Friday, March 27, 2009

And I heard the banging of hearts and fingers.....

War is stupid
And people are stupid

And love means nothing
In some strange quarters
And I heard the banging

Of hearts and fingers
After the bird has flown

He walked ten thousand
Miles back home
Culture Club, "The War Song"

Before I begin, I have to explain the quote that I chose for the beginning of my blog. On the ship's GPS channel which shows our longitude, latitude, speed, map, etc. there is background music. And the background music is the same loop over and over again, all 80s music. Some of the songs I keep hearing over and over again. Like this particular song. To be quite frank, I'm not even sure if it's about the Vietnam war. But every time I hear it, images register in my mind of US soldiers and the blood, sweat, and tears they shed in the battlefields of this foreign land that I just visited. Images of men in camouflage battle defense uniforms. Images of hippies forming their fingers into a "V" and hoping for peace, hoping that their lovers will return to them. Images of soldiers in the trenches, behind giant tanks, with lines of tired worry around their eyes.

Many went willingly and bravely. Most did not even understand why they were there. But they went with their heads held high. Some came back home to the loving arms of their families. Some never returned.

My own father was drafted in his early 20s to be part of Chiến tranh Việt Nam. When I was a little kid, I remember my dad turning off all the lights in the family room and showing us his Vietnam slides. (Please see my blog archives....I have shared some of these in a blog I wrote in October 08). When I was a child, I didn't really understand what we were looking at and even as an adult I never quite understood. My parents think I ask too many questions. The running joke among my parents and me is that after 7:00 PM they are tired, and no good for conversation and my questions are answered with a rolling of their eyes. (They are morning people.)

But my dad graciously agreed to respond to some of my questions via email. We have been exchanging emails about Vietnam for the past month or so. I keep thinking of more questions, even as I write this very blog. Here is some of the dialogue between my dad and me:
Q: Where in Vietnam was your base? I am going to the Mekong Delta, which I believe is pretty far away.
A: While in Vietnam I was in Quang Tri, which at the time was in the most northern region of South Vietnam called I Corps. Quang Tri Combat Base, which was my base camp, was about 10 miles south of the DMZ. The Mekong Delta area is way south of where I was. Your Vietnam trips sound fascinating - I wish that I could be there with you. I really never had a desire to return until I knew that you were going. Now I am excited for you. I still cannot believe what a great opportunity that this entire experience must be for you. Your grandma V is also fascinated by your blog and pictures! She can't wait to read each one!!!

Q: Why
did I get drafted?
A: After I received my BS degree, I worked for a year to earn enough $$ to go to grad school. Because I was no longer in school I lost my deferment and was drafted. Actually I received my draft notice about a week after I received my letter of acceptance to attend The University of South Florida, where I planned to study Marine Biology.
Q: How did you become an MP?
A: Very lucky, I guess. During basic training, they gave us a lot of tests and for whatever reason my results indicated that military police work was what I was best qualified for in the army.

