Speaking at the National Veterans Art Museum

Art, Talks, Veterans, Vietnam
I tell the story of one veteran who has returned in my talk at the National Veteran Art Museum on August 2. (Photo by Mike Rhee)

Me telling the story of one veteran who has returned to Vietnam in my talk at the National Veterans Art Museum on August 2. (Photo by Mike Rhee)

Vietnam War veteran Don Blackburn reads from his book of poetry "All You Have Given: Meditations on War, Peace and Reconciliation." (Photo by Mike Rhee)

Vietnam War veteran Don Blackburn reads from his book of poetry “All You Have Given: Meditations on War, Peace and Reconciliation.” (Photo by Mike Rhee)

We had a great turnout for “Back to the Battlefield” at the National Veterans Art Museum in Chicago on Saturday. I opened the event with a presentation about the Vietnam War veterans who are living in Vietnam today and talked a little about the impact of unexploded ordnance on the country. Then, veteran Don Blackburn spoke about his life in Nha Trang, Vietnam and read selections from his books of poetry and essays.

The audience was enthusiastic and asked some great questions about the impact of Agent Orange and unexploded ordnance on Vietnamese people and how returning to Vietnam affects a veteran’s mental health.

Chicago Public Radio interview

Poetry, Press Coverage, Vietnam

WBEZ screenshot

I was on Chicago Public Radio’s “Worldview” program this past Friday to discuss my research on veterans. American veteran Don Blackburn joined me on air to talk about his own experiences returning to Vietnam and to read some of his poetry. You can listen to and download the audio from the show here.

Painful Past, Promising Future

FIlm, Veterans, Vietnam

Life Reimagined has produced a nice, short video about three American veterans living in Vietnam today. If you’ve been following this blog or reading my magazine articles, you will probably recognize their names. You can read more about Chuck Searcy and Chuck Palazzo’s work in Vietnam here and here.

Vets working together in Israel/Palestine

News, Veterans, Vietnam

In this blog and the book I’m working on I look at how veterans from both sides of the war in Vietnam have come together to work for peace. These Americans and Vietnamese who once tried to kill each other are now working hard to address the legacies of the war, like unexploded bombs, Agent Orange, and PTSD. Their transformation from soldiers to peacebuilders is a glimmer of hope in this world where war often looks more like the norm rather than the exception.

Recent days have brought increased fighting between Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza. What began as revenge killings over the deaths of children on both sides has quickly escalated to an all-out war. Yet, even in this dark time there are groups of Israelis and Palestinians working hard for peace.

One of these groups is Combatants for Peace, which brings together former soldiers and combatants from both sides to encourage reconciliation and understanding. You can learn about their programs in the video above. In recent days, they’ve been holding demonstrations against the violence and talking to the press about how the conflict hurts both Israelis and Palestinians. As with Vietnam, the vets in Israel/Palestine are proving that former combatants can play an important role in ending cycles of violence.

Essay in the University of Chicago Magazine

Articles, Chicago, Veterans, Vietnam

Alumni Essay in UofC Magazine

My essay about American and Vietnamese veterans working together on unexploded ordinance in Vietnam was published this week in The University of Chicago Magazine. You can read the article online here or in its magazine form here on page 60.

First Kill documentary

PTSD, Veterans, Vietnam

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.

My cover story for the Monitor

Articles, Book, Veterans, Vietnam

Back to Vietnam magazine cover

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.