shrineMy friend and I were sitting on the outside deck of a restaurant, having lunch. The day was a microcosm of the summer in Upstate New York so far. First the sun and humidity made us wish for the a/c inside, then a sudden downpour rattled the awning over our heads before blowing off to the east. We talked about humanitarian work in Viet Nam.

I had been fretting about the inevitable haphazardness of individual efforts. He mentioned the number of schools he had seen in his travels around the countryside that had been built by well-meaning organizations but were empty or under-utilized. I worried that we were missing something.

“It is a little like seeing an old lady at a corner,” my friend said. “We rush over and help her across the street. She didn’t want to cross the street but in our need to help, we didn’t pay attention.”

Our talk turned to ghosts.

In American post-Vietnam War culture, the issue of MIAs achieved a kind of cult status that included movies, bracelets, and flags. It was and is deeply emotional, rooted in a military ethic that endeavors not to leave anyone behind, as well as in an urgency to rescue those who might be remaining in a place of traumatized memory. The issue became enmeshed with other, less available psychological forces, however, all of which have obscured and silenced the griefs of the Vietnamese people whose missing-in-action from the war we carried out on their land vastly outnumber our own.

In traditional Vietnamese culture, unburied dead can and usually do become unhappy spirits, plaguing their families because they are not buried and honored in their own home, often in the midst of the family rice paddy. They are capable of causing illness, harming crops, or physically attacking the living who can do little to appease them, apart from finding the remains and properly honoring them. It is a tangible manifestation of an anguish over losses in “the American War,” an anguish we don’t like to recognize is still there.

The problem is immense. There are still as many as 300,000 Vietnamese MIAs. (You won’t easily find that number by Googling, though. Even “how many Vietnamese soldiers are missing in action?” returns only links that talk about American MIAs.) It is difficult to fathom that number and so it is all too easy to dismiss it altogether. But the number matters. Each single missing soldier means a rupture in the fabric that holds community together. Each time remains are found and returned, there is a ceremony, a burial, a sense of completion and relief. It is slow and on-going work.

Because of the welcome Vietnamese extend to Americans, it is tempting to jump to the conclusion that they no longer feel the pain of war. We would be inclined to hold a grudge, the thinking goes, and as they evidently do not, we succumb to the temptation to believe that all is forgiven, the slate has been wiped clean. To do that, though, is to deny Vietnamese their humanity. It is a more benign form of William Westmoreland’s horrifying claim about the value of life (you can find that by Googling “westmoreland hearts and minds quote”). Making Vietnamese more-than-human is better than making them less-than-human but that’s all that can be said for it.

There wasn’t much left of the afternoon or many people in the restaurant. The sun was shining but I was not sure for how long.

We talked about the meaning of reconciliation. Countries that reconcile resume diplomatic relationships or negotiate trade agreements but what about individuals? My friend suggested that reconciliation means the willingness to accept the suffering of the opponent. To me this means looking past our own need for healing and our judgmentalism about things we cannot change. It means learning to listen to one another on the level of despair and grief so that we can make steps toward appeasing the ghosts on both sides.