Recently, I was invited by Professor Susan Schnall to address her class at New York University studying what is referred to as the “Vietnam War” by Americans and the “American War” by the Vietnamese (I guess nomenclature is a matter of perspective). Also to speak was Le Hoai Trung, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam’s ambassador to the United Nations. My credentials warranting the invitation were, I guess, twofold. First, by an accident of nature, I was born during a time of paranoia and frenzy in a nation that feared Communist ideology as an existential threat and saw Vietnam as the domino that must at all cost remain standing. Second, being a child of immigrants dutifully instilled with an appreciation and love of our new homeland, I embraced a patriotism as exemplified by John Wayne, heeded John F. Kennedy’s admonition to ask not what my country can do for me, and decided that what I could do for my country was to enlist in the military and fight the Communist hordes there in Vietnam rather than here on the streets of San Francisco.
The ambassador’s credentials, as I saw it, were also twofold. First, by a similar accident of nature, he was born in the city of Hanoi and came of age at a time when American aircraft routinely sought to free the Vietnamese people from Communist domination by bombing what was then termed “North Vietnam” back into the Stone Age. Secondly, despite having endured the horror of America’s unsuccessful attempts at liberation and its aftermath of economic sanctions and embargo, the ambassador completed his Ph.D. law degree and assumed a variety of political positions within the government of a unified Vietnam.
Though, as a member of Veterans For Peace and a philosophy professor with a focus on war and ethics, I have often discussed my impressions and insights about war and its aftermath in the classroom, at conferences and with civic groups, I had never had such discussions with someone who had been my “enemy.” Consequently, I must admit I was a bit apprehensive. Intellectually, I realized that this apprehension was irrational, that the ambassador was no longer my enemy – if he had ever been – and that the war is some 40 years gone. But in that other aspect of my being, the psyche, the emotions, whatever, the war endures and the passage of time is irrelevant. Though the ambassador is a trained diplomat and has spent many years negotiating with representatives of the government that had destroyed his country, killed and injured his countrymen, perhaps even members of his family, I wondered whether, at some level, he has ever entertained similar concerns and apprehensions when speaking to someone who had been his enemy.
The discussion began with a PowerPoint presentation by Professor Schnall that highlighted the devastation inflicted upon the people and the countryside of Vietnam by the American military machine of which, of course, I was a part. She spoke of the use of napalm and the defoliant Agent Orange – an issue of particular concern to Professor Schnall, a national board member of the Vietnam Agent Orange Relief and Responsibility Campaign. She concluded her presentation by showing heart-wrenching images of birth defects suffered by children born of parents exposed to dioxin.
A Feeling of Personal Responsibility
Though clearly it was not her intent to prompt such emotions, as I approached the lectern for my presentation, I felt embarrassed and personally responsible for the death, destruction, injuries and deformities suffered by the Vietnamese people, particularly the children – many of whom were born long after the war had ended. I began by introducing myself as having participated in the Vietnam War, during which I was charged with the responsibility of preserving the lives of some 30 young Marines, average age about 19, a task inevitably entailing the injury and deaths of other human beings who happened not to be Americans but Vietnamese.
The ambassador began by describing growing up in an environment of death and destruction, of living in constant anticipation and fear of B52 attacks. He spoke of the devastating physical, psychological and emotional injuries suffered by his countrymen and women, so many of them civilians. I spoke of experiencing such “Arc Light” bombing strikes from a safe distance, feeling the ground tremble as though from an earthquake, and being comforted by a realization that no enemy could possibly survive such carnage. More than 7 million tons of bombs were dropped on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, more than twice the amount dropped on Europe and Asia during World War II.
The ambassador commented on how the people came to prefer overcast and rainy weather to the beautiful sun-drenched days of their tropical paradise because inclement weather grounded the bombers and provided the people a brief respite from the unrelenting attacks. I described the apprehension I felt during the rainy monsoon season when close air support and medical evacuation became difficult if not impossible.
Contrasting Images of “the Enemy”
The ambassador spoke of how during his military training he was taught not to hate the enemy but to differentiate the warrior from the government that sent him to kill and to die. He learned to understand the awfulness of war and to prefer peace. Though perhaps counterintuitive from an American military perspective, I found the ambassador’s comments quite credible. I spoke of being conditioned to kill in boot camp, to regard the enemy as the embodiment of evil, as non or subhuman, of never referring to the Vietnamese as persons, but dehumanizing them as “gooks,” “slants” and “dinks.” I remembered embracing the illusion, the mythology of war as honorable, noble and necessary and going to Vietnam not to kill human beings but, perhaps naively, to exorcise demons and check the spread of the Communist menace.
