge, I also "confiscated" (military language for stole) a necklace of cultured Mikimoto pearls, a purchase item that was far beyond my wallet. Two days later I brought them back because I knew that stealing was just wrong. But this confused, corrupt, surreal world of the war was just an extension of my experiences in basic training, where I was formally schooled in the absurd and grotesque reality of violence.

During basic training I was taught to hate. On the firing range we were shooting at targets that resembled people. We were learning to kill human beings. We had to be taught how to do that—that is the work of the military. This work is done in a variety of subtle and not-so-subtle ways. When we were done on the firing range, we were supposed to stack our weapons in a particular way. One day, as I was preparing to place my rifle on the stack, I dropped it. The drill instructor, a sergeant first class, screamed and cursed that I wasn't looking after my rifle properly, that my rifle was the most important thing in my life, because whether I lived or died depended on it.

This guy was six feet three inches to my five feet eight and a half. He stood in front of me, his chest jammed up against my face, stabbing me with his finger and screaming obscenities down at me. Then he pulled out his penis and urinated on me, in front of everyone.

I wasn't allowed to wash for two days. I felt shame at such a deep level, I couldn't begin to handle it. Instead, all I felt was rage. I couldn't act it out on him because I would have gone to jail. So I focused my rage on the enemy. The enemy was everyone unlike me, everyone who was not an American soldier. This conditioning is an essential ingredient in the creation of a good soldier. Soldiers are trained to see anything other as dangerous, threatening, and potentially deadly. You dehumanize the enemy. You dehumanize yourself. My military training ultimately taught me to dehumanize a whole race of people. There was no distinction between the Vietcong, the regular Vietnamese army, and the Vietnamese general population.

But if I hadn't been prepared for this military training by the rest of my life, that kind of teaching wouldn't have taken hold. As a young man I was encouraged to fight, to be prejudiced and nationalistic. I was taught that the way to solve problems was through violence. If there was a conflict, the strongest person won. I learned this from my mother, my father, my teachers, and my friends.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Thomas holds the view that everyone who is touched by war or violence is affected by it, though not in the same way. In what ways, if any, has violence touched your life and how have you been affected?
  2. Thomas calls his childhood "the war before the war." What aspects of his upbringing prepared him or conditioned him to become a soldier? Looking at your own upbringing, what kinds of messages did you receive about violence, about war?
  3. Thomas asserts that war is not something that originates in places like Bosnia, Rwanda, or Iraq. "War is not something that happens externally to us," he writes. "In my understanding and in my experience, war is a collective expression of individual suffering." Because war begins with each of us, what does Thomas believe we can each do to end war?
  4. In chapter 4, in a section titled, "Is war ever justified?" (pp. 85-88), Thomas makes the statement, "Violence is never a solution." What does he say to support this claim? Do you agree?
  5. How does the author's personal understanding of courage and strength change throughout his life story?

Meet the Author

Claude Anshin Thomas went to Vietnam at the age of eighteen, where he received numerous awards and decorations, including twenty-seven Air Medals, a Distinguished Flying Cross, and the Purple Heart. Today he is a monk in the Soto Zen tradition and an active speaker and Zen teacher in the United States and Europe. He is also the founder of the Zaltho Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes peace and nonviolence (www.zaltho.org). This is his first book.

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At Hell's Gate: A Soldier's Journey from War to Peace 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
After reading this book I noticed a picture of the author next to Palestinian terrorists carrying guns and grenades smiling in the picture with their arm around the author. What kind of peaceful monk would pose a picture with these kind of people? Looks like Claud Anshin Thomas hates Israel and is a hateful anti semite. I wish I could join the anti war movement but I have noticed an increasing hateful and spiteful anti semitisem creaping into the anti war movement that only denounces Israel and stays silent on Palestinian terrorist attacks. Hypocrasy at its worst.