Legacies of War

A young man in the Da Nang center belts out a song during lunch as his teacher offers encouragement.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Da Nang, Vietnam

Ever since I started my Vietnam photo project in 2005, I have avoided making the focal point the Vietnam War. This body of work is not about rehashing America’s involvement in Southeast Asia. There are plenty of books by policymakers of that era and well-qualified political analysts.

My project has been focused on creating a snap shot of what has happened in Vietnam since the war with the idea of re-introducing this Southeast Asian country to Americans four decades later.

To be sure, the genesis of my interest in Vietnam was the war. It was the war of my generation, and the news coverage of that era helped forge my passion for journalism and politics. And so, the project would not be complete without looking at the legacy of the war in today’s Vietnam.

It’s not a subject that is at the surface of everyday life here. People typically don’t bring up the war as a topic with foreigners, especially Americans. Vietnam is an amazingly young country with the majority of the population under 30 and with no personal memory and little interest in the war. Vietnamese generally like Americans and support their own government’s efforts to forge strong diplomatic and economic ties with the United States. So they’re not eager to bring up a sensitive topic. If you bring up the war, Vietnamese in the north will tell you they have nothing to be bitter about because they won. Older Vietnamese in the south may admit they still feel like the United States abandoned them and failed to fulfill its promise to defeat the Communists, although these sentiments are rarely expressed.

So, finding visual legacies of the war is not easy. But there is one undeniable tragedy that lingers and that is the birth defects caused by suspected Agent Orange poisoning. The Vietnamese government estimates that about 500,000 children have been affected by the 20 million gallons of the defoliant that were dumped from aircraft during the war to clear rural and forested land and deprive North Vietnamese guerrillas of food and cover. Between 2.5 and 4.8 million people were exposed to Agent Orange, including U.S. servicemen who also experienced related illnesses.

Exposure to Agent Orange can cause cancer, liver damage, pulmonary and heart diseases, defects to reproductive capacity and skin and nervous disorders. The children and grandchildren of the exposed have mental and physical disabilities, diseases, severe physical deformities and shortened lifespans. (For more information about Agent Orange, check out Wikipedia at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agent_Orange).

Today, there are Agent Orange care centers sprinkled around the country, providing housing, food and educational services to children and some war veterans. I visited two of these centers, one called the Vietnam Friendship Village near Hanoi and a more modest day-care facility here in Da Nang. The Friendship Village was founded in 1988 by George Mizo, an American war veteran, in conjunction with Vietnamese and French veterans as a project for those seeking reconciliation and peace.

The Friendship Village is now a multinational project and welcomes volunteers and financial contributions. (For more information: http://www.vietnamfriendship.org/wordpress/)

Another visual of the war is the tunnels in a village called Cu Chi, about an hour drive from Ho Chi Minh City. The tunnels have become a major tourist attraction and was busy with Australian, European, Chinese and Japanese tourists the day I visited. Visitors can see the maze of tunnels used by North Vietnamese to hide and launch surprise attacks on nearby U.S. military bases.

The guerrillas who occupied the tunnels suffered from hunger, malaria and shortages of air, food and water. The tunnels were infested with poisonous centipedes, scorpions, spiders and vermin. Also on display are the horrific booby traps set by the Viet Cong and which subjected U.S. troops to painful deaths and injuries. (For more information about the Cu Chi tunnels, check out Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/C%E1%BB%A7_Chi_tunnels).

Visiting the Agent Orange care centers is an experience I’ll never forget. The children have both physical and mental disabilities caused by the poison. Agent Orange is suspected of causing Down Syndrome, and many of the children appear as if they suffer from this defect.

But these children are not being allowed to waste away in a stupor. They are kept busy with education classes that fit their abilities, including a computer lab. After they’ve completed a course of study and life skills training at the Friendship facility they are returned to their families.

These children will win your heart as soon as you meet them. They are a friendly, smiley gregarious bunch who welcome visitors with smiles and hugs. One boy about 13 ran up to me and threw his arms around me. After his big hug he held my hand and pulled me out to a sidewalk where he performed a series of hip hop dance moves, urging me to photograph his routine. Other children were eager for conversation and to show arts and crafts. And some at the center in Da Nang wanted to sing, pretending to hold microphones. Indeed, many are fans of western television pop music and talent shows and have their own dreams about being performers.

Once you get to know some Vietnamese and some trust has been established the war may come up in conversation.

I met a man in the deep water port city of Hai Phong named Mr. Loc. He owns a ship repair business where I did some photo shooting. He made it possible for me and my assistant, Saigon photographer Khoa Tran, to tour Hai Phong habor by boat and then invited us to stay for dinner at his home.

We sat on the floor of his kitchen and after a few beers and shots of herbal wine, Mr. Loc asked me my age and if I had served during the war. I explained I had a student deferment and had not served in the military. Loc said he joined the North Vietnamese army but never saw combat because the war ended in 1975 while he was still in basic training.

“They were a bunch of Communists,” he said with obvious disapproval.

I asked him if he had seen the war as a battle between democracy and communism or was it for him more about winning Vietnam’s independence from foreign occupants. He surprised me and said it had nothing to do with ideology.

“Food was scarce then and we were starving,” he said. “I joined the army so I could get fed each day, and it helped my family by eliminating one mouth that they no longer had to feed. But I did not care about the war.”

Mr. Loc and I agreed that meeting 40 years later over dinner was preferable to meeting on the battlefield. There was a round of toasts and we shook hands.

After the singing performance, everyone gets a round of applause.

Children visit in their dorm room as they wait for lunch time at the Friendship Village near Hanoi.

Children enjoy some rest time before they are called for lunch at the Friendship Village.

Some children require extra help with eating and other life skills.

The children get a hot lunch everyday.

Veterans at the Friendship Village visiting in their dorm room.

All the veterans posed for a group photo before lunch.

In Da Nang, the children learn from their teacher that they have visitors during lunch.

Lunch mates: Two girls in Da Nang enjoy their meal together.

One boy in Da Nang appears alone in his thoughts and less social than the others.

The young crooner says goodbye to his new photographer friends by making a heart gesture with his hands.

 

 

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