Consorting With the Enemy

Having just returned from almost three weeks in Vietnam, traveling its length with a group of veterans on a tour sponsored by Veterans For Peace, one was left with the indelible impression, like the thousands of bomb craters that still scar that beautiful land, that the American War, as the Vietnamese refer to it, was, on the part of the United States, a prolonged spasm of a staggeringly profligate infantilism, as if a brutish, spoiled child endlessly smashing its expensive toys against the wall. Of no concern to this infant were three million Vietnamese dead, the ruined lives and environmental damage caused by Agent Orange, and 58,000 of its own soldiers killed in pursuit of its goal. And this goal, again, was? We don’t remember? No matter. Perhaps merely a tantrum. Naughty child.

It’s been 48 years since troops of the People’s Army of Vietnam raised their country’s flag in victory over Independence Palace (now Reunification Hall) in Saigon. The victory was decisive then, and, as is abundantly clear now, in view of economic and geopolitical trends and deteriorating conditions in the United States, a triumph of historic significance.

Since that time, after a terrible period of privation and further conflict, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam has managed to recover, and is now a youthful, energetic, developing country. Remarkably, the Vietnamese people our delegation came in contact with were welcoming and, if not necessarily forgiving (at least concerning the US government), unwilling to dwell on past sufferings and atrocities visited on their country by the United States. I found this attitude almost incomprehensible. As one who actively opposed the American War and, if I may speak for them, those who directly participated and ended up opposing it, like my comrades in our Veterans For Peace delegation, one is forever haunted by its memory.

The United States learned nothing from the war in Vietnam. The primary motivation after its humiliating defeat was to kick the “Vietnam syndrome” and again project its image as the supreme military power on earth. This the United States did with increasing ferocity, at first a few cowardly steps in Grenada in 1983, and Panama in 1989, and then, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, unleashing at long last its military terror around the world, most notably in West Asia.

The two lasting impressions for this traveler after three weeks in Vietnam were, first, of an energetic and optimistic country that is obviously a key part of the developing Asian Century, and second, the depressing reality of the stupidity and psychopathy of the West, especially the United States, which continues blindly on its imperial path of domination and destruction.

This stupidity and psychopathy now above all include the US support of Israel’s genocidal campaign in Gaza, escalating during our stay in Vietnam, a hideous ripping open of wounds that have never healed. For while we visited sites and museums of the American War, primarily a bombing exercise of almost unfathomable proportions, Israel’s bombs, manufactured and supplied by the United States, which makes it a willing accomplice to genocide, were falling with increasing devastation on civilians, schools, hospitals, ambulances, communications centers, power plants, mosques, churches, journalists and their families, UN sites and personnel in Gaza. The parallels were impossible to ignore. One could not visit these Vietnamese sites without hearing the exploding bombs and screams of Palestinians. To be sure, the killing and abduction of civilians by Hamas on October 7 were horrific war crimes, another chapter in this tragic historical narrative. Treat people like animals for 75 years and this is what you get.

Of the enduring images of the relentless US bombing of Vietnam perhaps the most powerful is of nine-year-old Phan Thị Kim Phúc running down a dirt road, her mouth agape in terror and pain, the skin of her body scorched and peeling from a napalm strike. There are four other children in the photo, all running. The child in the left foreground is about the same age as Phan, mouth open in a classic rictus of horror. There is a young child in the rear, looking back at the dense cloud of dark smoke from the explosions. There are two children in the right foreground, a girl of about ten leading a younger boy, perhaps her brother, by the hand.

Four South Vietnamese soldiers follow, shepherding the children. The Israel/US despicable, shocking bombing of Gaza (not to mention Israel’s blockade of essential supplies, food, water, fuel, medicine) has thus far killed around 5,000 children. Like the Vietnamese children of the American War, the children of Gaza will be forever running in terror down the road of history. The shame is beyond reckoning.

I decided after the Veterans For Peace tour ended to spend a few extra days in Vietnam and take the 33-hour train ride from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi. I was tired and emotionally drained from the VFP tour, but it was something I’d always wanted to do. The Vietnamese countryside was exquisite, though still marred by bomb craters alongside the tracks, filled with water from the heavy rains. Our train was at least the equal of Amtrak, if not better. Carts with hot food passed up and down the aisles. My fellow passengers were circumspect and courteous.

About five hours south of Hanoi I stood between cars looking out the window at a flooded landscape, a torrential rain coming down, the water halfway up the elevated banks of the railway, which were about ten feet high. I wondered if this was normal. It was not. A conductor approached and indicated on his translator app that about half an hour ahead a section of track had been undermined and that we would be getting out at the next station and then, via bus, loop around the damaged section and pick up another train to Hanoi.

I went back to my seat. An announcement came over the intercom. The passengers reacted calmly, some with nervous laughter. They collected their belongings, making preparations. The train slowed down as the water rose higher, almost to the tracks. For the next 30 minutes we crept along, finally arriving at the station where we were met by uniformed women who directed us to waiting buses. There were about two hundred passengers. One of the officials singled me out and directed me onto a crowded bus. The people graciously made room. In twenty minutes we were at the next station, an hour later on the train to Hanoi.

I wonder what would have happened in a similar situation on Amtrak. I’ve got a soft spot for that neglected old dame, having traveled with her many times and experienced all sorts of disruptions, not always handled well by those in charge. The Vietnamese officials were commanding, organized, and polite. The operation was carried out with crisp, good-natured efficiency. The women in their dark uniforms brought back old images and associations. 50 years ago we would have been bombing them.

Richard Ward divides his time between New Mexico and Ecuador. His novel about the early 70s, Over and Under, can be seen here. He can be reached at: