|Download PDF of this full issue: v53n1.pdf (37.7 MB)|
Grave Removal in Northern Quang Tri Province, late 1966
By Paul Nichols
Early during my tour of duty in I Corps, I was sent to the outskirts, barely within the coiled concertina wire perimeter to guard Vietnamese peasants while they dug up remnants of buried family members. Ominous tree lines stared from across a rice paddy expanse.
"Our" battalion area was in the expansion process on their land. Many Vietnamese graves located in this area of the Dong Ha combat base had been indiscriminately bulldozed away, causing diplomatic concerns somewhere up the line between South Vietnamese and US governments. To help appease such concerns, grave removal was ordered when possible under close guard by Marines of the 3rd Engineer Battalion.
As I stood near them with my rifle in hand, carefully watching their every move, I had no empathy for what they were forced to do. I did not know of ancestor reverence which, linked to ancient Confucian beliefs, was of monumental importance to Vietnamese culture. Even had I been aware of these values, my disdain would have been fueled by ingrained ethnocentrism, anger, and hatred. The Vietnamese people were dehumanized from Parris Island boot camp through Camp Geiger, Las Pulgas, and Okinawa, where I embarked on an assault ship to the Cua Viet River near the DMZ.
My job was to assure that these peasants weren't Viet Cong digging holes and burying mortars or other weapons for use in planned attacks under the darkness of night. It was nearly impossible to tell who was who among the general population. The Vietnamese dug into the red soil at various gravesites extracting fragments of ancestral bone and body parts for relocation elsewhere. Bone was caringly placed in small wooden boxes, as the Vietnamese jabbered and mouthed a handful of rice during the digging. I watched, void of compassion. We had often been rocketed at night. "Compassion" was just a word from dictionaries. Years after I left the war with lifelong wounds this experience remains very troubling to me.
Occupying large areas of Vietnamese land, disfiguring it and the intrinsic values it held, and inhumanly assaulting sacred ground to establish "our" combat base, instills no pride in me. I think of how Native American people felt when subjected to broken treaties. For example, when their sacred Black Hills of South Dakota and Wyoming were violently taken over, mined for gold, and developed by greedy, bigoted, white outsiders during the mid-to late 1800s. I feel deep shame that our country's military decimated indigenous populations and involuntarily forced tribes to live on squalid reservations, destroying their way of life.
Ongoing dark sides of US history countrywide. Ongoing worldwide! We all need to gaze into a mirror and contemplate.
Paul Nichols was drafted in late 1965. Following family tradition, he immediately enlisted in the Marine Corps. Within a year he served with the 3rd Engineer Battalion in the I Corps region of Vietnam where he was seriously wounded in 1967.
Vietnamese peasants digging up
ancestor remains in northern Quang Tri Province