A publication of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

June 2001/July 2001

Rendezvous With War Symposium

photo by Michael Keating

Return to Indochina: Recovering From The War 25 Years After

In April 2000, Vietnam Veterans of America and the College of William & Mary sponsored Rendezvous With War, a symposium that examined multiple aspects of the Vietnam War. Unlike the other panels, "Return to Indochina: Recovering From the War 25 Years After" concentrated more on the aftermath than on the war. In fact, it emphasized the future more than the past.

Moderated by VVA National Vice President Tom Corey, the panel was comprised of the soldier-writer Philip Caputo, who wrote A Rumor of War; Fred Downs, national director of the VAís Prosthetics Program; the journalist Sydney Schanberg, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting in Cambodia; Everett Alvarez, the longest held American POW in North Vietnam; and Rick Weidman, VVAís Director of Government Relations.

photo by Michael Keating
Tom Corey: "Meeting with Vietnamese veterans-with the former enemy-we have put things aside and looked at our responsibility to help the [POW/MIA]families that still wait for answers."

Tom Corey: Weíre going to discuss the return to Indochina. Although the war ended 25 years ago, the interest still remains for Vietnam veterans. In this session, we want to address some of those issues. Many veterans have returned to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, including several of the panelists.

Weíre going to ask each one of them to talk about what theyíve seen, what theyíve worked towards achieving with our former enemy, and what remains to be done on the home front with issues left from the war.

Vietnam Veterans of America has a program called the Veterans Initiative. While in Hanoi in 1993, we asked the Vietnamese for an accounting of our POW-MIAs towards the goal of the fullest possible accounting. In response, the Vietnamese requested that we go back and ask American veterans to turn over information they had taken off of bodies, information they had on burial sites--North Vietnamese and VC. We did this, and we returned in 1994 with information that had been turned over to us by American veterans.

Our first trip was tense. We went through a lot of war-related issues in the first meeting, but we were able to get the Vietnamese to understand why we were there. We have families at home that continue to wait for answers on their sons or their brothers or their fathers. We, as American veterans, have a responsibility: We donít leave our people behind. We told them we were here to address this issue and we hoped they would cooperate with us.

It took us probably until the third trip before they really understood that we were serious about this. We would continue to return with information provided to us by American veterans. This also helped a lot of American veterans, who. in turning information over to us, knew that the information could lead to more information on missing Americans. And it helped them get this past out of their attics, out of their closets, and get rid of some of the memories from the war.

Iíve talked to many individuals whoíve turned information over, and itís changed their lives. I have been fortunate to go back nine times addressing this issue. We met with the highest level people in Vietnam who deal with the POW-MIA issue, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Vietnam Office for Seeking Missing Persons, the Ministry of Defense, and the vice president of the country.

We work with the Joint Task Force-Full Accounting based in Hanoi and with Ambassador Peterson. We brief the ambassador every time we go in and discuss what we are going to do. The Ministry of Defense, which is responsible for accounting for their missing, told us that with the information we turned over to them, they had accounted for over 800 of their soldiers. They asked us to continue to ask American veterans to turn this information over. Itís important that the information gets to the families (just as it is that we get it to the American families) to fulfill our commitment as soldiers and defenders of those who have been left behind.

The program has proven to be more beneficial then we ever have imagined it could be. We go throughout Vietnam, meeting their veterans association members. We traveled to Hanoi, Dong Hoi, Dong Ha, Pleiku, Hue, Nha Trang, Danang, Saigon, and to many other provinces as well as to Laos. We are told by our Joint Task Force and by Ambassador Peterson that after each trip, more witnesses come forward with new information on where to find remains. This information is given our Joint Task Force-Full Accounting.

