Why Vietnam?

We made this trip to see our “son” Big. And to satisfy an “urge.”

Our first three chapters were about taking the opportunity to travel to Southeast Asia to see Big. Born Katchonyot Yaempradit, he said his name was so long that his parents just named him Big. Besides, his father’s nicknme was Jumbo. He was our AFS exchange student nearly 15 years ago. We’ve been invited by him many times, and had always intended to go to visit after he went back to his home in a small town in northern Thailand. Big now lives in the huge city of Bangkok and we had hoped to travel there before we got too old to make such a demanding trip. While not the most direct route to Vietmam, it worked out as our hub as a port of entry and exit point for a trip to travel with a tour of Southeast Asia. Please enjoy the story about the long-awaited reunification with our “Thai son” Big and oportunity to meet his family in the chapters that are below this one.

The “urge” I mentioned about Vietnam is something that I and many other guys my age have. If you were born in the late 40’s through the mid-50’s, you know what I mean. No matter what your views of the Vietnam war may be, it was a touchstone for our generation.

It was, for many, the measure of the man… for the young men of that era. Do you serve? Do you stand when duty calls? Do you answer the call of patriotism?

This image hangs in the Ho Chi Minh City War Museum. President John Kennedy confers with his Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara. I grew up in admiration for JFK. His inaugural words rang out in my upbringing, “Ask not what your country can do for you; Ask what you can do for your country.”

Or do you answer another call? Do you answer a more Utopian quest, the call of the heart? Do you seek to answer, why war? Do you ask, is this war one with a just reason? Do you question authority? In an era of long hair, free love, and drug experimentation, questioning authority was not only common, but almost expected by my generation.

Pete Seeger, another one of my heroes, leads a “Peace March” of GI’s in Texas. Pete was a bit of a lightening rod and often called a “Red” or a Communist sympathizer. This photo was also at the Saigon War Museum.

But I felt like “questioning authority” had a deeper significance. If you’re going to question anything, you might as well ask those who should know. In other words, if you’re not going to question authority, who are you going to question? I was looking for the justification for the war that was invading our dinner table over the nightly news, and what I heard did not convince me.

And if you do not find justification for the war, do you endure for a lifetime the inevitable accusations that will come your way, that you ran, out a sense of fear, not for any moral purpose? We knew that if you decided to protest or avoid the draft it would result in a judgement that you dodged a moral duty and allowed others to fight in your place. Were you willing to live with that noose just to question the war?

A touchstone, or a lightning rod? It was a point at which the paths of many of my classmates and I began to diverge. Although I have kept many friends from my high school and early college days, we have lived with that divide without really discussing it much. Lives were sent in different directions by that powerful force, but for many, friendships were lost as well.

My friend Craig McNamara has just published his memoir, Because Our Fathers Lied. It’s about his life inside and outside the halls if power during that era  He had a ringside seat to observe his father who was called “the Architect of the Vietnam War.” His book chronicles what he observed first hand while questioning why it was happening.  In the introduction, Craig asks, (Of his father) why can’t you just tell me the truth? That frank conversation between Craig and his father never happpened, but he explores questions that we all were asking.

Writing the book was a catharsis for him, he told me. But I suspect that he’s no closer to answering some of those gut-wrenching questions we all faced. I do think, however, he’s started down the road of healing. That healing is what we all seek after a war that did as much psychological damage as the deaths and wounds it caused.

His book came out this summer just as we were planning our Southeast Asia trip,so it caused me to take a deeper look at my own motivations and interests in visiting Vietnam. I do not really know all the questions, much less the answers I seek. I hope there will be catharsis and healing in the process.

Now, nearly fifty years after the war, I’ve made peace with my decision at age 18… a decision I will write more about and why I made it. But for now, I embrace the opportunity to explore the land we once called enemy territory without completely understanding why.  

So what do I know anyway?

This photo provided by “Royalty Free Images” shows how the Vietnamese have managed farming in mountainous terrain by building terraced walls, both collecting the water and protecting from erosion. The system has much to teach about conservation of water and recharging the aquifer. When we were taking off from Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh City in very heavy rains, I couldn’t ignore the irony that my book club had just finished “Chasing the Monsoons.” The author in that book worries about the increasingly erratic behavior of the monsoons. Once dependable to deliver nourishing flood waters to SE Asia’s terraced farms, wash out ravines and building restorative water to the forests, they now come too early, too late, or not enough or too much. What the people had come to know and depend on has become a dangerous beast. Vietnam is part of this vast weather system that is changing due to climate change.

What do I know about Vietnam?  

I understand that it is part of a complex weather system that has a very high rainfall. It is good for crops like rice and sugarcane. They are part of a monsoon agricultural economy. They depned on the rain, but the rain has become erratic and less dependable. I conjure up images of water buffalo tilling the swampy flatlands, but I don’t know if that’s a stereotype image or they are still used today.

It is a very old civilization. It is part of a diverse and complex culture with deep ties to the land. Like the terraced rice hillsides, the people have adapted to the harsh monsoons, the rich soil, and the rugged landscape. Rebecca taught about the variations of Buddhism and Hinduism in this part of the world, but I’m not very well versed in that topic.

I think I know that the people have gone through many kingdoms and configurations of different governments. They have been molded by sometimes harsh rulers and occasionally benevolent leaders. They have been invaded on all sides but eventually won independence. They were a central trade point, but have not become the giant trade world hub like Japan. Through it all, there remains a humble, earthy spirit continues: a kindness, a quiet nobility persists.

I know that the Vietnamese people are industrious and determined. They seem to have recovered from the war and become a very successful, modern economy. They have re-unified politically, but I don’t know if there is standing resentment. And why wouldn’t there be? After 150+ years, there is an ever-present resentment by the former Confederate states because of the Union’s victory in the US Civil War. This is something that I want to explore.

We will explore these questions and be open for more in the next few chapters. I want to test whether or not my assumptions are true or something we’ve been brainwashed to believe. Stay with us as we dive in!

One thought on “Why Vietnam?

  1. I lived in Washington D.C., near the end of the Vietnam War, when my father was stationed at the Pentagon in the Air Force. I protested the war in front of the Washington Monument. If I were a man, I would not have gone to war even though my father was in the Air Force. He was going to be stationed to Thailand in 1972 and he said, “No thank you.” and retired. During our travels in the Air Force, we visited the Berlin wall. At the age of 13 I found it very disturbing. My ancestors are German who were born in Russia. They moved to Nebraska and never spoke German because of the war. I believe all generations are touched by war at some point in their lives. PEACE!


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