My essay on the return of veterans to Iraq was published in Guernica Magazine today. You can read it here. And if you’d like to see some more photos taken by Marine vet Benjamin Busch, you can check out this feature in the War, Literature and Arts journal.
When I was in Hanoi this summer, I visited Friendship Village, a community founded by an American veteran in the early years after the war as a symbol of peace and reconciliation. Thanks to the continuing support of American veterans and their families, the village has since grown into a large residential school and medical center that serves 70 Vietnamese veterans and 120 children affected by Agent Orange.
The village is run by Director Dang Vu Dung, a North Vietnamese Army veteran of the US-Vietnam War. He served in Quang Tri Province starting in 1972 and was tasked with ensuring that the North Vietnamese troops had enough food. After retiring from the military, Dung came to Friendship Village and met American veterans for the first time.
“I discovered that American veterans are very friendly,” he told me when we met. “American veterans and North Vietnamese vets now work well together. We’ve closed the door on the past and opened the door to the future, and we have become friends with each other.”
When I asked Dung if he had any negative feelings toward the American people after the war, he said no.
“During the war, I knew that there were people in the US protesting the war in Vietnam. The US veterans were very young and forced to come to Vietnam by the American government. But they didn’t understand much about Vietnam.”
One of those Americans protesting the war was George Mizo, the American veteran who first conceived of Friendship Village in 1988. George volunteered for the Army at age 17 and became the youngest sergeant in the US military by the time he was 19. He eventually made his way to Vietnam, where he was wounded three times. George became disillusioned with the military’s mission in Vietnam and the Army’s treatment of Vietnamese civilians. After recovering from his battle injuries, George refused to return to Vietnam and was court-martialed. He spent the next two years in a military prison.
But George’s experience in Vietnam was far from over. Thirteen years after the fall of Saigon, he made his way back to Vietnam, determined to make a positive difference there. He said of the trip: “The horrible experiences during the war and the suffering of everybody on all sides inspired me to do something that would be a living symbol of peace, reconciliation and hope.”
After extensive discussions with Vietnamese veterans along with peace activists from France, Germany, Japan and the United States, George’s “living symbol” — Friendship Village — finally opened in 1998.
Sixteen years on, the students and veterans at Friendship Village are thriving. Three students have gone on to college after graduating from the school. Despite the challenges the students face in getting admitted, one student I met told me that he hopes to go to university and become a writer someday. Others will use their new skills to find jobs as hair stylists and artisans in their communities back home.
While George passed away in 2002 from an illness linked to his wartime exposure to Agent Orange, American veterans and their families continue to be involved in the village today. Veterans like Don Blackburn are members of the village’s international board and spend time raising money for the Vietnamese students and veterans who rely on the village for support. Additionally, the village hosts a large roster of international volunteers and interns who do everything from paint murals in the classrooms to teach the students math and photography.
When I met up with Don last summer, he read for me a poem he wrote after visiting Friendship Village for the first time in 2005. “In this village, humanity makes a stand,” the poem goes. “Here, in the eyes of the stricken who survive, / in the hearts of those who work and give, / I see a reason to hope, dream, and live.”
The poem — entitled “For Friendship Village” — can be found in his book “All You Have Given: Meditations on War, Peace & Reconciliation.” A portion of the proceeds from the book benefits Friendship Village.
After visiting the former demilitarized zone in Vietnam in June, I spent some time with the staff of Project RENEW in Quang Tri Province. RENEW — which stands for Restoring the Environment and Neutralizing the Effects of the War — was co-founded by US Army veteran Chuck Searcy and works today on the issue of unexploded bombs in the region just south of the DMZ.
Due to heavy fighting in the area during the war, Quang Tri is the province most affected by unexploded ordnance (UXO) in Vietnam today. Project RENEW believes that 60 to 65% of the province’s land is contaminated with UXO. These bombs, which failed to explode when they were first dropped in the ’60s and ’70s, have become de facto land mines and can be incredibly dangerous when discovered.
