Journey to Vietnam

How to speak of Vietnam–merely two weeks back and still its radiance lingers.

I can begin with the relentlessness preparation; my legs begin giving away with multiple sclerosis and the artificial transgressive mania of steroid “therapy.” Second time in a year and a half. I call the spirit of MS “the Guest” and see it through my training as a medicine man in Africa: a sacred illness to which I apprentice to teach me about healing. The gift of illness is that it makes one real and one is made real by being stripped and stripped again to what is most elemental, most uncertain.

Will I be paralyzed in this life? Is that my fate?

I wrote a week before flying to Vietnam:

Amalgam: Hope/Hopelessness

Beginning of summer
Darkness revealed by harshness of light
Surprised by fright of old friend death
Lust for old enemy
longing for the last breath

Now equinox double ought six
Hope tempered by hopelessness
Hopelessness tempered by possibility of hope

Tranquil heart of mandala
Multiple sclerosis
And soon I will be
with the beggars of Saigon

Thus was the heart rendered naked. How else to meet the exigencies of this pilgrimage but with a naked heart? How else to see Vietnam but with an observant heart cut down to simple presence?

I asked my mother when I was ten if it was mine to go to war.

“Probably,” she said.

As a teenager, as I approached draftable age, the recurring nightmare: a firefight. Gripping my gun. Paralyzed. To kill or be killed.

Or kill and be killed.

I’d wake up in a cold sweat.

Vietnam was always an imaginary geography running parallel to the ordinary violence of America, the extraordinary and redundant violence of American foreign policy. Watching the vultures watch El Salvador at Parque Balboa where the death squads dumped the dead: I was as much in Vietnam as Central America.

Or so I imagined.

What I actually found astonished me. Not only is the Vietnamese soul intact but it is overflowing in its generosity. I will merely tell a couple of illustrative stories.

It was the sixth time Dr. Ed Tick had brought American vets and “fellow travelers” to Vietnam for reconciliation and healing. Ed is a psychotherapist who has worked with vets since the late 70’s. In his superb War and the Soul he challenges the medicalized fantasy of PTSD recognizing the wounds of war to be spiritual. We all met in LAX to fly after midnight across the Pacific.

In the country as we passed a rice paddy with a dozen water buffalo browsing, Lance told the story of his arrival in Vietnam in 1967.

“I wish I had never acquired the knowledge of my capacity to kill,” said Lance.

This is how he saw the necessary initiation from being a FNG–a new guy–to being a gunship pilot:

“There were three things that tested the FNG. Could I take the chaos, insanity and fear? Could I fly the machine in this place and kill? And finally–could I kill humans?

“Until these things were established the FNG was certainly endangered but more importantly a danger to fellow GI’s who depended on him.”

Lances “cherry was popped” with the buffalo. The logic was inarguable. It was a “free fire zone,” Vietnamese were enemies by virtue of being there ergo the buffalo also were enemy.

“You mean were going to kill a herd of buffalo?” I asked.

“War is hell, GI, relax. You re going to love it.”

Lance didn’t believe he would ever enjoy killing but perhaps he could accept it.

” I had the strangest vision that I was one of them , of the herd. I felt every animals fear and surprise as the looked to the helicopter in fear and confusion.”

He was twenty one years old and proven himself willing to kill.

While Lance and the others were down below laying to rest old ghosts I visited the Nui Ba Den monastery on the side of Lady Black Mountain in Tay Ninh province. It was mine to meditate and pray on behalf of the fallen, Vietnamese and American but also the animals. All wars are against the natural world whatever the geopolitics of this or that enemy. It was here I could enter into the “ritual mind” of a peacemaker.

A young nun, perhaps ten years old brought me bread and a couple of oranges. I had been folded into the monastic day for several hours. Was this for me to eat? Or was it an offering to Buddha? I took it to be an offering and left it on the altar and continued my meditation.

I thought of the mourning feast ceremonies that the NGO everyday ghandis supports in Liberia. In the mourning feast former enemies eat out of a common bowl. This is the offering to the dead so they can find the way “across the river” to the village of the ancestors. The civil war had disrupted these essential rites and so in the spirit world, war continued to rage. The feast makes it possible for a people to be reconciled with themselves.

Throughout this pilgrimage it was an extraordinary honor to be with former enemies sharing food. American vets with Viet Cong, North Vietnamese vets. The perpetuity of war in my life had me live with the delusion that it never stopped.

At one point I went I went off to the bush surrounding the monastery for a final ritual–an offering to the Nameless One as I call the Origin of All Healing. The voice came, almost verbal: “The offering is accepted.”

I knew this to be peace. The female Buddha, whom the Vietnamese call Quan Nam, smiled.

Soon an old man, toothless, came down the trail bearing a huge burden of gladiolas. He talked to me exuberantly and I exuberantly assured him I hadn’t a clue to what he was saying. So he broke out a cigarette for each of us and we smoked quietly. Then he took my day pack and had me follow ten minutes down the trail to a cave shrine looked over by a monk.

I lit incense there and prostrated and prayed before Quan Nam, she, now, of the thousand arms. The monk noted my cane and my gimpy walk.

“VC?”, he asked.

