Selected Essays - Putting the Vietnam in Nam

August 5, 2010
Originally published at War Through the Generations

I had always been fascinated by the Vietnam war, primarily because it seemed a thing that could not be understood—the closer you approached its various parts, the more the whole moved away from you. As a child surrounded by the urgency of war at NATO and then Fort Ord, it was clear the war was something frightening and bad, and in the way of children I associated the very name of the place—Vietnam—with that pain and evil. The problem was that when I grew up and read about the politics of the war, when I read the non-fiction accounts of soldiers in that war, my understanding did not gain in depth. I understood that war was hell, but I did not understand what we had learned from the experience, and as history seemed to repeat itself in other foreign conflicts, those places became new Vietnams, more places of pain and evil.

The first great revelation I had was when I read the novels of Tim O’Brien, primarily The Things They Carried and Going After Cacciato, but also In the Lake of the Woods. What is fascinating about these books is that very little time is spent detailing combat—the war in O’Brien’s work is inside the heart, following Faulkner’s dictum that great literature is always about the “human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about.” There has never been a battlefield as profound as the heart of O’Brien’s characters, knowing that in going to war, they are paradoxically taking the coward’s way out: “I was a coward. I went to Vietnam.”

As a flood of new writing became available by the Vietnamese, both those in the military and those in civilian life, it was yet another revelation that the war had taken place in someone’s home, destroyed someone’s life. I realized that the soldier’s truth, although insightful, was necessarily limited to his own experience. As O’Brien writes in his essay, The Vietnam in Me: “I hated this place, and places much like it. Two miles away, in an almost identical hamlet, Chip was blown into his hedge of bamboo. A mile or so east, Roy Arnold was shot dead… It goes on.”

But how to make these two equally important truths stand side by side? I found a book, Requiem, honoring the photojournalists who had died covering Vietnam and Indochina. A picture of Dickey Chapelle, a woman who had served as a photojournalist there, struck me with the force of a bolt of lightning. I had never heard of women being there in that capacity before. Later I discovered a few other women who spent time there, including Catherine Leroy. It was important not for the novelty of a female in combat, but because here was an outsider, not only an outsider in the world of soldiers, but an outsider in the macho world of combat photojournalism. If anyone would be open to the actual country the war was taking place in—the history, people, and culture—it would be a character in this position.

Why does place matter? In the drama of warfare, the place a war occurs is often overlooked. But if it doesn’t matter, isn’t the bigger question why is a war being fought there in the first place? Author Evan Thomas in an interview for The War Lovers, writes of visiting Cuba to research the Spanish-American war: “… the Cubans don’t think of the Americans as their liberators from Spanish rule, but rather as foreign invaders. That’s unfair, and in many ways just plain wrong, but not so hard to understand if you put yourself in the shoes of a country occupied by a foreign army.” Indeed. The Vietnamese refer to the war as the American war.

I have read new books about the heroism of the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, I’ve also read of the atrocities that have taken place there, but I have learned very little about the history, culture, or people from those places. They remain blank spaces, and thus easier to not care about. Let’s put it another way. If the My Lai massacre happened in our country, wouldn’t we want the world to know what had been lost? That it wasn’t just another nameless, faceless dark place—a place filled with pain and evil—in the narrative of the war? Although this might be a hopelessly idealistic notion, wouldn’t we be less likely to wage wars on places we considered familiar—real and true and valuable as our own country?

After twenty-five years, O’Brien described his return to Vietnam: “… we stood looking out on a wide and very lovely field of rice. The sunlight gives it some gold and yellow. There is no wind at all. Before us is how peace would be defined in a dictionary for the speechless… in those fine sunlit moments… Vietnam took a little Vietnam out of me.” The greatest revelation of all, that the same place has the power to both destroy and heal.