Before I made my first visit to Vietnam three years ago, I put a message on a Linkedin group for UNC alums, asking for memories of the 60s in Chapel Hill. I had in mind a community-building reminiscence about a challenging and exciting time, shared with the benefit of the wisdom that comes from decades of reflection.
That didn’t work out so well.
I myself had spent the intervening time filtering out anything having to do with Vietnam, the war we call the Vietnam War and its aftermath. I had been outraged in a suitably liberal way by what I saw as gratuitous war-mongering in Central America and the Gulf but I also decided that when it came to protest marches, I had done that already. I suppose it might be said that in those years I had put the war behind me.
Then I was invited to visit Vietnam and everything changed. What I thought had been laid to rest, or had been healed on account of time passing, or was now safely contained within history books exploded back into life, impinging on everything I did, insisting on being seen. I posed my question on Linkedin and saw that this was true for others as well.
The first response I got was aggressive and insulting. It was as if no time had passed. The slogans were still there, the ready generalizations, the raw first takes on events, unfiltered by distance or context. The second was milder but in the same vein. I said I was not interested in refighting the old battles, I just wanted stories. I did get a few but I backed away from my project until I could figure out what was going on.
Since that time I have watched online stories having to do with Vietnam – diplomacy, trade, efforts to clean up Agent Orange. The comments to these stories on the discussion boards reveal a visceral pain that is triggered simply by the name, “Vietnam.” The anger, the betrayal, the grief take place in the present tense.
And so it was, five years ago, when Joan Baez was in Idaho Falls for a concert. Four Vietnam veterans stood outside with signs accusing her (among other things) of encouraging the killing of Americans. The encounter had all the familiar elements – protesters, inflammatory slogans, accusations, insults, and an icon of the protest movement. When I saw what the signs said, my old anger rose and with it came a sense of helplessness, despair, and resignation.
But I have much to learn. These veterans were flinging at Joan Baez the accusations they had heard or thought they had heard against themselves. When she was told the men were outside with their signs, she went right out to meet and talk to them. She went to them and she listened. She summed it up later by saying, “They just wanted to be heard.”
It is 50 years later and the need to be heard – on all sides – is so deep, so profound, so urgent that it erupts in inappropriate ways as a cry of anguish. The pain of that time is not healed. It is barely contained, simmering beneath the surface of ordinary life. It holds us back, even decades later, and it affects us as a nation. The hurt, the unresolved grief, the confusion, and betrayal have lodged in my generation for a long time but we are a feisty bunch. If Joan Baez could walk out to meet with men who were accusing her of treachery and it could end with them asking for her autograph, we can all learn to listen. We can learn just to listen to the stories, hear the truth of them, share the tears.
In this spirit, once again I am going to Vietnam and I am gathering a group to go with me. There are no guarantees when it comes to healing and there are many paths to it. No one can promise that by traveling to Vietnam miracles will happen, but every time Americans travel to Vietnam in a spirit of listening and learning we change the world. And that change changes us.
If you have a passion to learn about this country with which we are woven, please consider joining us. Our group will include no more than nine people and we will go in February of 2015. If you are interested, please contact me privately.