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.

My Lai: Part 1

Photograph, Veterans, Vietnam

Note: This post contains some graphic descriptions and artist renditions of the My Lai massacre.

The biggest memorial sculpture at the My Lai massacre site. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

The biggest memorial sculpture at the My Lai massacre site. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

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)

 

A detail from a mosaic at the My Lai massacre site. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

A detail from a mosaic at the My Lai massacre site. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

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.

The ditch from Ron Haeberle's famous My Lai photograph. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

The ditch from Ron Haeberle’s famous My Lai photograph. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

The foundation of a house owned by Mrs Truoung Thi Le that was destroyed in the massacre. Three of her family members were killed in the massacre, ages 8, 17 and 64. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

The foundation of a house owned by Mrs Truoung Thi Le that was destroyed in the massacre. Three of her family members were killed in the massacre, ages 8, 17 and 64. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

An example of the kind of houses which used to fill My   Lai village. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

An example of the kind of houses which used to fill Son My village. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

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.

A memorial plaque in the My Lai museum lists the names of those killed in the massacre. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

A memorial plaque in the My Lai museum lists the names of those killed in the massacre. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

A life-size model of the My Lai massacre at the museum. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

A life-size model of the My Lai massacre at the museum. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

A sweater owned by one of the massacred children that was recovered from the My Lai massacre site is displayed in the museum. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

A sweater owned by one of the massacred children that was recovered from the My Lai massacre site is displayed in the museum. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

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.

A Bonsai tree donated by US Army veteran Mike Bohem sits at the entrance of the My Lai massacre museum. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

A Bonsai tree donated by US Army veteran Mike Bohem sits at the entrance of the My Lai massacre museum. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Later this week, I’ll describe some of MQI’s projects in Quang Ngai, including building water wells, “compassion” houses, a school, and a peace park.

Back from Vietnam

Photograph, Vietnam
The South Vietnamese presidential palace as it looks today. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

The South Vietnamese presidential palace as it looks today. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

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.”

North Vietnamese troops and their tank arrive at South Vietnam's presidential palace on April 30, 1975. (Photo from Reunification Palace in Saigon)

North Vietnamese troops and their tank arrive at South Vietnam’s presidential palace on April 30, 1975. (Photo from Reunification Palace in Saigon)

A replica of the tank used to break down the gates of the South Vietnamese presidential palace, standing in front of today's Reunification Palace in Saigon. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

A replica of the tank used to break down the gates of the South Vietnamese presidential palace, standing in front of today’s Reunification Palace in Saigon. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

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.

Movie theater in Reunification Palace. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Movie theater in Reunification Palace. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Gambling room in Reunification Palace. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Gambling room in Reunification Palace. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

An interior hallway at Reunification Palace shows the facade's bamboo design. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

An interior hallway at Reunification Palace shows the facade’s bamboo design. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

On the basement levels, however, the palace holds a shooting gallery, bunker, map room, war room, and communications rooms.

President's desk in war room at the Reunification Palace. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

President’s desk in war room at the Reunification Palace. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Old radio in radio room at Reunification Palace. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Old radio in the communications room at Reunification Palace. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

A US-made Motorola Motrac in the communications room at Reunification Palace. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

A US-made Motorola Motrac in the communications room at Reunification Palace. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Shooting gallery in the basement of the Reunification Palace. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Shooting gallery in the basement of the Reunification Palace. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

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.

Starbucks -- which entered the Vietnamese market last year -- has an outlet across the street from the Reunification Palace, the site of South Vietnamese defeat. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

Starbucks — which entered the Vietnamese market last year — has an outlet across the street from the Reunification Palace, the site of South Vietnamese defeat. (Photo by Nissa Rhee, June 2014)

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.

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.

Remembering Giap and the “Misunderstandings” of War

Photograph, USA, Vietnam
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Giap’s coffin being driven through the streets of Hanoi today

Hundreds of thousands of people bid their final farewell to General Vo Nguyen Giap today, the Vietnamese military reported on its website.  As the principal commander of the Vietnamese People’s Army in the wars against France and the United States, Giap was described by US Gen. William Westmoreland as a “formidable adversary.” While Giap’s popularity waned in Vietnam after the death of Ho Chi Minh, he remained a prominent face of the Vietnam War here in the United States.

So it’s not surprising that in in 1995, when former US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara sought out Vietnamese leaders for a conversation about the “missed opportunities” for peace between Vietnam and the United States, Gen. Giap was among the men he solicited. McNamara and Giap sat down in November 1995 and talked, among other things, about the reasons the war began. The American press was on hand to record Giap’s clarification of the Tonkin incident, which was cited by the US as a reason to escalate American involvement in the conflict.

Giap said that there was no attack on US ships on Aug. 4, 1964 and that an earlier attack on Aug. 2 was ordered by local commanders, not Hanoi. In one swoop, Giap had destroyed what many in the United States had assumed was our initial justification for war in Vietnam. McNamara’s response was not one of surprise but confirmation. He told reporters that he had long thought the second attack was dubious and Giap’s comment had merely settled the debate.

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McNamara and Giap in Hanoi

Would the Vietnam-US war have been avoided altogether if Giap and McNamara had this conversation 30 years earlier? McNamara has often asserted that the war which so marred his name was due to “misunderstandings” by both the Vietnamese and Americans. Through better communication and attempts at understanding, McNamara hoped that he can not only resolve the controversy surrounding Vietnam but prevent future wars.

War is never that simple, however. De-classified documents and recordings from that early period suggest that the White House had already decided to escalate the war before the second Tonkin incident was even reported, so it is unlikely that rectifying the US’s mistake about Tonkin would have changed the course of the US.

Further, as anyone who has ever argued with a friend about politics knows, dialogue does not inevitably lead to a shared worldview. In his book “Argument Without End: In Search of Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy,” McNamara shared part of his 1995 conversation with Giap. It is clear how different their thoughts on the causes of the war and so-called misconceptions are.

Giap and Mcnamara Screen Shot 2013-10-13 at 1.21.56 PM

In his book, McNamara noted that after a series of lengthy conversations with Vietnamese leaders in which he and the other Americans  continued to press the Vietnamese on their misunderstandings, the Vietnamese would come to “disagree profoundly with Giap’s self-satisfied assessment.”

They would make two discoveries in the dialogue that ensued: first, that their view of the US mindset and motives was wrong; and second, that their misunderstanding of the US mindset and motives may have led the Hanoi government to take actions that, in retrospect, were mistakes, which led to missed opportunities, and which contributed to the tragedy of the war we fought.

So who was right, Giap or McNamara? Most historians would probably say neither or both. The US was not a colonial power in the same way that France was, but some of its actions in the South had a similar bent.

Yet, neither McNamara nor Giap could see the world in such a nuanced fashion. In the conversations McNamara has with the Vietnamese, he seems to be on a self-righteous mission to set the facts straight. History has not treated the US role in the Vietnam war well, and Giap is eager to add salt to the American leader’s wounds. While their conversation illuminates their entrenched positions three decades on, it does not accomplish much in terms of improving relations.

Dialogue, argues German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, requires a person to first admit that they are biased and then to respect the bias of the other person. Through this process, participants may finally reach a “fusion of horizons,” where parties merge their perceptions of a situation to create a new, third perspective that incorporates elements of both viewpoints. It is a pity that Giap and McNamara could not reach this shared understanding before their respective deaths.