TRAVEL PURSUITS – So why don’t the Vietnamese hate the Americans?

Just last night, during intermission at a concert, I overheard a conversation between two people, one asking the other if she planned to join the fall Classical Pursuits trip Vietnam Voices: A Balanced Opposition. Over the din, I heard her response: “Oh, no, I could never go to Vietnam. I am an American.”

Vietnam has great appeal as a travel destination for Canadians, but for Americans it sometimes carries a heavy burden of sadness and guilt.

I am speaking here as an American. I was born in the United States, and am now a dual citizen, having lived in Canada longer than I did in the US. But my psyche has been profoundly shaped by what we call the Vietnam War. (The Vietnamese, of course, call it ‘The American War.) It was the defining event of an entire generation of Americans. And now, when Americans talk about the war in Iraq, the phrase, ‘Another Vietnam’ is uttered again and again.

This is one of the reasons that I was fascinated by the idea of visiting Vietnam. No other country in the world figured so decisively in life as I knew it growing up as an American.

In America, Vietnam is the war we lost, and probably never should have fought. It cost both Americans and Vietnamese thousands of lives and untold suffering.

In his radio essay for National Public Media, “Revisiting Vietnam: History and Reconciliation,” here is what investigative journalist Daniel Zwerdling has to say. (excerpts)

A lot of Americans who visit Vietnam shake their heads at some point and say to themselves, wait a minute. No matter how you felt about the war, whether you supported it, or opposed it, or fought in it, you can’t escape the basic facts: the Communist-led army killed 58,000 American troops. The US military and their South Vietnamese allies killed roughly a million soldiers and civilians in their own country. American warplanes destroyed vast areas of Vietnam with bombs and pesticides and fire. Why don’t the Vietnamese hate Americans?

“When I meet Americans it is the first question they ask me,” says Huu Ngoc, one of the best-known scholars in Vietnam. He’s taken us to a sacred site in Hanoi to explain his answers to the question. The Vietnamese call it the one-pillar pagoda. It rises on one pillar out of a murky pond that’s covered with purple lotus flowers. Smoke keeps twirling around it, from all the incense sticks that Buddhist pilgrims light at the altar. Huu says this pagoda reflects the first reason why Vietnamese have forgiven Americans.

“I think that until now, for many Americans, Vietnam is a synonym for war,” Ngoc says. “But the true face of Vietnam is not war. Buddhism for the Vietnamese means the heart and compassion and pity. It is our essential feature.”

Of course, many religions preach forgiveness. But Ngoc says there’s another explanation that’s more pragmatic. When you look at the whole sweep of Vietnam’s history, the war against the Americans was a blip. For more than 2000 years, Vietnam’s main enemy has been China. In fact, the two countries fought their latest war only 20 years ago, along their border. Many Americans didn’t even hear about it.

“To survive,” says Ngoc, “we have always after the wars with China to make peace and to forget the hardships of the war, to be able to live in peace with our giants.” He says the country’s applied the same lesson to the United States.

And finally, Ngoc says, the Vietnamese can embrace Americans now because Uncle Ho told them to. That’s what many Vietnamese call the father of their modern nation, Ho Chi Minh. Ho led the country to triumph: first they kicked out the French colonizers, then they humiliated the United States. But many Vietnamese will tell you that even during the war, Ho said they shouldn’t blame the American people for causing their suffering. They should blame America’s leaders.

As is evident everywhere, history can be used for the benefit of civilization and it can be abused to the detriment of many. Today, Vietnamese school kids giggle at the mannequins shackled in the old cells; they glance at placards about the Vietnamese leaders who died there under the French colonialists. They look briefly at photos of American pilots who spent years there in chains. Two thirds of the Vietnamese population was born after the war ended. By the time they have children, many people will only dimly remember that Vietnam and America fought a war. The same is, no doubt, true of American kids. Who is to say if that’s a good or a bad thing?

I will go to Vietnam. I really want to see this country for myself. I want to meet its people on their own turf and in their own words. It is a small part of my own soul searching. It is a small part of understanding myself. It may help me with my perspective. I hope that some of their heart and compassion and pity rub off on me.

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