I soon realized my age, my gimp, my American self-I was clearly a vet, clearly wounded in the war. I tried to say with no common language that it wasn’t the VC who wounded me.

Soon a young man and his girlfriend arrived. The first English speaking Vietnamese I’d seen all day.

“Are you a vet?’

“Oh yes, I’m a veteran of the efforts to stop the war.”

“Were you the only one?”

“No. There were millions of us. ” I said.

I returned to the monastery and folded myself back into meditation and prayer.

Ed had arranged for the monks and nuns to chant on behalf of the dead. For an hour we floated in the unearthly layered beauty, call and response between the male and female voices.

The next morning I asked the I Ching how the dead were and it was confirmed. Great Accumulates: “Your offering has been received. Blessings will flow.”

In America the way war wounds the soul is called PTSD. In Zimbabwe we say it’s a matter of ngozi.

It has been ten years since Mandaza Kandemwa initiated me into the medicine tradition of central African people. Because of the war of independence that ended apartheid much of Mandazas’ medical practice is about ngozi.

In Africa the health and vibrant sanity of the living is dependent on the welfare of the dead, The ngozi are are those who fall by violence and can afflict your grandchild with nightmares even after you yourself are dead. PTSD, from the angle of Bantu psychology, is a cross-generational affair. The dead are restless until we free them and from their restlessness, often, comes more violence. It was this next morning that I saw the full circle of ritual activity.

My trembling before Quan Nam.

And the monks and nuns.

My newAmerican friends.

How then, again, to speak of Vietnam?

In Saigon at the War Remnants Museum I stood daft before a photograph I knew from my boyhood, one of many casting me into exile in my native country: a VC suspect dragged to death by an American tank after interrogation.

At My Lai our young guide (like the majority of Vietnamese born after the war) wept as she told us the story of the massacre, of Hugh Thompson, the GI who intervened, landed his helicopter between Calley’s platoon and the villagers, threatening to fire on American soldiers if they did not stop.

We prayed along the ditch where 104 of the 504 total deaths took place, and then went across the grass past where a disemboweled pig that lay as dull cement sculpture to the monument to the dead: Communist social “realism” casting heroic light and shadow to those cut down by a large and stupid country.

“Nammo Quan Nam Bodat”, I chanted under my breath. “Holy bodhisattva Kwan Yin.”

I accompanied Lance as he wept and I think of what I wrote in Twin from Another Tribe: I will live in exile in America until America begins grieving about the violence we visited on Vietnam.

Lance assures me that vets know what I mean by internal exile and I begin to see how profoundly these brothers have grieved Vietnam.

The grief that America refuses is the grief that has undone so many vets. The amnesia that makes Iraq possible coupled with vets afflicted with the incapacity to forget-such guarantees exile in one’s own country.

Of such nightmares are made. To be thrown as a warrior into America’s shadow, to return with a knowledge of the tragic to a culture that forever seeks victory, seeks happy endings. Vet after vet told a variation of that story and it was in this that I recognized common ground.

A generation exiled by the Vietnam War from what we imagined America to be. No more will I add a dollop of “superiority” as a pacifist to the unbearable weight so many vets carry. I will not be a gatekeeper of their exile as they return, multiply betrayed, from Iraq.

I followed the news on the BBC the day before we went to My Lai. John Hopkins University study: 655,000 Iraqi dead, as always almost all civilians: by my estimation the equivalent of about 7,000,000 Americans, given that Iraq is an eleventh the size of the U.S. This after 1,200,000 Iraqi dead from ten years of sanctions, half of them children.

Does one dare say genocide?

Does one dare not?

Shortly before we left Vietnam we all visited the Dinh in a village outside of Hanoi. “Dinh” is quite untranslatable but suffice it to say it is the house of the village god and place of council for the elders.

We were received by eight old men, all veterans of the wars against the Japanese, French, and Americans. One of the men was missing his right arm below the elbow, the stump resting quietly on his thigh.

Lance had the good fortune of being medivaced out of Vietnam in 1967. Long hospitalization, a third of the muscle mass of his calf torn away in a persistent wound. He asked the elder whether he had lost his arm in the war.

“Oh, yes.”

“You were honorable adversaries”, said Lance, rolling up his pants and showing the roseate wound with which his time as a GI had marked him.

“How beautiful your wound,” said the elder.

At Eds’ suggestion the North Vietnamese vets and Americans showed their wounds. Some merely placed hand over heart.

The elders called us to light incence before the village god and pray for peace.

Then we shared tea and fruit blessed by the village god. It would be the last food shared with the “enemy” before we returned to America.

It is the essence of the sacred when former enemies break bread together: As in Liberia so between Vietnamese and American and we veterans of war and antiwar.

In the light of that. indeed, how beautiful our wounds.

MICHAEL ORTIZ HILL is the author of Dreaming the End of the World: Apocalypse as a Rite of Passage (Spring Publications, Fall 2003) and with Augustine Kandemwa, Gathering in the Names: a Journey Into the Land of African Gods. (Spring Audio and Journal, 2002). ). His essays on peacemaking and healing are posted at He can be emailed at Michaelortizhill@earthlink.ent.