How do we forgive and make peace with our past? These were my guiding questions as I visited Vietnam at the beginning of this year, forty-five years after the end of the Vietnam War, to create a writing and art project, “Journey to Forgiveness.” I am a US Navy Vietnam-era veteran, and this journey was even more poignant. I had hoped to discover a fresh understanding of the people and the war, and as importantly the ongoing legacy of Agent Orange (dioxin) poisoning and unexploded ordinances. In Vietnamese, they say, “Making Peace is a treasure.” Dĩ hoà vi quý. I was in search of this treasure and discovered a wealth of new understanding.
In my two-month journey from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, I discovered kind and generous people, and a country that captivated my imagination and senses. It is tucked between an ancient past and modernity, a culture that values traditions like the Tet New Year’s that revers ancestors and vibrantly embraces the future. It is a young nation on the move. The girls and young women are lovely, and they’re often named after flowers Lan (Orchid), Mai (Apricot), Dao (Peach), and; Hong (Rose). Children are playing everywhere, and there is a welcoming smile wherever you go. Delicious foods are made in tiny stalls on old Hanoi’s crowded sidewalks and fill the air with savory fragrances. Families sit on the small plastic stools and share pots of Bun Bo Hue, Pho, steaming pots of rice, fish on the grill, and fresh spring rolls. Vietnam is the world capital of cooking, with its flavors and spices drawn from its tradition and throughout Asia. It is a feast for the senses and spirit! For many, it is a hard life of work and family, but there is this joy of family and life that is readily visible.
With its sultry vistas from the Mekong Delta to the serene BaNang Mountains and coastlines that stretch the country’s length, I am wonderstruck. The emerald green rice paddies, from small villages to vast fields, is the true wealth of this land, and this harvest of rice has always been the soul of the country. Yet, beneath this beauty, there is the indisputable legacy of Agent Orange poisoning from the war that still has a profound impact on the ecosystem.
Imagine Peace at War Remnants Museum in HCMC, Vietnam
Vietnam is a profusion of farms, classic imperial palaces, temples and gardens, and crowded modern cities. Monasteries and temples are carved into the Marble Mountains, and during the war, tunnels were carved to treat Vietnamese soldiers. Though the war was more than fifty years ago, the trauma and memories are ever-present and despite these scars, the land’s beauty endures. Vietnam is shaped and defined be the invaders and their wars that have come and gone, but from the courage of these resilient peoples has emerged a country of grandeur and rugged beauty.
In the city of Hue, there are centuries-old homes and gardens. It is surprising what has endured, even the elegant remnants of an imperial poet’s home still stands. This city and the imperial palace were heavily damaged during the war; yet, one can still see the monumental grandeur that was built by peasant laborers. Hue was a key battleground in the Tet Offensive in 1968, a country-wide military operation by the North Vietnamese army that tore away the facade that the war was only a “police action” by the Americans. Today, as I walk along the Perfume River at daybreak, the fishermen in their long-boats, cast their wide nets to the river, as they have for centuries. Despite the modern cities, gleaming new airports, and resorts it is still defined by its laborers, farmers, and hard-working people with their heavily weighed down bamboo shoulder baskets (don gahn tre) with fruits, vegetables, and just about anything. This nation was born from the sweat, strength, and profound courage of its people.
In coming to Vietnam in 2020, for a writing and art residency about peace, my challenge was to set aside my assumptions and beliefs about Vietnam. In Buddhism, it is called a beginner mind. Serendipitously, the renowned Buddhist teacher and peace leader Thich Nhat Hanh returned to Hue this year, and we visited his beautiful ancient temple Hanh Tu Hieu. Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us, each moment is the present and wonderful moment. As I walk along the Perfume River and through the Imperial palace’s ruins, it’s a meditation on the present as my eyes and senses filled are filled with the beauty of this land.
Vietnam is an ancient culture, dating back thousands of years and occupied since the pre-historic times, with a culture drawn from the Cham Empire, influences of Khmer, Chinese, Buddhists, and eventually the Western countries. Monks in saffron robes stroll by with black umbrellas. There is a profusion of Buddhist temples, and there are also the old French Catholic churches throughout the country. Most famously the Notre Dame Cathedral in Ho Chi Minh City was built from imported materials from France. Today, less than ten percent of Vietnamese identify as Catholics. Though fifteen percent of Vietnamese declare themselves as Buddhist; however, the mix of Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and the traditional folk religions are the foundation of their culture. The Buddhist monks staunchly opposed the war and the South Vietnamese government’s corruption and repression. On June 11, 1963 a monk, Thich Quang Duc, calmly sat down in downtown Saigon and immolated himself to protest the war, an act that shocked the world. This profound sacrifice embodied the immense courage and resilience of the Vietnamese people.
