HUE, Vietnam--About an hour ago I sat at my favorite sidewalk restaurant in Vietnam. Its owner, Mr. Lac, is deaf and something of a celebrity among tourists in this beautiful city. What he lacks in the ability to speak, he makes up for with friendly energy. His shop is a meeting place. This evening I chatted with an Englishman who had emigrated to New Zealand. A little later, I tried rusty French with a group from Paris.
It's hard to believe that eight feet from where I sat eating noodle soup, Kenneth Buchanan of Dover, Ark., was wounded on the first day of the Battle for Hue. I showed Ken's photo to Mr. Lac and, using hand signs, related Ken's story. Mr. Lac pulled out a pen and paper and wrote "1968," the year of the battle. I showed Mr. Lac a photo of one of Ken's friends, a Navy corpsman who died across the street from where the restaurant is. He made a sad expression. It was a touching moment.
Ken's is one of many stories from Arkansas veterans I have brought with me on this third trip to what was once called South Vietnam. Ron Maines of Rogers and Mike Bryant of Siloam Springs flew helicopters into one dangerous situation after another. Derl Horn of Springdale survived one of the deadliest days for American forces at a place not far from here called Con Thien. Jerry Toler and Don Martin were helicopter crew chiefs. Vess Lawbaugh was the only survivor in a jeep decimated by a mine. A veteran living in Fayetteville bears the scars of a knife fight only he survived. Ron Perry of Fayetteville worked aboard transport boats in the Mekong Delta.
After discussions with dozens of Arkansas veterans, place names like Cu Chi, Cai Be, Saigon, Da Nang, Khe Sahn, Quang Tri, Dong Ha, Phu Bai and Hue have taken on personal significance. It's impossible to look at Marble Mountain or the Hai Van Pass and not think of things veterans have said when visiting my classes.
And yet it has taken more work on this trip to maintain that focus.
Difficult as this may be to believe, the Vietnam War is much more alive in the U.S. than it is in Vietnam. On the drive from the airport at Phu Bai to Hue, I asked my guide the same question I've put to multiple others over the past week. Do people in Vietnam care about the war? He said "no." My guide in the Mekong Delta said that Vietnamese are busy trying to build a future and they don't have time to dwell on the past. Earlier conversations in Nha Trang bore the same message. A young American I spoke with in Saigon told me his family had warned him about coming to Vietnam, assuming he would meet hostility. "But," he said, "it seems like no one cares about the war."
There is of course some generational difference. The three veterans of the old South Vietnamese army I spoke with carry the burdens of warfare. One's eyes filled with tears as he spoke of carrying bodies from the battlefield. All three spent time in "re-education camps" after the communists won the war and unified the country of Vietnam in 1975. Those scars remain.
It is also true that problems from Agent Orange and unexploded ordnance persist. But these things are rarely mentioned here.
The more dominant story is that Vietnam is growing economically. The communist fantasy is being left behind. There is energy in the air. If the problem of corruption can be dealt with, this country has a chance to build a strong middle class and to become a growing trading partner with the United States.
And American veterans of the war should know that the Vietnamese are eager to welcome them here.
Preston Jones teaches at John Brown University in Siloam Springs. He provides content for the website War and Life: Discussions with Veterans.
Editorial on 01/13/2020