Last week I attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the opening of a new exhibit at the San Diego Veterans Museum and Memorial Center: Vietnam — A Retrospective on the 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War. I was the invited guest of a United States Navy disabled Veteran who served in the “brown water navy” and was awarded a Purple Heart for injuries he sustained March 1, 1968, when his PBR was blown up by a mine and hit by a rocket. I’ll call him Joe (not his real name).
There were many Vietnam Era Veterans in the audience, including three South Vietnamese nationals. When they were introduced, I had the first of many gut-wrenching responses that continue until today, some 24 hours after the event itself.
As I sat there, I felt such shame that the United States had brought dishonor to these three gentlemen and their homeland. Forty years after the fall of Saigon, and I was embarrassed for what my country had done to theirs – or failed to do for theirs, depending on one’s perspective. That shame has been gnawing at me.
So I did some research.
From another longtime Navy Veteran who served in Vietnam, I’ve learned that, back in the day, the San Diego Veterans Day Parade included French and Russian Veterans of WWII who were living in the area, and that today’s parade regularly includes Veterans of the South Vietnam military. The San Diego Chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America has intentionally reached out to non-US Veterans of war as a gesture of goodwill and healing. This makes some kind of sense to me.
I’ve also learned that as a part of the US Vietnam campaign, a significant number of United States naval assets were turned over to the South Vietnamese Navy beginning in Fall of 1968. The South Vietnamese Navy, as it turns out, seems to have had some North Vietnamese sympathizers in the ranks – not uncommon based on other books I’ve read including John Stryker Meyer’s “Across the Fence,” – and some of these assets were turned against the United States.
Joe, my Navy Veteran friend, has knowledge of some of the events where American forces confronted their own ships and weapons in the hands of South Vietnamese forces they thought were friendly, so you can imagine his response to the presence of South Vietnamese Veterans in the audience.
The paradox is that offering dignity to our former brothers in arms is noble AND righteous resentment towards those of their countrymen who turned against us is warranted.
I just can’t square the two truths. That’s the second gut-wrencher.
The third happened when we were invited in to view the Vietnam exhibit.
My uncle was a B-52 pilot during most of the Vietnam Era. Although San Diego is primarily a Navy and Marines town, all branches of service are represented in the Museum’s Vietnam exhibit, and the Air Force was pictured with the usual photos of planes in flight and massed on the ground. For the first time I could picture where my Uncle spent much of his time during those years – years when he would record cassette-tape letters home to his family and mine.
Normally I wasn’t allowed to listen to those tapes, but one time when my parents were out I listened to one. My uncle describes a night bombing mission over Hanoi – probably one sortie from the famous Linebacker operations ordered by President Nixon that Christmas. Many of my uncle’s buddies were shot down by North Vietnamese SAMs (surface to air missiles) and it was obvious from his voice that his expectation of survival wasn’t great. He was so concerned for his crew; they had narrowly missed being shot down that night when a SAM flew within feet of the cockpit. I can’t recall anything he said verbatim, but I got a clear feeling that his emotional goodbye to my dad – his brother – might very well be his last.
There is a picture in the exhibit of more than a hundred B-52 crew members during a briefing. I strained to find my uncle in the photo and couldn’t – there were so many bombers operating at that time – but it brought back the memory of hearing his voice on that tape, and along with it, all friendships I have and have had with Veterans of that era. Were there people in the photo that knew my uncle? Were these some of the buddies he lost? It hit hard – the third gut wrench of the afternoon.
As we left the Museum, Joe told me how proud he felt to have been a part of the afternoon – the group photo of the Vietnam Era Veterans, the camaraderie of being with buddies he hadn’t seen in years, the bonds that tie combat-wounded and battle buddies together for a lifetime. There were tears in Joe’s eyes when he told me how good it felt to finally be accepted for what he is and has done.
Joe emailed me today saying that he hadn’t slept as well as he did last night in years.
I, on the other hand, couldn’t sleep. It’s been 24 hours of hellish confusion – mental and emotional.
I’ve talked with a few people about it including Joe. There’s not much sense to make of such things.
Vietnam, and perhaps all United States military excursions since, seem to be futile. Maybe it’s about an old-fashioned response (war) to a new-fangled problem, but even the problem escapes the boundaries of clarity. We can bemoan the political mushiness behind such campaigns, or rankle against the possibilities that things aren’t what they appear to be (how did World Trade Center Three actually collapse, let alone the twin towers?), but that seems wrong-headed in the light of history.
While the United States had some objectives in Vietnam, one of them was clearly NOT defending our homeland on our own soil. Our South Vietnamese brothers, on the other hand, were doing precisely that, and might have been successful with our assistance had not the United States media projected as fact what was mostly fiction. But even that perspective is debatable. As are many facts and fictions in military operations since, right up to today.
All of this does nothing to relieve the pain in my gut.
The only way I can resolve this is to offer words from someone wiser. Among his other contributions, Albert Einstein observed: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Without punning on military intelligence (which I do NOT feel is the issue) or political stupidity (which might be), is it not time that we paid some attention to Einstein’s notion of sanity?
We – that is, most of the “free” world – isn’t doing so well responding to the brutal hurtful people who live here. For many reasons, our response to the brutal and hurtful must be meted out politely instead of dealt decisively. That response is, by Einstein’s definition, insane.
It’s been more than 50 years of insanity, actually.
Peace? Overwhelming force? I don’t know.
I don’t know what the sane response must be, but I do know that another 50 years of what the free world is doing in the Global War on Terror (or whatever we are calling it these days) won’t stop the thugs from looting and pillaging, whatever their reasons for doing so.
What I do know is that I don’t want to sit beside people who once fought alongside me – from my country or another – with shame in my heart for having failed the mission. I don’t want to find myself an enemy by association. I prefer to wage peace with strength, but my real impact extends only as far as my family and friends.
I will do what I can. Perhaps if you do so as well we can make a difference. We aren’t the first ones to think so and we won’t be the last, but isn’t it past time that we made the effort?