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.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Mekong Delta

Following a night in a simple hotel in Tay Ninh we headed southeast. The spartan accommodations of the night and several days on the road have brought us closer together. We have four Vietnamese vets traveling with us and on the long drive we sang war songs. The Vietnamese have red and blue war songs. Red war songs are upbeat and marshal, encouraging people to stay with the struggle. Blue songs are those filled with emotion and reflection on family, love and sacrifice. Americans have protest songs. The Americans sang “Last Stop Vietnam,” “I Gotta Get Out of this Place” (The Animals), and “Where Have all the Flowers Gone.” Poems were read by both Americans and Vietnamese and an American veteran told a moving story about warrior homecoming and love. The hours of riding flew by.

Vietnamese veterans singing a red song

As we bounced down narrow roads, past rice paddies and water buffalo and through small hamlets, the landscape slowly began change. Every few kilometers we crossed small rivers and canals.

At Vinh Long City we left the bus and boarded a water taxi and headed to VietCong veterans’ Tam and Madame Tien’s home on Green Island. Crossing one of the many broad fingers of the Mekong River we entered a new realm and conversations quieted as the rolling grey waters filled with floating hyacinths provided a cool break from the tropical humidity and suggested something long ago, far away and mythic.

Mekong Riverboat

Boat woman

Veteran looks across the water

Tam and Madame Tien’s home is a simple Vietnamese Delta home compound designed for guests to come and experience the delta from a Vietnamese perspective. Built on the water and surrounded by water, fruit trees and jungle, the compound is filled with the sights and sounds of simple life – people talking, children running and laughing, dogs barking, and chickens cackling.

Simple digs for American vets at Tiens

Dining room

The more time I spend with veterans the more I know there are certain things I will never know about war. After the Vietnam War (the Vietnamese call it the American War) American veterans would often say to civilians, “If you haven’t been there, shut up.” The rightness of that saying came home as I walked a jungle trail with an American infantry veteran and listen to him reflect on his time patrolling the jungles when the enemy could be behind every tree.

Veteran returns to the jungle trail

Dinner of elephant ear fish

Our evening at Tam Tien’s is filled with music, theater, stories and discussions. More Vietnamese veterans show up to welcome the Americans. A local musical group demonstrated Vietnamese Delta music and an American vet preformed an excerpt from his one act play about combat and the aftermath of war. Discussion about the aftermath of war and veteran suffering was passionate. The Vietnamese appear to suffer very little long-term psychological trauma and expect little from their government in terms of long term care. Their reliance is on a local community and family that honors their service and continues to honor them and make meaning of their sacrifice.

Vietnamese delta music

Vietnamese and American veteran discussion group

I slept well in a small shelter on stilts over the Delta water surrounded by a serenade of jungle sounds. A rooster crowing at 3:30 am awakened me and I walked along the river under the stars finally feeling rested and peaceful. As the sun came up and the river life began to stir I felt very far away from my home and yet, oddly at home.

Morning on the delta

Morning breakfast serenade from veterans Tran and Tam.

1 comment:

  1. John--Love the blog, your writing, and blessings on your continuing journey! Thank you for sharing it!
    With gratitude and love,