When Mey-Li Chin, a genuine Vietnamese kid who spoke no English, transferred to our school, she was instantly and unknowingly appointed general of the VC army, only to be assassinated repeatedly in a series of carefully choreographed sniper hits before Mrs. Moss' seventh-period science class.
This was in 1985, 12 years after the last American combat troops had left Vietnam. Earlier that year we had waited in line on a Saturday afternoon to see "Rambo: First Blood Part II." We cheered as Rambo returned to the jungle, killed almost an entire division of Vietnamese soldiers, and liberated more than 20 POWs. The movie confirmed everything we had long suspected but could never have articulated: As long as we were the losers, the Vietnam War would never be over.
Eight years later, as my Thai Airways flight from Bangkok approached Ho Chi Minh City (which everyone except for some bureaucrats still refers to as Saigon), I realized that I had never confronted a metaphor before. Born in 1971, I have no memory of the war or its immediate aftermath. Yet, having grown up in a culture obsessed with questions of Vietnam, I couldn't help but feel that I was returning to a country where I had never been, grappling with memories that weren't mine, and addressing expectations I had inherited rather than formulated.
First thing: Vietnam has no sound track. After I exited the plane and picked my luggage up off the tarmac (just like Charlie Sheen in the opening shots of "Platoon"), I made my way to customs. A part of me actually expected "The End," "2,000 Light Years From Home," or "Magical Mystery Tour" to burst from the public-address speakers overhead. But Vietnam is a quiet country, and even when you hear music, it's more likely to be Whitney Houston than anything else. Five weeks in Vietnam and I didn't hear "These Boots Are Made for Walking" once.
In my first glances of Saigon, I saw no reminders of the war, unless I counted the "Lift the Embargo" T-shirts for sale. It was all wrong: I had seen the pictures. I had seen the streets piled high with rubble and, as the camera pans over the block, the bodies and overturned cars. A quick pullback and that restaurant should explode into flames, throwing conical hats and Vespa scooters across the sidewalk. Where were the children starving in the streets? Wait, wait, wait, it must be Hue I was thinking of. Or maybe Da Nang. I couldn't remember.
Growing up, it had been easy to become an expert in theintricacies of the Vietnam War. All I had to do was take a high school history class. Forget the maps, charts, dates, and names we had to memorize for World War II. It didn't matter where the Ben Hai River was or when the Tet Offensive had taken place. The old rules of history didn't apply, because Vietnam wasn't a war--it was an allegory. What was important were the lessons we had learned: The war was bad; those who opposed it were good (except when they called the GIs "baby killers"--that was very, very bad); and, bottom line, we never should have been there in the first place.
It was as if the history department at my Catholic high school had given up and let the religion department teach this section. We talked about the ethics of warfare, moral responsibility on the battlefield, and the five criteria (a sort of checklist, really) for determining whether or not a war is just. I walked away from that class never having heard of General Westmoreland or Ho Chi Minh, but as certain as I had ever been about anything that the war had been wrong.
But the war sells, and if you go to Vietnam, you'll find war tourism firmly in place. (If you initially have a tough time finding the war, as I did, don't worry, it will find you soon enough.) Bicycle rickshaw drivers in Saigon have a prepared "War Tour" itinerary. Most cities have a military surplus market where you can get an old Big Red One patch, government-issue backpacks and hammocks, or (if you talk to the right people) an M-16 with ammunition. And two of Saigon's most popular bars are the Apocalypse Now (complete with red-light bomb-shelter decor) and the Good Morning, Vietnam!
Even the kids there know that the war means money, although most of them haven't gotten the hang of basic customer service yet. During the war, kids shot you if you weren't careful (didn't they?), but now they tell you to "fuck off, mister" if you don't buy their Ho Chi Minh T-shirts and smudgy maps. Outside every war attraction, kids with velvet-lined briefcases peddle "genuine" American GI lighters more scratched, scuffed, dented, and dinged than any war could make them. An Australian journalist I traveled with once picked up a lighter, turned it over a few times, and handed it back, saying, "No, no, mate, 'Zippo' is spelled with two p's."
