Phaeacians were the mythic people who listened to the war veteran Odysseus on his way home from war. After 10 years of war and 10 years of thwarted homecoming it was the Phaeacians who finally helped Odysseus return home. This blog records notes from my ongoing study of modern day Phaeacians - civilians who make a point of listening deeply to the narratives of war veterans. It explores an old idea - that there is an important and necessary relationship between warriors and the communities of people that send them to war. The project asks, what happens or how are we changed (if at all) by listening to military and war veterans? It includes my observations and interviews with modern day Phaeacians and my own experience of listening to war veterans.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Returning the sword

The journey to Vietnam is now complete. Our group met Tuesday in Hanoi for a final dinner. Together we had been through a powerful experience. The journey had touched old wounds, stirred memories, brought needed closure and healing and provided powerful new insights and responsibilities. We had experienced so much in such a short time that we found ourselves struggling to find words to match feelings. We all acknowledged the need for time and distance to process it all.

Along with Ed Tick and Kate Dahlstedt, I remained in Hanoi beyond the group's departure to reflect and continue my research. Watching the group board the bus and leave for the airport, I felt a deep sense of loss. Most of us had begun the trip as strangers, but in a short time we had developed a closeness and commitment to each other I will miss.

As I walked alone through the Old Quarter reflecting on all the stories, places and discussions about war, I was drawn to the beautiful green waters of Hoan Kiem Lake.

In Vietnamese myth, the great 15th century warrior and king Le Loi had to surrender his sword to these waters. Like King Arthur, Le Loi had acquired a magical sword. This sword, called Heaven’s Will, had helped him successfully fight off the colonizing Chinese Ming Dyanesty and free the people of Vietnam. After the war, while Le Loi was crossing this lake in a boat, a large golden tortoise surfaced and asked that he return the sword. The time for war and the need for the sword had ended. So Le Loi gave the sword to the tortoise, who took it in its mouth and slowly sank into the waters. From that time on, the lake was known as Hoan Kiem – The Lake of the Returned Sword.

As I came to Hoan Kiem and crossed a small red footbridge to a little island temple, I found a peaceful place to look across the water. With the smell of incense wafting from the temple and the distant sound of morning traffic, I realized I could not go back to where I had been before this journey. To willingly witness the memories and narratives of war is to offer one’s shoulders to carry a burden. I felt new weight but I also felt a deep sense of responsibility and gratitude – a responsibility to not forget and a gratitude that only comes from leaning into the darkness and becoming more awake and connected. As I looked across the water, I saw a small stirring and imagined the golden tortoise rising from the water and taking back all the instruments of war and then slowly sinking peacefully beneath the glassy surface.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Vets in Hanoi

We have arrived in Hanoi (in Vietnamese, Ha Noi) the capital of Vietnam. Set on the banks of the Red River and several beautiful lakes this 1,000-year-old city is full of myth, history and culture.

During the war Hanoi was capital of the north and the last place American military personal wanted to end up. It is the site of Hoa Lo Prison - a grim complex built by the French to imprison resisters of colonization. From 1964 to 1973 Hoa Lo housed American POWs and became known to American's as the Hanoi Hilton. Hanoi is also the place where many American military personnel felt betrayed when Jane Fonda showed up to protest the war. The city was frequently bombed by American planes during the war and in December 1972 experienced a devastating bombardment (known as the Christmas Bombing) that resulted in significant civilian casualties and destruction.

Prison cell at Hanoi Hilton

We are staying on the edge of the Old Quarter near Hoan Kiem Lake. The Old Quarter’s narrow twisting streets bustle with traffic and street vendors. Simply walking is an adventure.

Hanoi is a cultural and governmental center and our listening to war here has led us to theater, writers and former military officers.

Our first stop was to visit the Vietnam Youth Theater, Vietnam’s most active national theater. One of the American veterans traveling with us (who is also an accomplished playwright and actor) gave a moving performance of one of his plays about a veteran’s suffering after war. We met with the theater director, Le Hung, also a veteran, who explained a new play the theater is developing about two American GI’s returning the backpacks they took from two dead VietCong soldiers. The GIs are continually troubled by nightmares, stress and the ghosts of the dead VC. Finally, after years of suffering, the GIs return to Vietnam and return the backpacks to the mother of the dead VC and are accepted by her as sons and their troubles fade away.

American and Vietnamese veterans using
theater to give voice to war suffering

Our second stop was a large poetry reading with the Hanoi Writers Association. Old and young Vietnamese poets (many veterans) had gathered to share poetry with American veterans. For more than three hours poems were exchanged.

Veterans using poetry to express pain and new hope

Our third stop was a visit with the Vietnam Veterans Association – a 2.6 million-member association of military veterans engaged in civic activities. While the meeting itself was quite formal and led by Vietnamese war hero General Tran Hanh, the tone was cordial and provided a powerful conclusion to the journey. The General welcomed the veterans and said, “We were soldiers before on the battlefield. We first met with bullets on the frontlines but now we meet as friends. We must work together to speak with one voice and do the best we can to heal the effects of war.”

The formal meeting ended with the General presenting each of the American veterans with a Vietnam Veterans Association pin. Once the meeting was over the formalities ended and the real story telling began. The General had been a Mig pilot and shot down five American bombers during 1967-1968, another had been at the siege of Khe Sanh, and still another had been a jailor of American POWs at the Hanoi Hilton.

Vets Meeting with Vietnam Veterans Association

Old enemies from the siege of Khe Sanh shared stories

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Spirituality in community

Ed Tick and Kate Dahlstedt, the founders of Soldier’s Heart and leaders of this journey, believe the suffering from war is best healed within the context of spirituality in community. For them, spirituality is not religion. It is about one’s connection to a larger reality that provides context, meaning and the transformation for life’s inevitable suffering. Both community and spirituality have been important parts of this journey.

This trip itself has been an experience in community life with the group spending large amounts of time together. As one fellow traveler observed, “Nothing helps you get to know each other better than traveling together.” Not only have we lived in close proximity to each other, learning intimate details about each other, every few days the group has
dedicated time to communalizing our thoughts, feelings and concerns within the context of seeking meaning beyond our own private struggles. These meetings have been rich and moving experiences in which we have discovered together that listening to war is not just about veteran healing, PTSD, nor just about addressing something that happened more than 40 years ago – it is about our lives today.

Along with building our own traveling community we have also plunged into the spirituality and community of Vietnam. Our difficult and often long journeys into the wounding of war were broken up by refreshing visits to Vietnamese spiritual leaders and communities.

Early in the journey the group met with an aging Vietnam veteran named Mr. Tiger who had fought against the Japanese, the French and the Americans. In his nineties, Mr. Tiger has no PTSD, does not resent the many sacrifices he made as a soldier and claims to sleep well every night. Mr. Tiger explained that, from a western perspective we make the mistake of assuming that the wounding of war is in the head, when in reality, the wounding of war is in the heart.

Mr. Tiger’s metaphor is difficult for those of us convinced that science is the most valid explanation for any mystery. But as the journey progressed veterans continued to hear from the Vietnamese that suffering from war has a spiritual component.

Mr. Tiger

Just outside of Hoi An veterans had an audience with Thich Hue Vinh, the leading Buddhist monk at the Chua Quan The Am Pagoda. Thich Hue Vinh considered questions from the veterans, but his message to the veterans and everyone suffering from war trauma was simple: stop digging around in the old war wound. Continuing to dig around in the past only intensives the wound. Instead, take some positive action to address the suffering of others. For those who feel responsible or guilty about their actions during the war he suggested a three fold approach: recognize and admit the mistakes that were made, ask forgiveness and apologize (if possible) and promise not to repeat the mistakes; return to a purity of heart by practicing a detachment from the past; and finally, find something or someone you can deeply believe in or follow. His emphasis was on today. We are here now and the most important question, he advised, is, “what will we do with ourselves here and now?”

Thich Hue Vinh advising vets to plant flowers in the soil of the war wound.

In the middle of visiting battlefields we visited the Kim Dong elementary school in the small rural community of Tam Thai. While Soldier’s Heart has provided financial support for the school, and veterans brought gifts of school supplies, books and treats for the students, the real experience of visiting this school was one of being again welcomed as friends and family into a small community.

"Hey you big tall Americans with funny beards come hang out with us."

After singing and playing with the students we were invited to the schoolteacher’s humble home for lunch. The experience had a powerful impact on some of the veterans. “When I was a solider in Vietnam I would have been shot in a place like this,” one of the veterans commented. And rightly so. The schoolteacher’s aging father explained that he had been a farmer by day and a secret VietCong warrior by night, doing whatever he could to fight the Americans. But, once again, the old man emphasized a message the veterans have heard over and over on this trip. The war is over. Whatever you did in the war you did as an agent of your government. We do not blame you nor are we angry at you. You are no longer our enemy. You are here now and we are here now and we welcome you as family. Sit down. Eat some food. Tell me your story and we will tell you ours. This ongoing sense of community and welcome expressed by the Vietnamese people has continued to surprise most of us on this trip.

