The Road to Hill 10

A veteran's return to Vietnam
LOOSE ENDS

We were leaving Marble Mountain when I saw her. She was a girl in her early teens, working at one of the small stands selling marble bracelets, carved Buddhas, busts of Ho Chi Minh, and other souvenirs. For a moment I didn't know why she had caught my eye, but there was something about her, about the way she stood, about her features, something different . . . And then Minh, who didn't miss much, noticed my stare. "So you've seen the Amerasian girl?" he said.

She was the first Amerasian I had seen on the trip. I hadn't been prepared for how powerful the experience would be. I had become conditioned to Vietnam as it was, and she was a living link to the past I had lived here. We Americans were all gone, but we had left behind a new generation neither American nor Vietnamese—outsiders, wearing history on their faces—as if the power of sexuality had proved stronger than all our armies, all our weapons, all our technology. She had been raised a Vietnamese, had spent all her life in a hamlet, but still I felt a bond with her. I felt guilt when I saw her, guilt and fascination.

Her name was Huynh Thi Dien. She was fourteen years old, a student in the seventh grade. That afternoon she had been at a meeting of the Good Nieces and Nephews of Uncle Ho. We were sitting at the table inside her house, which was behind the souvenir stand. There was only one room. Her mother sat on the bed; her grandfather, an old man with a wispy beard, dressed in white cotton, slowly moved about the room, preparing tea, and then sat down in a corner and smoked the cigarette I had given him.

Her mother began to talk about Dien's father. "I remember his name but not his address," she said. "He was in the military police. He returned to the U.S. in 1971; he wanted us to come with him, but my mother was sick and we couldn't go. I had a letter in 1974, but I haven't heard from him since."

She had applied for a visa for herself and her daughter to go to America; they were waiting for it to come through. I asked Dien if she wanted to go to the United States. She looked at the marble bracelet on her arm and said nothing. Tears began to flow down her face. The house had gradually filled up with villagers. More than forty people had crowded into all the available spaces, pressing around us. It was suffocating, claustrophobic. 19o one made a sound.

I asked her if she was crying because she wanted to go or because she wanted to stay.

"Both," she said. "I have a father. . ." She began to cry again. "And I have my native land . . ." She paused. Her mother watched her from the bed. The room was quiet. Her dilemma was public; I had unwittingly asked her to choose between the country of a father who had abandoned her, which and whom she had never seen, and Vietnam, the people around her, the only world she had ever known—and to do so in full view of the whole hamlet. "But I don't know my father," she said, and then she began to sob, her shoulders shaking. I squeezed her hand, told her that she would like America, that it would be different but that she would like it. Minh translated as the girl cried. The villagers listened in silence.

On the way back to Da Lang I told Minh that I blamed the father, that he had behaved as irresponsibly with the mother as we had with our Vietnamese allies. Minh didn't agree. "You can't blame the father," he said. "He was a soldier, far from home. I'm sure he didn't intend to create such a sad situation." No, he probably didn't intend to, any more than we intended to make a whole people dependent upon us and then abandon them. But he had done it, and so had we; he had walked away from it. and so had we.

WAR MEMORIES

The Viet Cong veterans I met had been bombed by B-52s, shelled by battleships, pounded by artillery, incinerated by napalm and white phosphorus, and drenched in defoliants. They had been strafed by jets, rocketed by Huey Cobras, and attacked by AC-47 "Spooky's with their array of mini-guns, each firing up to 6,000 rounds a minute. I went down into one of their tunnels at Cu Chi, in the Iron Triangle. northwest of Saigon. It was cramped and claustrophobic and wet; furry creatures ran over my hands. After half an hour I was desperate to get out. They lived in such tunnels for years, under intense bombing, coming out only at night. They had taken terrible losses and when they were wounded had only the most rudimentary medical care. Their rations had been a few balls of rice. And they had been separated from their families and homes, many for ten or even twenty years.

Our experience could hardly have been more different. We controlled the air, so we were able to maintain headquarters areas and bases in reasonable security. We were never bombed. We had hot meals and mail and Bob Hope and R S; R. And we stayed only a yeas Officers normally had only six months in combat. Yet many Americans returned with serious emotional problems, many of which survive to this day. The Vietnamese I met, including a number of doctors, agreed that such emotional problems had by and large faded away for them. One woman, for example, told me that for a few years after the war whenever she heard a helicopter she would fall to the ground. Then again, she said, she didn't hear all that many helicopters anymore. But even Vo Thi Lien, who survived My Lai, told me that she no longer had nightmares. "Everyone suffered," she told me, "none of us more than anyone else." Even the Vietnamese vocabulary reflects this attitude. The word sacrifice is used only to mean death, as in "Many of my comrades sacrificed." For them, only death is worthy of the word; every other hardship and suffering was simply the common lot and therefore unremarkable.

I talked to Viet Cong veterans several times about American veterans. I tried to explain post-traumatic stress syndrome—the flashbacks, the blackouts, the bitterness, the paralysis of will, that still seem to afflict many Americans. It was incomprehensible to them. "We had to rebuild our country. We had too much to do to think that adjusting to peace was a problem," Tran Hien, a former Viet Cong company commander, told me. "Life goes on." Simple ideas, believed without question, sustained men like Hien then, and sustain them nova Truly nothing, in their minds. is more important than independence and freedom. Then memories of war are remarkably unconfused. I had the sense of being with men and women who had done extreme and even terrible things but whose consciences and hearts are limpidly clear. They do not look into their selves and see angst or guilt or confusion, if they look into their selves, in our Western, self-infatuated way, at all. They did their duty, like everybody else. For them, the war is over. Life does go on.

In Duy Xuyen, over coffee and beer, I talked to Viet Cong veterans about their comrades. "When we were in the jungle and in the mountains," one said, "the bonds of comradeship weren't only in fighting but in everything. The strong would help the weak. We carried each other's burdens, cooked each other's meals, did everything together. If one of us was wounded, we would risk our lives to bring him back. When you have gone through such things together, you have a bond that can never be broken."

Hien had been sitting quietly. He took one of my 555 cigarettes, lit it, and said, in a soft voice, "It was a pure world. Those who had more gave to those in need. We shared the same bamboo bed, we shared the same shirt or blanket. That kind of sentiment, so pure, was even more than I have for my blood brother. And when we lost our comrades, when they sacrificed, the pain gave us strength in fighting."

Two days later Hien and I were waiting at the airport, sipping tea amid the eerie silence. Through the window I could see the old hangars. One still bore a huge sign that said VIKINGS. It was almost fifteen years to the day since I had arrived here for the first time. I asked Hien if he ever saw the men from his unit.

"At Tet and other feast days my men and I still try to get together," Hien said. "We have a lot of memories: when we had to fight an enemy ten times stronger; when we were so hungry we had to chew uncooked rice; when we were surrounded and had to fight day and night, once for twenty-four days and nights, against constant artillery and bombs and helicopters firing rockets; when the days and nights ran together in hails of fire and fatigue. But we never gave up. We can't forget any of that. But above all we will never forget the day we came into Da Nang as victors, the day we liberated our home. That will be with us always. "

As I listened to his memories, my own memories came back: of ambushes and booby traps and days and nights in the jungle looking for Hien, for an enemy we never seemed to find; of all those men, so young and brave, being wasted for nothing. All in all, I would rather have his war memories than mine.

Hien asked me politely how the airport had changed since I was last here.

"It's a lot quieter," I said. "And it's yours."

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