When I visited the War Crimes Exhibition, I was shocked at how unshocking it was. There was much talk about "neo-imperialist policies" and "capitalist aggression," but nowhere in the small, dark museum did I see anything I hadn't already known. In fact, many of the exhibits were framed reports from American newspapers.
The little propaganda that remains from when the war was still raging is a different story, however. During a tour of the Cu Chi tunnels 30 kilometers outside of Saigon, I saw a film showing fields of slaughtered women, children, and old men, with a narrator condemning the foreign barbarians responsible. The movie also depicted a medal ceremony where old women and girls were decorated as "hero American-killers." It was just like the sniper in "Full Metal Jacket," a girl with pigtails who frags three soldiers in Private Cowboy's platoon. Who could blame her? She probably lived near Cu Chi and saw that same propaganda film.
Libertyville, Ill., where I grew up, is a small town in the far northern suburbs of Chicago. Given the name, it's probably just about what you would expect.
There were a few Vietnam veterans in Libertyville when I was little, but you would never have known it from looking at them. They had jobs, houses, families (most of them weren't even divorced), and they never wore anything even remotely military. They looked nothing like those crazy longhaired vets I saw on TV.
But my friends and I knew who the vets were, and we took a secret glee in knowing that these guys, who seemed so normal, could snap at any time. We'd seen "Taxi Driver," "The Deer Hunter," and "Coming Home." Any day now one of them might empty a clip of ammo into the lunchtime crowd at McDonald's or stab his wife if she got into bed the wrong way.
Khe Sanh was one of those places I knew I was supposed to know. The battlefield from "Hamburger Hill" was somewhere around here, wasn't it? My required government guide was Mr. Lem, a former South Vietnamese soldier who told me, "It's good you are here. It's good you see Khe Sanh because, like my Marine friends used to say, aIf you ain't been to Khe Sanh, you ain't been to Vietnam.'" I thought about the grim resonance of such a sentiment in 1968, and about time's effect on it, turning it into a slogan for a kind of macabre tourism. If you haven't been to the battlefield where 500 U.S. soldiers were killed, then you haven't been to Vietnam.
It was hard to talk to Mr. Lem or any other ARVN soldier because they are the greatest scapegoats of the war. If failure was anybody's fault, we're told, it was theirs. They were corrupt, disorganized, and cowardly. We were suckered into fighting their war for them.
Maybe Mr. Lem was a coward; I have no idea. Maybe he was an inept soldier (he certainly wasn't a very proficient guide), and maybe he was ungrateful for all the United States tried to do for him (that is, until we up and left). But while he showed me around that day, he told me without much self-pity that he had lost every friend he'd ever had in that war. The total losses to ARVN forces, he said, exceeded a quarter million. For that, ARVN gets to be a joke in our movies and a nonentity in our history classes.
Who knows whether Mr. Lem was full of shit? Every bicycle rickshaw driver in the south says he was ARVN, even the ones who are my age. ARVN soldiers, milking the consciences of Westerners, get the best tips. Rumor has it that even former NVA soldiers will say they were ARVN, because few people give charity to a victor, and nobody gives charity to victor Charlie.
At China Beach I met an American veteran who said he was in Vietnam "chasing his demons." "This is a nice old beach," he told me, "but Charlie sure screwed this up. This ain't the real China Beach. That's up in the Gulf of Da Nang."
"The Vietnamese didn't screw anything up," corrected Ian, an Australian there for the surfing. "They wanted to cash in on the name, and they knew that this beach had the best right-hand curl in all of Southeast Asia. So they just renamed it."
At the China Beach Hotel gift shop, they sold China Beach baseball hats, T-shirts, coffee mugs, and key chains with "China" in Oriental brush strokes and "Beach" in military stencil--an exact replica of the TV show's logo. The war has long been a commodity, but now the Vietnamese are in on it, too. Who cares where China Beach actually was when you have a better right-hand curl right here?
When the Gulf War broke out, I was a sophomore at Columbia. "All our lives," a friend of mine said, "nothing bad has happened to us. How do you compare the OPEC oil crisis with the Great Depression? The Kennedy assassination to the attempt on Reagan? You can't! But now," he said, trying to hide the strange giddiness everyone was feeling in those days, "I guess it's our turn." We were prepared to suffer. This was just like "Born on the Fourth of July," and it was happening to us.
But it happened too quickly. The "No Blood for Oil!" paint on demonstration signs had barely dried when George Bush got on TV to tell us that the war was over.
Over? It hadn't even started. Vietnam's 10,000-day war had become a 100-hour war, yet another aspect of life shortened to accommodate our minuscule attention spans. Where were the tests of conscience, the issues that divided a nation, the fistfights between friends at the local diner? The Gulf War just went away. Sometimes we have to be reminded that it happened at all.
North of the old DMZ in Vietnam there are many more physical reminders of the war than in the south. Huge craters line the "highway," rusted-out jet carcasses serve as impromptu jungle gyms, and nothing but weeds can grow over much of the countryside.
The "Hanoi Hilton" prison, where many American pilots and other prisoners of war were held, was about all I knew of Hanoi. (It's hard to make a movie about a city that few outsiders had been to for almost 40 years.) The prison is small, too small, standing on one tiny triangular block in the middle of downtown. Compared with the French-colonial villas and embassies just across the street, it is far more incongruous than ominous.
"When Hilton comes to Hanoi, which they inevitably will," I asked a friend traveling with me, "What do you think they'll call it? 'The Hilton at Hanoi?' 'The Hilton Plaza, Hanoi?'"
"They'll call it the 'Hanoi Hilton,' all right," Tony responded, "and it'll be the anchor of a huge theme park." He was finally giving in to the vague dismay that had been building in both of us for weeks. "You'll get shot down in the flight simulators that'll be right over there," he said, sweeping his hand, "then ride the Ho Chi Minh Trail Roller Coaster. There'll be a Tet Offensive Laser-Light Show every evening at 8 and 10. Then you can retire to your luxury replica prison cell in the Hanoi Hilton itself, with bars on the windows and silk sheets on the bed." Tony dropped his hand and said with his more customary indifference, "Somebody's gonna make a killing off this war."
At one of the many steak houses in Hanoi, I met a Vietnamese guy my age named Nguyen. There was something I had to ask him: I had heard that "Rambo," "Platoon," and other Vietnam War movies were among the most popular video titles in Vietnam. What was I to make of that?
He smiled. "The Vietnamese have a passion for war movies, anything violent. Plus, we love anything American. Besides, these movies aren't about the real Vietnam, are they?" No, I guess they're not, I said, agreeing with him more because he was on his feet and paying his bill than for any other reason.
The real Vietnam? I wish Nguyen could have shown it to me. I went to Vietnam looking to explode the American movie myths. I wanted to be able to point my finger and declare, "Here is the real Vietnam." It didn't happen.
The Vietnamese pride themselves on an ancient tradition of resistance to foreign aggression and occupation--in 2,000 years they have beaten back (among others) the Chinese, the Khmer, the Thai, the French, and the Americans.
But now, they seem to be losing a war against a more formidable foe: Hollywood. Vietnam is being eaten by its own metaphor, imploding under the weight of what is quickly becoming its own idea of itself. Not entirely against its will, Vietnam is becoming 'Nam. Surf China Beach, rent "Rambo," and have a cocktail at the Apocalypse Nowait's almost as good as the real thing. It has to be, because the real thing is a real disappointment these days: China Beach feels like Maui, the Hanoi Hilton will soon be taking reservations, and you have to bring your own sound track.
Jim Frederick is a writer living in New York City.