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)
I was on Chicago Public Radio’s Worldview program yesterday for the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon. You can hear the interview here. I was joined on air by Dung Nguyen — a South Vietnamese veteran and refugee living in Chicago — and John Riordan — the “Oscar Shindler 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.
Recently, I watched the Dutch documentary “First Kill” about the experiences of veterans and reporters during the Vietnam War. The film delves into the complex psychology of killing and the American military’s obsession with “body count” during the war. In a war where territory acquisition was difficult, the military measured its success by the number of enemies its soldiers killed.
As Nick Turse so compellingly argues in his book “Kill Anything That Moves,” the body count obsession led to the killing of countless non-combatants, including the elderly, women, and children. Each corpse was added to a unit’s tally and military leaders rarely investigated whether the corpses were actually those of Viet Cong.
What caused so many young American men to act so viciously in Vietnam? While Turse blames the military’s efforts to dehumanize Vietnamese (for instance, using racial slurs), the documentary “First Kill” suggests that the answer has more to do with crossing a moral line. After being told your whole life that murder is wrong, soldiers were put in a situation where they were expected to not only kill, but kill lots of people. Under those conditions, murder becomes normal.
As veteran Billy Heflin in “First Kill” recalls,
When I was in America I was called a baby killer, because we killed kids. It was easy to pull the trigger. Just another trigger out there. It was the enemy. They had to be killed. You didn’t think about. You didn’t say, man, I killed a little kid. You didn’t think about that.
Later in the film, Billy talks about how difficult it was for him to come back to the United States after being trained as a killer. He says he misses killing and the good feeling that came from shooting the enemy.
How does one go back to a society where killing is immoral after being told by your government to kill? Certainly, some veterans have an easier time at it than others. But for vets like Billy, it is something that they will struggle with for a long time.
For Vietnam veterans suffering from “soldier’s heart,” I recommend checking out psychotherapist Ed Tick. He and his wife lead healing journeys back to Vietnam each year with a focus on forgiveness and reconciliation.
On December 12, 1981 the Vietnamese government invited the first American veterans to return to the country. This was just six years after the fall of Saigon and the reunification of the country, during a time when travel between the US and Vietnam was still difficult.
The four American veterans who went to Vietnam had an emotional journey. “Nothing has changed, but everything has changed,” said one veteran. ”I close my eyes and I am right back calling in airstrikes over these places. It’s so strange. I can still see the scars on the ground.”
The New York Times asked one anonymous Vietnamese official why the Vietnamese government invited the veterans back to Vietnam. He replied, “It was sensible to invite the veterans to come here. They were victims of the war like many of our people were victims.”
Not everyone thought the trip was a good idea, however. The World Almanac of the Vietnam War notes that the four veterans who went were “criticized for serving Vietnamese propaganda purposes.”
This criticism shows just how poor relations between the US and Vietnam were in 1981. It would be 14 more years before diplomatic relations between Vietnam and the US were normalized, but the visit marked the beginning of unofficial discussions between the countries about some of the remaining war legacies like the prisoners of war and Agent Orange.