He was short in stature, elderly, frail, and couldn’t hear particularly well, but what struck me most were his eyes. They were cloudy and rheumy, yes, but there was something else, something deep and troubled, beyond the merely physical, swirling inside them. His eyes were haunted.
I met Nyanet last month in a devastated village on the edge of a devastated town in the newest nation on Earth, South Sudan. But the moment I met him I knew that I’d seen those eyes before. Many times, in fact. For years, I traveled in Southeast Asia interviewing people whose villages had been similarly devastated and I noticed that same haunted look. It’s something you don’t forget. Sometimes it wasn’t evident at first. Only after you’d talked with them for a while, only after they’d started telling you of the horrors of their youth would you see it, as if some wellspring of residual terror had begun to bubble up from deep within.
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The better part of a decade ago, I saw that look in the eyes of Nguyen Van Tu and wrote a TomDispatch article about him and another Vietnamese man, Pham Van Chap, both civilians, who lost legs in what’s called “the American War” there. The generosity of TomDispatch readers, an American Vietnam veterans group, and a charity got both of them brand-new prosthetic legs, but there was nothing that could be done about Nguyen’s haunted eyes. If he’s still alive, I’m certain the memory of horror that they reflected remains with him.
President Obama has just wrapped up his own trip to Vietnam. “I bring greetings and friendship of the American people,” he proclaimed. “I can also announce that the United States is fully lifting the ban on the sale of military equipment to Vietnam that has been in place for some 50 years.” After five decades, U.S. arms can again flow freely into that country — not that Vietnam doesn’t already have plenty of American munitions. There are hundreds of thousands of tons of unexploded ordnance littering the countryside. Only days before Obama’s arrival, Ngo Thien Khiet, the leader of a Project RENEW explosives disposal team, was killed by just such an American bomb.
Wars have a tremendous staying power. Munitions endure and continue to maim and kill long after conflicts end. Physical injuries persist and alter lives. And then there are the mental scars. Often they’re harder to spot than a wooden leg or missing fingers, but look deep into the eyes of a war victim and there’s a good chance you’ll find traces of them there. Trust me, you’ll know it when you see it.
Nguyen Van Tu asks if I’m serious. Am I really willing to tell his story — to tell the story of the Vietnamese who live in this rural corner of the Mekong Delta? Almost 40 years after guerrilla fighters in his country threw the limits of U.S. military power into stark relief — during the 1968 Tet Offensive — we sit in his rustic home, built of wood and thatch with an earthen floor, and speak of two hallmarks of that power: ignorance and lack of accountability. As awkward chicks scurry past my feet, I have the sickening feeling that, in decades to come, far too many Iraqis and Afghans will have similar stories to tell. Similar memories of American troops. Similar accounts of air strikes and artillery bombardments. Nightmare knowledge of what “America” means to far too many outside the United States.
“Do you really want to publicize this thing?” Nguyen asks. “Do you really dare tell everyone about all the losses and sufferings of the Vietnamese people here?” I assure this well-weathered 60-year old grandfather that that’s just why I’ve come to Vietnam for the third time in three years. I tell him I have every intention of reporting what he’s told me — decades-old memories of daily artillery shelling, of near constant air attacks, of farming families forced to live in their fields because of the constant bombardment of their homes, of women and children killed by bombs, of going hungry because U.S. troops and allied South Vietnamese forces confiscated their rice, lest it be used to feed guerrillas.
After hearing of the many horrors he endured, I hesitantly ask him about the greatest hardship he lived through during what’s appropriately known here as the American War. I expect him to mention his brother, a simple farmer shot dead by America’s South Vietnamese allies in the early years of the war, when the United States was engaged primarily in an “advisory” role. Or his father who was killed just after the war, while tending his garden, when an M-79 round — a 40 mm shell fired from a single-shot grenade launcher — buried in the soil, exploded. Or that afternoon in 1971 when he heard outgoing artillery being fired and warned his family to scramble for their bunker by shouting, “Shelling, shelling!” They made it to safety. He didn’t. The 105 mm artillery shell that landed near him ripped off most of his right leg.
But he didn’t name any of these tragedies.
“During the war, the greatest difficulty was a lack of freedom,” he tells me. “We had no freedom.”
A Simple Request
Elsewhere in the Mekong Delta, Pham Van Chap, a solidly-built 52-year-old with jet black hair tells a similar story. His was a farming family, but the lands they worked and lived on were regularly blasted by U.S. ordnance. “During the ten years of the war, there was serious bombing and shelling in this region — two to three times a day,” he recalls while sitting in front of his home, a one-story house surrounded by animal pens in a bucolic setting deep in the Delta countryside. “So many houses and trees were destroyed. There were so many bomb craters around here.”
