[Note for TomDispatch Readers: On this Memorial Day weekend dedicated to remembering those who died in America’s wars, TomDispatch brings back a powerful 2008 Nick Turse piece about two civilians, two Vietnamese, who did not, in fact, die in the long ago American conflict in their country, but did lose parts of themselves. We hope that this will serve as a reminder over the holiday not just of the Americans who lost their lives in wars — from Vietnam to Iraq — that undoubtedly should never have been fought, but of the civilians of those countries who suffered in ways that we generally preferred not to think about half a century ago and that largely don’t concern us on America’s battlefields of the present day. Keep in mind that signed, personalized copies of Nick Turse’s powerful new Dispatch Book, Next Time They’ll Come to Count the Dead: War and Survival in South Sudan, remain available for any readers who care to send in a $100 or more contribution to our site ($125 if you live outside the United States), as is his award-winning book, Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam. Think of such a donation as one way to support a website that has a somewhat different idea of what any Memorial Day in America should be all about. Check our donation page for the details on our offers, then read Nick Turse’s new introduction followed by the original 2008 piece. Tom]
He was short in stature, elderly, frail, and couldn’t hear particularly well, but what struck me most were his eyes. They were cloudy and rheumy, yes, but there was something else, something deep and troubled, beyond the merely physical, swirling inside them. His eyes were haunted.
I met Nyanet last month in a devastated village on the edge of a devastated town in the newest nation on Earth, South Sudan. But the moment I met him I knew that I’d seen those eyes before. Many times, in fact. For years, I traveled in Southeast Asia interviewing people whose villages had been similarly devastated and I noticed that same haunted look. It’s something you don’t forget. Sometimes it wasn’t evident at first. Only after you’d talked with them for a while, only after they’d started telling you of the horrors of their youth would you see it, as if some wellspring of residual terror had begun to bubble up from deep within.
The better part of a decade ago, I saw that look in the eyes of Nguyen Van Tu and wrote a TomDispatch article about him and another Vietnamese man, Pham Van Chap, both civilians, who lost legs in what’s called “the American War” there. The generosity of TomDispatchreaders, an American Vietnam veterans group, and a charity got both of them brand-new prosthetic legs, but there was nothing that could be done about Nguyen’s haunted eyes. If he’s still alive, I’m certain the memory of horror that they reflected remains with him.
President Obama has just wrapped up his own trip to Vietnam. “I bring greetings and friendship of the American people,” he proclaimed. “I can also announce that the United States is fully lifting the ban on the sale of military equipment to Vietnam that has been in place for some 50 years.” After five decades, U.S. arms can again flow freely into that country — not that Vietnam doesn’t already have plenty of American munitions. There are hundreds of thousands of tons of unexploded ordnance littering the countryside. Only days before Obama’s arrival, Ngo Thien Khiet, the leader of a Project RENEW explosives disposal team, was killed by just such an American bomb.
Wars have a tremendous staying power. Munitions endure and continue to maim and kill long after conflicts end. Physical injuries persist and alter lives. And then there are the mental scars. Often they’re harder to spot than a wooden leg or missing fingers, but look deep into the eyes of a war victim and there’s a good chance you’ll find traces of them there. Trust me, you’ll know it when you see it.