Looking for Resistance, Reconciliation, & Di An: a US Veteran in Vietnam
Steve Morse is an activist with Veterans for Peace and the GI Rights Hotline Network. Steve returned to Vietnam in early 2007 and sent Peacework the following -travelogue.
Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), formerly and sometimes still called Sài Gòn or Saigon, seemed to spread out endlessly kilometer after kilometer, with humble businesses, pho stands and morning multitudes filling both sides of the street, as we headed north to the little village of Di An. Signs in Vietnamese captivated me, and I decided to resume the rudimentary and informal Vietnamese language study I had begun 36 years before, at least enough to learn what some of the signs say, how each letter is pronounced and how to vocalize the tones.
The Legacies of the US War Against Vietnam
Yet my memory of the "little village of Di An"from 1970, when I was among the enlisted men visiting the Service Club at the end of its one street, was out of date. Now it seems part of greater HCMC. As part of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, I was stationed in Di An when I wasn't in the field. For some reason, the US Army had pronounced it "Zee Ahn,"close to the way their enemies in the North pronounced it, but different from the "Yee Ahn"pronunciation of their allies in the Saigon regime of the South.
Now on my second day "in-country,"my wife Mar'a, our tour leader from the US, Minh Hoa, and two others from our delegation joined me in looking for Di An. It took the driver a bit of time to find someone old enough to remember the base's location. Viêt Nam is an old country whose capital Hà Nôi will celebrate its 1,000th anniversary in 2010, but it is a country with a young population: most Vietnamese were born after the American war.
As well as I could determine, the site of the former base had become a base of the Vietnamese military and a site for sweatshops. As I approached one of three entrances to the base, the soldiers had no smiles and wanted no picture-taking. Di An is close to Long B"nh, former site of the only Army stockade in Viet Nam, which GI prisoners burned down in a revolt in August, 1968. Low-wage factories producing export goods are now centered around these places.
We left Di An for the War Remnants Museum in HCMC. It is a sobering place with Tiger Cages (tiny cages used by the former South Vietnamese government to torture its perceived opponents), and stark photos of people scarred by napalm and suffering from Agent Orange poisoning. Travelers from the US should not miss it.
Outside the museum, I bought a Lonely Planet guide to the Vietnamese language from a man with one arm, felt the heat of the December noonday sun, and hired a moto to take me back to the Rex Hotel. During the American War, the Rex had hosted the Five o'clock Follies, so called because the Pentagon briefings bore so little connection to reality. It recalls an era when war reporters for major media could be irreverent and still keep their jobs.
The sumptuous breakfast buffet at the Rex - my first Vietnamese food ever in Viet Nam - reminded me of our privilege in Viet Nam as US people, the losers of the war. Our group was unmistakable as "Americans"even as we embodied certain kinds of diversity that we saw among neither tourists nor residents. The 10 of us included gay and straight; our collective heritage is from China, Iran, Mexico, Africa, Viet Nam, and Europe. I wondered how the locals perceived us, or whether they paid much attention.
Resistance and Reconciliation
Our guide in the South for the week, Dung (pronounced "yoom"), is a handsome, intelligent, and humorous man. Born in 1976, he's part of the Vietnamese baby boom. As we walked through the Buddhist monastery in Da Lat, Dung seemed quite willing to talk about the corruption in Vietnamese society, a safe topic. He was circumspect, however, when I asked him about dissidents and the current government. He expressed hope in the leaders about to come into power, quite an indirect way of saying that all is not well with the current set-up.
Back in HCMC, a few hours before our flight to Hanoi, Dung and I got to talk more deeply about our personal stories. The previous family of Dung's wife's father had all been resistance fighters; his first wife and their three children were all killed by napalm. Traumatized, Dung's father-in-law was sent by the Viet Cong to a camp for rest and rehabilitation, and he married the woman who nursed him back to emotional health. These are the parents of Dung's wife. Dung's own father had worked for the government in the South. He spoke of the reconciliation between people on both sides of the war that had taken place within his own family - and in countless others.