Secret VC warrior welcomes us into his home

Simple food

Old enemies become new friends

After a long exhausting day of visiting battlefields last week we hiked up a dark path to the 400-year-old Dong Thuyen Pagoda – a Buddhist convent where we were welcomed into a peaceful comfortable dining room and fed a wonderful dinner served by an older nun and her assistants. As the food was brought out, the nun, Dieu Dat, who heads the convent, invited us to observe 15 minutes of silence as we ate. With the sound of women chanting in a distant room we slowly began to eat without talking. It was a simple act but everyone in our group was suddenly amazed at how good the food tasted and how enjoyable it was to just be together without words. The women serving us continue to quietly bring food and when the 15 minutes was up we began a conversation with the old nun about healing from war suffering.

Like others in Vietnam her advice was simple: War is always the responsibility of the community – not the individual; Start transforming your pain by taking action and doing something for someone else; Begin each day with a smile; and always, always do more smiling than thinking. All of this, she reminded us, is easy to say but much harder to do.

As we left the nuns with full stomachs and peaceful hearts it was hard to deny the importance of spirituality and community. But questions have lingered for some of the veterans. While they appreciate the encouragement to leave the past and look toward the future – they still feel a strong need to tell the story of what happened 40 years go in the company of listening witnesses. One of the veteran said, “We didn’t tell the story when we came home from war – because no one wanted to hear it. So we need to tell in now.”

View from the Thien Mu Pagoda in Hue

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Listening in the places they served

Listening to war takes more than ears. It requires eyes, feet, hearts and a willingness to go imaginatively and literally to the places where stories reside. During the last several days we have been visiting war sites throughout central Vietnam including Da Nang, Chu Lia, Marble Mountain, the Citidel in Hue, Phu Bai, the Rock Pile, Firebase Tomahawk, Highway 1, Camp Carroll, Khe Sanh, Gio Linh and the DMZ.

“I have places where all my stories begin,” confesses writer Barbara Kingsolver, and so do veterans. Place, memory and story are intertwined and part of this journey is about returning to places of significance for the American veterans on this trip. These are the veterans’ AOs – military speak for “areas of operation.” Forty years later these places have changed. Some are overgrown. Others have limited accessibility as current military installations. A few have been preserved as historic sites.

On a wall surrounding the abandoned Da Nang Airbase we found this interesting graffiti.

As we drove to places and walked the land the stories poured out - stories about military jobs, lost sleep, soggy bunkers, C-rations, military equipment and getting stoned. But there were also stories about battles, boredom, hot landing zones, lost innocence, killing, fallen comrades and wounded souls. For the veterans, these places are sacred ground. And in many of the places our group sought to ceremonially honor the memories of these places and those who served.

At Chu Lia Airbase, the home of the Americal Division, we could not get to the actual ground but on a hill overlooking the base held a brief ritual in the rain.

During that ritual a veteran recited a portion of St. Crispin’s Day Speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V that includes the following lines:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home, 

Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam'd, 

And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age . . .
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars, 

And say 'These wounds I had on Crispian's day.'
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. . .
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother . . .

Hue City was the site of one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War. Fought during and following the 1968 Tet Offensive, the battle resulted in thousands of military and civilian casualties and became a turning point in the war. We walked somberly through the ruins of the Citadel (the old Vietnamese Imperial City) where much of the fighting took place.

The Citadel in Hue.

Heading north from Hue, Highway 1 winds through the Hai Van pass, a strategic high ground and the place where 34 Americans died in a helicopter crash in 1971.

Hai Van Pass

Further north a strategic lookout point for Americans in the war was known as The Rock Pile (Thon Khe Tri to the Vietnamese). The only way up was by way of helicopter but the Vietnamese found ways to continually attack the Americans there.

The Rock Pile

Continuing along the beautiful South China Sea I found it difficult, as a civilian, to imagine helicopters, bombs and tanks in this stunning landscape. But it was in this area that both the Vietnamese and Americans experienced the highest casualties of the war.

Peaceful fishing village of Lang Co

The impact of the war along Highway 1 soon became apparent as we passed bombed and bullet ridden buildings and numerous war cemeteries. S
ong, our guide, explained that this section of Highway 1 has become known to the Vietnamese as "the road without joy" because of the fierce fighting and thousands of war casualties along the route. The numerous
cemeteries we saw only represented the North Vietnamese Army and VietCong. The fallen South Vietnamese troops are not honored in war cemeteries.

War cemetery

We conducted another ritual to remember the fallen at the site of Firebase Tomahawk where four men from the town of Bardstown, Kentucky were killed in one battle in 1969.
Remembering at Firebase Tomahawk

Turning off of Highway 1 and heading west on Highway 9 we made our way to Khe Sanh where U.S. Marines underwent 77 days of continuous attack in 1968. This site had a powerful attraction to all the veterans and after walking the site we held another ritual of remembrance.

Veterans walking into the old Khe Sanh base

Looking across the old landing strip at Khe Sanh

Cattle grazing where fighting occurred.

