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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Wars and rumors of war

I don't think I have often heard "Viet Nam" when it hasn't been in the same sentence as "War".

I don't think I have often heard "Viet Nam" without thinking "Agent Orange" - the herbicide and defoliant that was spread by American helicopters over Viet Nam, eastern Laos and parts of Cambodia.

It part of what was known as "Operation Ranch Hand," the goal of which was to defoliate rural/forested land, depriving guerrillas of food and cover and clearing in sensitive areas such as around base perimeters.

The chemical also destroyed crops necessary to sustain the lives of the innocent citizens of Viet Nam, producing a famine which left hundreds of thousands of people - men, women and children - malnourished and starving, dislocating them from their homes in an exodus to larger cities, like Saigon and Hanoi.

I can't hear the words "Viet Nam" without remembering horrific images of the effects of Agent Orange on human life: the hideous, red, angry exfoliation of skin, fast-spreading cancer of the larynx and lungs and hundreds of deformed, stillborn Vietnamese babies, all exposed to Agent Orange in utero or through breast milk.

I can't hear the words "Viet Nam" without remembering the day the news came to our small town that one of our high school football players had died in Viet Nam. Half of the town was covered in black bunting, half American flags, all at half mast.  Everyone wore a black band around their upper arm while they carried an American flag in their hand, or placed small American flags on their front lawn.

I can't hear the words "Viet Nam" without seeing a cascade of images in my mind:  American soldiers wading waist deep in swampy water.  Angry protest marchers carrying signs saying, "End the Viet War Now."  Draft dodgers fleeing to Canada. The Kent State Massacre.

The loud rumors of government deception in the war. Jane Fonda being called "Hanoi Jane". The self-immolation of a Vietnamese monk. The Tet Offensive. Da Nang. The My Lai Massacre. Starving Vietnamese children, their beautiful almond-shaped eyes brimming with tears, looking out over an empty bowl.

When "Johnny (or Janie) came marching home" from Viet Nam, they came not to a hero's welcome but, at best, no welcome at all. At worst, they were ridiculed and scorned for fighting in "that stupid war" - as if it were their fault.

Later, we would learn of heavy drug use among US troops, the military-sanctioned R&R (Rest and Relaxation) which was known as I&I (Intoxication and Intercourse), and the effects of Agent Orange on their skin, nervous system, and in the miscarriages, stillborn births and/or genetic defects, in the children their wives or they would bear.

I can't hear the words "Viet Nam" without thinking of these things.

Has it really been 50 years?

The other day, a young Vietnamese man named Scott did my manicure and pedicure while he chatted away in Vietnamese to his coworkers. This was right here, in Lower, Slower Delaware.

I was getting ready for all the "Memorial Day" celebrations and considered painting my toes red, white and blue. As I listened to Scott and his co-workers, I realized that I couldn't ask him to do that. He probably wouldn't have minded at all. Suddenly, I did.

As I sat in the wonderful massage chair, the warm water swirling round my feet, Scott's expert hands massaging my legs, I realized that I couldn't remember the name of that graduate of my high school who was the first from our little town to die in Viet Nam. 

I think I remember that he was a Marine. I think his parents were farmers. I think he intended to go to college after the war, which was really the only way he could afford to go to college, and then come back and help his family.

I think I remembered all of that, but I couldn't be certain and I couldn't remember his name.

I wish I could remember Viet Nam and not think of Agent Orange or Saigon or Hanoi or Da Nang or My Lai or mosquito-infested swamps and jungles and self-immolating monks or homeless Viet Nam vets or War.

I wish I could remember Viet Nam and the names of at least one "home town" young man or woman who gave their life so I could live to see the day when people from Viet Nam could come to this country and live in peace with the very people who brought them war.

That's why occasions like the Memorial Day are important.

It's important to remember. It's important not to forget.

But mostly, it's important to remember the people who fought and died in all the stupid wars we've waged since the beginning of time.

Next year, I will try to remember at least some of the names of some of the men and women who died in Viet Nam. I'll pray a small prayer of thanksgiving for their lives.

But, mostly, I'll remember young Vietnamese people like Scott and his co-workers.

And, I'll share with them the dream of peace.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

I can't forget MiLai, I can't forget all the women raped by those male soldiers, I can't forget that the US government set up brothels for the "boys" as a part of R & R for the male troops.
I can't forget what every damn war does to women, and I can't forgive men for constantly going to war.
Just what is it going to take to stop men from waging war anywhere in the world? Just what will it take from women to stop supporting the men who go to war?
Obviously, males LOVE war, they worship it, they are highly decorated for it. They absolutely LOVE every minute of it.
I think when the boys came who and were not feated with parades and glory that sent a message to patriarchy. What about the women who were raped by those men? I think war is a male problem, I think sometimes that all those men who love to go to war aren't even fully human, and I'm tired of having to support those "troops of rapists and aggressors" I'm tired of memorial day and all it represents!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

If I didn't think that Anonymous was Turtle Woman who usually signs off but sometimes forgets, I wouldn't have published this comment.

I did b/c it gives me an opportunity to say that not all men love war and not all women are pacifists. Generalities don't help anyone, TW. Not all lesbians are like you. Not all lesbians are like me. That's really cool with me.

Linda McMillan said...

I wish you would spend some time in Vietnam next time you are in Asia. Have some food, walk on the beach, prowl through the markets. I haven't been there, but I've heard that it's similar to Thailand in some ways, more developed than rural Cambodia which is between them. Maybe then you could think of something different.

Matthew said...

Makes me wonder what we'll say or think about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars 50 years from now. What will our grandchildren have to say about the fact that we used torture?

Anonymous said...

Ah, the confused liberal mind at work once again:

"...so I could live to see the day when people from Viet Nam could come to this country and live in peace with the very people who brought them war."

We didn't bring them war, the Communists did in their urge to enslave all of Vietnam. We just ramped up the level of violence considerably and made the Communists pay a dear price (but not dear enough) before they conquered the South.

xxMichael

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Michael - "just ramped up the level of violence considerably"???

"Made them pay a dear price but not dear enough"???

Can you say "Agent Orange"???? Even if you can, just google it and see what Wicki says about the horrors done

And you think I've got a "confused mind"???

Anonymous said...

Well, maybe being a pastor to a large number of Vietnamese parishioners, many of whom took to the seas to flee Communism, many of whom were imprisoned by the Communists, and most of whom had relatives and friends who were slain fighting the NVA and VC colors my remarks. The good did not prevail in the Vietnam War: evil did.

xxMichael

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Michael - We all see through the lens in front of us. I know several VN people here in DE. They do not like communism. Hate it, in fact. Sad to see what is happening to their country. Go back and visit family as often as they can. They left, however, on their own volition. I think things might have changed just a bit over the past few years.

That doesn't excuse the horrors done on both sides. There isn't the saying, "War is hell" for nothing.