I consider myself a patriot. I shun jingoism and frequently voice discontent with my mother country, and appreciate that I am allowed to do so specifically because I’m a citizen of the United States.
Patriotism isn’t blind. “Love it or leave it,” a refrain I have actually heard in conversation, is a simplistic approach to something as complex, diverse, young, and unsettled as the United States. I am not a patriot because I believe the US is better than every other place on earth; I am a patriot because it is my place. I accept its flaws like I try to accept my own, and just as I do with myself, try to improve what I can. In fact, part of what made me get up and see the world was the sensation that I had given up on us: I had disengaged from the act of improving my community, challenging my leadership to do better, or encouraging my country to rise above….well, everything. I was stuck in a rut of ‘oh well,’ and I needed to climb up out of it.
Being a patriot makes Vietnam a complex destination for an American. It isn’t a playground like Thailand, or a temple-stunned wander like Cambodia. It is a walk through an unresolved part of the American psyche, brought to life in the landscape in front of you. Every time I looked at a row of rubber trees or the magnificent islands rising out of Bai Tu Long Bay, I felt like John Cleese in the episode of Fawlty Towers in which the Germans are coming: I couldn’t not think about the war. I couldn’t not see American planes lighting up the horizon with napalm. I couldn’t not feel guilt.
But guilt is simple; Vietnam is complex. The Communists have infused Vietnam with their own brand of patriotism. You don’t even have to ask the question, and you will get the same party line. “We like Americans. We don’t blame them for the war. We blame the imperialist American government.” It’s the same rhetoric William Broyles got in 1983, when he went back to visit the Vietnam he had fought in, a trip he wrote about in Goodbye Vietnam. It is still being used today, by people wearing North Face jackets and New York Yankees hats.
It isn’t that Vietnamese don’t have opinions. It’s that there are few ramification-free opportunities to express them. As a result, you get a party line of behavior, not just speech. On my way to visit the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, I found my map indicated I could walk through what turned out to be a defense department complex, closed to lay people. While I was still ten feet from the guard I wanted to approach for directions, he pointed his finger at me, said, “YOU!,” clapped his hands twice and then crossed his forearms over his chest in an x, indicating I was not to pass down this road.
A firm believer in tourism diplomacy, I suppressed the temptation to laugh at such an out-sized gesture and kept walking toward him. He repeated his pantomime twice, and when I got close enough to speak to him and gesture – this way? That way? – he looked over my head, refusing to acknowledge my request – or my presence.
In America, publicly at least, we are raised to believe our opinions matter. It’s why tourists who get themselves in trouble are famous for saying, “you can’t do this to me, I’m an American!” The instinct shouldn’t be that we are Americans and therefore entitled to better treatment; the instinct should be that we are human, and entitled to equality. All of us share this innate desire to be respected and heard. Communism takes the notion of equality far beyond balance to a point where there is no ‘one’s’ opinion; there is only the party.
The Vietnam War is of course not called the Vietnam War in Vietnam. It is, “the American War of Aggression,” or, “the Struggle for Unification of Vietnam.” While everything from museum placards to memorial brochures is hyperbolized ad-nauseum in defense of the Mother Country, it is impossible to deny the basic validity in the point of view, and in looking at the experience from the other side.
At the same time, the propaganda is infuriating. And unsettling. As someone who wants facts in order to form my own opinion of a situation, how am I to determine what is real, and what is wording? If there is a continuum of truth with the NVA on one end and the US on the other, what lies appropriately in the middle ground?
Each site visited, each conversation, is an exhausting dissection of words and ideology, with no final verdict as to the accuracy of any hypothesis. You can visit the Hanoi Hilton, and most of what you’ll see will be about the French colonial oppression of the Vietnamese. At the end you will see two small rooms about captured American pilots playing ping pong, decorating a Christmas tree, and going to church. You won’t see the beating Edwin Shuman took when he fought to get the right to Sunday worship.
So what is an unquiet patriotic American to do with all of this?
Become still. Allow it in. Stand on a corner and watch the million mopeds zooming by. Watch the elderly exercising by the Lake of the Returned Sword, and the young people canoodling in its parks. Don’t be tempted by frustration; breathe through it. Absorb the difference, and let it inform you. Your own opinion will come. It will be uncertain, hesitant, and entirely yours.
For more pictures of my time in Vietnam, click HERE.