Skull Session

The people who’ve lost their heads going off to war.

I was expecting … I don’t know what. Maybe some old hatboxes labeled “Confidential: Vietnam” languishing on a dusty shelf in a dusty closet. Instead, Paul Sledzik, an earnest young curator at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, D.C., leads me into a large, spotless storage room, unlocks File Cabinet 24, and slides out the top drawer. There they are: six human skulls. Keepsakes from the war that refuses to go away quietly. A cardboard divider, no different from what’s normally used to ship grapefruit, keeps the skulls from banging together like marbles.

“These two are my favorites,” Sledzik says. “I kind of go back and forth about which is the most interesting.”

He points out two skulls that are indisputably the eye-catchers of the bunch. “Interesting” is an understatement. These are the Velvet Elvises of war booty. The first skull (inventory No. 1987.3017.13) is slathered with graffiti. Above the eye sockets someone scrawled “Chu Lai trip skull.” The doodles include a peace sign and a marijuana pipe. “Pat,” “Chuckie,” “Frank,” and “Rich” are among those who added their names, as if they were giddy college teammates autographing a football after a big homecoming win.

T he skull is that of a 15-to-20-year-old Asian male. It had been confiscated from two U.S. servicemen at Da Nang airfield in the fall of 1971. They had inquired about the proper procedure for shipping their prize home, apparently oblivious to the fact that body parts aren’t considered military surplus. “If you read the case file,” notes Sledzik, “it sounds as if they thought there was nothing wrong with this.”

His other favorite skull (No. 1987.3017.23) came from a slightly older Asian male. Authorities took it off the hands of a GI stationed at Pleiku in 1972. Somebody at the base was dabbling in morbid art therapy. An undercoat of shocking-blue paint had been applied to the skull; red and yellow Day-Glo vertical stripes were then added in the back. A fat, black candle–melted firmly in place, wick still intact–sits atop the skull amid a puddle of congealed wax. A drill hole is visible in the cranium, evidence that this was once a hanging skull-candle. Three of the four remaining skulls (one belonging to a woman, all believed to be Vietnamese) also underwent what is euphemistically known as “post-mortem decorative treatment.” For example, the eye cavities of skull No. 1987.3017.09–found inside a footlocker at Fort Campbell, Ky., in 1971–bear the inscriptions “Jimi Vivar 70-71” (left) and “Viet Nam que loco” (right). “Things Go Better With Castro Coke” and “Stay High Stay Alive” adorn the top and sides.

T he National Museum of Health and Medicine is located on the grounds of Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Its roots extend back to the Civil War. Thus, visitors can find on display a swatch of diseased colon removed from a Union soldier plagued by terminal diarrhea, and pieces of John Wilkes Booth’s vertebrae, not to mention such miscellany as Siamese twins in a jar and a Peruvian mummy. However, the oddest items in the oddball collection–items that the government doesn’t quite know what to do with–are kept in permanent storage. Like the brain of Charles Guiteau, the man who assassinated President Garfield. Like the Vietnam War skulls.

I’d visited the museum several times, but learned about the skulls only recently from a friend. They immediately ruined several nights’ sleep, prompting me to pay Sledzik a visit. Vietnam, after all, is my war. And I have the draft-lottery deferment to prove it. The assumption, says Sledzik, is that American grunts picked up the skulls in their battlefield travels: souvenirs to someday show the grandkids. But now that the United States and Vietnam are busy re-establishing diplomatic relations, now that Hanoi may be in the running for the next TCBY yogurt franchise, why not give ‘em back? For the sake of symbolic closure. For sappy sentimental reasons. By rights, it seems to me, a person’s head ought to rest in peace, if not near his or her body, then at least on the same continent.

Shows what I know.

