This column is my first about a recent trip to Vietnam and Cambodia. History from that part of the world is deeply upsetting to many people. I struggle with guilt about my inaction regarding the Vietnam War. Other people have different struggles, many far worse than mine, but I can only tell my own story. This column was written before the trip.
The country that is highest on my husband’s bucket list is low on mine. But we have agreed to take turns choosing travel destinations, so I said yes to Vietnam. He has selected an itinerary I will enjoy (river cruise, including Cambodia) and I’ve agreed to sample lots of food.
My opposition, I know, is irrational. It’s based on old feelings from my vulnerable early 20s, feelings of remorse and sadness about the Vietnam War which, in Vietnam, is called the American War.
Every night as a young person, I watched the news on TV. Body counts. Protests. Students killed on a Ohio campus. More bombing. More death. Civilians from other countries drawn into the fray. Prisoners of war. Failure.
There must have been some positive reports, perhaps about rapport with Vietnamese allies or successful missions, but I didn’t hear because I wasn’t listening. Just as I had blinders on my side, people had blinders on the other side. Families who didn’t even have soldiers in Vietnam fought among themselves.
I don’t want to revisit all that anguish.
We lost 5,000 troops in Iraq but 60,000 in Vietnam. Vietnamese soldiers and civilians died, too, about 2 million.
I still shudder when I hear words like “napalm,” “agent orange” or “My Lai.” Memories well up of Americans calling the Vietnamese “gooks,” failing to rescue allies when the war ended and being unkind to our own troops.
I should have protested harder to get us out of Vietnam, as many young people did.
Instead, when protests happened, I cowered on the sidelines — and then felt guilty. I still do.
Since then, of course, the world has changed. Most Vietnamese today were born after the war. Most Americans were born later, too. Fences have been mended, diplomatic relations restored. Tourism to Southeast Asia is booming, and the word on the street is that the Vietnamese people welcome us to their country.
For all these reasons, I have agreed to go with my husband, but as the date of our trip approaches, I remain uncomfortable.
Then I hear from a friend named Dick Blair who, long before I knew him, served in Vietnam as a Navy pilot. He wants to know which part of the country we’ll see. Might it be near where he served? Would I like to meet and talk?
Surprisingly, I’ve never had a long conversation with a Vietnam veteran before. When I was young, I didn’t know anyone who served there. This was a matter of luck, because people around me were being drafted all the time, but not from my personal circle.
I agreed immediately to meet with Dick.
In the long, complex story of the war, he represents one tiny sample of what happened. He can be seen as lucky, because he returned to America physically and mentally intact.
But he must have faced great risk. He flew in a helicopter gunship squadron, the Seawolves, that provided close air support to Navy patrol boats and Navy Seals in the Mekong Delta. He was 23.
We sit down together, and from the moment he starts speaking, his positive attitude surprises me.
“I think it’s fantastic that people are going to Vietnam,” he says, smiling. “I’d love to do that.”
“But how do you feel about our relationship to Vietnam?” I ask.
“It’s good,” he says, “when you think about it. If we had won, the government might be marginally more democratic, but I don’t know that it would have come out much different.”
This is not something I have considered.
“Think of the alternatives,” Dick continues. “We could still be enemies. It could be too dangerous for Americans to go to Vietnam. Or we could be forbidden to visit.” Dick, too, has heard that the Vietnamese are remarkably forgiving. They’re welcoming tourists, and their economy is moving up fast. Capitalism is booming despite their communist rulers.
Dick picks up my guidebook and flips to a page describing the area where he fought in the Mekong Delta.
He reads to me out loud about “placid” villages and peaceful pagodas. The location is 60 miles from where he was stationed. “You would never have walked there,” he says, “because it was all so dangerous.”
I feel as if I was complicit while America abused Vietnam, but I don’t know if other people view our role so harshly or make it so personal. The Vietnamese, in particular, have recovered and made a good life for themselves, despite the scars.
I see now that I need to move off the mark, too. I’ve been holding onto my old view of Vietnam as if it were my deceased grandparent, preserved in memory as ravaged and helpless. But Vietnam didn’t die — it’s bursting with economic initiative — and America has changed as well, working to be kinder to vets, for example.
I need to change, too. I need to take this opportunity to get “unstuck” and learn more.
— Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org