Here, my response to Ed Curtain’s latest piece: ‘Quoth the Vultures “Evermore”‘
Great emotional rattling, as always, Ed. Thanks. Cảm ơn!
I was in Vietnam in 1994 and 1996. Working on bat studies, transect of forest near the Laotian border. Age 36, with Brits. My old man was 36 in Vietnam, as a Big Red Army crypto-signal corps guy. He was shot after the bullet hit the Huey pilot dead eye between the eyes.
He surived. I interviewed many Vietnamese, but one woman who ran a Pho shop in Hanoi was really deep. She was an orphan in Hanoi in a Catholic run orphanage. She showed me some wounds on her arms from F-4 Phantom bombing runs. You know, the John McCain drinking hard in Thailand, looking for another prostitute while his family and wife back home worried about him (before he was shot down). I saw photos of the courtyard of this orphanage with the dead bodies of children and a few adult caretakers.
That in a nutshell is the War on Vietnam. The War on Everything.
You list a few wars, leaving out the war that has not been declared over — against Korea.
The three-year Korean War resulted in the deaths of three to four million Koreans, produced 6-7 million refugees, and destroyed over 8,500 factories, 5,000 schools, 1,000 hospitals and 600,000 homes. Over 36,000 American soldiers died in the war.
From air bases in Okinawa and naval aircraft carriers, the U.S. Air Force launched over 698,000 tons of bombs (compared to 500,000 tons in the entire Pacific theater in World War II), obliterating 18 of 22 major cities and destroying much of the infrastructure in North Korea.
The US bombed irrigation dams, destroying 75 percent of the North’s rice supply, violating civilian protections set forth in the Geneva Conventions of 1949.
The Korean War has been called a “limited war” because the U.S. refrained from using nuclear weapons (although this was considered). Yet the massive destruction of North Korea and the enormous death toll in both North and South mark it as one of the most barbarous wars in modern history.
More than 180,000 Chinese troops died in the Korean War, or what Beijing calls the War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea.
Oh, Douglas Valentine, talking about that piece of human stain, Ken Burns, and Propaganda Broadcasting System’s lies and more lies about the great balance of U$A and Vietnam in that CIA conducted “war”:
Douglas Valentine: Expectations for PBS/Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War” (2017)
Remember, calling people Cong was a racist PSYOP term of the Edward Bernays kind. They never called themselves Viet Cong.
The First Televised War was a book that proved that TV and those newscasts actually increased support for killing fields in Vietnam. You see, while in the country, journalists and videographers took hundreds and hudreds of hours of footage, but those Mad Men in TV turned deeply disturbing and telling and contextualized footage into one minute Dan Rather episodes.
U$A had already been preened to see war as a TV thing, with all those war TV series popping up during the killing fields of Vietnam.
I spent time with Ly Le Hayslip, and she was a keynote speaker at a 20th Anniversary of the Fall of Vietnam big event I organized in El Paso. She wrote When Heavan and Earth Changed Places, scripted into that Oliver Stone movie, Heaven and Earth. Her life, her struggle with mixed race children in California (you know, those woke ones called them spics and beaners and worse) as a divorced mother (from a US military white guy) and he dignity working to bring light to what the “war” meant to regular people is inspiring.
I was an English Department faculty, a communist, and when I worked with Robert Bly in Spokane when he read from a book railing against Bush’s war, he made it clear that the English Departments were the most vocally against his anti-War poetry.
He was soothing me in that I too was up against reactionary English Department chairs, many faculty and university provosts and deans.
Again, I was in Vietnam for more than a year, and I have studied the war for decades. I also was a college instructor at Fort Bliss (literature and composition) and at Fairchild AF Base and at White Sands and elsewhere. I got to know the heart and soul of many of those soldiers who did end up in Vietnam and then off to Salvador and Guatemala with the dirty tricks of the CIA/DoD/NSA.