The US military estimates that 10 percent of the bombs they dropped during the war failed to detonate. Considering that the US dropped more bombs on Vietnam than what was dropped on Japan and Germany combined during WWII — the explosive equivalent of 450 Hiroshima-size atom bombs — this is no small number.
With support from Norwegian People’s Aid, Project RENEW is working to make Quang Tri Province safe by educating the public about the dangers of UXO and systematically finding and destroying ordnance.
To understand more about their work in Quang Tri, I met Nguyen Thanh Phu at the organization’s Mine Action Visitor’s Center in Dong Ha. RENEW opened the center in August 2011 and offers school groups, tourists and visiting dignitaries educational tours on UXO.
The center showcases a wide variety of unexploded bombs, including the dangerous bomblets that are packed into cluster munitions. Phu told me that cluster munitions and M79 40 mm rifle grenades cause 45% of the injuries and deaths in Quang Tri today. Both the bomblets and grenades are small and can look like toys to any children who find them.
The Vietnamese students who visit the center learn how to identify unexploded ordnance and what to do if they find any wartime bombs. The education program seems to be working: RENEW runs a hotline for reporting discoveries of UXO and has seen calls substantially increase in recent years.
Visitors to the center also learn about RENEW’s bomb disposal work, which is led by their explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) teams. When a piece of UXO is discovered, one of the teams is dispatched to the area to assess whether the ordnance can be safely removed. If they decide it is too dangerous to touch, the team will destroy the ordnance on site, as depicted in the diorama above. If it appears relatively stable, however, the team will move the ordnance to their central demolition site where it will be destroyed at a later date.
Since it was founded in 2001, RENEW has also worked with the survivors of bomb explosions to regain their mobility and financial independence. RENEW provides survivors with 2,000 to 3,000 prostheses each year. The organization also started a mushroom farming program that gives survivors the equipment and skills necessary to grow mushrooms at their homes. The mushrooms are later sold at market.
After visiting the Mine Action center, I went with Phu to RENEW’s central demolition site to see the work of an EOD team first hand. Last year, RENEW’s EOD teams safely removed and destroyed 2,882 UXO in Quang Tri and cleared ordnance from 133 acres of land.
At the site, team leader Mai Van Viet showed me the many precautions the team takes before a demolition. All visitors must sign in when they enter the site and provide the team medic with their contact information and blood type. An emergency response vehicle is on hand in case there are any problems. And all cell phones must be put in airplane mode in case the cell signal accidentally triggers one of the old bombs.
All ordnance brought to the site is stored in a dump until they are ready to be destroyed. Conventional UXO are stored in a dry dump, while phosphorous bombs are stored underwater to prevent any accidental explosions.
Once the team is ready to destroy the UXO, they move the ordnance from the dump to the center of the demolition site.
Multiple bombs are destroyed at once. On the day I visited, the team was detonating several naval artillery shells and white phosphorous bombs (like napalm) — all of which were launched by Americans during the war.
Sandbags are used to muffle the explosion and prevent debris from flying when the bombs are detonated.
While I was there, the EOD team set up two detonations — one for conventional bombs and one for phosphorous bombs. The phosphorous bombs in particular require a lot of high explosives, since the teams must destroy both the bomb’s casing and booster.
Once the explosives have been laid, everyone moves to the set watch posts which are 500 meters away (1/3 mile) away from the planned demolitions.
Even from such a distance, however, the demolitions are impressive. When the phosphorous bombs are detonated, they shoot clouds of fire into the sky.
After the demolitions, we wait for the all clear before moving to the center of the site. In the distance, I can hear the booms of other explosions. RENEW’s Colonel Bui Trong Hong tells me that it’s the Vietnamese military practicing nearby at one of their bases. With the recent fracas between China and Vietnam in the South China Sea (or as the Vietnamese call it, the East Sea), the military is preparing for the possibility of an armed conflict.
“The Vietnamese are peace lovers, but we are always ready to fight,” Hong says with a grin.
Hong is the most experienced deminer at the site today — he is certified to level 3 in the International Mine Action Standards and replaced RENEW’s international technical advisor. He is also a veteran of the Vietnamese military and fought with the North Vietnamese military near the DMZ during the war.
