Vietnam Stories: Visions from northern Quang Tri Province, late 1966

  • Vietnamese peasants dig up their ancestors in northern Quang Tri Province. Paul Nichols

For the Monitor
Published: 9/22/2017 12:25:04 AM

Our battalion area was in the expansion process. Many Vietnamese graves located in this area had been indiscriminately bulldozed away, causing diplomatic concerns somewhere up the line between South Vietnamese and U.S. governments.

To help appease such concerns, grave removal was ordered when possible.

Early during my tour of duty, I was sent to the outskirts, barely within the coiled concertina wire perimeter to guard Vietnamese peasants while they dug up remnants of buried family members. Ominous treelines stared from across a rice paddy expanse.

As I stood near them with my rifle in hand carefully watching their every move, I had no empathy for what they were forced to do. I had no knowledge of ancestor reverence which, linked to ancient Confucian beliefs, was of monumental importance to Vietnamese culture.

Even had I been aware of these values, my disdain would have been fueled by ingrained ethnocentrism, anger and hatred. The Vietnamese people were dehumanized from Parris Island boot camp through Okinawa, where I embarked on an assault ship to the Cua Viet River near the DMZ.

My job was to assure that these peasants weren’t Viet Cong digging holes and burying mortars or other weapons for use in planned attacks under the darkness of night. It was nearly impossible to tell who was who among the general population. The Vietnamese dug into the red soil at various gravesites extracting fragments of ancestral bone and body parts for relocation elsewhere. Bone was caringly placed in small wooden boxes, as the Vietnamese jabbered and mouthed a handful of rice during the digging.

I watched, void of compassion.

We had often been rocketed at night. “Compassion” was just a word from dictionaries. Years after I left the war, this experience remains very troubling to me.

Occupying large areas of Vietnamese land, disfiguring it and the intrinsic values it held, and inhumanly assaulting sacred ground to establish “our” combat base, instills no pride in me. I think of how Native American people felt when subjected to broken treaties. For example, when their sacred Black Hills of South Dakota and Wyoming were violently taken over, mined for gold and developed by greedy, bigoted white outsiders during the mid- to late 1800s. I feel deep shame that our country’s military decimated indigenous populations and involuntarily forced tribes to live on squalid reservations, destroying their way of life. Ongoing dark sides of U.S. history countrywide. Ongoing worldwide! We all need to gaze into a mirror and contemplate.

Paul Nichols lives in Loudon.)

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