In January 1973, the first month of the last year U.S. troops fought in Vietnam, Pham heard the ubiquitous sound of artillery and started to run to safety. It was too late. A 105 mm shell slammed into the earth four meters in front of him, propelling razor-sharp shrapnel into both legs. When he awoke in the hospital, one leg was gone from the thigh down. After 40 days in the hospital, he was sent home, but he didn’t get his first prosthetic leg until the 1990s. His new replacement is now eight years old and a far cry from the advanced, computerized prosthetics and carbon fiber and titanium artificial legs that wounded U.S. veterans of America’s latest wars get. His wooden prosthetic instead resembles a table leg with a hoof at the bottom. “It has not been easy for me without my leg,” he confides.
When I ask if there are any questions he’d like to ask me or anything he’d like to say to Americans, he has a quick response. He doesn’t ask for money for his pain and suffering. Nor for compensation for living his adult life without a leg. Nor vengeance, that all-American urge, in the words of George W. Bush to “kick some ass.” Not even an apology. His request is entirely too reasonable. He simply asks for a new leg. Nothing more.
Ignorance Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry
I ask Nguyen Van Tu the same thing. And it turns out he has a question of his own: “Americans caused many losses and much suffering for the Vietnamese during the war. Do Americans now feel remorse?” I wish I could answer “yes.” Instead, I tell him that most Americans are totally ignorant of the pain of the Vietnamese people, and then I think to myself, as I glance at the ample pile of tiny, local potatoes on his floor, about widespread American indifference to civilians killed, maimed, or suffering in other ways in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Even those Vietnamese who didn’t lose a limb — or a loved one — carry memories of years of anguish, grief, and terror from the American War. The fall-out here is still palpable. The elderly woman who tells me how her home was destroyed by an incendiary bomb. The people who speak of utter devastation — of villages laid waste by shelling and bombing, of gardens and orchards decimated by chemical defoliants. The older woman who, with trepidation, peeks into a home where I’m interviewing — she hasn’t seen a Caucasian since the war — and is visibly unnerved by the memories I conjure up. Another begins trembling upon hearing that the Americans have arrived again, fearing she might be taken away, as her son was almost 40 years earlier. The people with memories of heavily armed American patrols disrupting their lives, searching their homes, killing their livestock. The people for whom English was only one phrase, the one they all seem to remember: “VC, VC” — slang for the pejorative term “Viet Cong”; and those who recall model names and official designations of U.S. weaponry of the era — from bombs to rifles — as intimately as Americans today know their sports and celebrities.
I wish I could tell Nguyen Van Tu that most Americans know something of his country’s torture and torment during the war. I wish I could tell him that most Americans care. I wish I could tell him that Americans feel true remorse for the terror visited upon the Vietnamese in their name, or that an apology is forthcoming and reparations on their way. But then I’d be lying. Mercifully, he doesn’t quiz me as I’ve quizzed him for the better part of an hour. He doesn’t ask how Americans can be so ignorant or hard-hearted, how they could allow their country to repeatedly invade other nations and leave them littered with corpses and filled with shattered families, lives, and dreams. Instead he answers calmly and methodically:
“I have two things to say. First, there have been many consequences due to the war and even now the Vietnamese people suffer greatly because of it, so I think that the American government must do something in response — they caused all of these losses here in Vietnam, so they must take responsibility for that. Secondly, this interview should be an article in the press.”
I sit there knowing that the chances of the former are nil. The U.S. government won’t do it and the American people don’t know, let alone care, enough to make it happen. But for the latter, I tell him I share his sentiments and I’ll do my best.
Nguyen Van Tu grasps my hands in thanks as we end the interview. His story is part of a hidden, if not forbidden, history that few in the U.S. know. It’s a story that was written in blood in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos during the 1960s and 1970s and now is being rewritten in Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s a story to which new episodes are added each day that U.S. forces roll armored vehicles down other people’s streets, kick down other people’s doors, carry out attacks in other people’s neighborhoods, and occupy other people’s countries.
It took nearly 40 years for word of Nguyen Van Tu’s hardships at the hands of the United States to filter back to America. Perhaps a few more Americans will feel remorse as a result. But who will come forward to take responsibility for all this suffering? And who will give Pham Van Chap a new leg?