Desaix arranged for us to meet an American veteran who is now working in Vietnam to remove unexploded bombs around the countryside and help Vietnamese disabled by the war. We met him in a swanky lounge with comfortable, zebra-striped chairs. Chuck Searcy was a mild-mannered Georgian who vaguely looked like Jimmy Carter. He sat down and told us about his life. This is as close to a transcript as I can remember:
“Like so many Georgian families, mine was a military family. My father was in a German POW camp and all my uncles fought in World War II. So in 1967, I joined the army having been told that I could chose where I’d be stationed. Actually, they shipped me straight to Vietnam.
I worked in the Military Intelligence Unit, on the outskirts of Saigon. It was our job to read classified reports and figure out what was going on in the country, and as a result I got a pretty good picture of what was happening there. A lot of guys in my unit grew skeptical of the war and thanks to our open minded commanders we were able to openly debate the situation.
In the beginning of 1968, we were hit with the Tet offensive. The Vietcong were in the streets of Saigon, bombs were going off, and nobody knew what was happening. We were on the outskirts of town, but it was still a very scary time. Tet really got me thinking. The Vietcong were able to mount a coordinated attack in nearly every city in South Vietnam. That would have taken months of complex planning, and yet we never got a single warning about Tet. In the entire country, not a single Vietnamese person came up to us and said, ‘hey, you’d better watch out, something’s about to happen’. How could we be arguing that the Vietnamese public supported our war against the Vietcong if not a single one of them even dropped us a hint about Tet?
Tet scared us but our reaction only made things worse. When I got to Saigon, my post was in an area full of shacks, rice paddies, screaming children and old men smoking water pipes—you know, a typical Vietnamese city. By the time I left Vietnam in late 1968, the only thing left in the neighborhood was our base. The neighborhood was leveled, gone. Now I don’t know how that fixed anything.
By the time I left, I was seriously convinced that the war was wrong and when I returned to the University of Georgia, I joined the student protest movement. My parents didn’t know what to think. They said, ‘What’s the matter with him? He doesn’t love his country. He’s not even an American anymore.’ We started getting into arguments and eventually they asked me to move out—said they didn’t want to see me anymore.
Two years went by and one day I got a call from my dad who said he was in the area and wondered if I wanted to grab some coffee. So we met at a diner and talked about the weather for half an hour. Finally he told me, “son, your mother and I have been thinking…and…we were wrong. This war just isn’t right. We want you to come home.” So I moved back in and we’ve gotten along fine since then.
Now I went through all sorts of jobs, wives and careers since then. In 1992 I was talking with my buddy from the war and we decided that we’d really like to go back to Vietnam and see the place. So we just did it. We flew into Ho Chi Minh City, rented a car and drove around every part of the country for 30 days.
When we were flying in to Ho Chi Minh City, we watched rice patties turn into slums and slums turn into city streets and suddenly he and I became terrified. We were scared to think how everyone would hate us for what we did to their country, and we got cold feet. If we could have turned the plane around right then and there we would have. But as soon as we started going around the city, we found that everyone was completely friendly and pleasant, even those who found out that we were veterans. Nobody held it against us. People asked us about the war, but mostly because they were curious not because they were angry. One person told me, ‘It’s alright, we’ve forgiven the Americans because the war is a tragedy for both sides. We are brothers now.” The whole experience of meeting Vietnamese who had put the war behind them helped me come to grips with it.
I’ve seen American vets come over here and meet with former Vietcong. And the American, sometimes a big linebacker type, is just bawling, embracing the little Vietnamese man. And you just see this tension, this crushing weight lift off the American’s soldiers as he leaves behind all the horrible things that he saw and did. You know, the government spends millions of dollars every year on psychological counseling for Vietnam vets, but I think it’d be way more efficient to just buy every troubled vet a round trip plane ticket to Vietnam. They’d be cured in a day.”
Chuck’s trip to Vietnam was so rewarding that he came back and has been here ever since. He runs an NGO that sends teams out to diffuse or destroy unexploded “ordinance” the subtle military term for bombs, mortars, rockets, mines, shells, and anything that can blow off limbs or worse. They’ve systematically removed thousands of explosives from farms and communities in rural Vietnam, but even at the impressive rate that they’re going, Chuck thinks it would take 200 years to clear out North Vietnam. In one small province, little bigger than Connecticut, the United States dropped more explosives than they did in all theatres of World War II. “Just what were they looking to do there?” Chuck asked, shaking his head.
Chuck is just one of many Vets who have returned to Vietnam to help rebuild the country. “In general,” Chuck observed, “the U.S. has put its best foot forward here. We have lots of American NGOs that are doing good work here and even more businessmen who are part of the economic boom that’s happening here. As far as I know, they’ve all been appreciated and well received by the Vietnamese. In the past, the war made Americans do terrible things in Vietnam. Now Americans are doing all sorts of great things and I think that’s part of why Vietnamese attitudes are so favorable right now.”
I’ve been to several countries that have nasty streaks of anti-Americanism. Naturally, I was worried about coming to Vietnam, where I thought anti-Americanism would be particularly intense due to our tortured history there. But I’ve been hearing from Chuck and many others and seeing for myself that Vietnam is actually one of the most pro-American countries on earth. Strengthening ties with the U.S. is one of the government’s highest priorities. And the Vietnamese public is now becoming familiar with a new type of American, people like Chuck who are turning history on its head.