Upon beginning Martha Hess’s, Then the Americans Came: Voices from Vietnam, I was immediately reminded of my late wife Mev Puleo who embarked on a similar project at about the same time as Hess. Mev was determined to go to Brazil and interview and photograph Brazilian Christians who had become committed to the “preferential option for the poor.” She wanted to know how they changed, and what message they had for her own people back in the United States. By circulating Brazilians’ testimonies in her book The Struggle Is One, Mev hoped readers might ponder more seriously the meaning of solidarity and extend themselves on behalf of others suffering injustice.
In 1990 and 1991, Martha Hess traveled and interviewed men and women all over Vietnam. She went as a receptive American to hear and record the Vietnamese people respond to her earnest question, “What was the war like for you?” (The Vietnamese refer to that period as “the American War.”) Joining the battle against amnesia and indifference, Hess wanted to bring back these testimonies to her fellow citizens. Her rationale: “Because of racism and humiliation, Vietnam remains a faceless nation to Americans and the extent of its people’s suffering at our hands in unknown. We must acknowledge our shame and accept responsibility for the actions of our government, so that the next time we can stand up and say no. We demand no less from the Germans. We have sought absolution from our war against the Vietnamese in other wars, on other faceless person.”  Indeed, with victory in America’s first gulf War, President George H. W. Bush stated, “the specter of Vietnam has been buried forever in the desert sands of the Arabian Peninsula.”
I once read somewhere that members of Jonah House, the anti-nuclear resistance community in Baltimore, would each month watch a documentary on the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They subjected themselves to this discipline to be ever mindful of what these weapons can do, so as to continue their work of raising an outcry against U.S. policies. It would be comparably good for American citizens to read and ponder Hess’s interviews once a year, in the hopes that it may remind us not only to remember the lessons of Vietnam but to interfere with our current wars. What we may have forgotten (or, if we are young, never knew) was the both the scale of barbarity of the U.S. attack on South Vietnam (our ally, whom we were supposedly “protecting” from the Communists) and the devastation caused by the relentless bombing of the north. In her book on Brazil, Mev wanted her readers to read the Brazilians’ own voices as they told their stories of conversion and engagement. In the same spirit, I share the following passages to give you an idea of what some Vietnamese people expressed to Martha Hess in the early 1990s.
“I wanted to tell you something that I saw myself and of my own loss, but the war was not just about me. It was the whole country. We all lived with great difficulties and suffering. The poverty and hard conditions that still exist today are because of the war. You are an American woman. You want to know about the war in Vietnam and bring the crimes of the U.S. before the U.S. public, and I thank you for that. Not only the Vietnamese people or Vietnamese women, but all people in the world hate war. So who starts wars?” [Mrs. Phung Thi Tai, 50-51]
“I don’t hate Americans. I hate the policy of invading other countries. And the debt, the distribution from the Paris Agreements, why haven’t they given us anything? We are very poor because of the war. The Americans don’t see how they destroyed everything, and they won’t pay their debt. I listen to the radio and hear how the Americans still have an embargo on our economy, and have no diplomatic relations with us. That’s not right.
“This is the Vietnamese people’s land. Why did the Americans come to destroy us and make war, and why don’t they help now to rebuild our country? I am a farmer, I stay here. And I ask a simple question. Why did the Americans come here to destroy homes and kill people? And I ask you, who invaded who? If Vietnam decided to invade America they would have to send troops—the distance is far, thousands of kilometers. I ask you, if I came to your land to destroy and burn your houses, how would you feel? So I say, when the Americans came here to fight and destroy the Vietnamese people, they were wrong. The Vietnamese were not wrong to defend their land. And when the Americans lost the war, why didn’t they want to have relations with us?
“The American people didn’t make the mistake, it was the government. American people and Vietnamese people are alike, we work in the fields, we till the land. We have blood, we have hair, we have skin. Since we are all the same, we should be friends. Johnson and Nixon should ask pardon of the Vietnamese people and help to restore our country, as the Paris Agreements say.
“I live in this temple now, close to the spirits, so I don’t know anything.” [Mr. Cau Ngoc Xuan, 43-44]
“The war ended fifteen years ago in victory for our people, but the country remains devastated. We say that victory cannot match our suffering. After all, the United States sent their troops over here with the intent to destroy all, burn all, and kill all. They destroyed the land.
“In the South, the Americans burned villages and herded the women and children into camps surrounded by barbed wire. South Vietnam because an enormous prison. Many children couldn’t go to school, people weren’t free to work their land. They killed brutally, indiscriminately. You remember the massacre at My Lai, in Quang Ngai province. There were many other villages where the people were massacred. My Lai was only the worst.
“Women everywhere were raped, killed, arrested, beaten. Pregnant women’s bellies were cut open and their unborn babies thrown into burning houses. Thousands of women were imprisoned. Some were suspected V.C., some were real fighters, many were just ordinary people who were arrested and jailed for no reason. There were prisons all over the South. There were central prisons and provincial prisons and district prisons. Mothers with babies and pregnant women were arrested. They arrested old people and children and even handicapped people. I remember in Con Son prison there was an old blind woman, Mrs. Sau. She was kept in a tiger cage, with five or six people, all in a cage, covered by iron poles.” [Mrs. Truong My Hoa, 84]
“The Americans started the war, and when they knew they were losing they kept on killing, until they were defeated. But they didn’t all want war in Vietnam. There were American soldiers who resisted, who agreed with the massive anti-war demonstrations in their homeland. There were even some, for instance, who would ignore the secret shelters in the villages. They didn’t want to stay in Vietnam and they didn’t want to die in Vietnam, they wanted to go back to America.
“But most of them were barbarous. The crimes of the United States are on our minds, even now. Our losses were inconceivable. Ten people in my family were killed by the Americans and the puppet government. They rounded up families that had relatives in the revolutionary forces. What we remember most is the barbarity. They burned houses, they stole, they beat people, and they killed them. Thousands and thousands of people were injured, especially women. I can tell you, many women are now paralyzed, they have half a body, because they were beaten and tortured by the Americans. They tortured women with electricity. They did many, many terrible things.
“We want peace so that we can rebuild our country. We lost so much in the war. What can the Americans, who are responsible for so much loss, do for my nation? We try to do away with the past and to shake hands. We try not to hate, but it’s been a long hatred now.” [Mr. Hoang Lanh, 177]
“The American government asks for missing bones in Vietnam, and they say we have to help find them. Why don’t they talk to the women who told you how they lost their husbands, how they lost their brothers, how they lost their children at the front and never saw their bones? Why should we help them? They have the right to come to Vietnam and start a war, but we have no right to defend our country? They can tell the world they are right, but it’s not true. So why should we help the Americans find their bones? But we do that for humanity.” [Mr. Nguyen Van Tuyen, 236]
“Many people are handicapped today. Many people lost everything in the war, and can’t support themselves. So you can tell the American government to make reparations. To be fair, the Vietnamese didn’t send troops to invade America. Never, never forget. We remember the war. We remember our losses. All the little children—nine years old, thirteen, they had committed no crimes for the Americans to come and kill them. When they died in the bombings, their eyes popped out from the compression. Their bodies were mangled. Small children and old people. They lived here, and worked their whole lives here. They never sent troops to America. They never took one plant, one leaf from American. Why did the Americans come here to destroy everything, to kill the people, to kill small children, to kill even pregnant women—why? Don’t the American people even know why?” [Mrs. Phung Thi Tiem, 64-65]
“A piece of bomb cut my head and skull, and I lost my arm. I was taken to the hospital right away. Otherwise, I would be dead. After my mutilation, my husband left me and remarried. Now my brothers and sisters help me, because the government has little money for wounded civilians. I have pain all the time, here in my head and my eyes keep tearing. I need an operation but it costs hundreds of thousands of dong. My life was destroyed by that bomb. Since then, it has no meaning.
“Now there is peace, but why doesn’t the American government pay? How can we live out our lives? [Mrs. Nguyen Thi Xuan, 69]
“Toxic chemicals and defoliants were dropped, and lot of napalm. Many people today still have scars from napalm bombs. There were different kinds of fragmentation bombs, some the size of a fist. Even now people get killed from small, unexploded bombs. Wounded people were looked after by their families, or by the community if they had no children or relatives. The dead were buried everywhere, without coffins. Three people died in my family.
“The Americans cannot repay this debt, because it’s too big.” [Mrs. Nguyen Thi Thiet, 34-35]
“The Americans came to Vietnam to conduct a war, and to kill Vietnamese people. That means they were the aggressors. The puppet soldiers were also Vietnamese but they were Americanized, meaning they listened to the Americans and took up arms against their own people. For those soldiers we have more sympathy than hatred. To this day we think of the Americans as they enemy. Our children have no fathers. The Americans killed a generation. They owe us, for the next generation. [Mr. Dich, 56]
“In the villages, the civilians were afraid and the Americans did whatever they wanted. The village and the land and the houses belonged to the people, but the Americans went wherever they wanted. They came into our houses and used our things. They had no respect for our ancestral table, which is sacred. They didn’t know the habits or the traditions of the Vietnamese people. In our village they didn’t normally burn the houses or rape the women because we were very near their base, and they wanted to maintain good relations. But the people were angry, and they helped the Liberation Forces, showed them the way.
“The Americans destroyed our land. Every family has loved ones who were killed and every family suffered big losses in the war. With all the American soldiers did to the Vietnamese people, how can we not hate them? They bombed so much. Even now people get killed form unexploded bombs. Yesterday a bomb exploded at the Dong Ha stadium. People still suffer from the toxic chemicals the Americans dropped. Babies are born deformed. And they left children, the Amerasians. I feel very sorry for them, and for their mothers.
“We don’t like to remember the war, but sometimes we sit down like this, and we remember very clearly.” [Mr. Nguyen Thanh Khiem, 193-194]
“We did everything we could to liberate the South. For example, if a bridge was destroyed, the families who lived near that bridge would take everything from their house—beams and everything, to patch the bridge, for the army to pass. And if it rained, families would then have no house, no shelter. We were all ready to give, and I think that is how we won the war.” [Mrs. Nguyen Thanh Mai, 29]
“If you compare the conditions of the American soldiers with ours, theirs were better. They had water for showers brought in by helicopter—when we saw that, we knew they would never win the war.” [Mr. Nguyen Van Tuyen, 236]
“There was always manioc. It’s easy to grow in Vietnam. We planted it all over the forest for the soldiers to cook and eat the root. Before they left, for each one they took, the soldiers planted another, for the next ones that passed through. That’s how we won the war. We were clever.” [Mrs. Nguyen Thanh Mai, 30-31]
“The first time I met a South Vietnamese soldier I was surprised to see he was about forty years old, but his identity card said he was thirteen. He had been forced to join the army three times, and the third time he had tried to get out of it by saying he was too young. He had no spirit left to fight. In North Vietnam you would never find that.” [Mr. Nguyen Quoc Hung, 57]
“I got married after the liberation and now have four children. Women always said it was better to wait until liberation to get married. The war was more difficult for women than for men but our duty was the same, to liberate the country. We were equal. I can’t say that I was never afraid, but the Vietnamese people were suffering. In my own family I lost my brother and an uncle, and my father was beaten by Americans in a village operation. So, though I have joined the war at the beginning of my life, I have never regretted it.
“This is the first time I have met you, and I can see that you are a woman like me, and you can talk with me, and want to understand my life. You are an American and I am Vietnamese. As women we can talk.” [Mrs. Bach Thi Lan, 125-126]
“The Americans occupied this country, destroyed it, committed horrors here. Twenty years ago you came here with helicopters, with guns, with planes, with rockets and bombs, and then you were the enemy. But we want to shake hands today. Vietnamese people have a tradition. After war we want a good life, happiness, we want peace. War destroys everything. Peace, no matter how poor you are, you can build something. Slowly, but you can build. So we try to forgive America for what they did, to build our country and to build world peace. We defeated the Chinese three, four, five times, and each time we laid down a carpet of flowers, for them to come back in peace. American, Chinese, or anybody else that comes in friendship, it’s okay.” [Mrs. Nguyen Thanh Mai, 239]
Vietnam has undergone many changes since 1993, when Then the Americans Came was published. Every year since, for one reason or another, U.S. veterans of the war return to Vietnam. Yet, in light of the Vietnamese testimonies Hess offers us, I think it is not only the responsibility of U.S. veterans to go to Vietnam in a spirit of friendship and understanding, but it is the responsibility, too, of younger generations. Given the damage that was done and which the Vietnamese said was unhealable, we must aspire nevertheless, some of us anyway, to a new vow for bodhisattvas: The suffering caused by our government toward the Vietnamese has been unending and unimaginable; we vow to confront it and make reparations.*
*The four vows of the bodhisattvas in the Buddhist tradition, as expressed by poet Allen Ginsberg: Sentient beings are numberless, I vow to liberate them all. Obstacles are countless, I vow to cut through them. Dharma gates are uncountable, I vow to enter every gate. The Buddha path is endless, I vow to follow through. Allen Ginsberg, Deliberate Prose: Selected Essays 1952-1995 (New York: HarperCollins, 2000), 366-367.