A few days ago, in The Vietnam Veterans Memorial of Greater Rochester: A Meditation on the Cost of War, George Cassidy Payne shared his reflections after visiting the Memorial. After thinking about his father who fought in Vietnam, George considers his own relationship to the war. (BELOW).
First, George’s observations remind me of my own visit to the Memorial last September for a 20th anniversary ceremony remembering its opening.
Then, I brought a series of possible ways the war could be described that I showed to veterans at the ceremony. The goal was to ask participants to reflect upon the Vietnam War era within a broad historical context. I chose terms or issues open to wide interpretation.
Dick Lendowski said he lost 20 friends in combat. Dick, like others, believed the cause was worthy, but could only really hope the sacrifices had not been in vain.
Larry D’Angelo pointed to “human catastrophe” and said absolutely. Larry mentioned the still lingering human and natural done to Indochina.
“Imperial overreach” was a loaded term. One veteran said the U.S. was primarily fulfilling its UN Treaty Obligations. For soldiers on the ground, the war didn’t feel like an imperial expedition; they were there to stop communism. At the same time, the man said you could look at the war from a realpolitik geopolitical perspective and conclude it was about oil.
Larry alone thought the war might arguably have limited the spread of communism. Although Larry is skeptical of the domino effect theory, he thinks had the United States not been involved, all of wider southeast Asian might indeed have become communist.
The questions on how democracies wage wars and the anti-war movement are intertwined. Some veterans didn’t comment, saying the whole period was very difficult. One man said the anti-war movement was not successful because protesters didn’t really get what they wanted. Leaning towards the hopeless quagmire interpretation of the war, Larry defended the protesters who pushed the government to see its failings.
Pointing to the aftermath of the war, no one thought it was a victory for the Vietnamese people. One veteran said the war was another in Vietnam’s 500 year tragic history. People weren’t sure whether to call the war an American defeat. Everyone said it wasn’t a defeat. I heard that refrain that the government didn’t let the soldier’s win.
I also met the original creator of the Memorial, Barry Clifford. For Barry, the Memorial was to remember those who fought and sacrificed and to be a reminder against unnecessary involvement in future wars. Barry is not sure if that warning has been heeded.
Surviving Viet Nam: A Brief Reflection on the Most Potent Force in the Universe
Photography by George Cassidy Payne
The Viet Nam War is personal to me. Even though it ended 8 years before I was born, it has touched me more than any other war of my generation. It was my father’s war. I am a byproduct of its failure to kill him.
Remarkably, for a combatant in the field, he wasn’t taken out in a body bag like the nearly 60,000 American soldiers who were killed along with hundreds of thousands of people from Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Viet Nam. And somehow he was not even marred by debilitating injuries, tortured, taken hostage by the enemy, or eternally traumatized by the horrors of combat. (Although he has referenced a few grizzly anecdotes about the infamous allied fighting force known as the South Korea Tiger Division. But that is a story for him to tell.)
Nor did he succumb to the bottle or lose his grip on reality. My father is, as far as I am concerned, a heroic survivor who has earned the life that he has decided to lead after his war years.
Today he is a member of Veterans forwar not only failed to kill him, it succeeded in making him the kind, wise, passionate, and merciful man that he is today. Go figure.
The paradox is even bigger than that. Because my dad was a survivor, in 1981, he was alive to bring me into this world. The trajectory of his life was forever determined by the course of those events in far away Southeast Asia. Because my dad beat the odds of Nam, I was given the chance to live. There would be no George Cassidy Payne without that course running the way it did. Take away Viet Nam and you take away me. It is really that simple.
When put that way, I am extremely happy that I am alive because my dad survived the war. Yet, if I am perfectly honest, it brings no satisfaction to think about the necessity of my birth as being contingent in any way on the experience of warfare. When I stop to think about the preposterous loss of life involved in that 25 year old slaughter-fest, it sometimes makes me feel as if my own life is preposterous. Where is the meaning in all of this destruction? Where is the justice in all of this suffering? Where is the redemption in all of this loss? From the Ho Chi Ming Trail to the coast of the South China Sea, that land will forever be stained and haunted by the battles Americans could never pronounce and the Vietnamese could never lose.
In one way or another, I inherited the curse of that war. It is in my bloodstream. It is in my veins. It is in my genetic makeup. My life is the natural result of survival at all costs. Nature’s most primordial law.
Wasn’t that what the Viet Nam War was all about? Survival at all costs. Perhaps not for Americans at home, for they believed in pride, honor, respect, power, money, and glory. But for the Vietnamese, it was all about survival at all costs, which is the most potent force in the universe.
I am guessing that most American soldiers felt the same way as their enemy.