As Valentine says, CIA is organized crime, but then so is the U$A. I’ve been with sicarios in Juarez and Chihuahua who have shown me more honor and respect than some of the ex-USA soldiers I met in Guatemala continuing the work of dirty economic hit men.
The Vietnam War heralded in eco-cide, PSYOPS, off shoring torture, attacks on food, water, electrical systems. This is where the proving grounds for US Military Complex Inc. really got a foothold.
And here we are today, with a military industrial complext that is vast and so imbedded in EVERYTHING that the average American is clueless that they have death coursing through their own veins and their future offsprings’ veins.
Joan Roelofs, author of The Trillion Dollar Silence, gives a run down at how pervasive US Military Incorporated is:
The Trillion Dollar Silencer investigates the astounding lack of popular protest at the death and destruction that the military industrial complex is inflicting on people, nations, and the environment, and its budget-draining costs. Where is the antiwar protest by progressives, libertarians, environmentalists, civil rights advocates, academics, clergy, community volunteers, artists, et al? This book focuses on how military largesse infests such public sectors’ interests.
“It is perhaps the most fraught question of our time, whatever happened to the anti-war movement? In this provocative and illuminating book, Joan Roelofs penetrates deep into the inner-workings of the vast political economy of war-making, revealing how the arms cartel has consolidated its power, captured our political system, infiltrated the media and stifled dissent. At a perilous moment in history, Roelofs has given us a call to action, loud and clear enough to awaken our anesthetized consciences.” JEFFREY ST CLAIR, Editor of CounterPunch, Author, Grand Theft Pentagon
Bruce Weigl in his tellingly brutal and straightforward poem, “Burning Shit at An Khe,” he describes in painful detail the repulsive task of cleaning makeshift outhouses:
I tried to light a match
And it all came down on me, the stink
And the heat and the worthlessness
Until I slipped and climbed
Out of that hole and ran
Past the olive drab
Tents and trucks and clothes and everything
Green as far from the shit
As the fading light allowed.
Only now I can’t fly.
I lay down in it
And finger paint the words of who I am
Across my chest
Until I’m covered and there’s only one smell,
Even more chilling is “Song of Napalm,” in which he tries to appreciate the wonder of horses in a pasture after a storm:
Still I close my eyes and see the girl
Running from her village, napalm
Stuck to her dress like jelly,
Her hands reaching for the no one
Who waits in waves of heat before her.
So I can keep on living,
So I can stay here beside you,
I try to imagine she runs down the road and wings
Beat inside her until she rises
Above the stinking jungle and her pain
Eases, and your pain, and mine.
But the poem continues, “the lie swings back again,” and finally:
. . . she is burned behind my eyes
And not your good love and not the rain-swept air
And not the jungle green
Pasture unfolding before us can deny it.
My short article, Call of Duty, about Bly:
Quoth the vultures “Evermore.”
On the short roof outside the bedroom window, two black vultures sit, staring in. They have come to remind me of something. I put my book down and peer back at these strange looking creatures. The book: Our War: What We Did in Vietnam And What It Did to Us by David Harris. I had read it when it was first published in 1996 and it has stuck with me, as has the utterly savage U.S. war against Vietnam that killed so many millions, what the Vietnamese call The American War.
I am of the same generation as Harris, the courageous draft resister and anti-war campaigner who died on February 6. Like him, many of us who were of draft age then have never been able to extricate the horror of that war from our minds. Most, I suppose, but surely not those who went to Vietnam to fight, just moved on and allowed the war to disappear from their consciousness as they perhaps tried to think of it as a “mistake” and to live as if all the constant American wars since weren’t happening. As for the young, the war against Vietnam is ancient history, and if they learned anything about it in school, it was erroneous for sure, a continuation of the lie.
