In the spring of 1971, my American father received a phone call from the US Military informing him he’d soon be drafted for a tour of duty in the Vietnam War. Luckily, as he was in the midst of completing the requisite medical checks, the United States Congress–under intense public pressure–suspended the draft, which was a big step in the process that led to America’s eventual withdrawal from Vietnam and the end to over a decade of fighting.
“American M41 Tank Destroyed By A Delay Mine In 1970″
The casualties were high: nearly 60,000 American troops, over 1 million military personnel from other countries and more than 2 million Vietnamese civilians—along with any semblance of a sound American foreign policy in Vietnam.
Thirty-five years later, I entered Vietnam with a backpack in a dust covered bus with a cracked windshield, and willingly paid money to crawl through the underground guerrilla tunnels that slithered beneath the dense foliage of the Vietnamese jungle; tunnels that most from my father’s generation would have paid large sums of money to never see.
‘Ironic’ doesn’t even begin to describe my experience in Vietnam. As I toured the Cu Chi Tunnels (i.e. The National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam’s [a.k.a. The Vietcong] base during the Tet Offensive), I tested out homemade “booby” traps used to spear American soldiers of my father’s generation, listened to our tour guide describe America’s horrific use of chemical weapons (the famed ‘agent orange’) on the northern Vietnamese, spent actual US dollar bills to pay to fire a fully-automatic machine gun, and even posed for photos with life sized Vietcong soldiers made of plastic.
Walking around Saigon, I discovered that only recently, in 2006, had the downtown museum once known as “The American and French Atrocities of War Museum” changed its name to the more politically correct “War Rememberance Museum.”
A train ride from south to north took me through places whose names I already knew, despite having never been here before: Saigon, The Mekong, Da Nang, and Hanoi among others.
As I traveled the country, images replayed over and over in my head of a war that happened a decade before my birth, but whose images and names live on in our collective popular culture from blockbuster movies to news stories drawing parallels with the present war in Iraq.
I tried to reconcile the images in my head with what I was seeing in front of me. At times my stomach turned, stuck between uneasiness and remorse, for a war fought on my behalf; as well as the realization that only a slightly different turn of events three decades earlier could have put my father in these very same jungles, with the same people (our tour guide was a former south Vietnamese solider), with the same machine guns and the same booby traps, but under entirely different circumstances.
The commodification of war imagery on 24-hour cable news stations and in our movies and video games tends to lead to a desensitization that makes the real seem unreal. And the farther from home the actual war and the more images we see, the more unreal I think it becomes to us.
But my time spent in Vietnam, seeing first hand what I once only knew through the eyes of Forrest Gump, took the unreal and made it real again. The experience not only brought the Vietnam War to life for me, but it also brought ALL wars to life and made me realize one reason we travel.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned so far in my travels is that people are people, and language and cultural differences aside, we are all more alike then we are led to believe. But its hard to see and understand that when our only spyglass into the world is through our televisions and the internet. In that sense, we turn to 24-hour cable news, newspapers and movies to inform us on how the world is and how different those other people really are. This is a mistake that can not be solved by reading more books or thinking a bit harder, as it’s only when we see these people and places for ourselves do we travel far enough to leave our own baggage and stereotypes behind.
So pack your suitcase, kiss your sweetheart goodbye, and fly on over here to Vietnam cause the DMZ awaits you. You’ve been drafted my friend. Please don’t run away or the casualties might include you.
The DMZ: Da Merchandising Zone in Ho Chi Min City’s Cu Chi tunnels.