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.

Monday, January 16, 2012

POWs, Agent Orange, War Museum

Still full of jet lag, I awoke at 4 am, wrote for a while and then walked the streets. It was cool and on the side streets and alleys of Saigon people were making tea and cooking breakfast. Apparently the cool morning is an important social time for people here as many sat on chairs and squatted in conversation.

In Vietnam stories matter and our entire morning was spent listening. It began at breakfast and then, while we were waiting for a bus, I listened as a former American intelligence officer and a VietCong soldier told stories. The intelligence officer explained how, when he was serving in Vietnam, he had tried to chart VietCong positions on a large map. The only problem, he told his former enemy, was when they went looking for the VietCong they were never where the map said they should be. "You guys just vanished," the officer said and both laughed at their old games. Then the former VietCong soldier went on to explain how they would hide in the places the GIs never thought to look.

The storytelling continued at the War Remnants Museum where we gathered in a room to hear the stories of former Vietnamese prisoners of war and victims of agent orange. The museum's passionate director, Madame Van, explained that the Museum's mission is not one of propaganda or blame but peace through awareness. She then made the dramatic claim that the Vietnamese people have no animosity toward American veterans and hoped that in coming to Vietnam and seeing the attitudes of the people the veterans could find some relief and peace for themselves. Her claim was then demonstrated over the next 3 hours as we listened to the stories of three former Vietnamese prisoners of war and a second generation agent orange victim.

Former prisoners of war and agent orange victim

The stories were difficult to hear, not because of the torture, suffering and trauma they revealed, but because the storytellers had clearly come to terms with their past sufferings and wanted the visiting American veterans and all Americans to also find some measure of peace
about the War. Their concern for the American veterans was continually repeated as they explained how they had personally survived and transformed their suffering through art, service and the active practice of forgiveness and letting go.

Some of the best stories are visual. The oral storytelling was interrupted by a musical group composed of young people who had congenital deformities from the effects of agent orange. Several were blind and other's were missing limbs or confined to wheel chairs with major deformities. They were led by the blind keyboard player Le Van O. and their singing left most most of us wet with tears. Upon finishing, group members pinned an orange apricot flower on each of the Americans and wanted us to know that, despite their deformities, they were still finding ways to enjoy life and love.

Singing group of agent orange victims

Singer who pinned a flower on my shirt

Dr. Nguyen Thi Ngoc Phoung, a former prisoner of war and
now head of the Vietnam Association of Victims of Agent Orange said,
"The best way Americans can heal from the war is to come to Vietnam."

Agent Orange Victim with American Veteran.

The last story of the day was told by Ed Tick, the leader of our trip and the author of War and the Soul. He told that during his work with veterans in the United States a former GI had approached him and asked him to return a war relic that had been taken from the body of a VietCong soldier he had killed. The GI had come to believe that his personal work of healing necessitated the return of this flag and all it represented.

Dr. Tick returns battle flag to former VietCong soldier Tam Tien and
Museum Director, Madame Van.

1 comment:

  1. This tour has changed since 2005. I'm so glad there's active participation early on by Vietnamese veterans and by Agent Orange victims.