I wrote this for CORE Viet Nam, 27 Nov. 2012.
“I will never go there.”
“I will go anywhere but there.”
“Once was enough.”
“I’m just not obsessed with it.”
“We have just … moved on with our lives.”
All of these, and others like them, came in response to a simple invitation: to travel with a group to Viet Nam. Now, admittedly the invitation was specifically about visiting in the company of “veterans and civilians” but what these reactions reveal is this: the Vietnam War is not over.
“I will never go there. I remember the fear.”
We all do, those of us who lived through that time. I see it in the stories of those who fought. I see it on the faces of those who are, at the same time, telling me it isn’t there. In memory, that fear has become attached to one word: Vietnam. That word is a code for a tangle of associations, relationships, failures, and struggles. It is a code for a time of life, for behaviors, for unfulfilled hopes. It is natural not to want to go back there.
So why go?
The young people who came of age during that war, of which I am one, got blamed then for our idealism and are still being blamed now either for holding onto it too long or giving it up too soon. Rightly or wrongly, our generation tore apart a world of certainty. Decades later, we live in constant change, relentless irony and pervasive cynicism. It is hard to know where to put our feet.
To decide to go to Viet Nam, the 21st century country, in the company of veterans and civilians, is to reclaim that idealism. It is to declare that wounds can heal if they are named. It is to restore ourselves to our own histories shared with others. It is to believe in hope.
I am going to Viet Nam in the company of veterans and civilians because I believe that we did not finish our work in the 60s. That we did not is understandable, given our age. We simply closed a door we did not know how to keep open. There is so much pain in the world, so many legitimate tugs on our time and resources. The war ended. We thought that was enough.
So now a group of us – veterans and civilians – are going back. Yes, we are going back to a place that no longer exists, except that it does. It exists in ways that differ for each person who will come and for each person who watches us go. We go because it is imperative that just as we learned war at a critical time in our lives, we must now learn peace. We go so that we may set something against the world of war – grief, honor, pleasure, friendship.
If not now, when?
The question that ends this blog is also the one Dan Hamlin used to end his blog, A Novice Considering a Trip to Viet Nam. It comes from a quote by Rabbi Hillel, “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?”