From Vietnam Veterans Against the War,

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Then the Americans Came

By John Ketwig (reviewer)

Then the Americans Came: Voices from Vietnam
by Martha Hess
(Rutgers University Press, 1993)

What, you may ask, am I doing reviewing a book that was published in 1993? Well, I was on Twitter one day recently, and I found a tweet from Christian Appy. Chris Appy is a Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts, and the author of three excellent books about the Vietnam War. His most recent book is American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity. All are highly respected books, and Christian Appy is considered one of America's leading historians, recording and measuring the ongoing impacts of the Vietnam War on hometown America and combat veterans.

Getting back to this review, the tweet from Christian Appy included an enthusiastic recommendation for a book with which I was totally unfamiliar, and I investigated it and found a treasure! Then the Americans Came: Voices from Vietnam is a devastating book. I had to read it in dribs and drabs. I suspect it will be a welcome book for VVAW members, and for all Vietnam vets who are possessed with a conscience. Still, it is very troubling. I wore the uniform, and spent a year participating. I never saw the atrocities described in this book, but I don't hesitate to believe that they happened. Far too many young American men were kidnapped from their communities by the Draft, subjected to "training" that was really a form of re-education not unlike what is done in concentration camps, and then they were sent to far-off, primitive Vietnam. They were given weapons and ordered to patrol "free fire zones" where they held the power of life and death over the Vietnamese peasants. Some could cope with that responsibility, and some became so hardened by the tragedies happening all around them every day that they came to hate the Vietnamese and kill whenever the opportunity presented itself. Yes, the very people we were sent to help! That idea quickly evaporated in the fury of combat. It was a guerrilla war, and you never knew if a Vietnamese person, man, woman, or child, might be an enemy. It was extremely easy to hate them all, to become cruel and unfeeling. The enemy forces were also cruel, so the death and destruction just kept ratcheting up to incredible levels. That is, veterans realize, the nature of war.

Then the Americans Came: Voices from Vietnam is a collection of statements by Vietnamese civilians and veterans affected by the war. It is an oral history, collected in 1990 and 1991, by the author and her translator and friend Nguyen Van Tuyen. Those are unfamiliar names. I am unable to find any indication that either of them have published any additional books. After reading this one, chances are you will remember their names for a long while.

Perhaps the best way to describe the contents of Then the Americans Came: Voices from Vietnam is to open the book at random, and whatever page I come to, reproduce the contents here. In this case, I quote page 147, from the chapter South of the 17th Parallel. The subject of this page is Mr. Le Van Ky, of the Dien Duong village. He says: "Most of the people were kept at Cam Ha and Thanh Thuy, the concentration camps, including my family, and I stayed here to fight. I was in command of the local guerrillas. My wife was arrested many times, beaten, tortured, and spent six years in prison. Villagers looked after our children. In 1967, the Americans and South Koreans killed thirty-four people in one hamlet, forty people in another, seven people here. In one day they killed 140 people in Dien Duong. When they came to destroy the crops the people used whatever they had—tree branches, sticks—to beat off the soldiers. At that point they would be shot. The Americans and South Koreans raped women. They put them in houses and set the houses on fire. After the massacres we buried the dead."

Every page of this book contains similar material, although there are also a few black-and-white photographs of the people as they appeared in 1990. The war ended in 1975, so these testimonies were made 15 years after. The evidence here is overwhelming. Gut wrenching!

We were mostly young when we were sent to the war. Supposedly, our mission was to help the poor Vietnamese throw off the brutality of communism. Most of us had absolutely no idea what we were getting into, although some had fathers who had been to World War II or Korea, and warned them about the horrors of war. We thought we were going to an impoverished and primitive country, and we were shocked at the resistance the peasants could mount against us. Even more, many of us were amazed at the awesome weapons of war our government sent against those peasants. We were young, but our eyes were wide open. We saw the effects of napalm, agent orange, cluster bombs and 750 lb. bombs dropped from B-52 bombers. We saw howitzers and tanks, Huey and Chinook helicopters, mini-guns capable of putting a round into every square inch of a football field in one burst, and hand-held weapons like the M-16 rifle and the M-79 grenade launcher. The damage all of those weapons did to human bodies was horrible, and many of us were moved to remember the Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." The thought was frightening. We did what we had to do to survive, and became terribly angry when our buddies were hurt or killed. We struggled to act in a manner that would make our parents and the folks back home proud, but we were on the other side of the world, and life and our military superiors had moved the goalposts so far away we could barely recognize them anymore.

And now, half a century later, we grieve. Holding grandchildren on our knee, we are not the same people we were back in Vietnam. Except, we are! To one degree or another, we were part of it. We were powerless to stop it. We were young, and scared shitless, and intimidated by a system designed to make us shed our humanity and decency. We couldn't speak to Mom or Dad, to our religious leaders, or anyone else. Every person around us was in precisely the same situation. Some were having a better day today, but they might feel exactly this way tomorrow. Our goal was to survive and come home, to watch our buddies' backs, never imagining that we would still be questioning the whole filthy thing half a century later. Then, we stumble across this nondescript little book from thirty years ago, and it is devastating to read this history because we know all too well that it's true. We go to bed and hide in the dark, grieving for the people we became, the people who suffered as a result, the lost, the maimed, those burned to death, punctured, maimed or exploded. We grieve that the whole thing happened, so unnecessary. We grieve because our government lied to us, and it has continued to lie for all these years. We grieve, and it is all too easy to forget that grieving is an expression of grief. Then, at the morning's light we get up and get dressed, and notice the tag sewn into the neck of a t-shirt that says it was made in Vietnam. And we walk out to the kitchen and greet the wife with "What the fuck?!"

Then the Americans Came: Voices from Vietnam is long out of print, but has 31 used copies available for prices ranging from $5.00 to $91.04. I have purchased used books from ABEbooks for twenty years or more, and have never had a problem. I highly recommend ABEbooks, and I hope you will take a chance on this very unusual book. It's not very nice, but it's all too true. These are the scenes most of us never saw while we were in Vietnam, and we can take comfort from that. Especially when our conscience bothers us. It could have been worse. Much worse.

John Ketwig is a lifetime member of VVAW, and the author of two books about the Vietnam War.

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