On anniversary of Saigon fall, shadows of another war

Thirty years hence, will Iraqis have settled into a similar peace troubled by lost brothers?

Last month, I stood on a ridge overlooking a basin ravaged by napalm and Agent Orange, an old battlefield known by some Vietnamese as Death Valley. Hundreds of soldiers on both sides lost their lives around Duc Co in the Central Highlands during the Vietnam War.

I imagined the sky full of helicopters and fighter jets, artillery and M-60 rounds snapping from the former Ranger station on the hill behind me. I turned to Van Hao, my Vietnamese motorcycle guide, and asked, "So why do you think America lost the war?"

"GIs loved foxy lady more than war," Hao joked. "And there was McNamara. Oh, McNamara!"

Then his face went serious and I learned the real reason he'd pulled his motorcycle over along the arid fringes of Death Valley.

His voice as rough as the landscape, Hao said, "My brother died down there. My family claimed his bones in 1985."

Saturday, Vietnam celebrates the 30th anniversary of the liberation of Saigon (or as Americans say, the fall of Saigon), the end to one of the most brutal wars in the past 50 years, and one of the most controversial the US has ever fought.

I was born 10 months before the fall of Saigon, and grew up at a time when teachers had yet to decide how to present the war. My history textbooks read as though nothing happened between the civil rights movement and Nixon's resignation save a photograph of a Huey kissing the jungle canopy and a slight mention of something called the "Vietnam Conflict."

In my early 20s, I got to know several Vietnam vets, including Carl, a former Green Beret who has remained a great friend. One fall evening in 1997, Carl and I were invited to a vets' party.

He and several guys who served with Air America and the Special Forces filled up on Thai food, swapping war stories and passing around photo albums of bloody soldiers. Carl and I stepped outside and his eyes welled up. He asked me to take him home.

While visiting Vietnam last month, I wondered whether the Iraq war will leave behind Americans like Carl, graying vets who'd rather not talk about their sacrifices; whether the landscape in Iraq 30 years hence will be full of scars and memories; whether Iraqis will have settled into a similar peace troubled by lost brothers.

In mid-March, I hired Hao, a member of a motorcycle group called the Easy Riders, to take me on a 450-mile trip through Pleiku, Kom Tum, and other towns in the Central Highlands, where my friend Carl spent much of his time in the mid-1960s.

Hao, in his late 40s, looked like a Mexican bandito, with his thick mustache and faded denim jacket. Talking over his shoulder while I clung to the back of his Honda bike, he explained how his family supported South Vietnam.

His brother was killed in the early 1970s. After the fall of Saigon, the government rounded up his father, a captain for the South, and thousands of other South Vietnam loyalists and placed them in "reeducation" camps. Hao said his father had to do only three years in the camps; his uncle served 11 years because he refused to acknowledge the communist government.

Hao and I rode through jungles and rice paddies, past thatched huts and waving villagers shouting English "Hellos," but the war was never far from us. We also saw men armed with metal detectors roaming the fields in search of shells and unexploded bombs. They defuse the ordnance and sell the metal to factories and the TNT to fishermen, who use the powder to make fish bombs.

Just outside Dak To, we visited an old US airstrip. Straddling the Vietnam-Cambodian border in the distance was Charlie Hill shrouded in haze. In 1972 South Vietnam's Army dug in to defend the hill from the Viet Cong. Some 150 South Vietnamese soldiers fought to their death before the VC bagged the hill six weeks later. A Vietnamese song remembers the battle: "Nguoi O Laui Charlie" - "The People Stayed in Charlie."

I asked Hao to sing it while we ate at a restaurant near the old Ho Chi Minh Trail. As he swung his arms and belted out the verses, the restaurant owner shot him a dirty look because, we were told later, the owner had fought with the VC.

Hao was 17 when Saigon fell. You would think he had favored America's involvement in the war, given the price his family paid for defending South Vietnam. But as our trip ended, Hao told me he still wonders whether a stranger an ocean away should have messed with his country's civil war.

Some things you have to earn on your own, Hao said in broken English before he drove away.

Tony Hopfinger is a freelance writer.

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