Iíve been very fortunate to be able to do this. Weíve busted through something that we thought could never happen. Meeting with Vietnamese veterans--with the former enemy--we have put things aside and looked at our responsibility to help the families that still wait for answers. Weíve achieved other milestones with the Vietnamese on the Agent Orange issue. We have encouraged them to allow American scientists and Vietnamese scientists to work together to find more answers on the health effects of Agent Orange.

photo by Michael Keating
Philip Caputo: "The war, psychologically or emotionally-however you want to put it-ended for me on that 1990 trip" back to Vietnam.

Philip Caputo: Iíve made two returns to Vietnam; the first in 1990, and the second in the spring of 1999. The occasion for the last visit was a magazine assignment. In 1990, I was asked to go to Vietnam with seven or eight American writers at the invitation of the Vietnamese Writersí Union. We who were veterans and then became writers were to meet their veterans whoíd become writers.

During this trip, I became the last American POW in Vietnam. I got a little tired of the socialist government Cookís tour of battlefield sites. I decided to break away from the group to visit the areas I had fought in. I did not have all of the bells and whistles and proper authorization and soon found myself under arrest. I was taken into a small building in a small village and told by the local policeman that I was to remain there until further notice.

I actually had visions of being shipped to Hanoi. But eventually all of this stuff was cleared up. In fact, the Vietnamese writer-poet who was with me wrote a very funny piece for a literary magazine--it was called "The Last American Prisoner in Vietnam." That was me.

The war, psychologically or emotionally--however you want to put it--ended for me on that 1990 trip. We met a lot of their people, some of whom had been war correspondents, some of whom were infantry or artillery officers, and who later wrote about their experiences.

I could talk for hours about that experience, but the one thing that comes to my mind occurred in the city that I had landed in in 1965 (Danang). We met with local members of the Writersí Union. The head of the Writersí Union, the Danang chapter, got up and introduced himself. He had been a platoon commander with (I think it was) the Sixty-Sixth North Vietnamese Division, which had been stationed very near to where I was, southwest of Danang.

He read a poem he had written about his experiences as a platoon commander. This poem describes how one of his men was wounded in action during the monsoon rain. He picked up this guy and carried him back towards what would pass as the rear--an aid station. The imagery was of the blood dripping from the wounds and into the mud, soaking in with

the rains and the mud of Vietnam.

This battle had taken place in 1966. I was quite astonished by this because I had written a poem in 1966 as a result of a battle. I didnít actually carry anybody, but five of my men were seriously wounded in an ambush, and I recalled pulling them towards the landing zone to evacuate. I wrote a poem, "Infantry in the Monsoon," describing this experience. Much of the imagery was the same. I didnít have the poem with me, but I remembered a few lines from it, and I recited the lines that were translated for this man. After the official festivities were over, he came to me and poured a tumbler full of Polish vodka for each of us. He threw his arm around my neck and said something in Vietnamese with tears in his eyes.

Believe me, this was very moving because--I donít want to make generalizations--but Vietnamese tend not to be emotionally demonstrative people. It was extraordinary for him to be crying in front of me. He said, "You and I are brothers in arms." We threw our arms around each other, then drank off the vodka.

When I went back in 1999, I was on an assignment with the National Geographic Adventure magazine. I was to return to those battlefields that I had seen in 1990. This time I had all of the proper authorization, and I was not arrested. Believe it or not--I couldnít believe I did this--I backpacked in Vietnam at the age of 57. I was with a poet who was old enough to remember the war but young enough not to have fought in it. We walked through the battlefields. We went up to the top of a mountain west of Danang, and what amazed me was that I could look at Vietnam for the first time as a place, as a country, as a culture--and not as an image or a metaphor of war.

That was really astonishing for me. On top of this mountain I had a very strange dream that may have been due to the malaria pills I was taking. In the dream I was encircled by a python, and I was choking to death. But I grabbed the python and had the strength to rip it off of my chest. The poet had asked me to tell him all of the dreams I had, and I told him that one.

At the end of the trip three weeks later, he said, "Iíve thought about your dream, and I know what it means." I said, "What?" He said, "The python was the past, and you have broken its grip."

photo by Michael Keating
Fred Downs: "When you defeat someone on the battlefield or they defeat you, and later you help the other person up, at that time the war is truly over."

