In Vietnamese, they say, “Making Peace is a treasure:” Dĩ hoà vi quý. I searched for this gift during a two-month journey from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi in early 2020 and Laos before COVID shook the world. I came to Vietnam for a writing and art residency on the impact of the war and forgiveness. I am a USN Vietnam-era veteran, and though far from combat, the war always haunted my memory and inspired me to be a lifelong peace activist. My primary challenge was to set aside all my assumptions. Landing at the modern airport in Ho Chi Minh City, I quickly realized there had been a seismic change in this country over the past fifty years. Vietnam is rooted in its rich cultural legacy, and it is also a young, vibrant nation on the move, and most people under thirty.
Despite the modernity, I saw the legacy of the war: the site of the My Lai massacre, the war museums with the preserved fetuses of the Agent Orange victims, the programs to locate UXOS (unexploded bombs), and the orphanages and vocational schools that care for the children and young adults with Agent Orange. I was wonderstruck by the magnificent vistas from the Mekong Delta, the shimmering green rice fields, Marble Mountain, the serene BaNang mountains, and the two thousand miles of coastline. However, the greatest treasure of this land is the extraordinarily kind, resilient, and welcoming people. It was a great joy to see all the children, from tots to teens playing everywhere, and all the handsome young men and women! I kept asking myself: Why did we (Americans) want to destroy this country and these people?
The Agent Orange/dioxin poison remains. The US military sprayed the toxic pesticide throughout the country from 1962-1971, knowing it was toxic to people and the ecosystem. A common fallacy is the Americans were trying to remove the “jungle” foliage and that the herbicide was benign. No, the US intentionally tried to destroy the forests, ecosystem, and farms to force villagers to move to the cities. Agent Orange has affected twenty to twenty-five percent of the land of southern Vietnam, along the length of Laos, and into Cambodia. Even fifty years after the war, children are born with congenital disabilities, and many victims receive no support or compensation. We visited schools and vocational centers like Friendship Village, founded by George Mizo, an American veteran. I played music, spoke with the young adults at the center, and was grateful to see how these people, even with significant disabilities, had so much joy despite their limitations. There is a need for a hundred or more centers like this throughout the country.
People need to know the epic struggle of the Vietnamese in their courageous fight for freedom against almost insurmountable odds; their strength and courage is a core part of the Vietnamese identity. The United States had undermined the independence movement since the 1940s and, during WWII, the Viet Minh, under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh, aided the US and Allied troops against the Japanese occupation. The French Vichy had collaborated with the Japanese. The Viet Minh bravely fought against the occupation and supported the allies. Nevertheless, the USA reneged on its promise of freedom, rejected Vietnam’s independence, and became mired in an unwinnable war. France, which had occupied Vietnam for one hundred years, was rearmed by the Americans until soundly defeated in 1954 at Dien Bien Phu. This victory led to the eventual collapse of all French colonies. With typical American hubris, the US military refused to accept the Vietnamese victory and continued the war until their defeat in 1973. The Vietnamese struggle for freedom was like David versus Goliath; though they were supported by the Chinese and Russians, it was the North Vietnamese’s grit, courage, and resilience that won the war. The numerous Rambo and American war movies are a pathetic farce and negate the truth of this war.
The South Vietnamese government was a corrupt legacy of the French occupation and a puppet of the USA. President Diem was so corrupt the CIA had him assassinated. The Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc immolated himself protesting the war in downtown Saigon on June 11, 1963 and his profound sacrifice embodied the courage of the Vietnamese people.
In this monumental folly, 58,200 American soldiers were killed and over 150,000 wounded. America’s loss, though tragic, pales to the Vietnamese’ losses: more than two million Vietnamese were killed, a country devastated by decades of war, and millions of people still affected by Agent Orange. The most poignant moment for me was meeting North Vietnamese veterans; even knowing I was a US Navy veteran, there wasn’t any palpable bitterness. Every family in Vietnam has a grandparent, uncle, or relative who was killed in the war. I am humbled by the Vietnamese’s courage, sacrifice, and willingness to forgive.
Veterans like Chuck Searcy have worked in Vietnam for twenty years with Agent Orange remediation and removing UXOs (unexploded ordinances). Through the persistent advocacy of Senator Leahy, the USA is helping to clean up some of the most contaminated “hot-spots” sites of Agent Orange. Nevertheless, it’s only a fraction of the aid needed. A key book to understanding the harms inflicted is From Enemies to Partners: Vietnam and Agent Orange by Charles R. Bailey and the movie “People vs. Agent Orange.”
This poison affects all the places it was handled and stored: Vietnam, Japan, Okinawa, US military bases, the Philippines, and more. To make peace with our past, we must remediate the damage we’ve done, and those actions are the first steps to forgiveness. The work of cleaning up Agent Orange and removing unexploded ordinances must also occur in Laos and Cambodia.
We cannot ignore our responsibility for the war: the destruction of vast forests and ecosystems, cultural and historical treasures that have been lost, and this land shattered by bombs and poisoned by herbicides. The Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian governments urgently need financial assistance for landmine removal and Agent Orange remediation. One step in the reconciliation process is the bill sponsored by Congresswoman Barbara Lee, stalled in Congress, H.R.3518 Victims of Agent Orange Relief Act of 2021, which seeks to support the more than two million Vietnamese victims.
A Vietnamese war veteran once said, “It took us a thousand years to get rid of the Chinese, one hundred years to get rid of the French, but only a decade to defeat the Americans. So it’s easier to forgive the Americans.”
In my journey from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, I gained much respect and admiration for these enormously vibrant, hard-working people. It is a culture of welcome and filled with smiles. My attempts to speak Vietnamese were appreciated; fortunately, English is widely spoken. Wherever we went, people were eager to chat and help us. Crossing the streets was always difficult in Hanoi or any city. In one instance, a young teenage boy and girl took us by the hand and, like school children, walked us across a busy street in Hanoi.
Come to Vietnam after COVID has passed and discover this extraordinary country with a beginner’s mind. When you visit, wander beyond the usual tourist sanctuaries of Hoi An, Dalat, and Sun World, and get to know the people. If you can, volunteer with Vietnam Assoc. Victims of Agent Orange, Peace Trees, The Vietnam Friendship Village, Medical-Surgical Volunteers, and other organizations.
In our ongoing journeys to Vietnam, we continue to support the process of forgiveness and reconciliation. We will return to Vietnam at the end of 2022, this work is endorsed by Veterans for Peace and GRACE CARES, with Namaya Productions, and we continue our work with those affected by Agent Orange. We can’t wait to reconnect with friends and delight in the delicious food and welcoming hospitality of the Vietnamese people. Truly, peace is the treasure Dĩ hoà vi quý.