As we’ve traveled through Southeast Asia, I keep trying to ignore it, but it’s everywhere:
THE VIETNAM WAR.
Our first conversation about it with a Vietnamese person, took place when a Vietnamese man at My Son, near Hoi An and Da Nang (once the DMZ) turned around in the little tourist shuttle bus and asked us where we were from.
John said, “The United States.”
“Oh! Oh!” He bounced up and down excitedly, “Bonanza!… Stah Twek!…” He paused and squinted, looking off into the distance, “Wiy-owd West!” He nodded enthusiastically. We smiled back at him. John said, “That’s true!”
Then the man gestured, bringing his hand to heart and said that he remembers the war.
“Dah G.I.’s so young, SO young.” He said getting serious very suddenly, “jus student…” John and I nodded back at him, not wanting to say the wrong thing in response. “Now gwampa!” He smiled broadly. He told us that some of the American soldiers he’d known during the war had come back recently to visit him. He held his fingers up to his eyes and drew them down his face to portray their tears when he met these estranged friends again after many years.
This was silencing for me. I knew that Vietnam would be a place that would silence me because I know very little about the details of this all important and awful war that is still within the scope of living people’s memories.
“Dah U.S. hehp us.” He said with seriousness again, “gooh peep-ah.” He nodded. And then, with his hands swinging like a conductor, he sang a little bit of John Lennon, “Imagee all dah peep-ah, livin life in pee…” And laughed.
“Yes!” I said and nodded and laughed with him, wondering privately how I could know so little about the war that had had such a huge impact on my parent’s generation.
My dad told me a few days ago that he’d had a conversation with a friend of his who’d been in Vietnam and Da Nang during the war. Recently, the man had returned to revisit Vietnam and my dad quoted him as saying, “It’s a beautiful place.”
As we passed from central to northern Vietnam, I rolled those words over and over in my head,
wondering what it would take for a place with awful memories attached to it to become beautiful. It seems to me that the wide chasm between traumatic and beautiful would be quite a terrifying span to bridge. I’m not sure and I’m afraid to ask the people who would know; like I’d be opening a can of scary monsters that have been sleeping soundly for decades.
Two nights ago, we watched Good Morning Vietnam. Last night, we watched Born on the Fourth of July with Lydian. I remembered vaguely that as a kid I’d watched that movie and I could hardly finish it. John and I told Lydi that it wasn’t really a “fun” movie to watch, (like Schindler’s List), but it was important, so she braced herself and took her seat on the couch next to us. On this, my second viewing, I saw something different in Born on the Fourth of July probably because I don’t have a crush on Tom Cruise anymore. The whole movie is a series of conversations gone awry. It’s about people not listening, not wanting to hear, not wanting to see the truth, or think too much. It’s about a series of very serious misunderstandings. And a bunch of young men who were sent off to war under a false pretense: protecting democracy and freedom.
What struck me is that this is still happening, but now, there are more therapeutic options for treating war trauma (kind of). Communism in itself is not a threat to the United States. In fact, modern Vietnam (a communist country) is an important ally of ours against China. We have a better relationship with unified communist Vietnam now than we had with South Vietnam before the war. These days, we fight many wars to prevent China and Russia (each representative of different breeds of communism) from gathering more allies (it’s ALMOST like fighting communism, or fighting for democracy…close enough, the politicians say). The United States hasn’t fought a war that was directly protecting our country’s freedom or democracy for many years, but still, Americans bought the rhetoric about democracy and freedom during the Gulf War and the Iraq War. Is there some reasons why the American public can’t handle the truth about reasons behind the wars we fight?
The wars we’ve been involved with from Korea onward have been more about protecting the interests of our allies, or our own fiscal interests, which has a peace-keeping function and a decidedly American agenda, but the spin is usually “freedom and democracy”. It’s not to say that the wars we’ve fought have not been useful or important, but just that they’re sold to the American public under a false pretense. It’s troubling to look this fact in the face. Is it really necessary for our government to lie to us about why we get involved in different conflicts throughout the world? The truth can be massaged and manipulated to suit the tastes of Americans, but does it need to be? It can also be manipulated by the Vietnamese for the Vietnamese, by the Indians for the Indians, by the Egyptians for the Egyptians and so on. I look down my nose at the propaganda I see in other, foreign countries and I call those governments corrupt for their “dishonesty”. But the U.S. is guilty of the same fraud. But then again, the public doesn’t demand the truth. The American public, like a newlywed wife, doesn’t want for her husband to tell her her ass is getting fat (even if it is). The public, like the new bride, prefers rhetoric. It seems every nation has a different version and a different rhetoric about this thing called Truth and within the social construct of their various societies, each is compelling (though none ever admit to the fatness-of-the-ass).
I’m not a fan of war, but I also know very little about it, so, as strange as it sounds, I’m trying to keep an open mind about its virtues. War seems to be part of the human condition, like it or not, so it must serve some function. After traversing a path from Bangkok to Siem Reap, Cambodia and onward to Da Nang, Vietnam and finally Hanoi, I have two big topics that I’ve been eyeing as the focus for a Long-Flight-Book-Download on my Kindle: Theravada Buddhism and the Vietnam War. There are others, but these are the two big contenders that pertain to Southeast Asia. Right now, I’m leaning toward Theravada Buddhism because with all the propaganda, spun new stories, and warped realities I’ve encountered on this trip from the Middle East to Vietnam, I keep thinking that maybe I don’t want to try to digest any more fluff by accidentally downloading a book that presents a skewed version of the war (on Kindle, it’s hard to really know what I’m getting until it’s too late). Maybe I should feed my brain something lighter and just try to figure out why Buddhists who are supposed to be completely unattached from all worldly things make giant Buddha statues, paint them in gold leaf, and then burn incense to them as a form of worship.
But then I have to remember that it’s a luxury to be able to ignore war; to sit in my armchair at home and watch the news passively, going about my life as though there were no wars anywhere in the world but, let’s face it, even the Dalai Lama can’t ignore war anymore. I’ve realized on this trip around the world that to learn about war, any war, I’ll have to brace myself to deal in-depth with two things: violence and lies. There’s no comprehensive story that tells the whole, unbiased tale. I’ll have to read many stories and then decide for myself what I think the truth actually is. I’ve heard Vietnam’s side of the story and already, I have two different points of view (the man with the tears and the prison with the propaganda). What scares me is that the truth really is something I don’t want to know about. The newlywed may decide that she’d rather have her husband’s honest assessment of her derriere, or she may stop asking for his opinion on such matters if he refuses to speak the truth. Either way, the facts are hard to ignore.