Tuesday, May 29, 2012
Wars and rumors of 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.