UK Students confront their country’s darker history

Jeff Keith, graduate student

Looking over the wreckage from downed B-52s, Jeff Keith did not know how to feel.

As a UK graduate student studying the Vietnam War, Keith was ecstatic to be in the country for the first time and was sensitive to the struggles of the Vietnamese fighting the Americans. He hopes to move to Vietnam eventually to study in Ho Chi Minh City and write a history of the city that was the center of the French and U.S. occupation. His goal is to link the American and Vietnamese experiences, hopefully aiding Americans in understanding the tolls of war and what can be dangerous consequences of a country’s power.

He is a student with a great appreciation for what the Vietnamese accomplished in all their history, including the war with America, which had the best-equipped military in the world.

But Keith did not know how to react to the sculpture celebrating the deaths of American air crews.

“I looked at this wreckage, and all I could think was that for every piece, for every plane, there was probably a dead American or a whole crew of dead Americans that came down with that plane,” Keith said.

In the center of the pile of wreckage was a picture of a young Vietnamese woman, a rifle thrown across her back, dragging a severed wing from an American plane. Keith, 29, a novice speaker of Vietnamese, told his guide that seeing the picture was hard for him. His guide, Do Van Mahn, whose father was wounded on the Ho Chi Minh Trail during a bombing run while fighting for North Vietnam, asked why.

Because Americans died, Keith told him.

“And he kind of gave me this look like ‘Of course they died; they were flying over North Vietnam,’ ” Keith said. “His sympathy was not there, and if you want to really step back, you can almost understand why – you can understand why.”

If the situation was reversed and the North Vietnamese were dropping bombs on America, the United States would never feel sympathy for them, Keith said.

Later in the trip, Keith stood in Trung Son Cemetery, the largest one in Vietnam, holding more than 10,000 North Vietnamese soldiers killed during the American War – the Vietnamese name for the conflict. A swarm of simple headstones as high as his knee surrounded him, standing in perfect lines like those in Arlington National Cemetery. Next to Keith was the group’s guide during its time in Central Vietnam, Nguyen Tuan Huy.

Nguyen’s family split between the North and South during the war. His grandfather fought with the North Vietnamese Army while most everyone else sided with the South. His grandfather never returned from war, and his remains are still missing.

Nguyen translated a headstone for Keith. It said “martyr, name not known.” Keith looked around him and noticed there were many headstones with the same inscription – a mark for soldiers like Nguyen’s grandfather who never returned or whose departure is a mystery.

Surrounded by the remains and memories of victims of the American occupation, Keith apologized. He told Nguyen as much as his limited Vietnamese would allow him: He was sorry so many people died. He didn’t like war, he told him, and he was sorry their two countries ever fought each other.

Amanda Tate, architecture senior

Amanda Tate had never been out of the United States before traveling to Vietnam. All the architecture senior knew of the country was the war. What little information she knew about it came from her high school, a place that might not have taught students that America won, but did not teach that “we lost” either.

Most students on the trip said their strongest connection to Vietnam as a country was the war. Few had ever discussed its existence outside the context of the American conflict, and few knew of the development the country had made since Saigon’s fall. Fewer knew how the American War – decades gone – claims young victims to this day.

Tate, 21, looked over an exhibit in the American War Remnants Museum. Jars of deformed fetuses sat before her – victims of Agent Orange, a chemical Americans sprayed over miles and miles as a defoliant to destroy jungle cover for the Viet Cong. Tate, who said she used to be somewhat of a “war hawk,” had never seen victims of war up close. The casualties in front of her – so innocent they never had the chance to know guilt – made her question her country.

“It’s just… I’m still trying to put the words together for it,” Tate said. “I knew they used it, and I knew that it did a significant amount of damage to the landscape, and I knew it killed a lot of people, but I didn’t realize it was still killing people.”

With the war in Iraq stretching indefinitely into the future, education about Vietnam is needed now more than ever, she said. Visiting the country sparked this realization more than any classroom session could.

“It evokes feelings in you that you probably otherwise wouldn’t have known you could feel,” Tate said. “It’s the combination of several different emotions that adds up to one giant feeling that I’m not sure has a name.”

Tate wished she had learned more in high school, not only about the war and America’s foreign policy decisions but about the total costs of warfare. For the Vietnamese, this included upwards of 3 million soldiers and civilians dead, an economy in shambles, a culture violated and corrupted. Casualties continue to mount from unexploded ordnance still buried in the ground. Agent Orange still poisons generations decades from when it was used.

“It needs to be part of the education of Americans,” Tate said. “… People over here are just like, ‘Whatever, it was a war, we were in so many of them.’ I think we’ve been really desensitized to the consequences of war.”

Will Stull, political science senior

Will Stull stared at the photograph. He knew it was taken during another time, decades earlier, during another war.

But looking at the image of a medic trying to resuscitate a dead soldier in Vietnam, he did not expect how much the captured scene in the jungle would remind him of a moment he experienced in the deserts of Iraq. One of his team leaders was trying to resuscitate a Humvee driver who had been shot.

“He was dead,” Stull said. “He had been dead for a while. But watching him trying to pump life back into him – I wasn’t prepared for how much that image was going to bring me back to that time.”

Stull, a 27-year-old veteran of Iraq, worked on a Humvee team for convoy escorts during much of his time before becoming a prison guard at Abu Ghraib two years after it was the center of a prisoner-abuse scandal.

Like Peter Berres, Stull comes from a military family. His father served in Vietnam as a Marine. Sharing the bond of combat veterans, Stull was able to connect with his father on another level after his return from the Middle East.

The war in Iraq is often compared to Vietnam. Some comparisons are valid, Stull said, others are not. The simplest similarity is that in both wars, America was fighting an insurgency and doing it poorly, Stull said.

“It’s a different form of insurgency than the one we were facing in Vietnam, lucky for us,” Stull said, “because it’s disunified, it doesn’t have a fundamental leader and it has a very fragile ideology driving it, whereas in Vietnam there was a very strong nationalist liberation that was driving these people to fight almost to the last man. But we’re handling it just as sloppily.”

The most notable difference is the treatment of soldiers, he said. Service in the U.S. military is voluntary, and soldiers are trained and paid much better than in the Vietnam era. Returning soldiers are more likely to be welcomed than spit on, as was the case during the Vietnam War.

But like all wars, the transition home is complicated. Simple occurrences at home over the course of a tour of duty can build to a jarring effect, whether it be 13 months of missed inside jokes or soldiers returning to find their girlfriends gone.

The most difficult part for Stull was the public’s attitude toward the war. A disconnect with the reality of war may be a common link in all conflicts.

After fielding questions like “Did you ever get to blow somebody up?” and “Did you guys get in huge firefights with these insurgents?” Stull came to a conclusion about the public and the war in Iraq.

“You get all these stupid questions that can only be concocted in the mind of some action-movie junkie,” he said. “It’s stuff born from some delusion of what an actual firefight is like. They take all this crap that they learn from Saturday-morning cartoons and from all the just absolutely ridiculous movies they’ve seen and then they take that to be just as real as the pictures they see on the news, and somehow those two things link up in their head and they take that to be reality.”

“People were aware it was going on, but they weren’t aware that it was real.”

Neil Esser, architecture senior

Kelly Arnett, biology sophomore