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The Shame of the Vietnamese Left Behind - By Serge Schmemann


This time, the United States cannot abandon those who helped.

I was stationed at the U.S. Army base at Phu Loi in Vietnam when the withdrawal of American troops got under way, and I often used to wonder what would happen after we left to the Vietnamese women who did our laundry and tended to our "hootches," or barracks.
We felt very protective toward the "hootch girls." They provided a touch of domestic normalcy with their cheerful banter through the day, their radios blaring Vietnamese music we didn't understand and their willingness to listen to homesick guys reading letters they didn't understand.
We knew nothing about their lives outside - nor, for that matter, about their country, which we were supposed to be defending. We had no idea what they really thought of us, but they were still the closest link we had to a "real" Vietnam.
Later, back in New York, watching those searing images of desperate Vietnamese being shoved away from the United States embassy, or clinging to the runners of departing helicopters, I anguished over the fates of the girls and all the other Vietnamese who had worked with us. Many veterans, many Americans, still feel a deep shame and guilt at abandoning so many people who had come to trust us and depend on us.
It hangs over every discussion about getting out of Iraq. That, of course, was what President George W. Bush calculated when he recently invoked the "unmistakable legacy" of boat people, re-education camps and killing fields to argue against withdrawing from Iraq.
Those comments by Bush have generated considerable debate over the validity of comparisons to Vietnam and the right of a president who eluded Vietnam service to make them. There is certainly a dollop of irony in the invocation of the "legacy of Vietnam" by an administration that campaigned furiously against a more tangible legacy - the sharp turn toward isolation that followed the war - when it set its mind on another foreign military adventure. Now that the pressure is mounting to end this adventure, too, avoiding another round of that isolationism is as important as avoiding a chaotic flight. To do that, I believe we should recognize another "legacy of Vietnam," one inherent in the phrase itself.
Many Americans who returned from Vietnam were stunned that "Vietnam" meant something completely different back home. It had ceased referring to the country we had tried, for better or for worse, to help, and had become shorthand for a monumental domestic crisis of identity.
I don't mean to suggest that Americans caught up in that wrenching clash were callous or cynical, but for most of them the war in Vietnam became lost in the ensuing domestic conflict over the morality of warfare, the exercise of power, the draft. That, for them, became "Vietnam."
To this day, there is pitifully little literature from the other side of that war; Duong Thu Huong's powerful "Novel Without a Name" is one of the rare books available about what the war was like for the North Vietnamese. Our narrative was flower children vs. hard hats, Robert McNamara vs. Jane Fonda, the "best and brightest," scruffy "grunts" and sociopathic "Vietnam vets," 58,256 names etched in black granite at the Vietnam memorial in Washington. The "legacies" we compiled were less about messing up another foreign nation than about the trauma we suffered at home.
Bush is right in his comments about Vietnam, though not in the way he intended. The United States must withdraw from Iraq, that has become evident, but we cannot leave the way we left Vietnam, in a paroxysm of self-absorption, political manipulation, escapism and shame, in which the fates of the Vietnamese became simply collateral damage in our struggle with ourselves. The planning for withdrawal must include provisions for the security of Iraqis who put their faith in us, and that includes resettling many of them in the United States. Pulling out of Iraq simply cannot mean abandoning Iraq.

 

Going back to Vietnam (International herald Tribune – 10-24)

Regarding "The shame of the Vietnamese left behind" by Serge Schmemann (Editorial Observer, Sept. 8): I left Vietnam in May 1967 after 13 months as a Marine infantryman in Dai Loc and Duc Pho. Remembering Vietnam as a nation of hardworking, intelligent people, I was eager to return. In 1995 I made the first of nine trips back to the country, and it has become my favorite place to visit.
America's reward for the time we spent in Vietnam has been a million Vietnamese-American citizens who are contributing their drive and talents to our nation.
Foreign aid from the United States to Vietnam comes largely from funds sent by these citizens to family members back home. Almost everyone I talk with in Vietnam knows someone living in the United States who is thriving and helping. As a result, the Vietnamese have a remarkably positive image of America.

John Merson Siasconset, Massachusetts

 

 

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