Reflections on “Homecoming” from the Vietnam War
By Jim Holbrook
Relations between the United States and Vietnam were officially normalized in 1995. In 1997, I went back to Vietnam. There I learned the war was over and I did not need to carry it around in my head anymore.
I visited the former 9th Infantry Division base camp, which was located at Dong Tam, a small town in the Mekong Delta. At Dong Tam in 1969 were Cobras, helicopter gunships used to produce fire for lethal purposes. In 1997 at Dong Tam there was a snake farm that raised cobras to produce venom for medicinal purposes.
I was in Ho Chi Minh City on April 30, 1997, the 22nd anniversary of the fall of Saigon. That evening I watched as a huge crowd of young Vietnamese celebrated their Liberation Day with a rock concert. I realized we had won their hearts and minds without firing a single shot at them.
I took my military dog tags back to Vietnam to leave behind as a symbolic atonement for my role in the deaths of all the people I helped kill 28 years earlier. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with them, but as it turned out, one of the waiters at my hotel in Saigon had been a Viet Cong soldier and we had a chance to talk about the war. When he told me that his father, mother, and sister had been killed by Americans, I took off my dog tags and gave them to him. When I said, “I wish your children and their children have long, happy lives–with no war, forever,” he wrote that in Vietnamese on a napkin and gave it to me.
I cannot end or prevent war, but I can talk and write about my experience of war and killing. And with all my brothers in arms who served in Vietnam, I have promised never to abandon another generation of American soldiers, as we had been abandoned. What we experienced in Vietnam enables us to be accessible, credible, and helpful to our young brothers and sisters who have been psychologically and spiritually wounded by fighting unwinnable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. On one hand, this seems not enough. On the other hand, we can do this now. This is our homecoming.