But it was no mistake; it was an intentional genocidal war waged to torture, kill, and maim as many Vietnamese as possible and to use drafted (enslaved) American boys to do the killing and suffer the consequences. It’s Phoenix Program, the CIA’s assassination and torture operation, became the template for Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, CIA black sites, hybrid wars, terrorist actions, etc. up to today. Harris writes:
[that] . . . . “calling the war a mistake is the fundamental equivalent of calling water wet or dirt dirty. . . . Let us not lose sight of what really happened. In this particular ‘mistake,’ at least 3 million people died, only 58,000 of whom were Americans. These 3 million people died crushed in the mud, riddled with shrapnel, hurled out of helicopters, impaled on sharpened bamboo, obliterated in carpets of explosives dropped from bombers flying so high they could only be heard and never seen; they died reduced to chunks by one or more land mines, finished off by a round through the temple or a bayonet through the throat, consumed by sizzling phosphorous, burned alive by jellied gasoline, strung up by their thumps, starved in cages, executed after watching their babies die, trapped on the barbed wire calling for their mothers. They died while trying to kill, they died while trying to kill no one, they died heroes, they died villains, they died at random, they died most often when someone who had no idea who they were killed them under the orders of who had even less idea than that.
That’s the truth. Unvarnished. But such historical truth hurts to consider, for it reminds us that the belief in the U.S.A.’s good intentions is a delusion. The war against Vietnam was immoral, but even that word fails to grasp it. Pure evil is truer. And to consider that war on military terms alone, one must accept the fact the U.S. lost the war despite all its military technology.
Time, that truly mysterious bird, forces us back to the past as it perpetually opens to the future – all in the meditative present. I look out the window and think how each of us lives in the time circles of our days, morning till night and then the same again and again as these small carousels carry us like arrows to the day time runs out for us. Time is a circle and an arrow within a circle and . . . pure mystery. It encloses us. And when we are gone, as is dear David Harris, the circle game goes on and on as yesterday’s wars are resurrected today. An unbroken circle of human madness. Yet many carry on in hope because conscience calls. And now is all the time we have.
I am writing this on Ash Wednesday, the day Christians begin Lent and take ashes on our foreheads to remind us of our mortality – dust to dust. Six weeks later comes Easter, the Resurrection from the dead, the day of hope. Six circular weeks celebrated every spring within the circle of every year on a calendar that moves straight ahead with the clicking of the numbers. Death, hope, and resurrection, even as history suggests it is hopeless to stop wars. That the vultures always triumph. Yet many carry it on in hope because conscience calls. And all time is now.
Yes, I look out and the vultures’ gaze reduces me to a cataleptic state for a few moments. Then the thought of David Harris and his book on the table transports me back to the past, while my vulture visitors mouth the words “Evermore, Evermore” to remind me that the same war vultures are here now and are eager for prey in the future. They devour the dead. They have never left, just as the truth about the U.S. war against Vietnam has not, if one allows it to sink in. It is a lesson not too late for the learning, for the United States warfare state has continued to wage wars all around the world. None are mistakes. It would be a terrible mistake to think so.
Cuba, Iraq, Serbia, Nicaragua, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Chile, Indonesia, China, Afghanistan, Philippines, Yemen, Somalia, Russia via Ukraine, etc. – all intentional and all based on lies. It’s the American Way, just as it was for Vietnam.
Quoth the vultures “Evermore.”
Like David Harris, I refused to go to the war but the war came to me. When I became a conscientious objector from the Marines, I avoided killing Vietnamese but their killing by my countrymen has haunted me to this day. Unlike David, who was far more courageous than I, I didn’t go to prison, although I was prepared to do so. But I learned then, and have never forgotten, that my country is controlled by blood-thirsty vultures.
Flying back in time, I remember a conversation I had with a friend on the plane to Marine boot camp at Parris Island, that infamous torture chamber in South Carolina where boys are made into professional killers. I told him how confused I was since I hadn’t been raised to kill people. Actually the opposite. As a good Catholic boy, I was taught to love others, not to kill them. No one I knew ever said they saw a contradiction. Yet here I was going to do that. It was insane. I kept conflating the slogan “The Marines Build Men: Body, Mind, and Spirit” with the advertising jingle I grew up hearing from the New York Yankees’ announcer, Mel Allen, who would intone the sponsor’s (Ballantine Beer) slogan: remember fans “The Three Ring Sign: Purity, Body, and Flavor – So Ask the Man for Ballantine.” Then there was the Trinity, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost: let us pray; men built by the Marines; purity and impurity, body, God’s body, bodies denied and maimed, killing other bodies, “In the Name of the Father and the Son and… “ It all felt so bizarre and my mind was a confused whirligig of contradictions. What the hell was I doing on that plane, I thought. Whose life was it anyway?
October 6, 1966. Zippo Squads on CBS News, setting fire to peasant huts in Vietnam. When I was younger, a Zippo lighter seemed so cool and manly. Silvery and clicky, a cigarette in the corner of my mouth. A real tough guy. John Wayne or Humphrey Bogart.
These boys were on a flatbed truck with their plastic guns as they
presented themselves at a Veterans Day Parade
in Albany, Oregon in 1991. This parade was a few months after the U.S.
Military won Gulf War I, otherwise know as “Desert
Storm.” The people at the parade were overwhelmed with joy that the U.S.
had “ won ” another war. Little did they know
that the war was a slaughter. Like Viet Nam, the U.S. War Machine went
berserk with their systematic killing and
destroying infrastructure. Every time you buy a boy a war toy, you
trample his soul. In the film “ All Quiet On The
Western Front,” the key word in this title for me is the word, “ Quiet.”
Soldiers stayed quiet about the horrors of war, as
they were too traumatized to talk about it. The truth is never passed
down to the next generation. When it comes
their time to go to war, they are a patriotic blank slate. The
entertainment of violence in the United States is a
malignant disease. When boys come home from war, they stop growing
emotionally. PTSD is a state of being in
which the emotions have failed to grow to the stature of the intellect.
Without help, it is a slow death sentence.
Memories. That’s what vultures can do. One look and you are gone.
In the 1960s, things were simpler. Although there were many newspapers then, and people read much more, it was television with its few major networks that fixated people. Unlike today – when there is no military draft, the realities of U.S. wars are hidden from television viewers, and the internet is regularly scrubbed of the grizzly truth of our wars – in the 1960s, bloody images from Vietnam became a staple of the evening news shows. Harris writes:
We must not forget: it was a more simpleminded age, the information superhighway was still a deer trail, and network television was taken as reality, giving the folks back home a vivid, utterly riveting look at what some of their boys were going through, a kind of visceral access available to no previous generation of Americans.
To accompany those sights and sounds, the folks back home were also given a running explanation of what was going on from their government. And the latter created the war’s second front. Unprecedented visibility ensured that in this war, the government fought one war in the paddies against its NLF and North Vietnamese adversaries and another over the U.S. airwaves, trying to put the appropriate spin on events and convince America that there really was some important reason for going through all this. There wasn’t enough political support for the war to do otherwise, and television had too much impact. The obvious consequence was that Lyndon Johnson and then Richard Nixon spent a good deal of their energy playing to the cameras, just trying to make the war look like what America thought its wars should look like.
More simpleminded it may have been, but that so-called simplemindedness together with the visual imagery from Vietnam – despite all the government propaganda – did help turn many people against the war despite Nixon’s ruthless ability to keep it running so long.
Everything is different today, except for the propaganda and the wars. A look back to Vietnam is crucial for understanding what’s happening now, for it makes absolutely clear that the U.S. government has no compunction about killing millions of innocent people for its evil ends, whatever they may be.
Then, it would destroy a village in order to save it; today, it will destroy the world in order to save it. It is the logic of madmen in the grip of evil beyond description. Yet most people repress the thought that nuclear war is very close.
All the mainstream media headlines about Ukraine echo the U.S. propaganda about the American War against Vietnam. Just substitute the word Russian for National Liberation Front or Viet Cong. They are suffering extraordinary casualties. The tide is turning. “The enemy was being taught the hard way,” writes Harris, “that aggression does not pay. We were steadily destroying their capacity to fight . . . . Victory was just around the corner.”
It’s easy to laugh at the parallels until a vulture comes calling. The seeming unreality of their visitation is only equaled by the delusional nature of what passes for news today.
Quoth the Vultures “Evermore.”
David Harris was right about the 1960s when he said, “All that craziness had compromised the nation’s epistemology, rendering our accustomed patterns of knowing dysfunctional.” This is true a thousand times over today. If the ‘60s were simpler times, the digital internet revolution and AI have scrambled many people’s minds into a morass perfectly suited for today’s government lies. “Not only was it hard to know what was really going on,” he writes of Vietnam, “but it was even hard to know how we would know what was really going on if we stumbled over it.”
Then came a shocking surprise: the Tet Offensive that began on January 31, 1968 when everything became quite clear. This massive attack by the NFL and VC was “the mother of all such epiphanies.” All official lies were exposed and any prominent dissenter to these lies about the war had to be eliminated, thus Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated in quick order by the government that would go on for seven more years to wage its genocidal war against the Vietnamese and neighboring Cambodia and Laos.
That was long ago and far away, but it’s worth contemplating. No one knows what exactly is around the corner in Ukraine. But then, I didn’t expect two vultures to visit me with their warning.
I’m just passing on their message. Epiphanies happen. But so do cataclysms.
All time is now.
Although David Harris has died, he and the many others, such as Randy Kehler, who were caged in federal prisons for resisting the draft and opposing the war against Vietnam, live on to inspire us to believe that if we resist the warmongers, someday all free birds might chant in unison “Nevermore.”
Here’s their story, a revelatory film about David and those who refused the siren song of evil: The Boys Who Said No
2 thoughts on “How Many Wars, China?”
From a reader, a friend, a brother: Kelly,
I remember Vietnam, from when I was a kid. According to dad, joining the military was what would turn me into a man. Watched that war go on, with Cronkite, and Rather, and Reasoner. I became a huge Kato fan, when I was still innocent. He was different than me, but with a way about him, that made me want to be like him. Fuck John Wayne. Couldn’t stand that pussy, pretending to be a bully. The “Duke”? More like the dude – camel foreskin.
Yeah, dad, and uncle Ed, and uncle June (Adolph Jr.), and Uncle Louie (RIP), Well most of uncle June, that is. He came back from Europe, minus most of a leg, and with some permanent steel. All World War Two veterans. Uncle “Hub” didn’t go. They said he was too stupid, or retarded, too fucked up for their gang, anyway. I’m glad for him.
He was a screwed up, kind hearted uncle. Alcoholic, just like me. Seriously, switch bodies, and no one would hardly detect a difference!!!!! Worked his whole life in a paper mill, except for his off hours, when he drank old style beer. The unusual occasions when he’d have some brandy, or whiskey, I’d look out for my uncle Hub. From little kid, to trying to be a young man. Uncle Ed, one of returnees, would, occasionally, light off a pack of firecrackers, in gramma’s house. It was always when a lot of family was around.
Well, what do I know? I didn’t live there. Maybe this activity wasn’t unusual. Uncle Ed had to go to the nuthouse a few times. He was having a “nervous breakdown”, and he was “bughouse”.?????? I was in the woods, with dad, with a rifle in my hand, before I was even thinking about Vietnam, much less worried about it. All those years. I never hit a thing.
Now that I reflect on it, I’m sure glad there weren’t any birds up there, by them deer I was shooting at.
I’d have to go for target practice, in the off season. Couldn’t hit shit. Dad was not pleased………
Wish I would have told him, why Every year, eighteen, getting closer. I saw enough images to scare the shit out of me. Did I ruminate about what was going to happen, to me? Or, what I was going to do with that rifle they were going to put in my hands? Nah, not me. Never gave it a second thought. I’m shallow that way.