Fred Downs: In 1987, the American government and the Vietnamese government were not speaking to each other, so President Reagan assigned Gen. John Vessey as an emissary to Vietnam on POW-MIA affairs to try to figure out some way to get the two countries talking again. Vessey came back with an agreement that would separate the humanitarian issues and the social issues, and he said we have a lot of humanitarian needs in the area of amputees.

Since Iím the national director of the Veterans Administration Prosthetics Program, the White House staff wanted me to go over there as part of a team. My chain of command asked, "Can you handle this?" because I had quite a reputation for hating the Vietnamese. Iíd made no secret of it over 20 years. They said, "Would you want to make this trip?" I said, "Yes."

There were three of us, as a party of humanitarians. Flying into Hanoi was the strangest feeling of my life--other than getting blown up 20 years earlier. When I left Vietnam, I had been in terrible condition. My platoon had been wiped out, I had lost a lot of friends. We landed in Hanoi, drove into the city, went through the excitement of the first night, and walked around the town at night. It was very strange.

photo by Geoffrey Clifford

The next day we met the Vietnamese government officials. When we took a break, I went for a walk around the Lake of the Restored Sword by myself.

A young soldier came out of my peripheral vision pushing his bike. On the bicycle seat was his son, four or five years old. They went by me, completely oblivious of me or anyone else, and the look between their faces--they were smiling and very happy--was a look of love.

It was a revelation. It struck me: "These are human beings!" I could not believe that I thought that because I didnít know I had such deep hatred for them. I realized we were not targets. Since then Iíve thought about it a lot. When you kill somebody, you have to dehumanize them. You just canít think about them as families. It would drive you nuts.

Suddenly, all of the hatred of over 20 years that I didnít know was really in me was pushed out of my soul, and I walked around the rest of the lake thinking,"These are humans." That didnít mean I had to love them or forgive them for all their past sins, but they were people who had been fighting for a reason, whatever it was. From that point on, I was able to look at them as a country and as a people. It was tremendously healthy for me.

I came back and wrote an article for the "Outlook" section of The Washington Post that said the war was over and it was time to begin to develop some kind of connection with Vietnam, and the way to do it was through humanitarian aid. I was immediately attacked by just about everybody. VVA did come out and support me. The other veterans service groups attacked me, and the Defense Department tried to get the Secretary of the VA to have me fired.

Lots of bad things happened. I was called a fool and a tool of the government. This was very interesting to me because when I came back from Vietnam 20 years earlier, I was considered a tool of the government and a fool. I just went over there and came back and said, "Hereís what we need to do." They said, "Youíre a fool and a tool of the government."

photo by Geoffrey Clifford

But I had to take a stand, and I felt it was the right thing to do, and we had to push forward here. Altogether, Iíve made 14 trips with the U.S. Government and USAID. I was never the "high guy" in the delegation; I was always the lowest person there. I was always the point of the spear, so to speak. So I went to hospitals and rehab units all over the north, the south, and the central of Vietnam. I met a lot of vets.

One thing youíll learn about the Vietnamese is that theyíre not shy and will tell you exactly whatís on their mind, and theyíre not afraid of their government. They tell you many times, "I fought for my country, and Iíll say what I want to say."

One time in Haiphong harbor we visited the Childrenís Hospital. We had the usual entourage of North Vietnamese Foreign Service people and translators.

I remember one room full of children. The mothers are in the rooms. Their children are with them with two or three babies on the same bed. I went into one room, and thereís this little child who must be--I donít know--eight months old. Thereís a tube hooked to its mouth and a rubber bladder. The mother is holding the infant and the father is pumping the rubber bladder. Theyíd been doing that three days straight. There was nothing else for them to do.

There was no fancy equipment, no fancy machines. The look on their faces was very tragic. They just looked at us, but they didnít stop what they were doing. The father was pumping--heíd pump for a while, then the mother pumped for a while--trying to help the child breathe. While weíre there, the child died.

