Sunday 30 April 2000

Vietnam: letting go of the past

The 25th anniversary of the United States’ withdrawal from The Vietnam War is upon us. Judging by the media coverage this commemoration has received, the Vietnam War is not forgotten. By coincidence Tess and I found ourselves in Vietnam leading up to this occasion. Two years ago Tess participated in a press trip that included a short stay at a gorgeous resort on a beach in Danang, Vietnam. This beach is commonly referred to as China Beach, located on the Gulf of Tonkin. During the Vietnam War, China Beach was almost the nucleus of US military activities. Today it is a long stretch of sandy white beach, with one five star resort: the Furama Resort, Danang. At the north end of the beach rise several jungle-shrouded mountains. It was from these mountains that the Vietcong watched every move of the US military. You can see a picture of the Furama Resort on the front cover of this week’s People Magazine.

Tess and I discussed the war several times during our five-day stay. We agreed that the nation dragging around the past of the Vietnam War is the United States, not Vietnam. For most of her life, Vietnam has been at war. This is a people who have grown accustomed to war being a regular and accepted part of life. The end of the Vietnam War marked the beginning of twenty-five years of conflict free life. Quite possibly, the longest period of peace that Vietnam has experienced for some time. And since then, the Vietnamese government has slowly begun to open up the economy. It has a way to go, but many who visit Vietnam frequently or even live there, say that the pace of change in Vietnam operates at Internet speed without the Internet. After continuing to read about The Vietnam War, and living in Hong Kong for four years, I have had the chance to ask many Asians (including Vietnamese) about The Vietnam War. (The Vietnamese call it The American War.) The response always contains the following theme: “You have to let go of the past and move on…”

The Vietnamese are extremely friendly, with an intense desire to better themselves and help others. Vietnam boasts one of the highest literacy rates in Asia, if not the highest. Even the number one motivator for mothers giving their children up for adoption is not to find a better life for the child, but a better education, if you can imagine that.

The Vietnam War has fascinated me for years and years. I have read easily more than a hundred books ranging from historical to personal accounts. Two nights before we left for our Easter weekend in Danang I sat up for three hours reading through a fascinating web site dedicated to the Vietnam War. Naturally I followed several links soon finding myself reading the nauseating detail of United States government interviews from the search for MIA (Missing In Action.) Therefore, Tess and I were quite amazed to experience what we saw last week while transiting through the Hanoi International Airport en route to Hong Kong.

On several occasions while dealing with the insanity of Hanoi’s airport, we glanced outside to see a massive United States Air Force transport plane (C-140) sitting on the tarmac. There were no 747’s at the airport that we could see, but had there been, I am sure they would have been dwarfed by this huge, gray, obese machine.

The rear ramp of the machine sat extended onto the tarmac like the lazy tongue of a dragon, panting in the hot sun. Nothing seemed to be happening, except there were numerous civilians and military personnel running around. Each time I looked at the beast, I half expected a fully restored ceremonial Jeep to ride out of the dragon’s gaping mouth. As our transit bus drove us to our Cathay Pacific plane, the beast’s neighbour, we noticed six sets of trestles set-up behind the military plane. We boarded our Cathay flight and waited to depart.

Roughly ten minutes before we left, I glanced out our window to find the scene behind the beast transformed into a military ceremony. Sitting on each set of trestles was a silver coffin. Four of them were already draped in fresh, new American flags. The other two were being draped as we watched. Four soldiers, each wearing a different style uniform that looked as though it represented one arm of the United States military, cared for the coffins. Several more senior looking military personnel looked on, saluting the coffins as they were draped. With the last two coffins completed, the four soldiers than proceeded to effortlessly carry the decorated coffins into the belly of the plane one at a time.

On the far side of this occasion stood a small crowd of onlookers, some military, but mostly civilians with a lot of cameras. What was more interesting, though, was the crowd watching the proceedings from our side. There were eight lines of roughly six people in each line. Two of the lines clearly consisted of military personnel in full military dress. Their movements were consistent with the salutes of the senior personnel saluting fallen comrades. To the left were six more perfectly formed lines of civilians.

What we were watching was six fallen soldiers on their way home. Their departures were perhaps 25, 30 or maybe even 40 years late. Certainly, their status during those long years was MIA, and now on the anniversary of The Vietnam War, these MIAs were no longer MIA. They were going home. Standing there, in the blistering heat, were a handful of friends and family representing each one of these soldiers. One line of family and friends for each soldier. We learned after the fact that Senator John McCain was one of the people dressed in civvies. In the last week the media has carried numerous pictures of this event. If you look closely, in some of the pics one will see a picture of a Cathay Pacific plane in the background… Tess and I were on that plane.

I sat on CX 743 and watched in awe. After so many years of personal fascination and curiosity towards The Vietnam War, it was an extraordinary privilege to share this moment that provoked all types of introspective thoughts. Suddenly our plane nudged forward. We pulled away and headed home as the last coffin disappeared into the dragon’s mouth, and six American soldiers headed home themselves.

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