As he spoke, the ambassador’s admiration and respect for his country’s political and military leadership and for the Vietnamese people was apparent. He noted their perseverance and willingness to suffer great personal hardships during the long struggle for national liberation and in enduring the profound economic challenges imposed by severe American sanctions following the war. I spoke of becoming profoundly disillusioned as the mythology I had embraced crumbled and the immorality, futility and waste of the war quickly became apparent. I remembered the disappointment and resentment I felt, and perhaps still feel, as I realized that I had been misled, lied to by my political and military leaders and abandoned by my fellow Americans, a deception and indifference that ultimately cost the lives and well-being of many of my comrades both during the war and afterwards.
The ambassador spoke of the tragic long-term disabling effects of Agent Orange spraying on both the ecology of Vietnam and on the Vietnamese people. He expressed his gratitude to the many American veterans, such as Professor Schnall, who are assisting his government to provide medical and rehabilitative assistance to the tens of thousands still suffering its debilitating effects. I spoke of having no idea, at the time, of the toxicity of dioxin and recalled bathing in bomb craters filled with Agent Orange-tainted rain water. I spoke about how we came to regard the Vietnamese landscape as hostile, of waging war against nature, preferring an Agent Orange-defoliated moonscape to the lush, tropical jungle that provided concealment for ambushes and snipers. Between 1962 and 1971, as part of its chemical warfare program Operation Ranch Hand, the United States sprayed over 20 million gallons of Agent Orange, Pink, Blue and Purple over Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos – destroying some 5 million acres of forest and 500,000 acres of crops. According to the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 4.8 million Vietnamese people were exposed to Agent Orange, resulting in 400,000 people being killed or maimed, and 500,000 children born with birth defects. I spoke of my own government’s years of denial regarding the connection between Agent Orange exposure – dioxin poisoning – and the many serious illnesses suffered not only by the Vietnamese but by US servicemen and women. I remembered my grief, anger and frustration at the loss of friends and former comrades who succumbed to Agent Orange-related illnesses.
Vietnamese Have Put the War Behind Them, but Have Americans?
Finally, the ambassador spoke of how, in his view, the vast majority of Vietnamese have put the war behind them and reconciled both with former American servicemen and with fellow countrymen and women who had supported and/or fought for the American-installed government in the South. In closing, he expressed concern whether Americans have also achieved such closure regarding the war, whether we have come to grips with the experience and moved on with our lives.
I found the ambassador’s final question disconcerting as it required that I look into places I was not prepared to go. In response, I spoke about how, in my own case, I have accepted personal responsibility for my actions. How, despite my efforts at atonement and retribution through activism – working for peace, speaking out and educating the public, particularly young people, about the realities of the Vietnam War in particular, and the nature of war in general – my participation in the war remains a source of profound moral pain, i.e., of remorse, guilt, and shame. I spoke of my frustration with my country’s unwillingness, even today, to admit the truth about its involvement in Vietnam and its continuing effort to alter history – to portray the Vietnam War as noble and necessary and we who fought it heroic. I spoke of my disappointment with many of my fellow veterans, who should know better but choose instead to embrace the mythology – thinking, hoping that accepting the illusion of noble cause and personal heroism would somehow placate the demons that still haunt them today. It is clear, therefore, that unlike our Vietnamese counterparts, Americans have yet to achieve reconciliation. Nor have we as a people realized an inner (or outer) peace, as we cannot heal from illusion or go on with our lives until we face the reality of what we did, or what was done in our names.
Though little was said that evening that was new and not already painfully clear to many who fought in Vietnam or who read honest accounts of the war written by commentators like Howard Zinn, Stanley Karnow or Oliver Stone, meeting the enemy face-to-face and hearing the experiences of someone personally victimized by the war brought home the criminality of my “service to country,” the extent of my culpability, and the insidiousness of the mythology of nobility and heroism. Such dialogue, though certainly disconcerting, is crucial for healing and to achieve the reconciliation of which the ambassador spoke. We must end our denial, rationalization and mythologizing of war. We must face our demons head-on and confront the realities of what we did and what we became. Such dialogue is crucial as well to raise the awareness and outrage of the American public regarding our continuing criminal aggression in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, etc. Perhaps most importantly, such dialogue between prospective enemies lessens the likelihood of war by making apparent the humanity of the other. With that realization, like Paul Baumer, Erich Maria Remarque’s protagonist in his seminal novel All Quiet on the Western Front, I felt the need to seek my “enemy’s” forgiveness.
Comrade, I did not want to kill you … But you were only an idea to me before, an abstraction that lived in my mind and called forth its appropriate response. It was that abstraction I stabbed. But now for the first time, I see you are a man like me … Now I see your face and our fellowship. Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony. Forgive me comrade: how could you be my enemy.