REMEMBERANCES SIX YEARS AFTER
I was going through some old papers the other day and came across the text
of a speech I gave in 1975, on the day Saigon fell to the NVA.
It all happened a fifth of my lifetime ago. I was younger then, my hair was less thin and my waistline less broad. To be sure time has dimmed the memories of much that happened - but much remains. And despite how much I've changed, I know that those changes are miniscule when compared to the changes in the lives of the people I knew who lived there; the people of Vietnam.
I remember well the people, their land, their war, and the Americans, too, who fought with them and for them; often not knowing why, but only knowing that they were called and that their duty was to answer that call. What is happening there now, the immanent collapse of all we fought for or to prevent; the demise of their clumsy, faltering, maybe futile, attempt at democracy; the loss of territorial integrity; their conquest by those who rule through tyranny and fear; and, the first unmistakable signs and reports of impending blood bath; what is happening there now brings those dimly illuminated memories leaping from my subconscious to my conscious mind.
The Vietnamese are a gentle people, unlikely candidates to have withstood the rigors of twenty odd years of war, small, almost miniature in stature, with a tendency toward cleanliness and neatness that belies the filth of the battlefield or the rubble of bombarded cities. The big and brash American G.I. could never become used to seeing two Vietnamese boys, both soldiers, comrades in arms, holding hands as they walked down a city street or along a country road. The immodest American could never grasp the modesty that caused a Vietnamese male to bathe wearing a loin cloth while his sister a few yards down stream bared and bathed her breasts. The lusty and robust American could not understand why the Vietnamese resented a playful roughing of their hair or a jocular patting of their cheek. We did not understand their culture, their taboos, their mores, and all too often, because we did not understand them, we did not respect them.
This is not to say that as a people they were without faults. By our standards, they were often ruthless in their quest for money. There were no goods, no services, no vices, that they would not provide the American G.I. provided the price was right. I cannot say for certain that this was their nature, that it was born in them. Perhaps, their greed was born of the insatiable appetite of the American soldier. Perhaps it is inevitable that where our armies go, a basically good and gentle people are perverted.
The people of Vietnam that I grew to know and like the most were the Montagnard tribesmen of the Central Highlands. Remnants of their primitive innocence that they knew before the years of war could still be detected when I was there. Unlike the Vietnamese, there was no charge for their friendship. If you were a guest in their village you were treated like royalty, what was theirs was yours, while, at the same time, what was yours was safe from encroachment by them. In my entire life I have never met a more honest, a more reliable, a more courageous group of people. I am saddened by the thought that these people, Vietnamese and Montagnards alike, who have for the last two decades withstood the ravages of war, should find the peace they long dreamed about, to be a peace without freedom, a peace without independence.
Also, from a personal standpoint, I am saddened that now that the bamboo curtain is descending over Southeast Asia, I will never again see what I consider to be the most beautiful country on earth. From the white sand beaches of Cam Rahn Bay and Vung Tau to the triple canopy rain forest of the Central highlands, Vietnam is a veritable paradise. I spent most of my time there in the Central Highlands, in Pleiku and Kontum Provinces, in jungles teeming with exotic wildlife and rugged mountain foothills accented with clear flowing rivers that wold occasionally plummet over waterfalls into translucent pools below. There has been much said about the ravages of war on the landscape of Vietnam, of defoliated trees and fields pockmarked with bomb craters. I cannot deny that this is so, but the jungle has remarkable recuperative powers and the scars are not long obvious. Within weeks of an attack of bombs and defoliants the deadened leaves are overshadowed by new lush greenery sprouting from the jungle undergrowth and the bomb craters are hidden by the broad blades of elephant grass which tower fifteen or twenty feet from the crater pits. Stories of Shangri-La and other tropical paradises are written about places such as this.
Now, as with China and Korea, as with the steppes of the Ukraine and the tobacco and cane fields of Cuba, those lush rain forests and rugged waterfalls of Vietnam will disappear from the view of all but a select few of the western world, veiled by an alien philosophy and the distrust inherent after more than two decades of war. It is sad.
But the saddest of all my memories are of those courageous Americans who fought and all too often died there. Here the memories are more personal. From the dim past I see vague reflections of familiar faces, I hear a roll call of names long since forgotten by the conscious mind. Names like Finley, and Gahadi and Murphy and Hancock and Blake, city boys and country boys, whites and blacks and even an American Indian, College grads and highschool dropouts; in one unit a microcosm of American life.
Finley has been missing in action since November 1968, the others are dead, killed in action in an undeclared and unpopular war. But perhaps I'm wrong, perhaps death is more ephemeral than I know. Jerry Hancock thought it was. Jerry wrote poetry and I fought beside him over there. On occasion he would let me read some of his poems. After the helicopter he was on went down killing him and his entire team we found this poem among his effects, I have since learned it wasn't one he had written, but none the less it reflected his beliefs. The lieutenant read it during the ceremony awarding him a Bronze Star and Purple Heart posthumously.
Do not stand by my grave and weep,
I remember Vietnam, I remember the Vietnamese people, but most of all I remember Jerry, and Finley and Gahadi and Murphy and the rest.
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