A rusted piece of military hardware and an overgrown field is all that is left of the northern most Allied position at Gio Linh. But that did not stop veterans from wading into the bush and conducting another ritual.

Veteran reads a poem written for the occasion.

Small altar created in the bush to remember a friend who died here.

We ended this portion of the journey by walking across the Ben Hai River, the dividing line between North and South Vietnam during the war. There were no gates, no guards and no sounds of battle. Children on the north side of the river were laughing and lazily kicking a soccer ball, and on the south side a water buffalo contentedly grazed.

Bridge across the Ben Hai River

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Hospitality and friends

As we continue our trip north the American veterans continue to comment about the welcome they are receiving. In contrast to old memories and imaginations of how the Vietnamese might want to treat them they continue to be surprised by hospitality, warmth and friendship. I too continue to be amazed at the kindness and friendship shown by the Vietnamese. I've only been here a week and already have many new Vietnamese friends.

Currently we are in Hoi An, a beautiful coastal city south of Da Nang near China Beach.
Making friends, finding connection and demonstrating hospitality is clearly a priority here. When I hired a motor scooter driver to show me around I expected a hustle, but instead he stayed with me for hours and then invited me to his home to meet his family.

Hoi An, an ancient port located on the South China Sea, has a long history of hospitality.

Following the donation of cows (mentioned in the previous blog) we were invited to lunch at the home of a cousin of Song, our guide. The cousin lives in a rural hamlet and is a farmer as well as government worker. As we walked the lane to the cousin's house Song explained that the hamlet and farm had been the site of fierce fighting during the war. As we neared the house he pointed out a bomb crater that is now a duck pond and then pointed out the spot where the cousin's father, a VietCong soldier, had been crushed to death by a U.S. tank.

Bomb crater made into duck pond

But the cousin had not invited the American veterans to his home to tell about his loss or get sympathy. He wanted to befriend us. This all came out during lunch when we offered an apology to the cousin for the loss of his father and took responsibility for the actions of our government. While the apology was clearly meaningful to the man and his family he wanted us to know that he saw us as friends and part of his family and encouraged us to let go of the war and be happy that we are no longer enemies. He was not looking for reparations or for anything from us. He simply wanted to show us that everything is okay - that there are ducks in the bomb craters, that his sow has just had a large litter of piglets and that his family members are all doing well and happy. The Vietnamese have this amazing ability to see beyond themselves and individual struggles to the larger collective.

Song's cousin and family

Yesterday, Song, invited us to his home in Da Nang to celebrate the eve of Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. On New Year's eve the Vietnamese family ancestors are invited back home for the celebration. Inviting a dozen Americans into a small Vietnamese house is no small thing, yet Song graciously opened his home and explained his family alter, the rituals involved and then invited us to participate in the ritual. After welcoming the ancestors we were fed another great Vietnamese meal and experienced more wonderful hospitality.

Song conducts a ritual at an altar just outside the doorway that welcomes the souls of his ancestors back home and also provides food for wandering souls that may come by.

Last evening Ed Tick (our group leader) and I went to a Buddhist temple at midnight for the big ritual and celebration welcoming the New Year. As midnight struck a cacophony of sounds filled the night -- monks chanting, drums, cymbals and fireworks. Once again we were welcomed and befriend. People showed us where to stand and when to kneel. And when the ritual was over they talked with us and invited us to visit them in their homes. Our jaded western perspective doesn't know what to do with such hospitality. We're always looking for the catch.

On one of our free days, while sightseeing, I stumbled into a Vietnamese funeral. Suddenly I found people explaining that this was a funeral for a old woman and grandmother and that I was welcome to honor her with them. They took my hand and pulled me into the crowd and quickly made me part of what seemed like more festival then sad funeral. There were costumed officiants, loud music, shouting, singing and an elaborate teak and gold casket. With great ritual the casket was loaded into a wildly decorated hearse and then surrounded by family members who piled in around the casket. The whole time I was pulled along, included and encouraged to take pictures.

Officiant at funeral

Loading the casket

Vietnamese hearse carries casket and family members to burial

Today some of us were invited to the home of Son, a local sculpturer and Ed's friend. Son is a brilliant artist and brilliant scholar. He has taught himself english and has read deeply in history, philosophy and literature. His knowledge of geography and American history is stunning. When we visited his house, he too invited us to honor his ancestors at the family altar and then wanted to show us his humble study. As we left Son's house one of the veterans and I wondered if we have lost an important connection to each other in our pursuit of individual rights in America. In Vietnam people don't seem obsessed with what is theirs. While the streets are crowded no one is raging for their spot on the road and people clearly love being with each other. It seems that the Vietnamese could teach us all something about living better.

Son's study and books are located on the second floor
of his humble home because the first floor often floods.