The American War
It’s been a while, but when I was younger I had a somewhat re-occurring dream. I grew up in the 80’s during the time of the so-called ‘cold war’ but must have been influenced by war accounts from the second world war. I had an impending sense of doom but it was, strangely, coupled with images of a bygone era. The dream was of a sky filled with bomber planes…wave upon wave…dropping bombs relentlessly…and I was on the ground dodging them…quite successfully actually. Interestingly a scene from a Berlin metro station reminded me of that dream and now, being in Vietnam, I wonder about the dreams of those involved in the war that took place here.
History here is so much more tangible than say Europe where events took place in some distant past and have been tempered by time. The American War (as it is rightly called here) happened during my lifetime and, although I don’t directly remember it, I know that as I look at the people here that they do remember it…vividly. And I know that the people who came here to fight in the war also have memories of their time here.
As we rode the bus from the north to the south I tried to imagine what it must have been like during that time. During a tour of the Demilitarized Zone our guide told stories of what his 14 year old life was like at the time. Stories of soldiers with guns, of helicopters flying lowly overhead, of trying to convince security patrols that he wasn’t Viet Cong. Not stories that a 14 year old should have. He showed us areas that once were covered in jungle but that now are flat wastelands contaminated by napalm and Agent Orange – what must it have been like to watch the jungle fade away and be taken over by battlefields? What is it like now trying to farm that same land and seeing the effect of all those chemicals on family and friends over time?
The heat and humidity here is unrelenting, the jungle is thick and impossible to see through, the rivers are murky and full of unknown creatures and either the sun is shining its full intensity or the skies are opened and rain falls in buckets making everything a muddy maelstrom. I think of the foreign soldiers and wonder how they managed in this steamy, sweaty, soupy climate scrambling around in their combat gear with fear thick in their throats, knowing that the enemy has the advantage on their home turf.
The War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Min City (former Saigon) told the story through graphic pictures, sending home the horror of war with intense reality and, although the story was told from a Vietnamese perspective, the pictures were of Vietnamese and American soldiers and it was clear that what everyone went through was horrific beyond belief.
Visiting the tunnels where villagers would spend day and weeks fleeing the fighting makes shows how horrid it must have been to try and go about daily life. The sophistication of those tunnels makes me realize the tenacity they had to continue that daily life, farming up top by day and living below ground by night. Whole villages managed in tunnels like these with families spending their time in small nooks carved into the sides of the tunnels. It is unbelievably tight and cramped and the air must have been hot and stale but they managed.
Two things really surprise me about Vietnam. The first is that this country that so recently was ravaged by a war involving westerners would now open their arms to those same westerners. The same people that fought in the war, or saw it through their childhood eyes, are now welcoming us in, making us comfortable, learning our language, and smiling at us around every corner. There is a genuine sentiment of pride and happiness that the world now wants to see their country.
The second was that American war vets would want to return to a place that, for them, must be full of bad memories that would take them back to a time they may have spent a long time trying to forget. But they are here – they come to see old battlefields, to revisit old friends for whose side they fought while here, and maybe to leave the past behind. It must be a difficult journey for them and as I see them I wonder what is going through their minds.
The story told here about the American War is a little different from that that we learn at home, but it is not told with malice or ego but with with pragmatism and nationalistic pride. Every country has its own story, told its own way, with its own ending…the truth always lies somewhere in between.