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 story in Narratively

Articles, Veterans, Vietnam

Narratively story image


My story about US veteran Don Blackburn was published today in Narratively magazine. Don is currently living in the beach town of Nha Trang, in southern Vietnam, but I got to meet Don in August at the Veterans for Peace convention. I’ve long been a fan of his poetry, which focuses on peace and reconciliation in Vietnam, and I was able to excerpt some of my favorite poems of his in the article.

Comic artist Rich Tommaso created some original artwork for the article, including the illustration above. Narratively is one of a number of online magazines that were launched in recent years to focus on long-form journalism. The magazine was named one of TIME’s “50 Best Websites of 2013.”

Anti-war protests then and now

Articles, Protest, USA, Veterans, Vietnam
December, 1967 Stop the Draft Week

Draft cards burning in front of the door to the Oakland Army Induction Center in December 1967. (From the Harvey Richards Media Archive)

Forty-six years ago this week, a coalition of 40 anti-war organizations staged “Stop the Draft Week” demonstrations. Protesters burnt their draft cards — an act which Congress had made illegal two years before — and rallied outside of military centers. The week was just the latest in what had turned out to be a year of anti-war actions. In April, the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam led 400,000 protesters on a march from New York’s Central Park to the UN headquarters. Well-known peace activists like Dr Martin Luther King Jr and Dr Benjamin Spock addressed the crowd, along with Vietnam veteran Jan Berry Crumb.

Crumb had served in Vietnam in 1963 as part of a group of military “advisors” the US had sent to Southeast Asia to train the South Vietnamese Army. What he saw in Vietnam disturbed him and not long after returning to the US, he resigned from the military. In June 1967, Crumb and five other veterans joined together and founded the organization Vietnam Veterans Against the War. The organization would become a critical voice for anti-war veterans in the years to come. As Gerald Nicosia writes in “Home to War: A History of the Vietnam Veteran’s Movement”:

The organization would put Richard Nixon into a panic, provoke FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover into breaking the law in order to destroy it, precipitate the last major conspiracy trial of the era, and bring to prominence at least one leader of national stature, John Kerry.

(Nicosia 2001:5)

A 1971 ad VVAW ran, which explained their reasons for protesting the war. This ad was funded by Hugh Hefner.

A February 1971 ad for VVAW, which explained their reasons for protesting the war. This ad was funded by Hugh Hefner and ran in Playboy magazine.

The Vietnam veterans who protested the war in the 60s and 70s blazed a trail for modern anti-war veterans. But American veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan today protest without the support of a large anti-war movement. They are more easily silenced because fewer people are paying attention. Afghanistan vet Joe Glenton wrote a piece in Vice magazine last week highlighting some of the American and British veterans who are speaking out against war. It’s a must-read for anyone interested in peace activism.

Speaking at Quest Academy on Veteran’s Day

Chicago, Talks, USA, Veterans, Vietnam

Photo taken by Sharon Rockhill (Quest Academy)

On Veteran’s Day, I spoke to the middle schoolers at Quest Academy in Palatine, Illinois about my research on veterans and peace. It was great to be back at my alma mater and spend time with the 80 or so students. Despite the snowstorm happening outside, the students were really engaged and had some interesting questions about the work being done in Vietnam, particularly with the remediation of the Da Nang Airport.

I was pleased to find out that the students already knew a little about the Vietnam War, since it’s so rarely taught in schools these days. Young people’s lack of knowledge about the war and its consequences is one of the reasons I decided to write this book. As the philosopher George Santayana wrote, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Already, we are seeing the effects of this amnesia. Gallup has found that young people are the only group of Americans today that think fighting in Vietnam was not a mistake. I am hopeful, however, that young people like myself can help teach the past to those to young to have lived it.

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.

Vietnam’s Madame Nhu

Book, Vietnam

Finding the Dragon Lady

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.