Reflections on war

You can’t come to Vietnam and not think about the war. You stumble upon it in many places from craters in the ground to shrines of those who died. I guess what I’ve been interested in most is how do the people here view Americans now?

When talking about the war, I’ve been avoiding qualifiers like “Vietnam” or “America” because those descriptors depend on your point of view. As a kid I remember a lonely Vietnamese boy appear on my school bus out of the blue. Nobody explained to us who he was or why he was there. As an adult I wonder how much of an outsider he must have felt, taken in by a white family in a cold and foreign country so vastly different from his own.

I’ve had the same thoughts as we’ve walked through bamboo forests in the sweltering heat with sweat dripping down our backs. I couldn’t imagine being a 19-year-old American conscript carrying a heavy gun not understanding where he is or why he is there.

People here talk about the liberation of Vietnam. Before WWII, Vietnam had been ruled by the French, and then were controlled by Japan and Vichy France during the war. After the war the country was divided along the 17th parallel and a DMZ (demilitarized zone) put in place. There was also an agreement that elections to unify the country were to happen in 1956.

An estimated 15% of Vietnam is still littered with unexploded ordnance.

An estimated 15% of Vietnam is still littered with unexploded ordnance

The elections never took place of course, because the US was too concerned with its policy of containment and wanting to stop the spread of communism. Unifying the north and south would have led to the entire country adopting this type of government. The government in the south was propped up despite its corruption, and the numbers of American troops began to grow. Twenty-five years of war began and we all know how it ended.

It all seems such a waste today when you visit Vietnam. Yes, it’s a communist country. But people here seem to live their lives in relative peace. Foreigners are welcomed with open arms (they like our money).

One of our homestays talked about how poor she was as a child. But she also talked about how things began to change in the mid-80s when the Vietnamese themselves realized that their system of government wasn’t working. Policies became less restrictive and the economy began to open up.

About 60 families lived in these tunnels for six years to escape the bombs

About 60 families lived in these tunnels for six years to escape the bombs

When we visited the Vinh Moc tunnels and saw how an entire village had to move themselves 30 metres underground to avoid the bombs, you realize that war has major consequences. Fighting is never something we should take lightly. We should always question the motivation of our leaders. Is the fight really ours, or is it something that needs to be worked out by others? If we intervene, is it because we are defending the larger concept of human rights, or are we doing it for selfish reasons? Is someone trying to convince us our involvement is for the first reason when it’s actually for the second?

Unfortunately I don’t think people pay enough attention to be able to answer those questions.

We always need to question those who view the world in black and white and who insist on making those who are different from ourselves into “the other.” It’s easy to assume things and demonize people when we create artificial boxes that define who “they” are.

But back to Vietnam and what happened here… I’ve asked several people how they view Americans today, and there doesn’t seem to be any lingering animosity. Someone said older people might still have some grief, especially if they lived through traumatic experiences. But one person summed up the war this way: We won, so why would we be mad?

Today Vietnam recognizes Sept. 2, 1945 as the date the country was officially formed. They celebrated the 70 year anniversary of the end of WWII when Japan was defeated, just like they did in China. The rest of the 20th century for Vietnam was merely completing its self-actualization as a country.

Today the former location of the DMZ on the Ben Hai River is a peaceful spot

Today the former location of the DMZ on the Ben Hai River is a peaceful spot


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