When Saigon fell in 1975, Hong was one of thousands of people recruited to clear land mines and bombs from much-needed farmland. Their methods were primitive by today’s standards: often they would just stand in a line and use long bamboo poles to poke the land in front of them to find ordnance.
The difference between those early efforts at clearance and the work at Project RENEW is stark, with everything from the technology to the people involved changing.
“Today at Project Renew, we have North Vietnamese veterans working alongside the children of Viet Cong vets – like myself – and an American veteran,” RENEW’s Phu tells me. “All of us are working together.”
After the demolitions, I go with Phu and Hong to visit a UXO victim who was one of the first people to receive help from Project RENEW. Do Thien Dang lost both his legs when he stepped on a land mine in 1980 while gathering thatch in a field. Dang says that he was traumatized by the accident, which occurred when he was just 20 years old, and it took him a full three years to recover. He eventually got married and got a job selling lottery tickets on the street, but it was difficult work because he had to travel everyday.
Then, in 2003, RENEW gave him a “hanging house” to grow mushrooms on his property. The house has given him some financial independence and he can now work from home. RENEW has provided 194 families with hanging houses since they began their mushroom farming program.
Last year, Dang was able to bring in 5 million dong ($236) from his mushroom-growing business. In the dry season — when growing mushrooms is not possible — Dang builds bamboo stands for floral arrangements, which he sells at $1 a piece to local florists.
When I ask Dang if he remembers meeting US veteran and RENEW cofounder Chuck Searcy, he smiles and nods.
“I really appreciate and am thankful for what Chuck as a vet has been doing here for our country and especially Quang Tri,” Dang says. “Chuck brings support for me and for others who are very much in need in Vietnam.”
The National Veterans Art Museum has posted more photos from my event there earlier this month. Check out the images here.
When I was in Vietnam in June I visited the former demilitarized zone, which once separated North from South Vietnam. The DMZ would have turned 60 this year with the anniversary of the 1954 Geneva Agreement, which divided Vietnam into two states and laid the groundwork for the Vietnam War.
During the war, the region saw fierce fighting including the Battle of Khe Sanh in 1968. By the time Saigon fell in 1975, only 11 out of the 3,500 villages in Quang Tri Provence south of the DMZ remained intact.
Today, monuments, museums, and rubber plantations have sprouted in the former battlefields. In order to get a better sense of what the DMZ was once like, I hired a tour guide to take me the length of the zone — from Dong Ha in the east to the Laotian border in the west. My guide, Tran Hoa, was a veteran himself. He was conscripted into the South Vietnamese military and served there from 1974 to 1975.
Our first stop was the Route 9 National Cemetery, which houses the remains of over 12,000 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese fighters. Many of these fighters died while traveling down the so-called Ho Chi Minh Trail, the clandestine network of roads used by the North to infiltrate the south.
There are 72 war cemeteries in Quang Tri Provence alone and many of the bodies buried there have yet to be identified. Since the fighters died far from home, there often wasn’t family members or friends around to claim the dead. Hoa told me that some families have now decided to use DNA analysis to find their deceased relatives. Others resort to more ancient techniques and consult psychics to tell them where their family members are buried.
West of the cemetery lies the remains of Camp Carroll. The US Marine Corps used the camp as an artillery base during the war since it had a clear view of the nearby hills and valleys. Today, however, you can’t see much from the camp — trees from a rubber plantation obscure the view.
The cement platforms on which the artillery used to stand remains at the base, as do scraps of sandbags from the war.
Further west along Highway 9 is The Rockpile, also known as Thon Khe Tri. The Army and Marines used it as an observation post during the war. Because of its steep sides, the only way on or off The Rockpile was by helicopter.
The Han River travels from the South China Sea westward along Highway 9. During the war, North Vietnamese forces had to ford the river in order to continue southward on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Today, however, the Dakrong Bridge makes crossing the river easy. Cuba initally funded the building of the bridge in support of North Vietnam’s war efforts.
