Worlds: A Veterain's Experience
Return to Vietnam
The flag on this page is jarring. 35 years ago, it was the flag of our enemies. It was the flag of those who sought to kill us, and of those we sought to kill. Now it is the flag of our hosts. I have travelled other places and posted pictures of those trips, always with the flag of the host country on the page. I will do it here. But it is jarring to see on this page, as it was jarring the many times I saw it in country.
After 1969, the first time I saw Vietnam again was January 1998. With my wife, father and son, I was flying from Hong Kong to Singapore. I could see the yellow sands of the beaches which must have been around Cam Ranh Bay, and the green color inland. There were no bomb craters in sight, and no tracer rounds lit up the sky. "One of these years," I wrote, "I hope to go back."
From May 29 to June 15, 2004, I joined a Learning and Reconciliation Tour sponsored by the Sage Colleges and Sanctuary. The Tour is billed as a program of academic travel. Tour leaders were Steven A. Leibo Ph.D., professor of Modern International History & Politics (especially Asian Western Relations) at the Sage Colleges; Dr. Edward Tick, specialist on PTSD, founder of Sanctuary, and author of Sacred Mountain: Encounters with the Vietnam Beast and Tran Dinh Song, our incountry guide, an educator and veteran of the Vietnam War.
There were 14 participants on the trip, 7 of whom were veterans. For the veterans, Ed Tick arranged a "Veterans Circle" in which we could process the experiences we were having. Others were welcome to join and some did. Some of the non-veterans felt the Veterans Circle was just too intense.
Why I went
Steven Leibo has said, “To me, going to Vietnam for an American should be the same thing as going to see the Grand Canyon or the Washington Monument; it is part of what made us who we are...It is like looking in the mirror and seeing who we are. We are forever going to move in history with Vietnamese society—they were transformed by us, we were transformed by them.”
For me, returning to Vietnam seemed to be about closure. When I left in 1969, the war was in full progress. People I knew remained there while I left. Later, newspapers reported events about places I was familiar with, and I knew things had changed -- but in what way? My work involved the spirits of those who were there, and they have moved on, but inevitably we invest ourselves in the tangible aspects of place -- a building here, a road there, an association with this mountain or that river. What had become of all this?
And fundamentally, my relationship with Vietnam was a relationship with a war. Now the war was over, but a country remained. I became more and more conscious that in the year I was there, I had never met the country. I had never even learned to say "Thank you" in Vietnamese. Now, that, too was unfinished business.
Where I went
This was our itinerary:
1. Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) Monday, May 31, Tuesday, June 1, and Thursday, June 3.
2. Mekong Delta in the vicinity of Vinh Long, Wednesday June 2 - Thursday June 3
3. Kontum, Dak To, Friday, June 4
4. Pleiku, Camp Enari, Catecka Tea Plantation, Oasis, Saturday, June 5
5. Danang, China Beach Sunday, June 6
6. Hue, Vinh Moc Tunnels, DMZ Monday, June 7, Tuesday June 8 and Wednesday June 9
7. Hanoi, Wednesday, June 9, Thursday June 10, Saturday, June 12, Sunday, June 13, Monday, June 14
8. Ha Long Bay, Friday, June 11
There was one place I want to go to but didn't on this trip. In 1998, I wrote, "One of the places I would like to go is My Lai. What happened there did not represent the America I know and love. I will visit the Vietnamese - American Peace Park that has been built with the help of Vietnam veteran Mike Boehm and which was dedicated there March 16, 1998, the 30th anniversary of the massacre." Perhaps in the future there will be a chance to get there.
What I learned
It can be healing to go back to the site of a trauma. I looked forward to some form of completion but did not know how it would take place. Seeing the sites where we had had bases, now with just about every trace of war gone, gave the message, "the land has healed, why shouldn't you?" It gave the message, "it's really over." It gave the message, "life has moved on. There are more recent pictures than the ones you have carried in your mind for 35 years." My Vietnam "clock" had stopped in 1969. This trip started the clock back up, and let it tick into the present.
The Vietnamese welcome for Americans is amazing. I detected no animosity related to what had happened 35 years before, even though a Vietnamese professor reported that of all Vietnam's invaders, the Americans had been the most brutal. A majority of Vietnam's people were not yet alive during the "American War", but even those who were are genuinely hospitable, perhaps because it is now their country, they are proud of it, and they are glad to show it off and welcome visitors who come not with weapons, but in peace.
The War Remnants Museum in Saigon - Ho Chi Minh City - gave a perspective I had not realized before. The pictures of wartime suffering and atrocities were sandwiched between pictures of American-Vietnamese cooperation during World War II against the Japanese, and pictures of retired American war-time leaders meeting and reminiscing with retired Vietnamese war-time leaders after the war was over. The message I got was that the Americans and Vietnamese are friends, and the 30 years between our ill-fated support of the French in 1945 and the defeat of the South Vietnamese in 1975 was an unfortunate aberration. The war was thus experienced as a betrayal of what should have been a friendship.
What is reality and what is denial? On the way over, I showed Dr. Ed Tick a printout of the pages chronicling my 12 months in country. He was struck by this picture, noting that everything in the picture was dead except for me.
Ed then wrote the following poem entitled "Highland Vespers"
The moaning wounded
the crying dead
are growing quiet.
His weary arms droop
from signing the cross
over these lost.
Where mortars whistled
in the long rice grass
now it is only the wind
and his hymn is of return.
