History the Hard Way

Much like China, Vietnam is a country of contradiction: a communist state embracing a free market economy, a former enemy eager to be a friend, a land of people who will eagerly and genuinely embrace you but charge you more than twice what they would their neighbor for everything from chewing gum to silk pajamas. We love this Vietnam, the one that on the outside seems comfortable and familiar. But inside, at the core, there lurks a disconcerting past that Tom and I felt we could not ignore or gloss over. We decided to visit some of the tough places with the kids, hoping they would help them get a grasp on the country’s history and our evolving relationship with its people.

We started in Hanoi with the Hoa Lao Prison (Hanoi Hilton), Ho Chi Minh Museum, and Presidential Palace. Each site was a fierce statement of the Viet people’s struggle for independence and a stark reminder of the sacrifices they made–millions upon millions of lives lost–in shedding their colonial skin and pushing out foreign powers. Of course, this is a tough one for us, since we were the last country to stake a claim here. Despite their obvious propaganda, cracks in the museum facades reveal the paradox that has made modern Vietnam possible.

As a schoolboy, Ho Chi Minh learned the power of revolution from his country’s colonial rulers, the French. In a letter displayed in his museum, he described communism, or its early 20th century manifestation, Leninism, as the most effective ideology available for achieving independence. He didn’t profess it to be truth or even wisdom but a means to an end at a moment in history. Our involvement in Vietnam stemmed precisely from Uncle Ho’s decision to follow the Leninist model. Had he couched his actions in the rhetoric of the American Revolution and proclaimed himself a champion of democracy, things might have gone much differently. The American War might have become the Russian or Chinese War.

The irony of course is that thirty years after winning their war against the capitalists and 16 years after the collapse of their communist sponsor, the Soviet Union, the Vietnamese are voraciously embracing many of the things we thought we were fighting for. There was no easy solution to the Vietnamese dilemma back then–neither of the Cold War superpowers was willing to let the country fall under the influence of the other without a fight–and there’s no easy resolution to our emotions today. As Americans we think, “58,000 of our people died so the Vietnamese could one day welcome us back as financiers of their failed economy?” The Vietnamese think, “Why didn’t the Americans just leave us alone? Why did millions of our people have to die fighting for self-rule, a tenet each and every American intrinsically appreciates?”

Dad and McKane at the rockpile

At home we visit the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington and are inclined to chalk the conflict up to the tangled web of world politics, but here (if you don’t ignore it) the war is in your face. While in Hue, I wanted to take us even closer to history, so I completely abandoned good sense and signed us up for a day tour of the DMZ. Twelve hours riding on a dirty bus with broken air conditioning, being hustled and hurried by an obnoxious tour guide, and eating the worst two meals we’ve had in Vietnam confirmed why we should always hire a private driver. Even so what we saw was humbling. We started with the Rockpile, a former American recon post, where we got approximately 2 1/2 minutes to jump out of the bus and snap a few pictures from the side of the road. We continued on to the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which is now a highway, and marked by a visually arresting bridge. Here we got about 7 minutes to sprint to the other side, watch a guy apparently sweep for landmines in the river bed, and talk to the dirty yet adorable kids who surrounded us and chimed, “Money, money, money.” We finally got a generous 30 minutes to explore what is left of Khe San Military Base. Khe San in situated at the top of a mountain and surrounded by dense jungle. American forces were dropped in by air and tried to use the base as a vantage point for spotting southward movements of North Vietnamese forces. It didn’t work. After heavy loss of American and Vietnamese life, we withdrew in 1968, never to return.

crashed american planeVietnamese War Propaganda

I could see right through the glossy photos of smiling female NVA volunteers. If you believe the museum’s curator, every NVA and Viet Cong soldier had a bounce in his step and a twinkle in her eye as he or she marched off to battle. Likewise, I sensed the editorial slant in the same 15 photos which are used repeatedly to portray the Americans as dejected, beaten foes with no hope of victory against their wronged opponent. This all seemed harmless enough, but the mangled wreckage of American aircraft that sits on the lawn outside made my heart skip a beat. It was a far more powerful testimony that my countrymen actually died here than a few blurry old black and white pictures. Even this I could handle, given the distance that time and rust provide. Instead it was the two Vietnamese men circling the complex who provided the real kick to the gut. “You want dogtags…American dogtags…American medals…Vietnamese medals?” I stared in disbelief at the trays they held out which contained dozens of small, metal reminders of both Vietnamese and American death. I was sick. I picked one up, fingered it, and read the name. That name represented someone’s father, brother, husband. That tag once rested against his chest, which expanded and contracted with breath. Had that breath been extinguished just a few feet away? Was he one of the 2,000 Americans whose bodies, either dead or alive, have not been recovered from this country, or did he make it safely home without his tags? Either way, why doesn’t our military come and reclaim these?

American junk left in Khe San

I walked away in a sad reverie, lost in thought, until McKane whispered in my ear: “Mom, did you hear that? The salesguy asked that tourist if he wanted to buy dogtags, and the tourist said, ‘You know I won’t be able to get those through customs.'” Thank goodness for that. History may be hard, but it shouldn’t be tactless.

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One thought on “History the Hard Way

  1. Hey, Tom and Family – This is Bob Stocks, a former co-worker of Tom’s at Symantec and distant (7th, I think) cousin, through old Milo Andrus. I thought I’d let you know that I’ve been following your adventures since you left and I’ve been enjoying reading about your experiences. Good for you to take this time to spend completely with your family!

    We had our own adventure last spring, traveling to Moldova (just east of Romania) twice to adopt 3 little boys to add to our brood. Our trips opened up our eyes to the perceptions of Americans abroad and we tried, as you, to be good ambassadors.

    Have fun! Looking forward to the future happenings of the Andrus family!

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