The United States had undermined the Vietnamese independence movement since the 1940s. During WWII, the Vietnamese under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh aided the USA and the Allied troops against the Japanese occupation. However, upon presenting their Vietnamese constitution modeled on the American one, the USA rejected it, and then became mired in an unwinnable war. The Americans reequipped and brought the French Army back to Vietnam even though it was destroyed in WWII. Subsequently, the French were soundly defeated at Dien Bhien Phu in May 1954. Fifty-five thousand French soldiers were killed during the war, and sadly many of them were from other French colonies like Algeria and Morocco. One of the great ironies after the Vietnamese victory, the French wanted compensation for their loss of Vietnam, even though they had looted the country for one hundred years. This defeat precipitated the end of French colonialism worldwide. Sadly, even though the North Vietnamese won and controlled most of the country, at the behest of European powers they acceded to the division of their country. Perhaps the best irony, a small Vietnamese man Ho Chi Minh, who was formerly a pastry chef in Paris, led his nation to freedom.
The USA then became fully ensnared in a war that resulted in more than fifty-eight thousand dead American soldiers, and hundreds of thousands wounded. To this day, there are over one million American veterans with Agent Orange syndrome. The war’s legacy and scars remain, with twenty percent or more of Vietnam still affected by Agent Orange (dioxin) and (UXO’S) unexploded ordinances and the legacy of some two million Vietnamese killed by the wars. It is estimated by the Red Cross that there are two to three million Vietnamese with Agent Orange syndrome and that even fifty years after the war birth defects from this poison are still prevalent. The US government will not assist the Vietnamese and their descendants with this disease. Nevertheless, the US government, through the persistent advocacy of Senator Patrick Leahy, is helping to cleanup of some of the most contaminated sites with Agent Orange; however, it is only a fraction of the aid that is needed. A key mention must be made of Chuck Searcy a veteran who had moved here more than twenty years ago and is one of the driving forces for Agent Orange remediation and landmine removal.
Though there are many organizations who are helping to clean up the damage, the pervasive dioxin remains and has profoundly impacted the people, the food chain, the ecosystem, and wildlife. Unfortunately, this poison does not degrade with time and is still an omnipresent threat. A key book to understanding this is Charles R. Bailey’s, From Enemies to Partners: Vietnam, the US, and Agent Orange. To make peace with our past, we must remediate the damage we’ve done, and in those actions, there is perhaps the start of forgiveness. Only when we have cleaned up the poisons of war and cared for the millions of Vietnamese affected by Agent Orange can we genuinely engage in a conversation about forgiveness. This work of cleaning up Agent Orange and removing unexploded ordinances must also occur in Laos and Cambodia.
We had visited Friendship Village outside of Hanoi a residential school and vocational training center that was founded by the veteran George Mizo in 1984. This center has been vital to help children who have multiple birth defects due to Agent Orange, and it is inspiring to see the devotion and care by the staff. The young people we met were extraordinarily friendly and we liked seeing all the handicrafts they were making. This is such an important part of this journey of forgiveness creating the schools, homes, and vocational centers to assist the victims of war. Please support this worthy organization.
Very few Americans have any real understanding of the causes, the conduct, and the impact of the war on Vietnam today. As Santayana reminds us, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” Yet, the USA continues to squander over $1.5 to $2 trillion annually on the Military-industrial Mafia that does little to benefit the average American. We must not forget the lessons of this war, and remediate the damage we have done. As Major General Smedley Butler reminded us in 1936 “The only purpose of war is to make the rich richer and the poor poorer.”
We landed in the gleaming modern airport of Ho Chi Minh City and were whisked downtown in an air-conditioned car. It was a shock! Our images of Vietnam from fifty years ago quickly vanished. Throughout Vietnam, we see a nation on the move with little outward indications of the war, it is a youthful and energetic country, and at least sixty of the country or more is under thirty. There are children everywhere! Teens are out in force, playing guitars and singing by the Perfume River in Hue at night. Tiny tots are all about us. The gentleness and kindness of the people toward each other and their children is pervasive. Unlike in the USA, people do not yell at nor hit their children. Yet, this nation of resolute agrarian peasants defeated the mighty militaries of France and the USA. The Vietnamese are one of the most resilient and hardest working people we’ve met, it is no mystery why they prevailed against the French and Americans.
Vietnam is one of the cleanest countries I’ve ever visited, public bathrooms are wide-spread, and all are immaculate. The streets and all the public spaces are clean and free of trash; the Vietnamese, from the modest villages to the big towns, take pride in their homes and communities. Perhaps that is why street food is often safe to eat and delicious, often vegetarian friendly, and served with a big smile. It is a vegetarian paradise! We loved walking through the old part of Hanoi or Hoi An; every inch of the sidewalks is crowded with food stands and families eating together.
There is very little overt police presence from big cities to small towns. It is refreshing after being in one of the most over-policed and over-armed countries globally — the USA. Vietnam is not only safe but often honest; for example, the 50,000 and the 500,000 currency notes look similar. The Vietnamese are polite and correct our mistakes. I was at one restaurant in Hue when an elderly American had too much to drink, and a young waiter helped him back to his hotel. When we try to cross a busy street in the city, teenagers would spontaneously take our hands and fearlessly walk us across like we were little kids.
