Letter from Viet Nam


Most days Viet Nam shocks me. After the nightmare that was September 11, many Vietnamese, even strangers, came up to me to express their sincere sympathy. Students, teachers, and new friends held Vietnamese newspapers with grainy photos of the former World Trade Center, and said, as if someone had died, "I'm so sorry."

Weeks later, when I'm finally able to write this, I'm again struck by the seemingly divine forgiveness and compassionthat so many Vietnamese have for a country that, besides killing more than two million of its citizens, dumped more than 19 million gallons of Agent Orange on about 4.5 million acres of countryside.
"Many Vietnamese, even strangers, came up to me to express their sincere sympathy."

A 1996 Report by the U.S. Institute of Medicine suggested that Agent Orange can cause cancers of the brain, bladder and gastrointestinal system, and that there is "sufficient evidence of an association" between the chemical and lymph node cancer, the skin disease chloracne and connective tissue cancer.

The U.S. Department of Veteran's Affairs goes even further to link Agent Orange with military service-related disabilities. Veterans may now receive compensation for up to ten equally horrific diseases, including Hodgkin's Disease, which can start from almost any organ in the body and then spread to the liver, bone marrow and spleen, multiple myeloma, prostrate, and lung and other respiratory cancers. It must have come as a great surprise to soldiers on both sides that in defense of their country they came into contact with a defoliant so toxic as to worm insidiously through their bodies, spreading cancer at every turn.

Last week on a ferry across the Mekong Delta I saw the disastrous effects of Agent Orange handed down from one generation to the next. A young boy, I guessed he was about twelve years old, walked slowly from truck to tourist van to car, offering his face as an unspoken, but sorrowful plea for charity. Living in Ho Chi Minh City beside scores of amputees, burn victims and other assorted legacies of war I had almost gotten used to the sight. But something about this boy caught me off-guard. His face was so badly burned that it was stretched taut, locking his lips in a permanent "O," as if he would spend his life forever gasping for air. I was so shocked and distracted by his features I forgot all about the ice-cold Pepsi and mineral water he was hawking. No more than twelve years old he was much too young to be a direct participant in "the war," the thirty-year period starting in 1945 in which Viet Nam fought off three imperialist power s-- Japan, France and finally the United States.

It seemed safe to assume that his deformity had been passed on to him by his parents. Regardless of how we may feel about the the leader his parents supported, the use of chemical warfare is ethically indefensible. Chemically maiming an enemy's population produces not only physical scars, but psyche scars for generations to come.

"The use of chemical warfare is ethically indefensible. Chemically maiming an enemy's population produces not only physical scars, but psyche scars for generations to come."

The boy stood outside our minibus for about one minute. Heeding the wisdom I've grown up with in America, I knew enough not to stare. Yet I wonder about the implications of looking away, of glossing over uncomfortable situations.

In the United States it is relatively easy to avoid the painful reminders of the Viet Nam War. Veterans who suffer from violent war-related trauma are cloistered in VA hospitals. For those with more subtle shock, etiquette dictates that we should never raise the subject. To honor the dead, we have a sober granite memorial in our nation's capital.

It is possible--at least for my generation-- to take an orderly, even logical approach to this painful period in our past. One can be certain that even the most heated political debate about the conflict, which cost the U.S. 57,000 lives, compared with over two million Vietnamese dead, will not bring further bloodshed.

vietnam map
In Ho Chi Minh City one is constantly barraged by both the ideological reasons for preserving Viet Nam's national identity and the haunting physical reminder of war.

Every day here I see examples of humanity at its most desperate. I am surrounded by poverty, blindness, physical deformity. This is the winning side, remember.

I am writing from Vietnam to call for renewed caution as the United States moves forward with its "war on Terrorism." I know that the young boy bears the legacy of a conflict he knew no part of, but will continue haunt him, and his country, for years to come. Much has been written about the appropriate American response to what we have refer to as an "American" tragedy. If we continue to envision the attack on the World Trade Center and on the Pentagon as strictly an "American" catastrophe then we blind ourselves to the physical and psychic wounds that result when we meet terror with more terror.

"This is Only a Movie" Video Machete, Chicago, IL

The 9/11 attack was not just an attack on the American way of life, or even on freedom or democracy, but it was as much a reminder of the unintended consequences that can come about when we use any means necessary to protect those symbols of America.

Ben Gleason is a senior at Oberlin College. He is currently studying abroad in Viet Nam.

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