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My Vietnam War, 50 Years Later (Part Two)

Memory, Writing and Politics

While I have zero trauma from my Vietnam experience, as you may have noticed I have a pretty bad attitude about the military and the war itself. I also have a whopping case of survival guilt. One, because I made it home without a scratch. And, two, because I had it so easy. My thinking now is all wrapped up in atoning for what I’d call my moral cluelessness at the time. Most Americans not active in the antiwar movement were guilty of this moral cluelessness during the war and many still are guilty of it. Like the cartoon Sgt. Schultz from Hogan’s Heroes they keep it up by saying, “I see nah-thing!” It’s a failure -- more a willful refusal -- to recognize the tremendous suffering we caused the Vietnamese. We obsess on our own losses and our own suffering, our 58,000 dead on the wall in Washington. Not that we should not honor and mourn these dead; it’s that the Vietnamese lost so many more and suffered so much more than we did. And when distilled down to its essence, the war really makes little sense except as an expression of Cold War hysteria. We talk about “lessons” learned that never seem to really get at what should have been learned. Few dwell on the fact we slaughtered somewhere between two and three million Vietnamese and Indochinese people. And that’s not counting the immense destruction of infrastructure and upheavals in family life and the legacy of Agent Orange in the ecosystem and a host of other areas of suffering.

The author on REMF duty in Camrahn Bay barbequeing and drinkingThe author on REMF duty in Camrahn Bay barbequeing and drinking

I recall a very diplomatic, English-speaking veteran from the North making a tour of the US in the late 80s; our Veterans For Peace chapter in Philly hosted him. I was on local TV news walking him in the rain under an umbrella past the Philadelphia Vietnam War memorial. He was a good man and very moved. ROTC officers at the university I worked at saw me on TV with him and made it clear they found it disgusting that I had taken him there. Later, I saw video of this man in a gathering of US Vietnam veterans in New York. I watched him break down into sobbing over what seemed to me frustration with the lack of understanding or sensitivity in these men for the great suffering of the Vietnamese. In my reading of the scene, these men couldn’t see past the idea of “communist” and could only focus on their own pain. Maybe peer pressure worked against anyone extending sympathy to this alien man from halfway around the world. The pain of these men was no doubt very real, but it was dwarfed by the pain this friendly, forgiving man represented, a man who showed great fortitude and courage to travel halfway around the world alone to reveal himself in the midst of American culture.

story | by Dr. Radut