In all the stories of the United States and Vietnam there runs a mysterious emotional and psychic connection that weaves through the increasingly frantic and desperate actions of the war, persists in the sad and unresolved aftermath, and shows up in the stories of individual people.
The connection is most apparent in veterans. Many, many veterans, some immediately after the war and some to this day, have returned to Vietnam to get involved, to open schools, to clean up UXO, to create clinics. Others return thinking they want just to lay something to rest by going back to places of fear and violence and what they find there allows them to release painful memories.
When we made our trip last year, three of our group were veterans. Because of our random seat assignments, I was way behind Mark when we arrived at Tan Son Nhat Airport. I knew he would be setting foot in Vietnam for the first time in 44 years and I didn’t know what impact that would have. I needn’t have worried. “I was home,” he said.
Other veterans express an anger, hatred, and desire for revenge that they can’t release. Against all reason, they blame an entire country and all of its people for an experience they were forced to endure decades ago. Some will not entertain the thought of going back “there” even though their rational minds know the war is over. Maladaptive as all these feelings are, they, too, are signs of connection.
It isn’t just veterans. Many former anti-war activists get a strange look in their eyes at the thought of going to Vietnam (one person said, “going back,” even though that person had never physically been there). The thought stirs something deep, powerful, and avoided. Talking about their memories of that time may make them cry, for reasons they can’t fully articulate. I have written about my own panic attacks at the thought of traveling to Hanoi, emotions that mystified me. Others (I was one of these, too) are drawn to the journey, as though to complete, or enlarge, or understand something still alive within themselves. One man who has spent some time in Vietnam said, “Though I was never a soldier, I feel a bond with Vietnamese I have never felt anywhere else. I don’t know why.”
I have read that Vietnamese think of Americans as having become entangled in their karma. I don’t understand that and it would be for them to explain it, but if there is truth in that way of seeing, then it goes both ways. It was our fate to come up against the limitations of our superior technology, to have our expectations confounded, our certainties about the world turned upside down. That disruption has a powerful magnetic attraction. It is fascinating and addictive, for by engaging it we come more fully to know ourselves. Vietnam is our nemesis, not in the popular sense of arch-enemy, but in the mythological meaning as the thing that brings hubris back into balance.
There’s an old Vietnamese saying: “Those who wage war in Vietnam …
will never leave.”
The saying is quoted by Ken Herrmann, a veteran and founder of a school for American college students in Da Nang, Ailing Brockport professor keeps fighting.