It is a culture based on kindness, courtesy, and respect. Though many people do not identify as Buddhists, they personify the Buddhist spirit of kindness and respect. English is widely spoken, and most people are eager to practice their English. Though we endeavored to communicate in our few dozen Vietnamese words, English was far more straightforward. The younger generation we met were well educated and knowledgeable about history.
When people find out that we’re Americans, they flashed a big smile and gave a thumbs up. Despite knowing that I am a Navy veteran, people still said, “That was a long time ago. Please, sit have some tea.”
Vietnam is a country of extraordinary enchantment and diversity, from the mountains of Ba Nang to the serene miles of beachfront, the temples of the Cham Empire, and the ancient temples and palace. I keep asking myself, “Why did the USA and France try to annihilate these people and their land?” Without too much difficulty, you can turn a blind eye and deaf ear to the memory of the war, the destruction of vast forests and ecosystems, cultural and historical treasures shattered by bombs, and the poisoning of the land with Agent Orange and other herbicides. The Vietnamese government needs financial assistance for landmine removal and Agent Orange remediation and wants to promote tourism and present Vietnam as a “safe country.” To the Vietnamese merit, many people say, “The war happened a long time ago.” In this process of forgiveness and reconciliation, the US government needs to make amends for the damage it has in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. If the US government spent 1/10 of 1% of their annual military budget we could profoundly remediate the lingering effects of war.
I had designed a sculpture made from Agent Orange barrels, with the corporations’ names responsible (Dow, Monsanto, Diamond Shamrock, etc.) and the faces of the children who have Agent Orange Syndrome. We will be presenting this art/ performance show in Vietnam in late 2021 at the War Remnants Museum in HCMC, Vietnam. International and Vietnamese Organizations have also endorsed this project to assist victims in Vietnam
Veterans for peace and Land Mine Organizations. are working with Vietnamese and international organizations to clean up land mines and remediated the damage from Agent Orange with Other groups are also helping to support remediation from Agent Orange and to create a home for children with Agent Orange disease, for example, the Vietnam Friendship Village. Grace Cares, which is sponsoring this project, focuses on community and peacebuilding.
A Vietnamese veteran said, “It took us a thousand years to get rid of the Chinese, one hundred years to get rid of the French, but only a decade to defeat the Americans. So it is easier to forgive the Americans.” Vietnam is a country that has much to teach the world about forgiveness.
In these fifty years since the end of the war, Vietnam has fought off Chinese incursions and lifted itself up from the war’s ruins. Though the destruction and damage are still apparent, the Vietnamese are a resilient and courageous people, with a generosity of spirit and a vision that looks to the future.
Come visit Vietnam, once the Coved is past. Wander beyond the usual tourist sanctuaries of Hoi An, Dalat, Sun World, and get to know the people and this land. Volunteer with Peace Trees or another organization like Friendship Village for children with Agent Orange syndrome. Or, simply sit on a park bench and chat with people, or join in the spontaneous kikbo game that is everywhere. Savor these delicious foods, slowly walk through this enchanted land, and begin to discover Vietnam with beginner’s mind.
My Lai January 20, 2020
“My Lai monument with Imagine Peace banner.”
On March 16, 1968, fifty-one years ago, US Army soldiers from Charlie Company murdered five hundred four civilians in My Lai. Only Lt. Calley and Captain Ernest Medina, who lead the rape and slaughter of civilians were convicted; however, they were late acquitted, even though there were first-hand witnesses of them and their men’s killing of civilians. While this massacre was underway, Hugh Thompson, an Army helicopter pilot with his gunners Glenn Andreotta, and Lawrence Colburn, stopped this massacre and rescued civilians; nevertheless. five hundred and four men, women, and children were killed, and many of the girls and women were raped in Son My village. This atrocity became a significant catalyst for the anti-war movement.
I had known about the My Lai Massacre when I was in high school, and bizarrely enough, Lt. Calley came to my high school and told a skeptical audience he was only following orders. I was bewildered. How could killing civilians and raping girls be part of a military order? I didn’t understand the atrocity. Were the soldiers being attacked? Why would US soldiers do this? I soon learned that this war and all other wars are lies. One notable soldier, Major Colin Powell, participated in the My Lai massacre’s cover-up. We believed the lies told on the evening news of American victories and successes on the battlefields with few lives lost.
Today, on Monday, January 20, 2020, I drove to the village of Son My that was part of the My Lai district. My Lai’s name embodies the worst nightmares of war as American soldiers slaughtered men, women, and children. There are footpaths with the impressions of people’s feet as they were fleeing from the massacre, and interspersed were US army boots. You could feel the terror and insanity of that moment.
It was a warm day when we visited, and the purple and pink cherry flowers were in full bloom. There were a few tourists who came and quickly left. I needed to sit and meditate on the insanity that happened on March 16, 1968. , five hundred and four innocent men, women, children were killed by US Army soldiers. The women and the girls were raped and then killed. All the soldiers were acquitted or pardoned.
How do we atone for this? How does this massacre open our eyes and souls to all war and its consequence?