Trophies of war–from helmets, bayonets, and other innocuous spoils to the grisly byproducts of dismemberment–have a long, if not proud, history. In the latter category, the practice probably reached its nadir with headshrinking. Sledzik walks across the storage room and fetches another rare museum piece: a perfectly preserved head no larger than a tennis ball. It’s the handiwork of the Shuar, a notoriously ferocious tribe that inhabits the forests of Ecuador and Peru. The Shuar–who are to headshrinking what the Amish are to quilting–were transforming enemies into trinkets as recently as the 1950s.

But such macabre behavior transcends geographic bounds. In medieval England the severed heads of those who crossed the throne were regularly stuck on pikes and mounted in public places, London Bridge being a choice site. Oliver Cromwell was decapitated after death and his head left on a pole in Westminster Hall for 27 years. Across the world, an 18th century war shrine in the Japanese town of Nara once contained the ears of 20,000 Koreans. The Japanese reportedly moved on to bigger things in World War II. The archives of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia contain a note dictated by a fellow of the college in 1944 that reads, “Recently a Japanese officer sent 210 Chinese heads to Japan as trophies to be displayed. This number was exceeded by another officer who sent 220 heads.”

Vietnam was not the first time that U.S. soldiers indulged in noggin nabbing. Marines amassed piles of heads during the Philippine Insurrection of 1899-1901. Army records show that when the remains of Japanese soldiers killed in the Mariana Islands were repatriated in 1984, some 60 percent of the corpses were headless.

Alas, there is a semi-underground market–collectively called “the bone trade”–that trafficks in body parts imbued with historic significance or celebrity cachet. What is reputed to be Gen. George Custer’s left pinkie has, over the years, been traded for a horse and sold for its weight in gold. The Marquis de Sade’s head is known to be “above ground,” as they say in the business. Napoleon’s penis–lopped off during his autopsy–was purchased a few years ago by a New York urologist.

Bob White, a respected Baltimore memorabilia dealer and owner of one of the world’s largest collection of shrunken heads (35 and counting), says the Vietnam trophy skulls would find buyers. “As sick as it sounds,” he says, “they would even be a good investment” (though not as good as Marilyn Monroe’s nipples–rumored to have been snipped off during her autopsy, along with some locks of hair–which White estimates “could bring well over $25,000”).

Another collector of shrunken heads, who requested anonymity, has a Vietnam War photograph of a group of American soldiers posing by a crude altar fashioned from skulls and bones, reminiscent of the ghastly constructions of the Cambodian Khmer Rouge. “They’re showing the Angel of Death that they’re not afraid,” he explains.

Desecration of the dead serves the dual purpose of steeling one’s own courage and intimidating the enemy. But, the collector adds, “There is a difference between taking a trophy and a souvenir.”

The distinction seems irrelevant as I stand inside the National Museum of Health and Medicine holding the bright blue skull-candle in cupped hands. Part of me is worried about dropping the damn thing. Part of me feels obliged to smash it against the wall. I ask Sledzik if the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington might want custody of the skulls. “As far as I know, they’ve never been offered,” he replies. “We can’t say for sure they’re even combatants.”

His assistant, Lenore Barbian, cautions against practicing moral hegemony. Most Asians, she says, “are not very careful about the disposal of human remains. It’s not part of the culture. It’s a different way of viewing death.”

She’s right, of course. But forensic specialists are trained to view the world through dispassionate eyes. I’m unschooled. I’m also, for better or worse, a creature of Western sensibilities, in which crude lines are customarily drawn between the murderous imperatives of battle and the wanton bloodlust of barbarism. Come Memorial Day–when the country is absorbed in the annual rituals of war and remembrance, when flags bloom like red-white-and-blue wildflowers on thousands of graves–my thoughts will wander to “Rich” and “Chuckie” and “Jimi Vivar.” They are on the loose in America. Middle-aged men now. How’d the readjustment to civilian life go? What gimmicks are they employing these days to stave off the Angel of Death?

Mostly, though, I will think about six lives and six ignominious ends. Something tells me those hapless Vietnam skulls deserve a better resting place than File Cabinet 24. Yet, I can’t say exactly why. I just feel it in my bones.