The atomic bomb never really scared me. It isn’t really the bomb that scares me now, either. It’s the people. Back then people didn’t scare me so much. Maybe I was just naive. Maybe people are more scary, nowadays. I’m sure lucky that it, kind of, ended, before 18 arrived. Although, by then, I might have been passed over on a, sort of, Uncle Hub, exemption. Screws loose.
The horrors, and hardships, that I am aware of, yet never had to endure, make me ashamed of my crybaby ass complaints. I’ve read, recently, that it’s not comparison, it’s perspective. Gonna need some practice on that. Hope I can get the hang of it. It makes sense. Sense can be hard to come by, sometimes. Or, so I’ve read recently. This was a beautiful, timely, piece, that you have posted.
Talk about perspective vs. comparison.
Ahh, 17 years ago!!!!! SHIT.
War and Peace In Vietnam
By Paul K. Haeder
Flying into Vietnam 10 years ago brought back the phone call my family received that my father had been shot by the Viet Cong. That was 1969, and I was a 13-year-old fighting schoolmates because I didn’t support the war in Indochina.
Even before the cold announcement that my father had been severely wounded carrying cryptographic equipment in a Huey, I knew the United States was wrong to be in Vietnam. Something about the mythology of war, invisible dominoes, never repeating history.
Now, flying over the mossy forest, a patchwork of clouds, and the glimmer from hundreds of flooded fields and winding rivers, I felt like I was about to drop into a dream.
The stiff green uniforms and yellow star on red background of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam suited the hard-faced immigration soldiers at Hanoi’s airport. There was panic in the air from mostly Vietnamese workers and businessmen deplaning from Moscow. Our group was scatterbrained from the long flights from London to Moscow to Pakistan to Hanoi. We were researchers being treated like tourists, our gear dragged by young blokes looking for hotel commissions.
Most of the Vietnamese on the streets hustling us for cyclo rides (three-wheeled pedaled push carts) and hawking imitation Swiss army knives, Rolex watches, Zippo lighters and U.S. dog tags were young men. This was a testament to one of the world’s highest population growth rates (2.5 percent) and to burgeoning under- and unemployment rates (40 and 20 percent).
As soon as we boarded the bus, cutting through rice paddies tended by women in conical hats, surrounded by teary-eyed water buffaloes and frenetic ducks, I knew I was in another world.
It felt like Vietnam instantly. I could almost taste the explosives in the air.
Scientific expeditions into Third World locales evolve into a weird mix of wanting to be open to a culture and attacking it with these disassociations. With Vietnam, there was emotional baggage and the statistics of war:
– 2 million civilians killed in the north, 2 million in the south;
– 1.1 million military casualties; 600,000 wounded;
– 58,183 Americans (eight of them women) killed;
– 3,869 fixed-wing aircraft and 4,857 helicopters lost;
– 15 million tons of ammunition expended;
– 2,000 Americans and 300,000 Vietnamese missing in action.
So many millions of acres of rain forest and mangroves were destroyed. More than 6 million lives were lost from 1954 to 1975. America introduced the concept of “ecocide” — warfare on the ecology — that still affects each new generation with carcinogenic and mutagenic dioxin from herbicides in human breast milk.
But I hadn’t come to Vietnam to unload a war catharsis.
“The war against America has little relevance in the minds of the people today, as opposed to how people in the U.S. feel about it,” Gene Reddic, a copy editor in Hanoi with the Vietnam Investment Review, told me.
“They don’t live it everyday … the Vietnam war does not conjure up B-52’s bombing Hanoi, and they don’t see Americans as evil people,” he added.
I felt alone for much of the time I worked in Vietnam, and not only because I was the only American in a group of 23 British, Canadian and Vietnamese scientists.
