When I flew out of Viet Nam in 1968, it was with huge relief that I was departing safely after a tumultuous year that made clear to me and the world that America would never win this war. But I was also troubled, confused, and angry. The Vietnamese people were suffering under the most massive bombing campaign in history, and facing ground fighting that was terrifying and destructive. As my plane gained altitude, nagging questions crept into that odd mix of emotions: Should I try to make amends? Would I ever come back to Viet Nam?
Nearly 25 years later, in 1992, I was a tourist in Viet Nam, traveling the length of the country by bus, car, train, and motorbike. Conditions were primitive, facilities barely adequate. But the countryside was beautiful, the villages charming, the cities energetic. People were generous, smiling, welcoming. There was no anger or bitterness toward a former American GI, especially among Vietnamese veterans I met, some of whom had lifetime disabilities and war wounds.
By 1995 I had relocated to Viet Nam to manage a project for the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation (VVAF), making orthopedic braces for children with disabilities. That helped me see that there was another serious problem in Viet Nam: explosive ordnance still scattered throughout the country which had resulted in more than 100,000 casualties since the war ended in 1975.
In 2001, with support from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund (VVMF) in Washington, DC, I helped launch an initiative called Project RENEW to deal with the continuing effects of bombs and mines and Agent Orange. Working with other NGOs and the government of Quang Tri Province, we have destroyed nearly 750,000 bombs in the past two decades. The number of accidents, injuries, and deaths has gone down. In 2008, there were 70 or 80 casualties each year in that province. Since then, starting in 2018, there has not been a single accident.
Project RENEW staff are Vietnamese. Our projects to assist families dealing with Agent Orange include home improvements and income generation. They keep us in close contact with people in the towns and villages. This cooperation and the unity in our efforts reflect the mutual respect we have for each other. No one knows more clearly and more personally what their needs are – and what they don’t need – than local people. When local people are engaged, when they embrace the effort as their own, it will be successful. If not, it may become another humanitarian showcase that spent a lot of money, employed a few foreigners, and ultimately failed.
One NGO representative, who was encountering difficulties and resistance from Vietnamese partners, asked me once how I had managed to avoid such situations. I replied, “A lesson from my mother: listen to people, and show some respect.”
It is ironic, after all the suffering our country caused in Viet Nam, that American veterans of the war are welcomed back to the country with grace, warmth, and forgiveness. Sometimes that’s coupled with humor. At a wedding in the countryside one day, the group of Vietnamese veterans with whom I was seated asked me about my wartime experience. When I replied that I was very lucky that I was not injured or wounded, the veteran seated next to me grabbed my hand and began to move it around on his head, his shoulder, and his arm so I could feel the shrapnel embedded under the skin. I shook my head, imagining how many years he had carried those metal shards around in his body. He pulled me close and in a conspiratorial whisper, but loud enough for others to hear, said, “Gift from America!” The whole group whooped in laughter.
I have seen American veterans encounter North Vietnamese, Viet Cong or South Vietnamese veterans for the first time, and weep in their arms as they tell us, “It’s over, it was a long time ago. It was a tragedy and mistake by the U.S. government, but you did not make those decisions. It’s not your fault. Today we are friends, brothers.”
Fellow American veterans and tourists over the years have occasionally asked me, “Did you return to Viet Nam because of guilt?” No, I didn’t come back because of guilt. I don’t find guilt to be a particularly helpful emotion. Recognition of what the U.S. did to the Vietnamese, however, can be a first step toward responsibility and accountability. Those are important values that can lead to rebuilding, recovery, and a kind of atonement that the human spirit needs. Helping others who have been damaged by war that we launched without provocation not only shows respect and understanding to our former enemies, it is an important part of our own healing process.
Listen to a podcast episode featuring all authors for this issue:
Chuck Searcy is an International Advisor with Project RENEW. He is also Co-Chair of the NGO Agent Orange Working Group in Vietnam. He is a Co-Founder and currently President of Chapter 160 of Veterans For Peace, based in Viet Nam.