How small and sour-grapes our postwar punishment of Vietnam, our trade and diplomatic embargoes that keep the country in economic ruin. How self-punishing and miserly in American spirit are these policies. How much better it would be for our national pride if we offered this country our help, for it is we and those who threw in their lot with us who seem to dwell in needless quandary, who live lives punctuated by active resentments and pain.
Go visit Vietnam, I’d tell the troubled vets. Go visit, if you can, and do something good there, and your pain won’t seem so private, your need for resentment so great.
-John Balaban in “Remembering Heaven’s Face: A Moral Witness in Vietnam” (1991)
A few weeks ago, I received a book in the mail from Vietnam War veteran Paul C. Steffy. It’s a novel about a veteran who returns to Vietnam to “lessen his war grief and post-traumatic stress disorder” and to better understand a gift he received from an elderly woman during the war. Needless to say, it’s a topic that’s right up my alley and the book has found a good home on my bookshelf.
If you’re interested in reading Paul’s book, “The Good Soldier,” you can find it here on Amazon. Paul was kind enough to autograph my copy.
I just finished reading a fascinating article by Marine Corps veteran Benjamin Busch about his return to Iraq a decade after he served there. Busch first went to Iraq in 2003 to lead a light armored reconnaissance company. He served as provincial military mayor of the desert town Jassan, near the Iranian border, and was part of some early democratic efforts in the region. After leaving Iraq, Busch had a successful career as an actor and writer, penning a memoir about his time as a solider called Dust to Dust in 2012. Throughout his ten year absence, however, he wondered what had happened to Jassan and the people he had come to know there. So in December 2013 he returned to Jassan to find out, a trip that the US State Department emphatically tried to dissuade him from taking.
He told The Takeaway’s John Hockenberry what it was like to go back to Iraq:
It was very interesting, because driving through the country in 2003 I had been way up on top of a light armored reconnaissance vehicle. I kind of had viewed even the road from a position of height. And now I was in the back of a cab. I had lost all of my authority. I had grown a beard and I had gone in disguise as much as I could. I wanted to find out what they thought of me and us. The sad thing about Iraq, of course, is that they kind of have come to a point where the future is an impossible world. No one gets to live there. They’re living day to day. They really feel that as bad as things are right now, it will get worse.
Busch said that by returning to Iraq, “I realized finally my place in history.” I hope that other Iraq War vets will have the same opportunity in the years to come.
With the birth of my daughter at the end of October and the cold weather here in Chicago, I haven’t been getting out of the house much these days. Luckily, I received two books in the mail recently to keep me busy indoors.
The first is by Chicago author and veteran Rory Fanning — “Worth Fighting For: An Army Ranger’s Journey Out of the Military and Across America.” The book chronicles Rory’s journey by foot across the United States to raise money for the Pat TIllman Foundation and to find peace after fighting in Afghanistan. Rory was so moved by what he saw in Afghanistan that he become a conscientious objector to the war, so his perspective as a returned veteran is particularly unique.
The other book I’m currently reading is also a peace odyssey, but one set in Vietnam. Kent Hinckley’s novel “Hearts, Minds, and Coffee” takes place during the war and follows the story of one American soldier sent to a dangerous Viet Cong stronghold as punishment for his anti-war views. The soldier must “wage peace” with the Vietnamese people in the area in order to survive. Kent was so kind as to inscribe the book he sent to me:
What books are you reading this December? Are there any veteran or Vietnam-centered books you’d recommend?
I just finished reading Dana Sach‘s 2000 memoir “The House on Dream Street.” The book looks at Dana’s experience in Vietnam as an American in the early 1990s. While Dana was just a child during the Vietnam War, her curiosity about the people we once called enemies draws her to Vietnam and she spends much time in the book reflecting on the war’s legacies. During her year in Hanoi, she meets many individuals who were affected by the war — North Vietnamese veterans who lost limbs during battle, families whose homes were bombed during American air raids, and even a man who claims to have rescued John McCain after his plane crashed in a Hanoi lake.
Like so many veterans who return to Vietnam, Dana is constantly surprised by how Vietnamese people treat her as an American. Where she expects hate, she finds sympathy and respect. Where she expects conflict, she finds humor and good will.
In the following excerpt, Dana recalls a night out with two Vietnamese friends in Hanoi and how her understanding of Vietnam and the war changed during the time she lived there:
For those of you interested in reading more on Vietnam from Dana Sachs, she’s also published a volume of Vietnamese folktales and a nonfiction book about Operation Babylift and international adoption in Vietnam.