It wasn’t separation from familiar surroundings that stirred the feeling, or the fact that we were bivouacking for three months in primary rain forest — a cloud island, really, and hundreds of miles from Hanoi, just a few clicks from Laos. The raw primal rain forest we had come to study as a part of an international biodiversity project wouldn’t account for the strange separateness I would be feeling. My isolation came from being an American in a sea of Vietnamese — more than 83 million of them in an S-shaped country the size of Italy but with a per capita annual income of just $270.
It has one of the world’s highest population densities for any agricultural country. And then there is the “onslaught.” The 1986 economic reform program, known as Doi Moi, or “open door,” has brought an incredible Westernization — not only of Hanoi’s storefronts, but in the mindset of the people who find themselves actually desiring Western capitalism.
There is almost a lust for the new life, with disregard for tradition, spirituality and the environment.
I felt like an intruder — big, burly, full of extra calories, my dollars gold. I was an American returning with my father’s ghost haunting me.
Many of us have the “secondary Vietnam aftershock”: episodes with friends who had been to Vietnam now self-medicating with drugs, booze, violence. I have taught Vietnam draftees at community colleges — students with faraway gazes who couldn’t cope with festering emotions. All the land mines at home.
“I have buddies who did the tunnel-rat thing, the deep jungle sapping,” said Brian O’Connor, a 42-year-old Ohioan who was swapping stories at the Apocalypse Now bar in Hanoi. “But you have to remember, most of the servicemen were not in combat zones. I had two tours, and I fell in love with Saigon — no bullets. Just the occasional knifing or bottle bomb.”
Almost 3.2 million Americans, including more than 7,000 service women, served in Vietnam during America’s one and a half decades here. Around 80 percent were rear echelon or support; less than 20 percent ever saw combat.
“It’s still something talked about in our schools in Germany,” said Petra Buchbinder, a 24-year-old German traveler and backpacker who has been working as an English teacher in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and Hanoi. “Almost nothing about Hitler and the Third Reich, but much on the fire bombing and My Lai massacre. When I see Americans over here, I wonder if that one or this one fought here … and what they must have seen, or what dark horrors they carry with them.”
Buchbinder said after 18 months living in Saigon and Hanoi, she’s developed a “sixth sense” about foreigners. “I am 90 percent correct when I try to guess if he is American, if he has seen combat here.” It’s the look in their eyes, she insisted.
I had to press hard to get older folk — 40 or older — to talk about the war. In Hanoi, Hue and Vinh, people didn’t want to broach topics of combat duty or flights from carpet-bombing.
However, south of the Ben Hai River, the zone area along the 17th parallel that demarcated the war (DMZ), many spoke of killing Viet Cong. Others lamented how they had lost and been shuttled to reeducation camps set up by the communists after “the victory.”
Quang Tri, Cam Lo, Rockpile, Lang Vay and Hamburger Hill are just a few of the places these South Vietnamese fought at, places that saw bloody battles and ended up on television in America’s living rooms.
They had done hard labor in camps, and now they’re working the streets for big tourists to pay 50 cents for long rides on their cyclos. Others are street sweepers or sledging boulders.
I saw older women working on road gangs, hauling boulders and hot tar and baskets of sand. “The pro-Americans, the elite, or sympathizers were stripped of jobs, impoverished, received no education,” Reddic said. “Those that held land were basically evicted and singled out for reeducation.”
Because the north didn’t suffer as much from the Americans, compared to the south, a lot of tension exists between the north and south.
“The north fears the south breaking away. The south was more enterprising,” Reddic said. Of course, during the war, the U.S. government pumped in billions that built up infrastructure and provided capital for private and public works projects.
The war with America may have pitted the south against the north, but Vietnam has been at war with invaders for more than a thousand years. “The Vietnamese have a history of always protecting themselves, always throwing out the big guy. Like China, Japan, the U.S.,” said Tim Carr, a New York journalist who worked in Hanoi for two years.
