Nobody Gets Off the Bus:
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Ed Henry gives every vet who goes back to Viet Nam with him a copy of the following essay. He makes them read it before they get on the plane. He says he wrote this piece after reading "a bunch of stuff about the 25th Anniversary of the Tet and Khe Sanh battles." What people need to understand, he writes, is that "we lost the war."
Twenty five years after the U.S. and the former Republic of Vietnam went through one of the most pivotal periods of the war with North Vietnam, the United States still suffers from what has been labeled as the "Vietnam Syndrome." We question again and again the final legacy of America's longest, and certainly most complicated, war. Academicians and armchair strategists engage in their parlor games of who won and who lost, who suffered and who didn't. Speculation and talk is cheap--points are made without a true point of reference. The reality of the national psychic cost is better understood when you consider that government statistics show that some 43 million Americans are connected (family-related) to the 58,000 names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. Statistically, we still have a huge section of our American population that needs to come to closure over the losses suffered in the Vietnam war.
The whole of the U.S., and especially its families were traumatized by a great loss of its sons and daughters in a war that lasted too long. Years after the fact, a huge segment of our population still questions the meaning of the loss. The truth is, no matter how many military "victories" we've seen since the end of the Vietnam war, or no matter how many presidential speeches have decreed that Vietnam is over with, we Americans seem reluctant to let go of this thing called the Vietnam Era. Library book shelves continue to gather more and more tomes extolling someone's new and final analysis of the Vietnam war and its aftermath. Psycho-babblers and media people scan the cracks of America to find the most weirded-out vets for Memorial Day and Veteran's Day interviews. All of it continues to perpetuate the myth that anyone who came back to America from the war in Vietnam is a screwball--and the psycho-babblers and second-year psychology students love every minute of it.
Speaking as a veteran, I served as a Navy Corpsman with the Marine Corps for six years. I know what the brutality of modern warfare can do to human beings. My family lost a cousin in the Vietnam war and so did my wife's family. Both of our families have a sacred and eternal connection to the Wall in Washington, and I can empathize with those families who paid the ultimate cost in the life of a son or daughter. I never though of the cost to the other side until I made my first trip back to Vietnam in 1988.
The Summer of 1988 I found myself in a village called Co Loa on the outskirts of Hanoi with two American vet friends. The trip up to that point had been a wonderful lark--just another great adventure. I had no idea I was in for a moment of insight, a life-change.
We were going through a very beautiful and very ancient temple complex with a young man who was well-spoken, yet by the sight of him, extremely poor. As he talked softly and we all walked through the village together, he did a strange thing: he turned suddenly and faced us, and said, "Your bombs killed my whole family in 1970!" He blurted the words out with an amount of controlled agitation. We were shocked and quiet and you could have cut the air with a knife. All of us sat beneath a tree. The young man poured some tea and we talked. I've never been the same since that day of discussion.
Many strange things have happened to me and in my life since my participation in the Vietnam war. Not all of them have been wonderful. It's almost as if an unknown force had driven me to that point in Co Loa twenty years and 30,000 miles later, through time and space. I was forced to begin considering the losses of the other side, and how much more these people had suffered than us. Four-hundred-thousand killed in combat. One-and-a-half million civilian casualties. Three-to four-hundred-thousand missing in action and never accounted for; all of these figures being estimates that I've heard or read in various American and Vietnamese reports.
I offer no apologies for us or them. For the rest of that trip my traveling partner Paul Lieberman and me talked about reconciliation--how we had to reconcile ourselves first and then our Vietnam veteran brothers and sisters, and then just maybe the rest of the world. As an upstanding and practicing Catholic, I am supposed to understand the full implications of reconciliation. I don't think ever truly understood it until that day in Co Loa, deep in the heartland of what we used to call the enemy. I learned on that trip to Vietnam and on subsequent trips, that the Vietnamese people had already reconciled themselves with the idea that America could not, or would not, forever be thought of as the enemy. In both of our countries a whole new generation of Americans and Vietnamese have grown to maturity who have no recollection of the war years. Only our older generations have any memories of it.
On a return trip in 1990, I spoke with a party official high in the ranks of the bureaucracy in Saigon. He was of my generation and as I spoke of the war years he interrupted me with, "When you American veterans are able to admit to yourselves that America lost the war, then true reconciliation will happen." I couldn't disagree with him and he knew it. I must have spent the next six months thinking about his comments.
The truth is, when you travel back to Vietnam you realize after a while that the older generation of Vietnamese have put the war behind them. The same sense of Vietnamese will that caused America's defeat is now focused on solving Vietnam's emotional woes. They have a national sense of "getting on with it," moving past the past. This national thinking is very much tied to their history which happens to be a couple thousand years older than ours. Why dwell on a minute time period in that unfolding history?
We will not be healed of the Vietnam syndrome until every American is willing to reconcile himself or herself with all that occurred during a dark time in America's history. Except for the U.S. Civil War, no other war was more divisive for the American public. And lest we forget the Vietnamese side, millions bled and died in the name of the national will. Buried ordnance, more than was dumped on all of Europe during World War II, continues to kill and maim and we may never know the destructive extent of the millions of gallons of herbicides we spread over the landscape of Vietnam.
Reconciliation will also have to take place among the millions of Vietnamese who have fled Vietnam during and after the war, as all of us, veterans, Vietnamese, American, and Vietnamese refugees, try to untangle our way toward normalization. The first and most important step is with us, the veterans. We have to release ourselves from our anger and bitterness and we have to release ourselves from past situations over which we had no control. We have to face our racism and we have to understand what drives it, so we can rid it from our belief systems.
Each of us has to give up--and forgive--and then move forward. The major step is to forgive ourselves, so the self-punishment and national punishment over the Vietnam war will cease.