April 16 will mark forty-four years since I left Viet Nam. So rather than my usual travel post, I decided to write this commentary on my experiences.
For almost a year, I lived in the Triêu Phong district near the Demilitarized Zone. I would like to see Triêu Phong again, but it is not on normal tourist paths.
It was not a terrible experience. Even at the time, however, I knew it was not typical.
There is an ancient Indian legend about some blind men who were led up to an elephant. The first grabs the tail and says “an elephant is like a rope.” The next touches a leg, and says “no, an elephant is like a tree.” “No, says the man with the tusk, it is polished wood.” “It is like a wall, says the man touching the side.”
I know I didn’t see the elephant. But neither did the American public. By the time I arrived, the vast majority of the news-media had a blame-America-first bias. On the few occasions I was involved, their reporting was inaccurate and in one case a lie.
For a while, I contemplated trying to reconstruct the elephant. 1998 World Bank figures showed the people of Triêu Phong had less actual income (even not factoring inflation) in the late 1990s after decades of Communist rule than they did in 1971. I never believed it was a civil war. It was a determined small minority forcing their view on the majority. On the other hand, I understand there was a strong anti-colonial, anti-imperialist feeling. Most Vietnamese probably would have agreed with Thôm, my interpreter, who told me he wished the war would end so they could just fight the Cambodians, their ancient enemies.
Would I go again in the same circumstances? I would. Avoiding it was just saying someone else could go in my place; I only admired those protesters willing to go to prison for their beliefs.
I did not see the elephant. I was part of a five-man team, two young lieutenants, two seasoned sergeants and a medic, who lived with the Vietnamese. We moved to a new little hamlet each week to teach classes in warfare and hygiene to the Popular Force troops assigned to guard the hamlets.
On weekends, we returned to a concrete block “hooch” in the hamlet of Triêu Phong, the district headquarters. On occasion, we went out on military sweeps with the Vietnamese and saw an occasional enemy, but we saw only twelve days of active combat in the entire year. Although two on the district team were killed, none of us was injured.
I did not see the elephant. And I am not omniscient. I can speculate on the results but cannot speak with certainty. For a while our political leadership was cowed by the experience, and our enemies were emboldened. Now I believe, as no one really saw the elephant, what lessons that might have been learned are long forgotten.
But on the other hand, each time our “troops” are honored today, I think it is because at one point some people looked back and remembered a time when the troops were not honored.
I am not omniscient; I am an optimist. I believe good can come from evil. For example, one young Vietnamese girl came to this country and grew up in Milton Hershey School, a school for orphans and disadvantaged children. She went on to be a doctor. Now she mentors other young girls who want to enter medicine. She came from the rubble of war, but the extent of the good she will accomplish is impossible to foresee.
(For more of my experience, go to Historical Christmas, December 2011, which talks about seeing Bob Hope.)
Click on photos to enlarge.