I took a break from writing my book proposal this week to attend the Chicago Humanities Festival’s event with novelist Gary Shteyngart. He was a true performer — funny and engaging — and I’m so happy that I got to meet him.
I wrote this week’s cover story for The Christian Science Monitor magazine. It’s a good preview of the book I’m writing about American veterans who have returned to Vietnam to work for peace. You can read the article online here, purchase a digital copy of the magazine here, or find a good old fashioned print copy at your local library or Christian Science reading room.
This week I saw journalist Eyal Press speak at the Chicago Humanities Festival. Press discussed his recent book, “Beautiful Souls,” about why some courageous individuals decide to stand up to powerful governments, militaries and companies. A lot of research has been done on why people do evil things, particularly in groups (see the Milgram and Stanford prison experiments). Yet, there haven’t been many studies on why individuals stand up to evil or wrongdoing. Press argues that the choice between obedience and disobedience is often more proactive than we think.
In his lecture, Press gave the example of Nazi SS Lt. Col. Adolf Eichmann, who was one of the major organizers of the Holocaust. Eichmann claimed that he was not guilty of any crime, because he was simply doing his job and following the law in Nazi Germany. Press reveals, however, that Eichmann made a series of choices in which he actively endorsed the Nazi regime. Eichmann chose to join the Nazi Party, when it wasn’t required. He chose to climb the ranks of the Nazi party, while others didn’t. And most damning of all, he made every effort to get the maximum amount of people into the Nazi death camps, even when fewer people would have satisfied the regime’s orders. Press argues that instead of illustrating the “banality of evil,” Eichmann demonstrates that everyone has a choice when it comes to immoral actions.
Press’ lecture reminded me of some of the conversations I’ve had with veterans in Vietnam about their decision to follow orders once they arrived in country. Some men told me about underground newspapers they wrote which protested the war and were distributed under the cover of darkness. One man told me about a small rally he participated in where he and some other soldiers shouted anti-war slogans inside a base. The soldiers who openly protested the war faced imprisonment in Vietnam and dishonorable discharge.
Certainly many veterans who served in Vietnam would call the men who protested Communist-lovers or worse. Yet, this is to be expected. Individuals who stand up to power make people uncomfortable, Press asserts, and rarely are they seen as anything but traitors. In order to see who is a traitor and who is a hero, we must make a moral decision that does not rely on authority for verification.
For more on the anti-war soldiers who served in Vietnam, I recommend John Pilger’s documentary below.
Last night I finished reading Monique Brinson Demery‘s fascinating biography of South Vietnam’s Madame Nhu. Known in the US as “the Dragon Lady,” Nhu was a pivotal figure in the early days of South Vietnam. She served as first lady in the Diem administration, although her influence went far beyond that of other first ladies of her day. She helped prevent early coups and spoke out against the US’s growing influence in the country. For her efforts, journalist David Halberstam called her a “beautiful but diabolic sex dictatress.” When President Kennedy authorized the overthrow of the Diem government, he said that Madame Nhu had forced his hand. She was just too dangerous to US interests in the region.
While history has largely condemned Madame Nhu as a villain in the story of the United States’ early involvement in Vietnam, Demery paints a more complex portrait of the Dragon Lady. Through interviews and archival evidence, the reader comes to know a woman who was determined to protect her country and family, even though some of her actions resulted in the contrary.
I got to meet Demery at her book release event in Chicago last month. I was struck by Demery’s age — she was born in 1976 — and the fact that she was one of the first people to really delve into Madame Nhu’s life. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the coup that killed Madame Nhu’s husband and brother, and it seems that it has taken that much distance to fully comprehend the first lady’s role in Vietnamese history.
As a young woman like myself, Demery has benefited from a generation of writing about the Vietnam War and advances in gender equality that situate Madame Nhu’s actions in the larger story of war in Vietnam. We can finally look past the derisive name-calling of the 60s, where journalists and presidents alike belittled Madame Nhu for being both strong and beautiful. With the benefit of hindsight, we can also see how Kennedy’s ordering of that 1963 coup helped usher in the Vietnam-US war.
Some stories can only be told in the moment. Others take decades or even centuries to reveal. The Vietnam War’s long shadows in the US demand our attention. I’m glad that writers like Demery and Nick Turse are digging deeper into the past to help illuminate our understanding of the war and its consequences.