My essay on traveling was published in the online journal The Coven this week. You can read it here.
Tomorrow is the 47th anniversary of the My Lai Massacre, in which American soldiers killed 500 unarmed Vietnamese in 1968. Every year at this time, US veteran Mike Boehm plays his violin at My Lai as an offering to the spirits of the dead and for those still living in the area.
While Boehm was not involved in the massacre during the war, he says that My Lai represents the darkness of the whole American conflict in Vietnam. Since 1994, his organization MQI has been providing support to the people of My Lai and Quang Ngai Provence in central Vietnam. In honor of the anniversary, I’m posting a Vietnamese documentary about Boehm and the legacy of the massacre. You can watch the first part above and the rest below.
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.
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.