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Page 29
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<< 28. Michael L. Reed (1947-2002)30. Songs of Protest >>

Letter from Vietnam

By William Kelly

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Analogies, like war, can be dangerous. However, being in Vietnam during this period in our nation's history and being a combat veteran of the American War in Vietnam forces one to see some similarities.

25 February, Thanh Phong, Ben Tre Province. On this date, 34 years ago, a special team of American warriors was sent on a mission to "snatch" a Viet Cong political cadre. Thanh Phong was, and is, a dirt poor hamlet on a finger-like peninsula in the Mekong Delta. The mission took place at night in a hamlet without electricity. The SEAL team involved might not even have had an interpreter along. Due to the subsequent celebrity value of the name of one of the participants, the mission created a great outpouring of commentary. Very little real reporting.

The result, whether accidental, intentional or somewhere in between, seemed to be foreordained. Twenty-one Vietnamese civilians, mostly women and children, were annihilated in a massive barrage of small-arms fire. All indications point to a mission of the CIA's parallel war termed the Phoenix Program.

As our nation's nebulous war on terrorism proceeds, we should be aware of these types of missions that are probably being conducted at this very moment throughout the world. Shadowy, no "in-beds" along, no results shown. Our terror will counter our opponent's terror. If you can't get the principal, get the family! Is there a relativity to morality?

16 March, My Lai, Quang Ngai Province. This date was the 35th anniversary of the massacre perpetrated by an American unit. 504 civilians were brutally murdered. This was not a momentary madness but an ongoing assault that lasted nearly four hours! Too long for hot-blooded anger. For myself and many other grunts, this one incident stands out as the single least understandable of all the horrific incidents arising from our involvement in Vietnam.

Since my first return to Vietnam in 1998, I have planned my annual stay to encompass this date. Six years in succession. Given my Irish romanticism and sentimentality, I always arrive bearing 504 multi-hued roses to honor the victims. Quang Ngai was, and is, still renowned as the font of the revolution. Yet I have always been welcomed with friendship. Not, ever, one iota of hostility.

The day has become something akin to a tradition for me and a growing number of Viets, mostly young students and workers but some oldtimers as well. After we pay our respects and say our prayers, the ever-burgeoning group proceeds to the beautiful beach at My Khe and an afternoon lunch and a swim. It is oddly comforting to me and, I think, to my Vietnamese friends.

20 March, Hanoi. I arrived at my lodging in this beautiful, charming capitol of Vietnam to be apprised by the ubiquitous CNN that bombs had begun to fall on Baghdad. Eerie! To walk the streets of this compact, densely-populated city and to think of what it might have felt like to be an inhabitant when a massive bombing campaign was underway certainly saddened me and caused me to think of the fate of the Iraqi population of Baghdad.

I can draw no conclusions. No insights. But the ironies and similarities abound.

Today, when in Vietnam, I feel safe, free and at peace. Oddly, at home! By no stretch of the imagination could I envision ever wielding arms against the Vietnamese people who are now a part of my family. To understand this feeling of kinship, I can draw a conclusion. The Viets are no longer the Other. I have met real people who, apart from our cultural and historical differences, are the same as myself. One is forced to ponder the present Other, the Arab and Muslim. If I could meet and live with them, within their culture and civilization, would the shared humanity trump all the differences?

William Kelly was a platoon leader with a grunt outfit in I Corps based in Quang Ngai Province. He belongs to the VVAW, VVA, VFP and other groups. Every year, since 1998, he has been returning to Vietnam and helping out at shelters for street kids and orphans. In 2001 he financed the construction of a community center in Bu Dang, Binh Phuoc Province. Lately he has been building houses, one by one, in Thanh Phong, Ben Tre Province.

<< 28. Michael L. Reed (1947-2002)30. Songs of Protest >>