From the Foxhole
Same Same, But Different
Returning to Vietnam
I was in the garden planting onions in my underpants when my neighbor, Moisés González, a documentary filmmaker, poked his head over the fence. After a few pleasantries, he got around to the point. Our conversation, which I'm drawing from memory, went something like this:
“I was wondering if you maybe wanted to write about a project I am working on.”
“What about?” I asked.
I rocked back on my heels.
First off, no one has ever approached me about writing a column for them. It should feel like an honor, right? But it also seemed like a task, and I felt a scrunching in my gut as I anticipated the bad feeling I would have demurring. So I tried not to think about it.
Second off, Vietnam veterans? Hasn’t that been played out?
Born on the Fourth of July. Saw it.
Rambo. Saw it—a bunch.
Blood on the Tracks: The Life and Times of S. Brian Willson. Read it.
AK-47. Shot it. At a berm. Almost put my eye out.
“No, this movie is different,” he said. “It’s about veterans that have gone back to Vietnam to heal the wounds of war. Guys helping clear unexploded munitions, working on Agent Orange issues. We’re working on the funding now.”
“Really?” I said, not buying it. “You’re talking about Americans? American soldiers going back to Vietnam to disarm bombs and replant the jungle? And they’re over there now? Never heard of such a thing.”
“That’s why this film needs to be made,” said Moisés.
I suspected he was standing on something, given how much of his head was showing above the fence. “No one knows about it. Some of them have been there for years, even decades. Healing, making peace with themselves.”
There’s a phrase I wasn’t ready for. Maybe Moisés knew how to talk to me, and maybe he didn’t. But he had my full attention.
Soldiers are always trying to make peace with themselves, with their conscience. It might be because they feel bad about not being able to stuff their buddy’s guts back into the gaping hole where his stomach used to be, how he died right there, choking and stuttering some pitiful shit about “Tell my momma this” or “Tell my momma that.” Or maybe they shot up a vehicle that seemed suspicious at a checkpoint and it turned out to be not only three adults but, in the backseat, two small children. (It is not every person that can shrug off this kind of stuff and just get over it. See Waltz With Bashir.)
So how does a soldier go back to Vietnam, where we killed more than 5 million people, according to their government, and make peace? That’s about 13 percent of their 1965 population. In comparison, using today’s population, the equivalent number of U.S. citizens would be about 40 million.
Do you first acknowledge, openly, “What we did to you was like you killing 40 million of us, and we understand any resentment. Trust me, our people would be very upset with you for killing 40 million of us. But that being said, we come to you now not with guns but with open hands, in peace. Because we have a conscience that does not let us sleep. Even after all these years.”
Whatever the case, it is a story I want to hear more of. A story I will put my onions down long enough to write about. Because if enough soldiers turn out to have a conscience and are filmed having one—and if word of it gets around—this sort of condition may gain some traction among those who need it most. I'm talking about the ones who send us to war without serving themselves, without ever knowing or tasting the blood of war, treating our courage as a commodity, and never, not once, partaking in our sacrifice.
Make your film, Moisés.
Alex Escué Limkin served in the U.S. Army for 15 years, including a tour in Iraq from 2004 to 2005. He documents his experience as an Iraq veteran at warriorswithwesthusing.org.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.