October 10, 2016 by Tim Martin, originally published here http://bit.ly/2d3Bbmn
When I was young and as malleable as liquid mercury, I was taught that “the only good commie is a dead commie.” I was told that America was a righteous nation and that “God was on our side.” I grew up on a steady diet of cold-war dogma. By the time I entered high school, the government had sharpened its anti-communist rhetoric to a point where it could have been used to cut drywall. At age 17 I joined the U.S. Navy in order to fight the “creeping red menace” in a far-away place called Vietnam.
The Vietnam War came to be known as my generation’s signature catastrophe.
Many American veterans are still fighting the war in their heads. They have yet to deal with the body counts, the burned villages, the napalmed children, and the carpet-bombed countryside they left behind. I am one of them. I recently returned to Vietnam to exorcise some of my own demons. I went there afraid of what I might find and came home with a deeper understanding of the people I once considered “the enemy.”
Vietnam is not the image of a war-torn country. We didn’t “bomb them back into the Stone Age” as General Curtis LeMay once suggested. It is prospering farming communities and bustling cities and free-flowing commerce. The Vietnamese are an extraordinary people. Their simple kindness humbles me. They hold no resentment toward America. They have forgiven us for the destruction and the ghastly aftermath of Agent Orange. They’ve shrugged it off as an inevitable consequence of war.
There are no throwaway people in Vietnam, no unemployed or homeless. The Vietnamese are gracious, sincere, and hard-working. Everyone has a job and a purpose. Education is highly valued and age is highly revered. Insulting an elder or an ancestor is considered a serious offense. Vietnamese people are polite and dignified. There are no loudmouths, no pushy types and (oddly enough) no road rage, despite the nation’s estimated 39 million motorbikes.
Vietnam is a place of traditions. Meals are typically shared. A bride at her wedding changes dresses seven times. Funerals are held in the street and the deceased are entombed on property belonging to their families. The beauty of the country pulls at your emotions. There are Buddhist temples high on mountaintops, water buffalo grazing alongside the Mekong River, and rice fields that stretch as far as the eye can see. Vietnam is an endless ballet of traffic in Ho Chi Minh City. It is a monsoon rain in Danang, a Dragon Boat on the Perfume River, and the laughter of children in Hanoi that brings warmth to the heart of a lonely traveler.
There is an infinitesimal police presence in Vietnam. No armored vehicles roam the streets. No military solders or government officials study your every move. The Vietnamese government trusts its citizens, and its tourists. Relations between the U.S. and Vietnam normalized in 1995. Diplomatic ties are strong. The first KFC opened in 1997. Starbucks made an appearance in 2013, and McDonald’s opened one year later.
Vietnam is a purging of the soul for the returning veteran. It is also an aching heart. A large number of Vietnamese people have lost friends and relatives to war. Others have lost entire families. They are the maimed, the orphaned and the widowed — a nation building lives out of fragments of the past. Meanwhile, our government struggles to obliterate any important lessons we might have learned from Vietnam as it maintains a nationalistic echo chamber that will give them a freer hand in conducting future interventions around the world.
It shames me that my country has become the biggest warmongering nation on the planet. This has got to change.
America put the Vietnamese people through an unspeakable hell. Despite this, they are gracious and sincere, and happy we are now friends. I would like to blame the Vietnam War solely on our leaders, but the shameful truth is that we were all responsible. We can no longer absolve ourselves by claiming that we were lied to, because the lies continue. The notion that we are pushing democracy with our present murderous wars is preposterous — we are pushing Empire.
I am sorry for the atrocities the Vietnamese people had to live through, every stray bullet and every misplaced explosive that was written off as collateral damage. Vietnam was never a threat to our country. They only wanted independence. America tried to bomb a nation back into the Stone Age. Instead, we should have been bombing them with love.