December 27, 2017 § Leave a comment
Everyone has an opinion on the Vietnam War as well as everyone has an opinion on the recent Ken Burns documentary on the Vietnam War. My first book, City of Belief, documents, under the guise of historical fiction, my and my friends’ coming of age experiences during that time. We have become and are a part of our country’s disparate, contradictory and combatitive historical memory of that chapter in American history.
A little over a week ago, I was in Vietnam as part of a Habitat for Humanity Global Build in the Mekong Delta. I went with two friends who I worked with at the Catholic Worker in the 1960’s, Dan Kelly and Paul Mann, both draft resisters during that war. Dan served two years in federal prison and Paul, sentenced to three years, had his jail sentence reframed to serving time in National Service.
I landed in Tan Son Nhat airport on December 2 and walked out into Ho Chi Minh City but part of me landed in the old Saigon and news reportage circa 1960’s in my head of that airport under attack. These were superimposed images that would come from time to time as I visited locations that were, in my early twenties, always flickering on tv screens in American living rooms or being written about with fervor in newspapers. Indeed, as the Ken Burns series has revealed and our current political climate in the United States continues to reveal, we remain a nation divided on that war and on any number of political and social issues that were the cultural spin-offs from that era.
That said and because I have my own “take” on what I experienced during that time, I am going to present via this blog a little slice of what I saw in Ho Chi Minh City that has a direct bearing on experiences re-imagined in City of Belief.
The first day walking around Ho Chi Minh, Paul took us to see the memorial to Thich Quang Duc who on June 1963 immolated himself on a Saigon street protesting the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese Government. The photographic image of that somber act appeared in newspapers across the world and was one of the first images to be burned into the psyche of the American public. In some ways, it introduced the complex ferocity of that war. The three of us visiting the memorial placed sticks of incense on the alter and watched as the thin, wavering trails of smoke lifted up along with our private intentions.
Next we went to The War Remnants Museum. The following three photographs are displayed in a section of the museum devoted to the story of United States protest to what is referred to in Vietnam as the American War.
The first photograph is that of David Miller, Catholic Worker friend and colleague, who in September 1965 was the first man to publicly burn his draft card after President Lyndon Johnson made it a Federal crime to do so punishable by 5 years in prison. Dave subsequently served three years for draft refusal.
The second photo found in the museum is that of the public draft card burning in Union Square in November 6, 1965. On the left is Tom Cornell, a founder of the Catholic Peace Fellowship, next is Mark Edelman, a cabinet maker, alongside him is Roy Lisker, a teacher, next to Roy is Jim Wilson, a Catholic Worker friend and colleague and the youngest of the draft card burners and, finally, David Mc Reynolds of the War Resisters League. For those of you interested in some archival footage that depicts the tumult of the time, the following PBS account is accurate.
Finally, the last photo and most jarring for me, is of our friend and Catholic Worker colleague, Roger La Porte, who immolated himself in front of The United Nations in NYC in the early hours of Nov. 9th, 1965. His story, as I recall it, is told in City of Belief.
We were all young and the war in Vietnam is our story also. All of us have made our separate peace. May our country do the same.