Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A Vietnam observation

My mom made an interesting observation last weekend before I left Jakarta for Han oi.  As the mother of a 29 year old (I'll let you ballpark her generation) she has a very different relationship with Vietnam that I do.  She is familiar with the names of most of the towns I'm planning to visit.  DaNang, Saigon (Ho Chi minh City), Han oi, Da Lat, My Lai (site of a massacre), the Gulf of Tonkin, Halong bay and the Mekong.  These are all names that were in the news for years while the Vietnam War drug on. 
Her generation was affected by this war.  She knew people her age that went and fought.  Some came back mentally and physically beyond repair.  Others, as is the case in war, didn't come back.  A good number of others stayed in Asia, finding life easier for a multitude of reason or simple because they couldn't readjust back home.  I know I have a stereotype of the now aging baby boomer who stayed here, took a local wife and made a family in Vietnam, the Phillipines, Thailand, maybe even Indonesia.

Mom may not know right off where these places are on a map (I didn't either) but her reaction was distinct in hearing I was heading to these places.  These are towns and places that we don't often hear about in the Western media.  I'm too young for that war.  My memory related to that was was from many years after the US soldiers had departed, the South surrendered to the Communist North and the French had been driven from the country for decades.

I must have been about seventeen when we went to Washington DC as a family.  I remember being excited about the monuments, museums and a detour to some Civil War sights (yes, I was and am a history dork).  At this point in my life I hadn't left the West Coast much.  DC was a long way away and a place with lots more history than Seattle.

One day, I don't know when during the trip, we were walking about the monuments.  The Lincoln Monument, the Reflecting pool, etc.  We stopped at the Vietnam Memorial.  It's a series of black marble panels erected perpendictular to the ground in a long low wall. The names of the service men who died in or because of the war (counting only physical injuries resulting in death, not trauma and dysfunction) or were missing in action are all inscribed here.

I don't know if he saw a name he knew or if it was just being there, but my dad had his head in his hand and cried.  I'd never seen him cry before and it stunned me.  Later we talked about it.  All these years later, he still felt guilty that he hadn't gone to fight.  He was given an exemption as he was the primary breadwinner in a family with two very small children.  While grateful he didn't have to go he felt guilt that so many others did.  He knew men his age that were called up in the draft, and a few who died.

As my generation is embroiled in it's own quagmire of a war, I wonder how many young men may end up feeling the same way my father did.  My ex was in the Army.  His unit was sent to Iraq but he was kept back due to kidney stone and then released when his service was up. I know he felt conflicted about it and it may compound over the years the way it did for my dad.  Will anyone be there to support these soldier and men any better than they were thirty years ago?

*Interesting side note: The Lonely Planet guidebook I've been reading always refers to sites from the American War, which I assume is how the Vietnamese refer to the war.  In the US it's always called the Vietnam War.  I suppose it's easier to identify it as someone else's war and fault than to take a slice of the responsibility.  It had never occured to me that there might be another name for it.

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