Vo Minh, the author we met last week in Binh Dinh Province, came to our hotel in Hanoi last night with his wife. He brought a present of Vietnamese coffee from Buon Ma Thuot and an hour of conversation that took place in such rapid Vietnamese that often Hai forgot to translate. Vo Minh wanted to tell me a little about the book he had given me, so that I would understand. He wrote the book to help in the process of reconciliation, he said, not between Vietnam and the United States – there is hardly anything in the book about the United States – but between the North and the South.
There it is again: even in our misery, grief, guilt, anger, whatever still lurks within our history, we expect everything to be about us. And it isn’t. We played an enormous, horrifying, lethal role in this country, but once they got rid of us and immediately had to fight two more wars, they had to do the work of nation-building. It was not easy.
The re-education camps that we deplore – as though we had earned the right to an opinion – were a harsh, sometimes vindictive, utterly pragmatic way to bring the population of this impossibly intricate country back to the idea that it was, in fact, one country, not two, at war with one another. So it has taken a long time for them to be able even to speak about how bad that war was, how many people were killed, how deep the suffering was. As in any war, Vo Minh said, those who participate tend to go silent. They will not speak of what they went through. It was not in the interest of the new government that they do so, anyway. Now, though, the stories can be told, or they can begin to be told and books like Vo Minh’s can find an audience.
The process, and this is what we as Americans must accept, is reconciliation. We have heard the word again and again in this trip: reconciliation. This is not the same as forgiveness. Forgiveness is a Judeo-Christian concept that seems not to apply here, or at least not in the way we mean it. I have seen Vietnamese almost push the idea aside, like it isn’t relevant and they have other things to get on with.
With this in mind, we arrived at Friendship Village this morning. We gave a donation and then were taken on a tour of the grounds. We saw Agent Orange-disabled children and young people learning vocational skills, greeted a few veterans, and then walked through the dining room. Everywhere the young people waved and flirted and called hello. The veterans smiled and held out their hands for me to shake as I wished them xin chao.
I was outside again when one of the men appeared and pulled up his shirt to display a heavily scarred abdomen. The bullet went in here, he said, pointing to his upper rib cage. He had had surgery, and it appeared to be a pretty rough field operation, to remove it. These are my scars, he seemed to be saying. My story.
There was much commotion when they found out Mark was a veteran, everyone trying to make a speech at once. One man pointed his forefingers at each other and then clasped his fists: we were shooting at each other but now we are friends. The first man, the one with the scarred abdomen, stood especially proud for the photo. He was stunned by what was happening. Mark was the first American veteran he had ever seen.
We leave tomorrow and I will take home with me formless prayers of gratitude. I have had the honor of participating in a process of reconciliation between Vietnam and the United States. When I first came I was reconciling myself to my own history. Now it is no longer about me. It is about what it means to them that we would take the trouble to come.
The man with the scarred abdomen is second from the left. Mark is third from the left. Photo by Debbie Carpenter.