I remember the first time I truly understood what “war” meant. I was eight years old and went on a family trip to Washington, D.C. My mother was somewhat out of sorts and insisted that we visit the Vietnam War Memorial.
I’m not sure what I was expecting of the memorial, but I was confused to find it was just row upon row of names carved into stone. My mother explained to me that they were the names of all the soldiers who died in the Vietnam War. Suddenly the memorial took on a different shape in my mind. I imagined each name being a dead body, someone’s son, someone’s love story.
In the midst of my imaginings, I refocused to find my mother was actively looking through directories and mumbling something about “find his name.” I began to understand that my mom knew someone who’s name was on that wall. Eventually, she took a sheet of paper and a pencil and traced over a name. I looked around me and noticed that many other people were tracing over names on the wall too. They all had stories. My mother had a story. What was it? I asked her, but soon realized she was on another plane at that moment and could not hear me.
Later, my mother told me her stories. They are her stories, not mine, so I will simply say that she told me two: the story of a boy who returned home from Vietnam quite disturbed and the story of another boy who never came home at all.
This was a very important moment in my life. It was the first time I stepped out of the fantasy world of a child and really understood the dark capabilities of human beings. It was also the first time I understood that my mother had a life before me and my brothers, before my father.
As I got older, my father also shared many Vietnam stories with us. He was eligible for the draft lottery and lived in a working class neighborhood from which many boys were drafted. He told us the story of how he failed his physical exam and got into a fist fight with a boy who called him a faker. My father wasn’t faking and was therefore not eligible to fight in the war because of his muscle damage from Polio.
My father told us stories from the boys in the neighborhood about tunnel rats, intense heat, massive pythons, boobytraps, swamps, and confusion over who and where “the enemy” was.
These stories were actively running through my mind as I entered the Cu Chi tunnel site today. It was so interesting to see it all from the Vietnamese perspective after hearing about it from the American perspective all my life, but when tourist staring climbing into camouflaged holes in the ground, while laughing and smiling for photos to post on social media, it was a bit too much to juxtapose against the reel in my mind. I also had difficulty watching the guide demonstrate the various boobytraps and punji stake pits used to capture and kill the Americans. Several traps were displayed against a backdrop illustrated with goofy, cartoon-like American soldiers falling into them and being maimed.
The Killing Fields in Cambodia had a “no laughing” policy. I felt like this site should have that policy too, but I guess I have to remember that my own perspective of the Vietnam War may not be shared by those around me. Either way, I wasn’t laughing, but I was glad to have the opportunity to explore this place about which I’ve heard so many stories and to reflect deeply on how many perspectives one event can pull.
Interestingly, today marks the anniversary of the fall of Saigon in 1975.
Fact: Thomas Edison High School in Philadelphia sustained the largest number of Vietnam war casualties of any high school in the nation. http://thewall-usa.com/names.asp
Tomorrow will be filled with more war history as we explore Ho Chi Minh City. Tonight, I am doing my own research on the Vietnam War and relaxing and enjoying some delicious tofu and noodles. It all feels so strange.
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam