Vietnam and My Inner Marine
by John Tsistrian
My recent trip to Vietnam actually began in Paris a few years before, where I stood under the Arch of Triumph and reviewed all the plaques commemorating French soldiers who’d died over the centuries.
Pretty impressive stuff, but what really got me going was the one labeled “Indochine.” That would be Indochina, more specifically Vietnam. I could relate.
I’m a veteran of the American war in Vietnam, where I served as a Marine Corps radioman in a ground support unit in the red-hot sector known as the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) from late 1966 through all of 1967. I spontaneously shed a few tears onto the plaque, inlaid into the sidewalk below,” not so much for the French dead nor the Americans who were soon to follow, but just for the sense of futility that comes with the recognition of war as part of the human condition.
I thought of the Marine who nonchalantly described to me how, upon entering the remains of a hootch in a village that had just been napalmed, found the disfigured remains of a mother and two young kids in what was left of her arms. One of them was still whimpering.
He took his M-16 and sprayed the three of them with bullets.
Why this sudden thought in the center of Paris, in the shadow of a world-famous monument? Hard to say. But I knew then that I wanted to get back to Vietnam, as much out of a sense of curiosity as a search for some kind of closure.
The old Marine in me wanted to visit the battle sites, the human being that I am wanted to see what happened to the country since my departure. Traveling last month with a small group of veterans, I certainly got an eyeful.
I first spent a couple of days in Hanoi, where I was never entirely comfortable, especially as the city is festooned with the colors of what was then North Vietnam, our adversaries during the war. At the time we were allied with what was then South Vietnam.
Really, all the flag waving just kind of sickened me, in defiance of all my rational and sensible self-reminders that the war is over, that the United States unilaterally pulled out before the North finally overwhelmed the South and took over all of Vietnam. I really had to work at putting away my frustrations.
It was made much tougher when I learned from our translator that the driver of our minibus was wearing the green nylon cloth part of what was then called a “flak jacket.” He’d taken it off a dead U.S. Marine near Khe Sanh, where our driver had been an enemy ammo handler during the siege of that famous compound in 1968.
It became obvious to me that closure wasn’t going to be a part of this trip and that at best I’d have to come away with a sense of acceptance. Resigned to that result, I didn’t know what to expect when we left Hanoi and headed south for the old DMZ, where bloodshed and anguish were a daily ration, where the days, hours and minutes left on our tours were measured out with accountant-like accuracy.
My first stop was at the mouth of the Cua Viet River, which I knew was approaching by its smell, totally unique in the realm of stench-dom. The confluence of stink that arises from fetid marshes, garbage floating downstream, dead fish littering the banks--none of that had changed in four decades.
As we neared, I began to vomit, fortunately able to contain it in my mouth until I could grab a couple of Tums from my coat jacket and wash them down with bottled water. This was the site of some of the most horrendous rocket and artillery exchanges you could imagine. One of them in November 1967 killed a dozen or so of the few hundred people at the compound.
Walking around the territory, still largely the same as when I left it, just made me uneasier.
Later, when I got over to Khe Sanh, by the Laotian border, the historically and self-servingly inaccurate depiction of the siege there by the Vietnamese only added to my general sense of disgust and frustration. It finally eased off after I left those battlefields of my youth and re-entered the larger society in big cities like Da Nang and Hue, where the scars of the war have long-since healed and modern developments overwhelm ancient memories.
People were indifferent to the war, indifferent to the fact of who I am. I realized then that even as reality can often bite, it can also often soothe. It turned out to be a nice finish to a good trip--not quite closure, not quite catharsis, but more about containment and context.
As they say, it’s all good.
John Tsitrian is a Rapid City businessman and writer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
for the Rapid City Weekly News