I told Dung of being part of the resistance movement to the war among soldiers, about being imprisoned in the stockade for distributing anti-war literature on base, being sent from there to Viet Nam. Despite the uncertainty, danger, and ambiguity of my position, I chose to go, because I thought I could have some effect against the war among soldiers. I told him that while five members of my troop had been killed in Cambodia during the twelve days I was there, we had experienced almost no combat in Viet Nam. I told him of being sent back to the States from Viet Nam for being a dissident after four months of my year-long tour. Dung hadn't met any US veterans who had been dissidents, but knew of the GI resistance movement from the War Remnants museum. (For more on my GI resistance work in Vietnam, see my article in CCCO's 50th anniversary issue of The Objector)
I was the only veteran among our group. I had guessed right when anticipating the trip would be intense, but not traumatic. The hardest thing for me about the Vietnam war has always been the indifference to war, its consequences and its victims (including veterans) by many US people, and so I was frustrated when there were members of our group whose focus on shopping trumped interest in Vietnamese culture or the war.
Yet I kept my balance with Mar'a's support and by watching and appreciating Minh Hoa, with a deeper stake in this country than mine, mentoring us as she had done with other students on many other trips. She negotiated the language and culture for us while negotiating and embracing her own connection to a country from which she had been forced to flee in 1978 as a "boat person."Her family escaped the country when Vietnamese government propaganda attacked the ethnic Chinese community, using them as scapegoats for societal ills.
Minh Hoa was a child in Saigon during the war, with a typical dread of the Communists. Her mother, however, believed in service and brought food to political prisoners of the Saigon regime. Over a period of time in the US, she re-evaluated her anti-communism, and realized that the real-life problems of the Vietnamese immigrant youth she worked with were not addressed by the frozen dreams of the right-wing Vietnamese. She became a lightning rod for anger in the right-wing Vietnamese community.
Healing the Wounds of War
Vietnam veterans have been returning to Viet Nam for a long time, both as visitors and for service. The Vietnam Veterans Restoration Project has brought teams of veterans to work with Vietnamese people in the construction of health clinics and schools. This was ground-breaking in 1989, but currently has more symbolic than practical value, since Vietnam has plenty of construction workers who are generally more skilled at building in Viet Nam than are aging US veterans.
It's more useful when veterans bring access to resources that the Vietnamese don't have. Chuck Searcy has lived in Viet Nam for 12 years and has headed up efforts to find and detonate land mines, and to create a workshop making leg braces for the land mine victims. Chuck states, "For me, it's an opportunity to pay back the Vietnamese people and, in a way, to honor some of my friends who died in Vietnam."
Other groups of veterans have brought wheelchairs and prosthetic devices to Viet Nam. US veterans and the Vietnamese, including the government, have collaborated on Agent Orange issues, such as the suits that both groups have brought against Dow, Monsanto, and other chemical manufacturers. This collaboration has taken place both in Viet Nam and the US.
Lee Thorn, a Navy veteran who had loaded bombs that were dropped on Laos, started the Jhai Foundation to help rural Laotian people market their high quality coffee in the US. Jhai has also brought Internet technology, education and sustainable development, and is a reminder that US devastation in the region included Laos and Cambodia as well as Viet Nam.
I had met Suel Jones at Veterans for Peace conventions, and spent an evening with him in Hanoi where he has lived for seven years. An easygoing native Alabaman, he fought with the Third Marines near the DMZ. He's been active in Friendship Village, a community started by US veterans especially for Vietnamese children disabled by Agent Orange. Suel has been active in bringing together North Vietnamese and US veterans for dialogue (with translation) and healing. An original motivation for him was such a session with a North Vietnamese veteran who had been in combat in the same time and place that Suel was: they could well have been shooting at each other, and they ended up laughing about it together.
Suel said the Vietnamese government has hardly admitted or dealt with the problem of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder among its veterans.
US veterans' tours back to Viet Nam have become a niche market for tourism. These are often valuable and healing for the US veterans, and Viet Nam needs the tourist dollars. Yet, they run the danger of being another form of US-centrism, just as is true when even progressive anti-war folks use the word "Vietnam"not to refer to a country in the present, but to US involvement in a past war.
Exploitation and poverty are widespread in Viet Nam, as was true in 1970. Viet Nam won its independence at great cost. Yet the new society so many Vietnamese fought for hasn't come into being, partly because of widespread corruption, partly because of the strangulation Western powers imposed from the time the revolution succeeded in 1975 until the Vietnamese agreed in 1986 to allow foreign investment. In spite of all this, I was pleased to travel in a Viet Nam not under military attack by a foreign power. My quest for the site of the US base at Di An was in order to see that it was no longer there.