Before the war, the region south of the DMZ was home to abundant wildlife and natural forests, as well as a strong ethnic minority population who built their homes on stilts to protect against tiger attacks. The fighting during the war, however, killed or scared off the native tiger population and the environment was further decimated by the use of defoliants like Agent Orange.
The forests are now growing back — though they are not nearly as lush as they once were — and ethnic minorities have returned to their traditional homes. Hoa tells me that the village in the valley near Khe Sanh got electricity only three years ago.
Near the western edge of the DMZ are the remnants of Khe Sanh Combat Base, a Marine Corps outpost. After the brutal 1968 battle here, in which North Vietnamese troops surrounded the base for 77 days, the US abandoned Khe Sanh and destroyed or removed all of their equipment and buildings.
When American veterans started to return to Vietnam in the 1990s and asked to visit Khe Sanh, the Vietnamese government realized the value of the old base. They transformed the abandoned piece of land into a tourist destination, building a museum and bringing in old American tanks and helicopters.
Veterans who visit the base might be disappointed to learn that the museum is filled mostly with propaganda; one photo from the 1968 battle is captioned “US marines shutting themselves in bunkers for fear of their own shadows.” Like at so many war museums in Vietnam, it’s clear here that history is written by the victors.
Hoa tells me that he’s taken many American veterans to the former DMZ since he became a guide in 1992. He says that he was surprised at just how emotional a journey it is for some former soldiers.
“Many Americans are scared of the Vietnamese people,” Hoa explains. “But when they come here, they find out that the Vietnamese are friendly. When they learn how much the Vietnamese suffered during the war, they often apologize for the war. But I think that’s just war. People suffered in World War I and II and in Korea and Iraq and Afghanistan.”
“We have had too many wars with too many countries,” he continues. “Before the US, we fought France, and before them, we fought the Japanese, Chinese and Mongolians. And it wasn’t just the US who participated in the 1965-1975 war, there were also the Australians and South Koreans. So we think the US war is just one small war and that the US is just one of the many countries we have fought.”
Across the street from the former Marine base, is one of Khe Sanh’s many coffee farms. The arabica beans grown in the region have transformed the former conflict zone into a booming coffee town. Still, the war is never far from the farmers’ minds. Just this April, a coffee farmer lost both his hands when he found a leftover bomb from the war and it exploded at his touch.
In my next blog post on the DMZ, I’ll look at one of the organizations in Quang Tri addressing the issue of unexploded bombs and landmines today. Project RENEW was cofounded by American veteran Chuck Searcy and is a great example of how former enemies are working together on a deadly legacy of the Vietnam War.
Nearly fifty years have passed since the My Lai massacre, but many Vietnamese in Quang Ngai Provence are still suspicious of or even hate Americans today. US Army veteran Mike Boehm‘s Madison Quakers, Inc organization is trying to overcome those negative feelings and build friendship and understanding between Americans and Vietnamese in Quang Ngai.
Mike started working in the provence 20 years ago when the Quang Ngai Women’s Union asked for his help in starting a micro-credit loan project. He partnered with English professor Phan Van Do and together they have developed a wide range of humanitarian programs in the provence. Mike estimates that MQI has raised and donated over $1.5 million to projects since the organization began.
When I visited Quang Ngai last month I got to see some of their work, including a series of water wells in Nghia Tho village. The people who live in the village are from the H’re ethnic minority and more than 69% of the population live in dire poverty.
Previous attempts by groups to build wells in the area failed because of the hard bedrock, which kept the wells empty during the dry season from May to August.
Through hard work and persistence, MQI was able to overcome this problem by drilling through nearly 300 feet of granite to reach a constant flow of water. Do says that thanks to the wells, thousands of people now have ready access to clean water.
The United States sprayed Agent Orange and other herbicides in Quang Ngai during the war, and these chemicals are continuing to affect the people living in the provence today.
I visited a school run by the local branch of the Vietnam Association of Victims of Agent Orange (VAVA), which MQI has donated to in the past. The school currently has an indoor playground with physical therapy machines, but MQI is trying to raise money to build them an outdoor play area as well.
