One of the reasons to travel out of one's own country (in my opinion) is to allow yourself to be challenged...challenged by how others in the world see things...allowing yourself to understand that the system and culture you belong to is just one not the only system and culture...and that there are merits to all cultures and that the world is complex, not simplistic.
When a person of my age and generation comes to Vietnam, one of the things you very likely will be confronted with is the Vietnam War or what they call here the American War. A lot of us who were of that age and generation and lived through that have certain stories and experiences. Before I go on to my experience today I need to explain what my history of that time was.
I went from high school to college in 1965 and got my Selective Service draft number that year. The war was picking up in intensity. It was the year that regular US Military troops were sent into Vietnam. I don't remember having any feelings about the war from a standpoint of its rightness or wrongness. I do remember that I didn't want to go to war. Deferments were regularly given to those who were going to college. I remember feeling that certainly this war would be over by the time I graduated from college. Plus I was planning to go to graduate school and there were deferments for that as well.
When I graduated in 1969, the war was still going on and things were getting worse not better. They had discontinued graduate school deferments. There was a great socioeconomic divide between those who were going and those who weren't. Lot's of people played games or used influence to get into the National Guard or Reserves. Some left the country. Some joined the Air Force or Navy for 3 to 4 years to be in a service that had minimal presence in Vietnam or at least wasn't infantry on the ground fighting. Others did the same enlisting in the Army so they could chose a job that might keep them from combat. The result of this was that most who ended up in the combat infantry were definitely those less advantaged in society. They were the draftees. Draftees even had a different designation in the Army. Those who volunteered were called RA - Regular Army. Those who were drafted were called US - basically cannon fodder.
I don't quite remember my logic at the time but I know I felt all the machinations to get out of going like faking injuries, and using influence to get to the National Guard was wrong. I also wanted to be in the military for absolutely the shortest time possible. So opted to allow myself to be drafted. I was given the job of radio operator. The lowest level of radio operator, an 05B, was highly unattractive because you were the guy going out with the infantry to call in help if you got hit. I was put into a slightly higher bracket, 05C, which was more of a base operations type of job, presumably safer. The school was 16 weeks long and each week a class graduated and got orders. For 15 weeks those orders were for everyone to go to Vietnam. During those weeks (actually all during my training), fear was my constant companion. My class graduated and we all went stateside or to Germany.
Seemed as if I was in luck. But 3 months later, I got a call from personnel at the place I was working at Redstone Arsenal, Huntsville Alabama. My superior told me I was on orders to go to Korea. I got to the office and sat down with the clerk, a woman in her 40's. She asked me if I knew why I was there. I told her I understood I had orders for Korea. She said no "You're going to Vietnam." My heart sank to my shoes. I was numb. She started read the details of the orders to verify their correctness.
"Your name is....Yes my name is."
"Your military number is....Yes that's my number"
"Your date of birth is...Yes that's right"
"Your military job code is 05B...No my code is 05C."
"Well these orders are not good."
"What do we do with them?"
"We'll send them back to Washington. They'll correct them and we'll get them back in a couple of weeks."
I left feeling just as bad. Then a funny thing happened. The orders never came back down. I spent the rest of my time in Alabama and never went to Vietnam.
With that background let's fast forward today where we visited the Cu Chi Tunnel complex museum. You can read the link to find out what these are all about. In the most basic terms it provides a very graphic representation of how the Americans were being fought. But this doesn't really capture the emotion of the place. Please understand that I am not criticizing how everything is portrayed. If I were Vietnamese and had been part of the war on their side, I would feel the same way. I and many others of us during the war on our side were totally ambivalent about why we were there if not opposed. But for some of us, it was our duty to serve.
Going through this place that so vividly represents and shows how we Americans were to be killed and attacked, that makes a great point of how many Americans were successfully killed, and how evil the Americans were to be conquering this country, I was overwhelmed with emotions. I realized that if it were not for a single typo that I would have been there. I would have been the one subject to all the booby traps, slogging though the forest not knowing when or where someone attack you. I would have been one of the devils that brought death and ecological destruction to this land.
I have a lot of guilt about this. I had lots of comrades from my training who did go over and many who did die. Why did I win the lottery? And watching all the tourists happily and jokingly going into these tunnels and posing in front of the burnt out tank that might have had me inside it, didn't help either.
As many of you know, I am deeply involved in a spiritual path that calls for me to deal with all these old pains, attachments, guilt, etc. So I suspect this is just part of that process. Our tour tomorrow calls for us to among other things to go to the War Museum so I'm afraid I have one more shot of this but our guide (who is great) has agreed to cut it down to 30 minutes.