It was an eerie feeling entering the city of Hanoi, center of power of an enemy I had fought against some 28 years earlier. Near the heart of the city I paused at a war memorial honoring the communist victors, a large sculpture constructed from the wreckage of downed B-52 bombers and U.S. tanks and artillery pieces captured during the war. I was allowed to enter the infamous Hanoi Hilton, a dark prison where many of my fellow servicemen had been confined as POW's. Most of the prison compound was gone by this time, replaced ironically by a modern Hilton Hotel. I was surprised to be invited to join a long line of silent, respectful visitors that led up through the colonnades of a great stone hall past a glass enclosure where the carefully guarded body of Ho Chi Minh still lay in state. It felt strange to be moving freely among a people I was once under orders to destroy and experience not a hint of animosity directed toward me. Curiosity, certainly, but not animosity. A few weeks ago I had the privilege of returning to Vietnam where I had spent the most indelible year of my life. Peggy, who as a new bride endured the aching separation of my first tour here, accompanied me on this journey into my past. This time, rather than going as a combat soldier, I went as an ambassador of good will with International Urban Associates, a worldwide network of urban leaders on whose board I serve.
At a luncheon in a Hanoi hotel where our delegation met with a number of public and government officials, I sat between a female physician about my age, and a somewhat younger man, a hospital administrator, both Vietnamese. In halting words and phrases and with the aid of many hand-gestures, we were able to piece together fragments of our personal stories. The woman was a young doctor when the B-52's first began their air strikes on Hanoi. She recalled in subdued tones the day her hospital had been eviscerated by a misaimed bombed. The administrator, a child during the war, told how families in his neighborhood, upon hearing the air raid sirens, would race to each others' homes and huddle together in underground shelters they had dug. He recalled how the ground shook as the bombs leveled whole areas around the city. A profound sadness came over me as I heard in person for the first time of the pain and trauma that the conflict had inflicted upon the personal lives of caring people who I once considered "the enemy." Though I experienced no sense of accusation or blame from them, I suddenly became aware of an unprepared for urge inside me to offer some gesture of conciliation, some expression of regret. But words would not come. They kept getting choked back by uninvited tears that welled up from somewhere deep within my soul. All I could manage to get out was "I'm sorry."
At Cu Chi, a village outside of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon, to me) where many U.S. troops died fighting well entrenched Viet Cong, I visited yet another war memorial. At the end of a narrow road in a thickly vegetated rural area a cluster of bamboo exhibit shelters had been built to show Vietnamese visitors how their heroic compatriots had defeated the Americans. A downed Huey helicopter on display in the clearing was a popular spot for picture posing. Still partially intact was an intricate maze of underground tunnels (more than 180 miles of them!) where thousands of Viet Cong troops staged their deadly hit-and-run attacks on U.S. and South Vietnamese forces. Our uniformed guides invited us to watch a video that described how their ingenious young patriots, poorly armed but highly committed, sabotaged the well equipped U.S. forces using captured weapons and ammunition. It was troubling to watch peasant children planting booby traps made from stolen U.S. army mortar rounds, and more troubling still to see the jubilation over their "successful" detonation.
I remembered sitting among another group of confident young patriots nearly thirty years earlier watching training films to prepare us to counteract these same primitive jungle warfare tactics, none of us ever fathoming the possibility that our awesome military strength could be defeated. Now I was sitting on the other side, listening to the party line of how the imperialist invaders had been brought to their knees. Strangely, I sensed no hostility from our hosts. Rather, they were genuinely cordial, extending to us the kind of benevolence that only victors can afford.
My tour in Vietnam was a pivotal year in my life. It was here where I was confronted with the darker side of my nature, the side which mortal combat forces out into the open. A kill-or-be-killed environment gives license to violence. It enables one to divorce himself from compassionate instincts and learn quite easily to derive satisfaction from the destruction of other human beings. I was surprised to discover that combat evoked in me the same emotional charges that I had experienced playing sports. Only more adrenalin, more excitement. The stakes were higher. This realization sent me into a tailspin of moral and spiritual confusion. Following orders was one thing; the exhilaration of the hunt was quite another.
God used this time of soul searching to expose a long enjoyed self-righteousness deeply embedded within me. Providentially, I was able to spend a good bit of my time in an army education unit counseling and teaching young G.I.'s, many who came from inner-city and poverty backgrounds. I set up classes to enable them to get their high school GED diplomas and assisted in the establishment of an amnesty drug abuse program for G.I.'s who wanted to kick their heroin habit before returning to the States. Though I was still engaged in the ugliness of warfare, these experiences ignited in me a desire to serve others, especially those with special needs. My year in Vietnam proved to be a period of spiritual grounding and the beginning point of a calling that would reshape the rest of my life.
Unlike many Vietnam vets who carried home in their viscera the ghosts of the war, I came home to my wife and new baby, immediately immersed myself in urban ministry and never looked back. I sensed no need for closure or healing. As far as I was concerned, Vietnam was a closed chapter in my life (though I was taken quite off guard a few years back by my uncontrollable sobbing when I visited the Wall in Washington, D.C.). It wasn't until I returned and looked face to face at long forgotten memories that I became painfully aware that I did indeed have unfinished business with Vietnam.
In Hanoi I felt the first twinge of sorrow about the war. But it was walking around the tunnels of Cu Chi where a churning mix of intense feelings surged over me like a tsunami. Watching the films had triggered it. I began remembering the deep disdain I harbored not so much for the North Vietnamese enemy but against the people of the South who we were supposedly defending. These deceitful allies, "friendlies" by day and saboteurs by night, were the ones who stole our ammunition, passed intelligence to the Viet Cong, slipped hand grenades into the gas tanks of our trucks and aircraft. I was astonished at the potency of the venom that rushed back with these long-buried memories. The outrage was still there over being used for target practice by those whose freedom we were supposed to be defending. And the horror of the human carnage... and sorrow over the loss of friends... and bitter remorse over the ruthless inhumanity... and grief over the loss of compassion. Wave after wave of emotion broke over me as I walked the terrain. At one moment I felt a sinister delight in seeing the pocked land marred by hundreds of craters from our carpet-bombing runs, at the next moment a shameful guilt for the wanton destruction we wreaked on this people.
I was inundated by torrents of turbulent memories when I felt someone gently touch my arm. Startled, I looked around to see a small Vietnamese boy looking up at me, a shy smile on his face. As he and his classmates had moved around us on the walking trails, his curiosity at this large, hairy armed, giant-size stranger got the best of him. He took my smile as permission. He and all his classmates clustered about me to squeeze on my arms and rub at my arm hair. I couldn't have felt more embraced if someone had given me a bear hug. With the help of an interpreter, I told the children that I was one of the American soldiers who had come to their land many years ago. Their wide-eyed expressions and "bang-bang" gestures made it clear that they understood that I was the enemy with whom their people had warred. But rather than recoiling, they pressed even closer to touch me and hug me and have their picture taken with me. In that moment, a melt-down took place in the deep parts of my soul, a release that had been delayed for nearly three decades. Forgiveness poured over me like a soothing oil, carrying away the ugly residue of enmity long repressed. These children had given me what no amount of counseling or catharsis could have given. This time I would leave Vietnam with peace in my soul. Healed. Free.