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