Q: Why were we in Vietnam?
A: We were always told that it was our (USA) responsibility as the world leader to stop the spread of communism. At the time there was a popular belief in what they called the "Domino Theory", which stated that if one nation is taken over by communism all of the other countries in close proximity would also become communist controlled. Thus, the thinking was that we needed to step in and save South Vietnam from the bring defeated by the communist ruled North Vietnam.
Q: Do you think that it lasted so long because LBJ and Nixon just wanted to win? Did we win?
A: Difficult question. Although the US won every major battle during the 12 years or so that we were in Vietnam, the North Vietnamese were very strong willed and would not give up. It seemed like that each time that they were defeated in a battle that they would retreat and come back stronger and more determined to win the next one. LBJ and Tricky Dick Nixon saw the "handwriting on the wall" but were both too egotistical and stubborn to pull out thus admitting defeat. Consider that: 58,000 US soldiers lost their lives; as soon as the we left S.Vietnam the North Vietnamese invaded the took over south: and that Communism eventually prevailed. US propaganda still somehow call this a US victory. I beg to disagree.
Q: How did you feel when you were there? Did the "powers to be keep you in the loop" about what was going on?
A: At first I believed in the cause: that we there to support the S. Vietnam takeover by the communist North. As G.I.'s we were seldom informed about anything that was going on relative to the war. I learned about the war by having my mom send me newspapers from home. I was there for 14 months and about the 7th month I started to get discouraged and have my doubts about our involvement in Vietnam. By the time for me to come home, I realized that this a very "political war" and lost my enthusiasm and trust in our government.
Q: Did you know people that suffered post traumatic stress?
A: A very close friend came home with PTSD. He actually never recovered. Nightmares, Drugs, Alcoholism, Homeless, Depression, Low Self Esteem, Defeated, Worthless, No Reason To Live - characterized his life after Vietnam. Until around 1990 PTSD was not recognized or classified as an sickness. It was not until 1995 (24 years after returning home from Nam), my friend was diagnosed as having PTSD and awarded a settlement from our government. He has never been able to hold down a steady job and has not been able to get over the Vietnam war experience.
Q: How would you describe the Vietnamese people and their attitudes about the war? What do you remember about the Vietnam culture?
A: Most South Vietnamese people that I met and worked with were very friendly and said that they appreciated us being there and fighting for their cause. Many of course lived off of the "black market", which did wonders for the Vietnamese economy during the war years. What I remember most about the culture is the poverty and the terrible living conditions: Grass houses, dirt floors, no running water, no indoor plumbing, no shoes, children begging for food, clothes made from rags. Transportation was almost exclusively motor scooters and mini busses. There were no cars up north where I was. Rice was the main course of every meal for those that had food. Crime, drugs, and prostitution were the norms. The Buddhist temples and catholic churches stood out as the most well constructed and only beautiful buildings. You could easily tell that the people had a hard life - they always looked tired, wrinkled and hungry. I can't even imagine what life was like in South Vietnam after the US troops pulled out and the communist north took over.
Q:who was responsible for the bad decisions.....Lyndon B Johnson or JFK or both or neither?
A: JFK, LBJ, And Tricky Dick Nixon all share responsibility. However, LBJ and Nixon are the main culprits. They lied and misrepresented the war to the the American public for years. Countless lives (55,000 American soldiers) were lost due their selfish, egotistic and political agendas.
Q: What was Agent Orange? Why was it called that?
A: Agent Orange is the code name of a powerful herbicide and defoliant used by the U.S.military in what they called the Herbicidal Warfare Program. The object was to destroy the plant based ecosystem of an area for the purpose of disrupting agricultural food production and/or destroying plants which provide cover to the enemy. Vietnamese exposure to this dioxin is said to have resulted in an estimated 400,000 deaths and disabilities and 500,00 children born with birth defects. We (G.I.'s in Vietnam) were told not to worry and that the chemical was harmless.Many American vets who served in Vietnam were also exposed. Agent Orange was given its name by the color of the 55 U.S. gallon orange-striped barrels that it was shipped in.
I went to the War Remnants Museum my last day in Vietnam, after I returned from the Mekong Delta (see previous blog). I had asked my dad about the museum and here is what he had to say:

Hey Laur,
The Vietnam War Museum that you refer to is actually called the The War Remnants Museum.They say that it is the most popular and sobering museum in the city.I have done the virtual tour. It is not a politically balanced museum. The photos of the injured and dead are haunting and sickening. It paints a very negative picture of the US involvement in Vietnam. I agree with some of the points they make but strongly disagree with others. Go if you can and pick up lots of goodies for me. I am especially interested in pictures, postcards, a museum program and any other memorabilia from the Vietnam war years. Enjoy Bangkok, Be Safe, Love DAD

This museum was indeed jolting, the images were gruesome, and my visit there reeked havoc with my emotions. The museum was previously known as The Museum of American & Chinese War Crimes and then the Museum of War Atrocities, but they changed the name so American tourists would still visit. There were fetuses floating in formaldehyde, dead before birth because of Agent Orange. There were replicas of "Tiger Cages", which is the term used to describe the place where Prisoners of War were held. There was an infinite number of gruesome, disturbing pictures of death in the trenches. I took over 70 photos. (Dad, I'll email them to you.) I totally agree with my Dad's sentiments about the museum. You know, I always have believed there are two sides to every story, however- this museum really made Americans out to be tyrants.

During my trip to Vietnam, I was also able to visit the home of a former UPI (United Press International) photographer, along with a group of 25 students. The photographer's images appeared in magazines and newspapers across the world. He was a very kind man and he graciously showed us around his home and shared his photographs with us. He explained to us that he had dodged death by very narrow margins on several occasions, which made him fearless. He was imprisoned after the Vietnam war because of his war publications. But he didn't complain and he was one of the nicest Vietnamese people I met.

I do want to share a few of these images from the museum. (Note, these are *not* the images from the Photographer I visited, rather from the War Remnants Museum.)

Please note: the images appearing here do not do the museum justice. My words do not do it justice. The feelings evoked cannot really be explained by words, nor pictures.

Damn. I'm getting teary-eyed again. I don't know why I do this to myself.
But alas, there is one thing I do know for sure.
Photography: JPV and LBV
Content: JPV and LBV

Other people who made this blog possible: "Tricky Dick" Nixon, JFK, LBJ

1 comment:

Dara said...

I'm so glad your Dad contributed to this blog...I've never heard the view of someone who was there enlightening...

Thanks Mr. Vesalo :)