On my way from Chau Doc to Ha Tien I stopped for a rest break. I noticed on the other side of the road a Vietnamese veterans memorial cemetery. Row after row of soldiers’ graves. Hundreds. Not all of them from the American war, but most were. I found some that died while I was here from 1968 to 1970. War is so fucked up.
I lit incense and placed flowers on the tombs of two soldiers. One of them died shortly after I arrived. The other died just before I left. I cried for them, and for all the other millions who died needlessly because of the US invasion.
I am not a religious man, but the concept of penance reverberates on this trip. Perhaps I feel it even more because of the kindness and generosity of the Vietnamese people I’ve encountered. Maybe that is why I want to treat the Vietnamese with the respect they deserve, the respect they didn’t get during the war.
Penance: an act that shows you feel sorry for something you have done. (Cambridge English Dictionary)
I don’t think my intelligence work killed any of the soldiers in this cemetery. My area of responsibility was North of HCMC, far from the battles in which these people died.
I never had to pull the trigger while aiming at another human. But the bombing raids, artillery shellings, and ground troop movements surely led to the deaths of many. Yes, I enlisted voluntarily, but I had a choice to do otherwise. Yes, I was “just following orders.” But I did so with skill and pride of workmanship. I was complicit in the deaths of many, as a willing part of an invading army.
I am grateful for this encounter with these ghosts of my past. Some of you will understand this. To others, it may seem strange. To me, it is very real. Now I can begin to grieve and to heal.