As I leave the hospital, I think to myself that there are many people who feel the same way that I felt before I made my first trip. I thought how important it was to dissolve that hatred, because it destroys us as individuals.

We were hungry, and it was about two oíclock in the afternoon. We were in two vehicles, itís dusty, and itís as hot as can be. We see a restaurant down the street, and we stop there.

Both cars pulled in front of this open restaurant. The doors are wide open, and thereís a dignified Vietnamese gentleman in a white suit standing there with his arms crossed with a white hat on. We piled out and he doesnít move a muscle. The Vietnamese delegation runs up to him and explains real fast who we are. We sit down in one set of round tables.

Next to us was another set of round tables, and there were about eight or ten Vietnamese guys with berets--got the hard-core look. You know theyíre all former soldiers, and they looked at us. One of the first things weíre always asked is, "Have you ever been to Vietnam before?" I always tell them I was in Vietnam, Chu Lai, in 1967-68, and I lost my arm there because they always want to know about that. But conversation didnít happen between the two tables; they asked the Vietnamese officials about us.

It got to the part about me, and one guy lights up when he finds Iíd been in Chu Lai. He jumps up and runs over and shakes my hand. I stand up and we shake hands, and the translators are going back and forth, and he says he was such and such, and he was in South Vietnam the same time I was.

He wants to shake the hand of an old soldier, and I said, "Well, maybe youíre the guy who planted the land mine that blew up my arm." He said, "Well, maybe youíre right--let me buy you more beer." He buys the beer, then he runs next door and comes back with a big flowerpot and three little flowerpots. He presents them to me for my wife and my children, as a gift from one veteran to another.

Finally, I want to point out the commonality of the common soldier who does his duty. The Vietnamese said they admired us because we did our duty as soldiers. They didnít think much of what our government did, but they did admire us as soldiers. In much the same way, I think all soldiers feel that way. And thatís something we must never forget: which we as soldiers must learn to give away our hate, let it go away from us, and then learn how we can turn to our former enemy.

When you defeat someone on the battlefield or they defeat you, and later you help the other person up, at that time the war is truly over.

photo by Michael Keating
Sydney Schanberg: Cambodia is "still a ruined country. It might take another generation or two before the residue of the war has washed away."

Sydney Schanberg: Iíve been back to Cambodia three times since the war and to Vietnam once.

Iíve often felt, maybe because Iím a reporter, that thereís a difference between calling oneself a writer or an author and a reporter. When you can earn your living as a reporter, you believe in what reporters do and you think itís an honorable way to spend a life. You never settle with issues--at least I never have--where huge lies remain in place.

One of the things, for me anyway, that holds back the coming to terms with the aftermath of the Vietnam War is that although a great deal has been told, a great deal has not. For example: All three major powers--the United States, China, and the Soviet Union--used Cambodia for their own purposes.

The war in Vietnam was a result of all three great powers being frozen in cold war politics; their minds couldnít get out of cold war politics. If the Soviet Union was allied with Vietnam, then Vietnam was our enemy. They all used Cambodia militarily and politically, without caring very much what happened to the Cambodians.

Thatís easily demonstrated with what we see now in Cambodia. Itís still a ruined country. It might take another generation or two before the residue of the war has washed away enough for them to begin to rebuild in a true sense. There are the beginnings of stirrings of democracy there, but it is still an authoritarian, corrupt place. Theyíre in the bottom two or three countries in the world with health care, and their roads canít really be called roads. A whole generation of men was pretty much wiped out. This has skewed the country, and it can be--for those of us who knew it before--a very depressing place.

When I talk about the lies, I say, "Yes, of course, China and the Soviet Union should be pressed to tell us the truth about what they did." But the most one can do as a reporter in this country is to say, "We proclaim that weíre a democracy and an open society, so what is the reason weíre still hiding a lot of information about what we did?"

