June 2001/July 2001
Rendezvous With War Symposium
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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."
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
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
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.
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
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."
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
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
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
Sydney Schanberg: Cambodia is
"still a ruined country. It might take another
generation or two before the residue of the war has washed
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"In fact, we were surprised that the war ended so
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.