By David K. Shipler
With John Kerry confirmed for Secretary of State and Chuck Hagel in hearings to become Secretary of Defense, much is being made of the breakthrough that they represent: the first time that veterans of the Vietnam War will have occupied those two senior cabinet positions. These men, each sobered in his own way by combat, know the miseries of warfare, and seem to have absorbed their lessons.
But outside the glare of this spotlight on uniformed veterans, there are other Americans, those who went to Vietnam out of uniform, who also saw the miseries close at hand as they tried to do some good for ordinary people. I have watched recently as a farflung community of those invisible Vietnam vets have connected by Internet because one of them is dying. They are sharing reminiscences, are writing about the traumas they still carry, and are reaffirming the moral opposition to the war that moved them to activism decades ago.
Some avoided the war by persuading their draft boards that they were conscientious objectors, and then went to Vietnam anyway, in civilian clothes and unarmed.
Most of them learned to speak Vietnamese fluently. They taught in schools, treated children who had lost limbs, supported political prisoners and their families, wrote newsletters on what they witnessed, and opened doors for journalists and members of Congress. Returning home with vivid portrayals of suffering in Vietnam, some became leaders in an antiwar movement that grew into a significant counterweight to the advocates of war.
It is wise to remember, in this age of deep polarization, how angrily the United States was torn into strident factions over the justice or the injustice of the war, over its high purpose or low inhumanity. The truth looked absolute, especially at a distance. Just before I went to Saigon as a New York Times correspondent in 1973, someone told me—I can’t remember who—that there were two kinds of Americans: those who had been in Vietnam, and those who had not.
There was something to that, but I was soon to recognize that those who were there were of many kinds. Indeed, in parts of the world where conflict exists, you can usually find Americans across a broad spectrum. There are mercenaries and contractors, smugglers and spies, diplomats and journalists, Americans there to make money in legitimate business and Americans there to provide humanitarian assistance in many forms. They have different truths. And so it was in Vietnam, a place of such complexity that a colleague once advised me, only half joking: Even what you see with your own eyes is a rumor.
Still, this circle of activists, now gathered around the virtual bedside of my friend, seems to possess an unyielding clarity of vision. If I may read between the lines, an assumption runs through the recollections that virtue rested with the Vietcong—known in this milieu as the National Liberation Front, or NLF—that it was the true voice of the people, the authentic movement for … well … liberation.
It is accurate that the North Vietnamese Communists and their indigenous movement in the South were fighting for independence from foreign domination, a kind of continuation of their anti-colonial war against the French. But as I now read some of the Americans’ e-mails, I’m taken back to the uncomfortable puzzlement I felt at the time, watching many on the left somehow unable to oppose warmaking by the United States without approving of it by the North Vietnamese and the NLF, whose violence and atrocities are glossed over or rationalized. Must there always be a virtuous side in a war?
My friend John Spragens, who is dying of pancreatic cancer, first went to Vietnam as a schoolteacher in the 1960s, then returned in the early 1970s as a freelance journalist, photographer, and translator. After he sent a letter to friends in November about his diagnosis, the e-mails poured in, and he set up a listserve on which we converse with him and one another, as if in a great global reunion. He is still with us, but fading.
The community is bound by several strands, one of which—International Voluntary Services—was created by Quakers, Mennonites, and Brethren, which sent Americans to South Vietnam and other Third World countries beginning in the 1950s. Building houses, helping clear land for agriculture, teaching school, the volunteers saw the developing war and its devastation, and many became vocal opponents.
This came with a cost to some. One of this circle’s members, Tom Fox, a Vietnamese-speaker who did volunteer work there and later became a journalist, contributed this:
“Just finished reading Nick Turse’s book, Kill Anything that Moves. Warning: It is an unsettling and deeply emotional experience. I found myself tearing up, even gagging at times, as I turned the pages. Long buried memories will be torn open anew. I experienced more than bitter sadness; I felt the anger again, and maybe most of all I felt the loneliness. You know the feeling. It was the result of having experienced so much as such a young age and then feeling there was no way to share it. It was also the result of knowing we were failing to persuade others to listen, to care, to act with us to end the madness and killings. The loneliness of which I speak, the loneliness we felt for so long, finally stemmed from a failure to be the bridges of understanding we set out to be. Our passions, our love for the Vietnamese people we had come to know, imprisoned us for lifetimes. The war made those chains all the heavier. How could we ever share, except with each other that which was shaping the people we were becoming, lonely witnesses to something so, so much larger than ourselves? How could we not have become lost?”
“… As the anti-war movement grew in the US there seemed to be more refuge for us, but the cause to end the war, to end the killings, was infinitely more personal to us, as we knew Vietnamese families, many of them living relatives of victims of the war. We had seen suffering and death, we had smelled the burnt flesh, saw the mutilated bodies, witnessed the racism of young fearful, lost men in a foreign land. …
“For many years, upon returning from Vietnam I could not – would not – stand at an athletic event to sing the national anthem. I could not salute the flag I had seen painted on the bottom of the wings of the fighter bombers taking off day and night from the Tuy Hoa air base to bomb the farmers and flatten villages in Phu Yen, farmers who would then become refugees, sometimes thousands at a time, who would walk distances to be ‘resettled’ on sand along the coast where I was to somehow provide assistance. As one IVS colleague said at the time: ‘We were the band aids on the genocide.’ Yes, but we were more. We were witnesses. Each of us saw pieces of the whole and together we collectively saw enough to help energize the anti-war movement back home. But in the process we became branded for the rest of our lives, outcasts of sorts, victims of too much knowledge. We could never ever fully fit in to American society again. …
“So like the sad soldiers who fought and lived through Vietnam, we too returned suffering levels of post-traumatic shock. How could it be otherwise? But unlike veterans groups and veterans hospitals we did not have those nationally sponsored support groups. We were the young idealists, those who did not carry guns, indeed, opposed using weapons. We were the young idealists who wanted to make a difference, somehow change the world. We knew the complexities. … We learned the language, bonded with the people and grew to prize their culture. …
“I am writing this, now, because I feel those who are reading this, friends of John, understand. You are part of the community of loneliness.”
POSTSCRIPT: John Spragens died February 10.
POSTSCRIPT: John Spragens died February 10.