We didnít care very much as a government about the Cambodians. The evidence is voluminous. Even when we invaded in 1970, we never told our new ally in advance that we were coming into his country and his soil. Nixon went on television and told the American people before the leader of the junta that had deposed Sihanouk was told.

The Cambodian officials first learned about the invasion from Army radio in Saigon. They began asking what it was, asking members of the American press. [New York Times reporter] Henry Kamm actually translated the radio broadcast for some of the officials. Thatís how they learned that their country had been invaded. Lon Nol himself didnít get a copy of this speech until late that day. We did all this, proclaiming how close we were and how we cared about them, but there was no evidence of that.

In the first two years of the war we spent all of a million dollars in refugee aid, while hundreds of thousands of people poured into Phnom Penh. Back in Washington, they said there wasnít any refugee problem.

In the United Nations we fought diplomatically year after year to make sure that the Vietnamese-installed Cambodian government could not sit in the UN. So the seat remained occupied by the Khmer Rouge. If you think the Khmer Rouge committed genocide, it was an odd scene you had at the UN with the Khmer Rouge flag flying outside. That really was the equivalent of flying the swastika flag in front of the UN in its early years.

We never really explained all those things to the American people. I think some healing would take place if more truths were told. Finally, as a reporter, most of my remaining writing now about that time has to do with the POW issue. I became very involved in it in the early nineties and did a lot of research and a lot of writing, and I continue to. It doesnít seem to have any resonance at all with the public.

There were, in my view, research, several hundred who were still alive in 1973, and we still donít know what happened to them. After telling the big lie at the beginning--that all the prisoners had come home--it became impossible to do any negotiating afterward. In this country, how would you tell the public, how would you begin negotiating for or ransoming those who were still alive, having said in 1973 that there was no one left?

As the years pass, no one really knows if thereís anyone still alive. It is suspected from whatever intelligence we have that the vast majority of those men were executed. I still write about that, and I write about strange things like the legislative history of John McCain in the Senate, who spent a good deal of energy working tirelessly to pass legislation to keep information about POWs from being made public.

All the debriefings of POWs are still secret, including his own, and there are many other statutes that he has amended to inhibit the search for information. I donít think many people know about that, but thatís his legislative record. Itís not something I dreamed up, itís in black and white in legislation, in Defense Appropriation bills, in something called "The McCain Truth Bill," which was anything but that. That was passed in 1991, and I leave you with that as one of those unfinished issues.

I think we have come to terms with lots of things about the war, but the government has a harder time coming to grips with losing than I think the average person does.

photo by Michael Keating
Everett Alvarez: "I noticed both times I went back that the war was not an issue. They have forgotten the war."

Everett Alvarez: Let me just begin by saying that I take issue with Mr. Schanberg on John McCainís legislative history. You can make a lot of a personís 17-year record positively or negatively, when you want to do it. I think thatís another topic for another day.

I had the opportunity to return to Vietnam twice, the first time in 1993. That was an occasion where I was asked to participate in a documentary. They wanted to film the old Hoa Lo Prison, nicknamed "The Hanoi Hilton," before it was torn down.

The last place in the world that I wanted to go was back to Vietnam. But they persisted, and finally curiosity got the better of me and I agreed to go.

When I started telling my friends that I was going to go back, the reaction was mixed. They said, "Are you sure youíre gonna be alright?" I said, "Well, what do you mean?" "Well, you know, itís gonna be a big emotional thing for you. Are they taking a doctor with you?" "No, nobody said anything about doctors." "At least, are they gonna take a psychiatrist?" I said, "Why?" and they said, "Itís gonna be such an emotional coaster ride for you, you should have someone there."

I got a bit concerned, so I called a friend who had been there previously. I said, "Did you go with a doctor?" "Oh God, no" he said. "Go and have a good time." He told me what hotels to stay in, what bars to visit. So I went. Let me tell you that I was quite surprised because aside from the things Iíd read, not a lot had changed in í93.

