The Chronicle Review

My Vietnam

Catherine Karnow

In Da Nang, Vietnam, Ly suffers from disabilities associated with Agent Orange.
March 20, 2011

In January I paid my first visit to Vietnam—my first material one, although this country halfway around the earth took up residence in my imagination when I was in my late teens and never left.

I was not one of the three-million-plus Americans who served in the armed services there or nearby, but another kind of veteran, one of "the movement," as we used to say, whose idea of how to invest our lives, fortunes, and sacred honor was to strive to extricate America from a moral catastrophe and leave that unfortunate country to its own devices. The war was both my obsession and, for years, the pivot of the life I cheerfully lived instead of a career. Whoever I might have turned out to be had John F. Kennedy lived or Lyndon Johnson made different decisions was a question that fell out of my mind. The political, you might say, was personal.

Now, some two generations after the war ended, "Vietnam" no longer means villages set ablaze halfway around the globe. And I finally got to travel across the Pacific in search, I suppose, of some sort of revelation or enlightenment. (As a matter of principle, I don't think one should be terribly sure what one looks for when one travels, except that it is inevitably oneself, or the escape from oneself, or both.)

There are also, of course, the earthly pleasures. Countless travelers have rhapsodized for good reason about Vietnam's abundant physical charms: coastline, mountains, jungles, pagodas, imperial tombs, cuisine, many forms of loveliness. Mainly, though, I traveled from Halong Bay east of Hanoi to Saigon (formally Ho Chi Minh City, though few people seem to call it that), trying to get my mind around a people who defeated mighty America while it dropped three and a half times as many tons of bombs—on a country barely larger than Norway—as it did on three continents in the entire course of World War II.

For all that, when the North and the Viet Cong drove out the Americans in 1975, terminating the onslaught of B-52s, napalm, white phosphorus, and Agent Orange (though not their aftereffects), they set up in unified Vietnam the same Communist police state that would have ruled over the same hyperkinetic small-business energy had the Americans never decided that French colonialism and its ideological heirs were better allies than Ho Chi Minh. The same secret police would have been prowling. Facebook would still have been blocked. No doubt we would have seen the same millions of motorbikes, the same developers busily putting up sleek high-rises (one called "Times Square"), the same waiters serving splendid rum cocktails, the same massage parlors. The elegant 68-story skyscraper (designed by an American) presently nearing completion in Saigon would possibly have materialized earlier, although its 50th-story helipad might have suggested, shall we say, a different metaphor.

Which is not to say that the war accomplished nothing. Without the war, for example, tourists would not have the Cu Chi tunnels to visit, ranging for 120 or more kilometers through the clay beneath the outskirts of Saigon, where they sheltered thousands of Viet Cong guerrillas and, today, offer the chance to fire an M-16 at a shooting gallery ($1.54 per bullet), or, if you prefer, an AK-47 (a bargain at $1.28). The M-41 tank and fighter jets would not greet visitors to the War Remnants Museum.

Before I left, a New York friend asked me if I would be interested in meeting some of the victims of Agent Orange and I had said, too casually, yes. So I paid a visit to a hospital—the "peace village," they call it—in Ho Chi Minh City dedicated to the care of children who suffer birth defects because their parents, or grandparents, lived somewhere on the 12 percent of South Vietnamese land that was sprayed with defoliants, including the savage Agent Orange, with its high concentrations of dioxin. The roughly 11 million gallons of Agent Orange sprayed on North Vietnam, according to official Air Force figures, left the land toxic not only to the generation who lived there but unto their children and their children's children.

To tell the truth, I dreaded this visit. I went because I thought it would be cowardly not to. I'm squeamish. My wife felt nauseous just looking at the photos of victims at the War Remnants Museum. I wondered what was wrong with me that I didn't. Perhaps to prove to myself that I am human, or to give myself an out, I felt—arranged to feel?—dehydrated the whole night and the morning before my planned visit. I felt feverish. I took to bed. Then I got out of bed and went to the Tu Du hospital, where 60 of these damaged children live.

Nguyen Duc rolled his primitive wheelchair down the corridor to get the key with which to open the lock to the conference room. Duc, who works there, is the survivor of two famous twins conjoined at the hip, sharing some internal organs, born in 1981, much photographed before they were separated by surgery in 1988. (Duc's brother died in 2007.) Their mother farmed in a sprayed area after the war was over, and drank from a poisoned well.

Duc has one leg and an intelligent face. He also has a wife, whom he married four years ago, and 15-month-old twins. The deputy chief of the medical staff, Dr. Le Thi Hien Nhi, spoke to him with respect. Both were soft-spoken.

With Nguyen Duc and Dr. Nhi, I toured several wards of young children. "Toured" is an awful word but I'll use it. I will not go into detail about the deformities. "Grotesque" would be too simple. The boy who faces the window, sitting as close to the light and warmth as he can, while all the other children face visitors, turns out to have no eyes. But in the main, and very much to my astonishment, I did not so much feel pity. Many, perhaps most, of them seemed happy, in the effortless way of kids frolicking, sometimes mugging for the camera, flashing "V's." The legless kid hopping down the corridor on his blue plastic chair was a big smiler. Some go to school, and into occupational therapy. Two are in college.

Not that Vietnamese uplift sweeps away everything else before it. Dr. Nhi pointed to the back of the head of a macrocephalic boy prostrate in his crib. What can be done for such a child? "We work from the heart," she said.

Don't we? When I left the hospital, I found myself exulting to belong to the human race, the same one these children belong to—and the same that pursued a wretched, idiotic war that killed some three million Vietnamese and more than 58,000 Americans, and crippled some 300,000 children in their mother's wombs, and changed millions of lives, my own included, forever.

Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University. He is author, with Liel Leibovitz, of The Chosen Peoples: America, Israel, and the Ordeals of Divine Election (Simon & Schuster, 2010). His novel, Undying, has just been published by Counterpoint Press.