It is March 1969 in a place west of Saigon that the men called the Tobacco Field. They also called it Ambush Valley. Civilians were rare here, so when this group of farmers walked nearby, Captain Meager (second from right) with his interpreter went to talk to them. Mark (who took the picture) said Capt. Meager asked them if there were Viet Cong nearby and they said, no, they didn’t know about any Viet Cong, which seemed too mundane a story for me so I saw more in it.
Look at the body language. Capt. Meager is sitting, resting his elbow on his thigh, leaning forward. His translator stands at his side, bent down, hands on knees, also relaxed. The women have gathered in front of them, faces open, smiling, interested. Men like this are new in their world and, war or not, they are intrigued.
This is a rare look at the war. Far more common are images of devastation, frightened women hiding in rice paddies, soldiers running through tall grass, choppers flying in and out bearing bombs or body bags. In this photo the Americans and the Vietnamese are talking, interested not only in what each other is saying but in who they are. I imagine a conversation that should have happened before the conflict started, one in which Americans would take the time actually to listen, as they do here.
Such a conversation did not happen, though. Hostilities started before either side had the chance to understand the other. The ‘enemy’ in Vietnam materialized, faded away, and rematerialized, never obeying the rules of war the Americans thought they had defined. I imagine that enemy here, though. It is the man second from the left whose posture is furtive. He leans so as to hide behind the women in front. Here might be the Viet Cong Capt. Meager is asking about. Or it might be just a farmer. There wasn’t always a difference.
It is not too late to pick up the thread of that conversation, though. The willingness is there. On our last trip, Mark met some former Viet Cong in the place where they had fought each other so long before. These men – American and Vietnamese – stood for photos with their arms around each others’ shoulders. One of the Vietnamese men laughed and said he was glad they had not been better shots!
The willingness is there on our side, too. Sure, there are still those who, having lived this long carrying the energy of a war that is ended, are willing to die carrying it. But more people, at least the ones I talk to, are wary at the idea of going to Vietnam, afraid war energy will still be carried there against us. To that, all I can say is, peace comes when both sides are willing to lay their war energy down and learn something they did not know before. It is still possible. It is always possible. Even after all these years.
There is still room on our next trip to Vietnam – Vietnam in 2016. Consider joining us.