What surprised me were the attitudes of the people. All the young people were learning English. Youíd go to any restaurant, the menu was in Vietnamese and English--not French, not Russian. All the kids wanted to practice their English with you. People never talked about the war. They were moving forward. I ran into quite a number of Vietnam veterans traipsing all over the countryside with their backpacks. We talked a lot to these people--other Americans, other travelers--and whenever I asked them, "Did anybody ever mention POWs or MIAs?" they said the subject never came up. That surprised me.

I went back again last November on business. This time we were doing some work for the State Department. I was back for a week. I stayed with my friend Pete Peterson, the ambassador. He lives two blocks from the new Hanoi Hilton, a beautiful new hotel. What struck me is that since the recognition of Vietnam thereís been a tremendous amount of foreign investment in the country.

In Hanoi alone I saw seven skyscraper hotels and a lot of high-rise residences. In fact, one of them, the new Convention Center, sits right on the site where the old Hanoi Hilton, the old prison, was.

What impressed me this time was not so much the difference economically, but the tremendous pent-up energy within the Vietnamese business community thatís just busting to tear loose.

Whatís holding things back are the very restrictive laws in Vietnam. The old guard, the old bureaucracy, still controls a lot of whatís happening. Evolution is painfully slow. The younger generation of business people--people whoíve been educated in the West--cannot wait for the old people to get out of the way so they could get going and catch up.

Youíre going to see tremendous advances in Vietnam. I think that youíll see them surpass Taiwan, Malaysia, and Korea. They canít wait, and they want strong business relationships with the United States, as well as with other Western countries. But the United States is what they want.

I noticed both times I went back that the war was not an issue. They have forgotten the war. The generations have gone on. When we went back in 1993 with this film crew, there was a support crew counterpart on the other side, all of them were Vietnamese veterans.

My point is that they have gone on in their efforts, and theyíre not looking back. The divisions concerning Vietnam have always been here, amongst ourselves.

photo by Michael Keating
Rick Weidman: "We need to let go of the hate because seizing on the hate keeps us from doing what we need to do to help all of our brothers and sisters truly come home again."

Rick Weidman: It is a covenant between the people of the United States and the men and women who have placed themselves in harmís way in service to country to insure that each man and each woman is restored to the highest degree of self-sufficiency possible--physically, neuropsychiatrically, economically, emotionally, and spiritually. That is the covenant, and I use that word advisably. In other words, itís unbreakable.

When we took that step forward to join the military, we placed life and limb in defense of the Constitution of the United States--not a particular government and not a particular policy. The Constitution begins with three words: "We the People." Thatís where that covenant was sealed, and thatís an obligation thatís legal. More to the point, it is a moral obligation and a sacred obligation.

Unfortunately, we have not very often in the history of our country lived up to that covenant. It is a contention of VVA--and I personally deeply believe--that the explicit goal of every single veterans program must be to help return each veteran to the highest degree of wholeness, wellness, and self-sufficiency possible.

For veterans of working age, that litmus test is helping the individual obtain and sustain meaningful employment. You start with that as a precept, and then everything else starts to shake out of it. It is the whole wellness concept that has many avenues to bring us back to focusing on the wounds of war, at those conditions that are derivative directly of military service, whether in wartime or not.

One of the major steps in that is something that VVA has been pushing hard for two years now, at innumerable meetings between George Duggins, myself, Dr. [Thomas] Garthwaite, and Bob Maras, whoís head of our Veterans Affairs Committee. Theyíve finally undertaken the Veteransí Health Initiative, which takes a military history: "What branch did you serve in? What was your MOS? What were your dates of service? What were your duty stations? What actually happened to you?" and use that in diagnosis. We need to pick up information on hepatitis C, Agent Orange, dioxin level, blood count, and tropical parasites. This must be done for veterans of every generation, not just Vietnam.

I have not been back to Vietnam, but itís something I strongly support. There are four reasons to go back. We move toward reconciliation with the Vietnamese not because thereís been a metamorphosis and suddenly the NVA and the people who run the Hanoi government have suddenly become swell guys. Thatís not it. Itís not for them; itís for us. We need to let go of the hate because seizing on the hate keeps us from doing what we need to do to help all of our brothers and sisters truly come home again.

