When the Last Veteran Dies

A Chat with Ken Williams, Author of China White

by Hudson Hornick

China_White.jpgHaving helped Santa Barbara’s homeless population for 30 years, Ken Williams is no stranger to what it means to be of service. His stint as a U.S. Marine ended upon his return from the Vietnam War, after which he graduated from UCSB with a degree in psychology. Like many, he stayed in Santa Barbara and, unlike most, decided to advocate for the homeless. He’s left a 30-year legacy of kindness, spending his days trying to get the homeless off the streets and into shelters with empathy and coercion.

Williams has written extensively on homelessness and the Vietnam War, highlighting the struggle of United States veterans and the hidden social effects of war. His new novel, China White, further explores the emotional ties that bind the Vietnamese-American community with Vietnam War vets. The book chronicles the events surrounding the fictional Shane Wilson, a Vietnam CIA field agent who, 30 years later, is forced to collaborate with an ex-North Vietnamese soldier to investigate the influx of a particularly potent form of heroin before it destroys their community. As literature, China White is deep, powerful, and cultivates a sense of here and now in the reader. As social commentary, it is introspective and bold, addressing angles and social connotations of war previously not discussed. Williams and I recently had a chance to talk about his book.

What made you want to write China White? I suppose the hidden after-effects of war. I’m a Vietnam veteran myself and Vietnam sensitized me to people damaged beyond their control.

How do you mean? Well, there are long-term consequences of war that just can’t be seen by veterans returning from war today. For example, those returning from Iraq on their second, third, even fourth tours of duty; what’s happening to them now will still affect them 20 years from now. They might not even know it now, but war desensitizes you to things. You know, to kill someone you have to de-humanize them, make them something you’re not. Life cheapens. Right now the Iraqi racism is high, I’m sure. It’s drummed into you in boot camp. Some deal with it better than others; some hold on to it all their lives, for some the evil really gets to them, and others simply let it go. What’s hard to learn, as Shane did in China White, is that we’re all the same in the end.

There are plenty of Vietnam vets in the homeless population. Is that where your desire to serve the homeless stems? Perhaps. There’s something really brutal about war and to see it we have to look at the veterans. The high numbers of homeless Vietnam veterans is not a quirk. I just want people to be aware that just because you have never been over there fighting does not mean a war isn’t going on. And even when it’s over, it’s not really over. War ends when the last veteran dies. I thought we’d learned our lesson in Vietnam — to not blindly follow our questionable leaders — but I guess we didn’t.

How do you feel about the county’s 10-year plan to address homelessness? I’m wary of plans. I’m not too sure about them in the past, but I have faith in the two men backing the plan. I feel they’re really capable guys who have good hearts and mean well. The key is to look at the homeless we have now, and prevent a person from reaching that point. But I remain optimistic.


Ken Williams will sign copies of China White as part of CALM’s Authors’ Luncheon on Saturday, March 10 at 10 a.m. at Fess Parker’s DoubleTree Resort. For reservations, call 682-3925.

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