I recalled the moment of the picture -- it was a "cold" LZ (no hostile action) or they would not have invited the chaplain out for services. It was a sunny afternoon and the soldiers welcomed a break from the work of preparing a firebase. The denuded trees were part of the package -- an explosive charge would be set off which would at once clear an area in the center where helicopters could land, and farther from the explosion, clear the trees of leaves, improving line of sight. All of these things meant life, or a better chance of life, for those here. I saw no death in the picture. Ed Tick, who wasn't there, saw no living things but the chaplain, and to view the picture fresh through his eyes was a revelation into a new truth.
Ed's poetic expression of his image of the chaplain was also evocative. I knew the chaplain's inner reality--this chaplain felt dead inside and was seeking connection with the life around him; but as a viewer of the picture, Ed saw a living chaplain making connection with major scenes of death around him. Was he seeing a level of truth I hadn't previously seen?
This could be a paradigm for the return trip; in 1975 it appeared to many in America that the scenes of death they had been seeing on their televisions for years was now complete, as the enemy tanks and their red flags ended the era of South Vietnam. Where supporters of the North saw life, there certainly was a time of death; but for us who saw only death, did we in fact miss the presence of life?
The aspects of American bases which are now gone are aspects of the things that made us try to make
things like home. This "sign" pictures illustrates this. To an American driving west on QL19 in 1969 and seeing this sign, it would have been a comforting indicator of American presence. To a Vietnamese nationalist, it must have been quite irritating, a sign that foreigners were in his country, claiming it in little (but not subtle) ways for himself. It seemed inevitable that we would try to "Americanize" Vietnam in order to make it more comfortable for us; there were so many of us after all. But did that also define what victory would have meant? So many wished we would fight a more conventional war, in which we fought for territory and once we won it, would not give it up. Would winning territory on behalf of the South Vietnamese have sufficed, or in our hearts, did we not really need to win it for ourselves? There are those who say we should have fought to win the war. What would a victory have looked like? One in which you knew we had won, because Vietnam was Americanized? Perhaps that only could have happend if we had killed every single Vietnamese man, woman, and child. At any rate, it didn't happen, and the sign in this picture is no longer seen on QL 19 east of Pleiku.
Paradoxically, in many respects the Americanization of Vietnam is now rapidly proceeding, if you count the vigorous development of institutions of free enterprise. No McDonalds yet, but can it be too far distant? ATMs and the internet are already here. Vietnamese leadership worried about the explosion of knowledge -- even forbidden knowledge -- that access to the internet might bring perhaps need not worry so much; the evenings others and I went to internet cafes to send messages home, we were surrounded by intense middle school boys and girls concerned mainly with computer games and instant messaging. But there is a broader message -- perhaps in 2004 we actually are winning the Vietnam War in the only appropriate way -- through openness and exchange of ideas with a sovereign nation that has the self-confidence of a victor. In losing, we paved the way for an appropriate victory, while if we had ever won, we might still, 35 years later, be paying heavily for what turned out to be a defeat. Now we are at war in Iraq, and we would like both to achieve our objectives, and also to have a victory. What if achieving our most legitimate objectives requires that we lose, so that the Iraqis can feel that they have won and expelled the invaders? Are we willing to lose in order to win? Or must we insist on winning, even at the price of long range defeat?
Theologically, in the midst of war I felt that God could not be, at the same time, all knowing, all loving, and all powerful. As someone has said, any two out of the three, perhaps, but not all three, it's just too contradictory. If God was all powerful and all knowing, he couldn't be all loving or else he would do something to stop what was going on. If he was all powerful and all loving, then he couldn't know what was going on, or he would do something. So I accepted that God was all loving and all knowing, but had given up the power, as God gave up the power on the cross. We weren't helped because God couldn't stop what was going on, but God suffered with us, and perhaps that was enough. 35 years later, looking at the regeneration of the country of Vietnam, perhaps God has some power after all, and we simply had too short a horizon.
I grew up first in China and then in Southeast Asia -- farther south in Malaysia and Indonesia. My parents gave their lives to bringing new life to the people around them in both spiritual and other ways. For me to be part of combat in Vietnam, surrounded by Vietnamese, I really needed to blind myself to the awareness that these people looked very much like those for whom my parents had devoted their lives. Returning to Vietnam in a non-combat role, then, meant the freedom to take off the blinders and to reclaim a part of my childhood that I had had to shut away.
On the tour we had a discussion of the Vietnamesee concept of Que Houng (pronounced "Quay Hoong") which means the whole constellation of experiences of your childhood including both the place you were born and grew up and the memories of events at that place. What kind of person are you, the Vietnamese ask, if you become separated from your Que Houng?
Many Americans who have gone back have been inspired to do something to help Vietnam's people. Here is a list of efforts I have become aware of and will keep adding to:
- Global Spectrum, the travel agency that has worked with Sage Colleges to arrange these tours, has assisted with philanthropic projects such as the kindergarten described on the Mekong Delta page.
- My own denomination, the United Methodist Church, has worked with Vietnamese refugees in this country and is developing work in Vietnam. One article dated 2000 is on our General Board of Global Ministries site.
- Other veterans are helping to heal the wounds of war. The Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Healthcare System Podiatric Residency Program has organized a medical mission to Vietnam. The goal is to provide surgical care to crippled adults and children from rural Vietnam. Care will be provided at the Danang General Hospital. The program was initiated in 1997 through Patrick Code, DPM, and the Rotary Club of Medford, OR, and involves VVA Chapter 464.
- There were MIAs on both sides -- theirs even more than ours. The VVA Veterans Initiative is a project which may help resolve what happened to our MIAs--by helping the Vietnamese resolve what happened to theirs.
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Updated June 25, 2004