There are three other reasons why we need to go back. First is the POW-MIA issue. If youíre going to resolve the issue, youíve got to talk to the folks who were at these areas. Thatís where the information is.

Similarly, on the issue of Agent Orange, an important part of that puzzle of getting at the overall effect of the toxic cocktail that included Agent Orange to which we were exposed on the hazardous battlefield in Vietnam is there. That is the place to do a joint Vietnam-U.S. scientific investigation over a long period of time. Tom Corey and many other folks at VVA have worked very hard to bring it about.

Last but not least, the reason to go back has to do with trade. If we are going to trade with Vietnam where American blood was spilled, then the men and women who sacrificed in the war there--who shed blood on that soil--should be first in line for government assistance from the Export-Import Bank and all the government programs doing trade with Vietnam. Vietnam vets are being left out in the cold.

In terms of where we need to go today to fulfill that covenant, there are many unaddressed issues. The crux of all of it has to do with that covenant--whether it be Post-traumatic Stress Disorder or hepatitis C. If we focus on the needs of the veterans to help make them as well again as possible, and at the same time demand accountability from every sector of government (particularly VA), then we will get to where we need to go. To get decent medical care for physiological needs and the veteran as a whole person--not addressing one issue and not the other--decent care for PTSD that really helps people keep their jobs and keep their families, which Vet Centers do very well.

But the Vet Centers need stronger, consistent support from the hospitals and a quality-assurance system that makes some sense, so that whether or not you acquire and are able to access decent medical care, itís not dependent on your physical locale. To have to go to Baltimore to access services when you live in Newport News is crazy, but sometimes that is exactly the effect of the lack of a quality-assurance system.

I want to add one other thing that cannot be legislated. That has to do with us. People often ask me, "What do you all want?" I could go on forever about all of the particular issues, but essentially, what Vietnam veterans are asking for is justice. Justice: It is not a neutral term. In order to be able to achieve that, we need to start to love ourselves again and truly respect ourselves again.

From that will grow the pride, and a group of people will be able to stick together and change America. We already, as a group and individually, have had a profoundly positive effect on this society, despite all of the negative stuff--what I call "the Kojak image" in the popular media

Weíve become leaders in our communities, in our churches, in the business sector, and in government, despite the deck being stacked against us. But we have a long way to go, and we need to reach back inside and start to love ourselves and each other again and make America what America truly can be.

Tom Corey: Iím going to ask each panel member for additional comments.

Philip Caputo: I would very much agree about the attitudes in Vietnam today. What impressed me in my visit this past spring was that they who suffered far more than we did in the war have integrated their experiences and are very eager to get on with things.

My experience is more with their cultural and literary and journalistic people, rather than with their business people. But I do know that a lot of their writers and a lot of their journalists--they have a very talented group of people--are getting frustrated with those old fogies who are in there--this group of ancient Stalinists.

As one poet said: "We were in a village that I had been in back in 1965. Although electricity had been brought to this village, nothing else was any different than it had been 35 years ago: dirt floors, no indoor plumbing, people had to ride a bicycle down a dirt track for I donít know how long to get to the nearest market."

This poet pointed out to me that the village chief did not have flooring in his village because he was putting his son through university. So he could not afford to tile the floor in his house.

The poet said that people here have a saying that you must pray for three bowls of rice and three shirts in the wintertime. They do not have the power to dream. He said: "My role as a poet is to teach people how to dream. I cry for my people, but I have to cry for them quietly." If he cries too loud, some of these people who are still in power--these old-line Stalinists--might come down hard on him. So I would agree that there is a great deal of energy waiting to be released there. I hope that we can help them do it.

I couldnít agree more that we must stop getting obsessed with the war. It occurs to me that between now and when I went to Vietnam in 1965 is several years longer than from the end of the Vietnam War to Pearl Harbor.