A Vietnamese proverb states: “For a profit in ten years, invest in trees. For a profit on a hundred years, invest in children.” MQI took this to heart when they built the My Lai Grammar School. When MQI first visited the site where the school now stands, it was just an empty field with a few houses. Now, it it home to the most popular primary school in the area. It has three buildings with a total of 16 classrooms. US Army veteran Hugh Thompson — who helped stop the My Lai massacre — donated money so the school could have indoor bathrooms.
While there are many war memorials in Vietnam, until recently there have been no places dedicated to peace and healing. MQI worked with the Vietnamese government to build the My Lai Peace Park so that people had a place “to visit and remember the past and hope for the future.”
Hugh Thompson along with Larry Colburn — a member of Thompson’s helicopter crew who intervened in the My Lai massacre and helped save civilians — attended the groundbreaking ceremony for the peace park. Along with some of the Vietnamese survivors of the massacre, the veterans planted the trees that line the road to the peace park.
One of MQI’s biggest projects has been building “compassion houses” for very poor families in Quang Ngai. These simple cement houses often replace ramshackle structures, which would fall apart during typhoon season.
I visited one family who is in need of a compassion house in Tinh Giang commune. The head of the family is a single mother and she told me that she’s worried that her house might collapse and hurt her two children. MQI is now working with her and they hope to build her a new, safer house soon.
The difference between an old house and a new compassion house is stark.
Where wooden planks and corrugated metal once provided shelter, new homes have cement walls with separate rooms, glass windows, and metal doors.
MQI still works closely with the Quang Ngai Women’s Union, who help Mike and Do identify families in need. I visited one family identified by the Women’s Union that was able to purchase a female water buffalo through a micro-credit loan from MQI. The buffalo has given birth to a calf and is pregnant once again. The family told me that if they sold the buffalos today, they could get $1,500 for the mother and $700 or $800 for the calf. The is a substantial amount of money for the family and will make a major difference in their lives.
If you’re interested in learning more about Mike and Do’s work in Quang Ngai, please visit their website. There, you’ll be able to watch the award-winning documentary The Sound of the Violin in My Lai, which features Mike, and learn how to donate to their projects.
Note: This post contains some graphic descriptions and artist renditions of the My Lai massacre.
While in Vietnam, I visited the My Lai massacre site in Quang Ngai Provence, central Vietnam. The site is now home to a large complex of gardens, sculptures, graves, remnants of homes, and a museum.
Along with the Tet Offensive and battles at Khe Sanh and Ia Drang, the My Lai massacre is one of the most well-known events of the Vietnam War. On March 16, 1968, a task force of the Americal Division of the US Army marched into Son My Village and killed between 347 and 504 unarmed civilians.
Much of what we know about the massacre today comes from helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson who, along with his crew, tried to stop the killing and saved the lives of at least 10 civilians. While Thompson reported the massacre to the US military, it wasn’t until November 1969 that the American public learned about the atrocity through the reporting of Seymour Hersh. The village was marked as My Lai on US military maps, so the atrocity became known as the My Lai massacre.
In their excellent investigation Four Hours in My Lai, writers Michael Bilton and Kevin Sim describe the importance of the My Lai massacre as such:
The massacre at My Lai and its subsequent coverup stand in the history of the Vietnam War at the point where deception and self-deception converge. If the Tet Offensive of 1968 had mocked America’s complacent expectation of an imminent victory, My Lai’s exposure late in 1969 poisoned the idea that the war was a moral enterprise. The implications were too clear to escape. The parallels with other famous massacres were too telling and too painful. My Lai had been on the same scale as the World War II atrocities at Oradour in France, and Lidice in Czechoslovakia, outrages which had helped diabolize the Nazis. Reports now suggested that, if anything, the behavior of the American troops had been even worse. Americans, who at Nuremberg had played a great part in creating the judicial machinery which had brough the Nazi monsters to book, now had to deal with a monstrosity of their own making. (1992, pg 23)
The different manner in which Americans viewed the World War II and Vietnam “monstrosities” was apparent in the months following Seymour Hersh’s articles. While the media focused on the “very normal young men” — average age 20 — who had been transformed into heartless killers by the war, not much attention was given to the Vietnamese killed in the massacre. As journalist Jonathan Schell explained in the The New Yorker in December 20, 1969:
When others committed them, we looked on the atrocities through the eyes of the victims. Now we find ourselves, almost against our will, looking through the eyes of the perpetrators.
