Tuesday, August 25, 2009

William Calley and Vietnam's Spiritual Renewal

Three days ago, William Calley, the American Army lieutenant convicted of murder following the infamous 1968 massacre in My Lai, Vietnam, broke his 40-year silence and publicly apologized for the killings. Speaking at a Columbus, Ohio meeting of the Kiwanis Club, Calley said, "There is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in My Lai." Calley's apology for the massacre, one of the most horrendous and psychologically jarring episodes of the U.S. war with Vietnam, was given short notice in Vietnam's newspapers.

Looking at the industriousness of modern Vietnam, it is hard to believe that three decades ago, this country was at the end of a more-than-thirty year period of nearly-continuous war. The last (not counting the 1979 skirmish with China) and certainly most damaging of those wars was the ten-year conflict with the U.S. A decade of fighting the Americans left over one million Vietnamese dead, an economy in ruins, and environmental devastation that this country has yet to fully recover from. But despite the scale of destruction, memory of the trauma seems to hold little sway in the Vietnamese imagination.

What strikes me most about Vietnam's post-war recovery is not its economic regeneration, but its spiritual renewal. In much of the U.S., the sociocultural conflicts engendered by the war have yet to be resolved, but in Vietnam, the country destroyed by the fighting, the people have moved on. None of the post-war animosity that often endures between combatants seems to have lingered here; not once in the time I've been in Hanoi has anyone remarked upon my nationality in connection with the war. For an American living in modern Hanoi, it's as if our countries had never fought.

One of the explanations for Vietnam's lack of lingering resentment toward the U.S. has to be generational. 70% of Vietnam's population is under thirty years old, meaning that the vast majority of modern Vietnamese have no personal memory of the war. To this generation of Vietnamese, the American War is an event studied in textbooks or on fieldtrips to museums, where the downed B-52 and captured American tank hold far less interest than the latest Linkin Park tune on a classmate's iPod.

Among older Vietnamese, several other reasons can be found. First is the ambivalent attitude many people hold toward Hanoi's communist government. South Vietnam's ambivalence is easily explained; the south still has numerous people who supported the U.S. But even in the nation's capital, support for Vietnam's leaders is equivocal at best. In the face of endemic corruption, lack of press freedoms, and other repressive tendencies on the part of Hanoi's government, it would be understandable if people felt a modicum of sympathy toward those who, at an earlier time, opposed it.

Things might have been different had the communists succeeded in rebuilding Vietnam's economy after the war, but ten years of centrally-planned collectivist economics only made things worse. It was not until the 1986 reforms of Đổi mới unleashed the innovative vigor of the Vietnamese people that the country's economy started to grow. And as Vietnam's economy advanced, the country began attracting more foreign capital, so that foreign faces began to be equated with economic progress. Once the U.S. and Vietnam normalized relations in 1995, those faces began to include many Americans.

All these reasons certainly contribute to Vietnam's post-war psychological health. There are also cultural elements to consider. Perhaps due to an ingrained Buddhist ethos, or to a sense of historic time that dwarfs most European nations, Vietnam combines a sense of its own historicity with a firm focus on its future. People are just more interested in looking ahead than in looking behind. Additionally, let us not forget that Vietnam won the war. Going back to A.D. 40 when the Trung Sisters (Hai Bà Trưng) beat back the Chinese Empire, Vietnam has successfully repelled every invader who has tried to, or temporarily succeeded in, occupying the country. It's a nation that has little reason to hang its head; whatever price Vietnam has had to pay for its freedoms, it has paid them, and whatever struggles it continues to have, they are at least internal, between Vietnamese.

In his public apology, William Calley said, "I feel remorse for the Vietnamese who were killed, for their families, for the American soldiers involved and their families." His continuing guilt hung over the hall at the Kiwanis Club so palpably that, according to an eyewitness, you could have heard a pin drop. Meanwhile in Hanoi, I saw two smiling, young Vietnamese men help a middle-aged American tourist onto a tour bus, and wish her farewell on her trip to Halong Bay.


  1. Great observations Hal. I enjoyed this post.

  2. That's a fantastic summary of the Vietnamese perspective. Its pretty much the same conculsions I came to while I was there.

    Speaking of Halong Bay, if you have a chance to go, do it! It is truly one of the most beautiful places on earth!

    PS - I know you don't know me, but I love your blog. :-)

  3. Thanks, Doug. As always, it's nice to hear from you. I appreciate your kind words.

    And thank you to you, as well, Kerry. I haven't been to Halong Bay, but I just returned from a weekend in Ninh Binh, which has similar limestone karst topography (only inland). I'll be blogging on it soon. BTW, I visited your blog and I'm in love with your kid! I look forward to seeing more of her.

    All the best,


  4. Beautifully and sensitively written. You have a powerful way of expressing yourself. I especially like the juxtapositing at the end of your post.
    Thanks for this,

  5. Nice thoughts. Vietnam has a lot to teach me about forgiveness and lack of resentment. I had a veteran in one of my classes. Far from harbouring any resentment, he loved studying English and cherished the dream of one day visiting America. I felt very moved and humbled by his attitude.
    One point I would also add is that the the conflict was also a very bitter civil war between north and south. This is an added incentive to consign those terrible years to history and move on.

    Gracias, amigo.


  6. Interesting post Hal, and the first I heard about Calley's public apology (though it was reported in Ireland; I missed it somehow). Vietnam sounds like a wonderful place. I'd love to go there some day. I also liked your photos of the wall-life (Hanoi Rauschenberg). Here's some Dublin Rauschenberg:

  7. Insightful and credible comments explaining how 'Nam hitched up its trousers, and moved on to the next bowl of gooey rice. Cf. Guenther Grass' passages in Tin Drum about the Onion, the post-war nightclub where Germans went to cry out the war.

  8. Excellent article BUT the Trung sisters victory was quite short-lived. In AD43, the Chinese invaded and that was the end of their rebellion