Yet here we are, we still have people listening to this ancient event. It means itís still important, but I think we need to forgive each other and love each other. Weíve got to remember two things. Weíve got to remember what we did wrong in Vietnam, what it revealed that was wrong about our character, and simply accept that weíre not perfect. And we also have to remember, though, that we did go there for very good reasons, in some cases the best of reasons, that somehow went awry. We are neither villains nor great heroes; we are people--ordinary people--with flaws and with virtues.

Once we accept ourselves in that way, it will go a long way toward helping us to forgive ourselves, to love each other, and to put this experience once and for all behind us.

Fred Downs: I donít think I can add much to whatís been said. All of us who are involved with Vietnam contributed to its destiny with our blood, sweat, and tears, and so we have a vested interest in a successful outcome.

It involved so much of our effort as individuals, whether we were there or we stayed at home with families who watched and waited. It is part of Americaís history now and part of Americaís future. So our response is always to be interested in a part of our lives that we wanted to do well. Thatís the reason we have these kinds of conferences and searches, and I hope we come up with solutions and answers.

Everett Alvarez: The interest in Vietnam today is stronger than it ever was, especially in the younger generation. I find that speaking to young people in a forum like this, where we present all sides of the spectrum that was Vietnam, is important because their curiosity is key, thereís a lot of lessons learned--politically, militarily, and economically--and their interest is most remarkable.

Rick Weidman: I hope weíve moved closer to the point of normalization to more veterans going back. I want to come back to "Where do we need to go from here?" That has to do with organize, organize, organize. To focus the issues--when in doubt, organize. Whether itís for VVA or for any other organization.

A lot of folks in school have no concept: Vietnam is more distant than even World War II was for us when we came home from Vietnam. We have to impart the values of our generation--the best of our values--to the next generation and to the generations succeeding. It is our moral obligation to get off the dime and get into colleges and into the high schools and transmit not only what happened in that experience but the motivation that led each of us to go.

The precipitating incident may have been different in every case. Some were enlisted, some were drafted, some were given the choice of the slammer or Vietnam. It doesnít matter what led us there. What matters is that people served and with the best of that which is in us, they came out through that service. It is all of that upbringing which had been imparted to us by our parents, grandparents, and our society. It is our moral obligation to pass it on to the succeeding generation.

And so I would urge that we take that next step if we do nothing else. When in doubt, organize.

Tom Corey: For them the war is over. The Vietnamese in every part of that country want Vietnam veterans back there. They want the Americans; they donít want the Japanese or anybody else. The war is over, and they want to work with us. Same in Laos and Cambodia--the Lao people want us there, the Cambodians want us there. They understand what happened in the war. They put it behind them in the sense that theyíre willing to sit with us and talk about it, and they want to be our friends. Iíve seen that for a number of years.

Question: Youíve spoken about the continuing struggle in America for closure on the war, and Iím curious as to why you encountered this lack of animosity towards Americans in Vietnam. And why do you suppose that Vietnam has moved on and has integrated or forgotten this war?

Fred Downs: In 1988, we invited a Vietnamese delegation to America. They stayed for a week. At one point, I asked one of the delegates, who had been a doctor during the war, "Did you ever get discouraged by all those thousands of wounded?"

He said, "No, our leaders told us that the war would last a very long time against the Americans--a very powerful, very rich people. The war would go for a long time, and the future was a fog.

"In fact, we were surprised that the war ended so early."

I was just astounded. But look at how long they fought the French, and before that the Chinese. These people had fought forever, and they fought us for about ten years. And to them, that was a very short period. And they always tell you each time you ask them: "The war is the past. Letís go to the future." And to them, the American war was a short war.

Philip Caputo: They won the war, and wars that are won tend to become far less obsessive than those that are lost. For example, in our own country, the obsession with the Civil War in the North probably did not survive the generation that fought in it, but it continued to be an obsession in the South for many, many decades afterwards.

   

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