"From the ice paddies to the rice paddies," he joked.
"When were you there?" I asked.
There? I was sitting in Hanoi when I asked him that question. Vietnam was here, not there. There was the war. Here was Vietnam.
"1968-69. Sergeant. Marines. I volunteered to go." Disillusion- ment didn't take long to set in, anti-war sentiments grew in him almost as soon as he got there. "I began to feel like I and other like-minded soldiers had a part to play in ending the war. When I got home I began to act on my opinions and experiences. You know, I got called a 'commie dupe' when I got home and said the war was wrong. That really galled me after I'd just gotten done doing my duty for my country. In fact, while our loyalties were being questioned, other vets and I were making connections with the North Vietnamese that resulted in letters and packages getting delivered to POW's held in the Hanoi Hilton." He gained the confidence of the North Vietnamese by telling them, "Hey, the war is over for me."
This helps to explain the feeling on the part of the North Vietnamese that they had no problem with the American people, just the American govern- ment. This sentiment is expressed even today in a placard in Hanoi's war museum where I'd spent a rainy afternoon looking at captured American flight suits, combat boots, and the wreckage of a B-52 bomber. A grainy black and white photograph of American war protestors spoke for the Vietnam- ese words I could not read. One of our guides, Mai, stood beside me. "The American people knew the war was wrongok," she said. "My people admired them for their support of us."
"It's too bad many of the American people didn't support the soldiers returning from the war," I replied.
She looked at me in astonishment. "I don't think we had any idea," she said softly, and frowned as she studied the picture once more.
Many soldiers sent to fight in Vietnam knew little of what the war was about. They were fed phrases like 'communist threat' and 'freedom- loving people of the south'. Many truly believed they were going to fight for a just cause, but many knew little of the culture, history, or the people they were dealing with. Some went because their country called upon them. Others had to be dragged kicking and screaming, but went because they didn't feel they had a choice. Joe not only made a choice, but got special training in the language and culture of the Vietnamese, unlike many of his counterparts. Joe understood the people. He recalled a papa-san who worked at his base telling him, "We burn no shit tomorrow. Tomorrow's Buddha's birthday." Code for 'tomorrow you're going to be hit and I don't want to be here when it happens.' A warning, if you could understand.
Joe grew to like the Vietnamese, really like them. That's one reason why he keeps returning today. In an odd twist of fate, or perhaps no twist at all, Joe now works in aviation in Vietnam, the same work he did during the war for the American military. He got back to Vietnam with the first group ever issued tourist visas and was caught by Geoffrey Clifford's camera lens hugging the enemy he never felt was his enemy. Back at home, I came face to face with Joe once again while flipping through Clifford's book on photographs on Vietnam. I'd had the book for ages, long before I ever considered going to Vietnam, long before I ever knew lifford or Bangert, or knew they were friends. Vietnam makes a small world grow smaller.
There was Joe in his Cape Cod t-shirt and Marine Corp. cap, hugging a Vietnamese veteran and holding small flags of both countries in his hand. The Marine Corp. cap struck me as somewhat ironic on a man who told me that during the war he felt very incompatible with the Marine Corp. activity he had to take part in. With his cap, he refused to deny his past. Returning, facing that past, helps reconcile the polarity the war thrust into his life then.
Reconciliation is being achieved man by man, woman by woman, regardless of the stance the American govenrment chooses to take. Joe gave me a business card to show to any returning vets I might know. "Vietnam Veteran," it reads, "Welcome back to Danang. Visit the real China Beach. Stay at the Mykhe Hotel. Peaceful, relaxing, economical. Enjoy the hospitality of the 5th Military Region - Dananang."
"It's run by two former Viet Cong," Joe said with a laugh. I'm not sure how 'relaxing' that piece of information might be to some returning vets. The war may be long over, but some memories die hard. Still, it is a tangible sign of reconciliation, veterans from one side reaching out to veterans of the other. In fact, during Joe's current stay he is staying in the guest house run by a retired North Vietnamese Army colonel and his wife, who once commanded an anti-artillery battery. Joe has to be home on time for his host's curfew of midnight.
As we sat in Barbara's apartment, Joe scoffed at the 'old windbags' who warn of the dangers of normalization. "I'm afraid they're going to be recanonized as the experts on what's going on over here when they haven't got a clue. There's been an information embargo on Vietnam in the United States. And the Vietnamese have had no information on America. It's about time all that ends. It's gone nowhere."
While I was at Barbara's that night in February, they showed me a fax she had recently received from a well-known 'expert' on Vietnam. The fax expressed concern that returning to Vietnam is suddenly trendy, and the writer coined the phrase 'Viet-chic'. I frowned as I read it. Trendy? Most people thought I was crazy for going to Vietnam. I didn't know we were on the cutting edge. Joe said, "It's only trendy to be negative. Things like that are only written by idiots. I'm here because I fucking like it. I'm captured by the magic of this place. To Vietnam vets with no life back in the USA I say, 'Get your ass back over here!'"
Joe had a rather blunt way of putting it, but those who return to Vietnam usually find it therapeutic, for some returning is a necessity. Joe's met hundreds of veterans who have come through Vietnam and has known only two who literally freaked out and had to leave. The major reaction he's seen among them is that coming back has made them feel good again. "Some have avoided talking about Vietnam for twenty or more years and they come back and it changes their lives. Some have been sent back by their therapists to work the war out. Many on their first trip back are carrying alot of emotional baggage. They're alot calmer on their second or third trip. A lot of vets settle into a pattern of return. Some even decide to stay and never leave. In fact, there's a larger 'ex-pat' community in Saigon than there is in Hanoi. American veterans play a very significant role in Vietnam today."