An owner of three cafes — including the Memory Cafe, a hot spot for expatriates and foreign travelers looking for rental bicycles, motorcycles and tours around Hanoi — 37-year-old Tam Hang recalls B-52 bombing raids against Hanoi in the early part of 1970 and then three years later.
“I saw my aunt and uncle and friends laid out on the street when we were finally let out of the bomb shelter at school. There were thousands lined up and covered with sheets during just one attack. I still remember the sound of the bombs. I don’t forget the war, the smell of rotting flesh, but I am not against Americans,” Tam said.
Vietnam wants Americans back. This is true of the north, which saw some physical damage from American warplanes, as well as the south, which received the bulk of 13 million tons of bombs and tons of napalm and white phosphorus, as well as most of the 20 million gallons of Agent Orange sprayed on millions of acres of forest, cropland and mangroves.
When I was singled out of our group as an American, dozens of people, young and old, anywhere — in Hanoi’s old quarter at cobra and dog meat stalls, or at Buddha pagodas along the banks of the jade-tinged Perfume river in Hue, or in Con Cuong, an outback town full of loggers — would seek me out for handshakes and embraces.
They bowed and shoved to get a closer look. They measured my wrists and ankles. They stroked blond forearms hairs, bowed as if I held some prominence, and always laughed.
The younger ones wanted to know how much money I made; how much my diver’s wristwatch cost; why I was in Vietnam; what kind of car I owned. Others, older with war-weary eyes, tried in broken English or French to tell me their exploits. They secreted envelopes addressed to relatives living in the States and stuffed them into my pockets.
North Vietnam was victorious in the 15-year war with America, although “Uncle” Ho Chi Minh wasn’t alive to witness it.
Victory shows in crumbling buildings and ox-carts towing dung and human waste (night earth) for subsistence farms, and smoky Russian buses ferrying dozens of passengers crammed among blocks of tea leaves and live pigs and duck along Vietnam’s potholed roads built by the French and the United States.
Those first two weeks in and around Hanoi, we prepared to make the plunge into a bio-dome where rare Asiatic elephants, Javan rhinoceroses and a newly discovered species, a bovine called the pseudoryx, roam.
It was here where I was rushed with images of a rural country permanently sunk by “victory.” A country now overhauling itself daily, overloading itself with Japanese electronics and American clothing trends.
I was taken aside by expatriates who told me about yet-unexplored Buddhist temples. Surfers right out of the “summer of love” traced my maps showing me where the best waves where hitting China Beach. Vietnamese businessmen bought me syrupy, sweet coffee, pitching ventures for exporting jade or importing computers. Scientists making $50 a month asked me to send them Western books on entomology and taxonomy.
So many changes are taking place in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City weekly. The streets are a riot of bicycles, motorcycles and trucks. And time is running out to preserve the environment and study the few pockets of relatively untouched territory left.
And yet the concept of “biodiversity” is foreign, treated like a guided missile from the West. Even the word “conservation” barely made it into Vietnam’s lexicon a few years ago.
“You’d be in the same position if you exchanged shoes with us,” said Cao Vang Sung, deputy director of zoology and ecology for Vietnam’s Institute of Ecology and Biological Resources. “People need to cut wood for food and medicine. Biodiversity from your Western point of view forgets to look at the overall effects of a country’s living standard.”
I kept asking myself what I was doing here trying to collect data on this country’s mammals, plants, insects, ethnic minorities. It’s so poor, so backward, so unreceptive to outside help, so paranoid about foreigners.
A poet friend from Cleveland who had been a Vietnam vet put it best: “We spent so much time and money and lives to topple that country, and now Americans are going back 25 years later to help restore a country it helped destroy. It’s crazy, weird.” Schizophrenic.
“All these wars have put the Vietnamese into a short-term mentality … turning everything into a commodity — trees, animals, women and children,” says Reddic with a sigh.
Support struggling communist writers, buy my story collection, fiction:
Publication date: 04/28/05