Today, the My Lai site in Quang Ngai looks at the massacre through the eyes of its victims. Walking past the foundations of homes and the famous ditch from Ron Haeberle’s photograph, you can almost imagine what the village looked like immediately before the massacre took place.
A museum at the site showcases some of the belongings of the villagers who died and dramatic dioramas of the massacre. The Vietnamese claim that 504 civilians were killed (the US Army says 347), and a marble plaque near the museum’s entrance lists each and every victim’s name, age, and gender.
The My Lai site is not solely focused on the past, however. Outside the museum sits a large bonsai tree donated by US Army veteran Mike Boehm. The tree hints at the recent work of Boehm and his organization MQI to improve the lives of Vietnamese living near My Lai and to build friendships between Americans and Vietnamese 46 years on.
I just returned from a short trip to Vietnam to visit some humanitarian projects run by American veterans and historical sites. Despite the sweltering hot June weather, I was able to see much on my journey from the south to north, including the location of the My Lai massacre and the former DMZ.
Over the next week, I’ll be sharing some photos and details from my trip on this site, starting today with Saigon. But first … A special thanks to all of the veterans who have sent me emails and videos recently detailing their trips back to Vietnam! I promise that I will share your letters and stories here soon. And if you have a story to share, you can always email me at nissarhee [at] gmail dot com. Thanks!
Saigon is where it all began and where it came to an end. On this trip, I visited the “Reunification Palace” — the former South Vietnamese presidential palace. A New York Times architecture critic once called the palace “the sexiest building in Southeast Asia,” and while I was more interested in the historical importance of the palace, he definitely had a point. Apart from the basement bunkers and war rooms, the palace could easily be mistaken for a playboy mansion with its dance hall, movie theater, and gambling room.
The Vietnam War officially came to a close at the palace on April 30, 1975 when a North Vietnamese tank knocked through the gates of the palace and accepted the president’s surrender. It was here that the North’s Colonel Bui Tin famously told the president and his supporters: “You have nothing to fear. Between the Vietnamese there are no victors and no vanquished. Only the Americans have been beaten. If you are patriots, consider this a moment of joy. The war for our country is over.”
Today, the gates to the palace have been repaired, but two tanks remain on the lawns as a reminder of that day’s victory — or loss, depending on your perspective. The palace now serves as a museum and its furniture has been preserved to reflect the atmosphere of wartime Saigon. On the upper floors, visitors can see the opulent meeting rooms used by the South Vietnamese president and vice president, as well as the entertainment rooms.
On the basement levels, however, the palace holds a shooting gallery, bunker, map room, war room, and communications rooms.
The palace is one of the last remaining reminders of the war in the booming metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City. Saigonites have worked hard to erase the remnants of war here — tall skyscrapers have sprung up and now even a Starbucks sits across the street from the palace.
I did not see any Vietnamese visitors at the Reunification Palace, and, like the nearby War Remnants Museum, the palace’s exhibits seem to be designed with Western tourists in mind. When I asked a South Vietnamese friend of mine why more locals don’t visit these historic sites, he told me that many South Vietnamese still feel the sting of the 1975 loss. Visiting the palace would be merely rubbing salt in the yet-unhealed wounds of war.
Coming up in my next post … I visit the site of the My Lai massacre and see some of the humanitarian projects led by US Army veteran Mike Boehm in Vietnam’s central Quang Ngai Provence.
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.
For more on South Vietnam’s former First Lady Madame Nhu, I recommend reading “Finding the Dragon Lady” by Monique Brinson Demery.