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Seeking Quan Am
By John Ketwig (reviewer)
Seeking Quan Am: A Dual Memoir of War & Vietnam
by Susan R. Dixon & Mark M. Smith
(ATI Books, 2019)
I have an extensive library of books about our war in Vietnam. I am constantly curious about that war, wondering why it happened, what really happened, how others saw it, and how they are dealing with it up to and including today. My collection includes many accounts from many perspectives; the good, the bad, and the ugly. I rarely happen upon anything actually new or unique, but every book offers tidbits of information to feed my craving.
Once in a while, I find a book that excites me. Seeking Quan Am is the latest, and I highly recommend you order one and read it. It is, in fact, two individual accounts. Once upon a time, co-authors Susan Dixon and Mark Smith were high school classmates. In 1961, Dixon's family flew to Germany, where they took delivery of a Volkswagen bus/camper and set off to tour Europe. Just 13 years old, Susan was intent upon journaling about her travels and the emotions she was deriving day-by-day. "It was all emotion and confusion and intensity and sincerity," she recalls, but "I spent a lot of my time being depressed and exhausted." Keep in mind, she was just 13 years old and spending her summer vacation confined within a Volkswagen bus with her parents and two siblings. The legacies of World War II surrounded them, but to Susan, they were all relics of "an evocative and vicariously thrilling past, but the past, nonetheless." But, she writes, "That changed, forever, in one place."
That place was Dachau. She was oblivious, simply walking through another relic when she came upon an unusual building, a curious metal door, and a plaque explaining that this was an oven in which human beings were burned. She was shocked, deeply moved. She knew that what had been done to human beings was done by other human beings. She had come face to face with human nature, and with that realization came the knowledge that this was the nature of war, and it could happen again, and anywhere. At that moment, an "existential dread" became a significant part of her, along with a curiosity for confronting the realities of war.
In 1967, she went on a university-sponsored trip to the Middle East, traveling into the rubble of war-torn Gaza where she was fascinated by an Israeli soldier with a rifle. In 1968, she was living at home and attending the University of North Carolina, attempting to be a Southern lady while she was surrounded by the turmoil of the "youth movement." Pulled and tugged by the war in Vietnam and by her innate outrage and optimism, she joined the opposition to the war and enjoyed "the excitement of sharing a cause we knew was right." She soon realized that the war was threatening all the young men around her, who were having to face the "harrowing collision of patriotism, family expectations, fear, and the growing communal sense that the elders were, in fact, wrong." Unknown to Susan, her former classmate Mark Smith was arriving in Vietnam and learning his own set of lessons.
In the spring of 1969, she was studying art in Italy, and the war in Vietnam seemed far away. When she returned home, however, the UNC campus was a hotbed of anti-war passion and activity, and she became active in heartfelt opposition to the war. She traveled to Washington in the fall of '69 to take part in the enormous Mobilization protest, and in 1970 she went again, to lobby congressmen and senators after Nixon had expanded the war into Cambodia and the Ohio National Guard had expanded it to the campus of Kent State University. She got married and moved to Ithaca, NY, where her husband was in graduate school and being pursued by the Draft. She did not become involved in the anti-war movement, which she observed had taken on a dark, violent tone. Graduate school and two children combined with Watergate and other fateful news took her mind off the war in Vietnam, and it was set aside for years. She earned a PhD at Cornell and focused on raising her two children, who soon became teenagers. In 2011, a friend from graduate school accepted a job at an American School in Hanoi. He invited her to visit, and she accepted.
The experience jarred Susan to her soul. She recognized that the Vietnamese were human beings, with every trait, emotion, history, and courtesy we expect to find in American human beings. "In the night, when I woke, I sobbed. I had learned that my leaders would use the power of words to make people see what is not there or not see what is." She returned home, but now "Vietnam was never far from my mind. It was not just Vietnam-the-country or even Vietnam-the-war. It was Vietnam-the-situation, the state-of-mind, the-unfinished-business. Each person I talked to carried it still, in different ways, and with different reactions. I began to feel intuitively how much had been left undone, how little the failure, betrayal, and anger had been brought out into the open."
She was watching a television documentary about the war when she saw Mark Smith's name, and then she recognized him. He had changed, but she recognized his voice, his mannerisms, and she knew it was her old classmate from high school in North Carolina. He talked about his disillusionment. "I began to feel that someone was taking advantage of our bravery and our courage to no good end." She searched for him and found him on Facebook. She found him, after a long search, learned he'd had a stroke and asked if he had been in that documentary. "Two tours," he said. "Twenty months. I miss it still." He had come home from his second tour and attended classes for two years at the University of North Carolina, where he joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War. He moved to Boston, to Juneau, Alaska, to Las Vegas, and finally returned to the mountains of western North Carolina. He wrote about Vietnam but showed no one. He hid it all away, but began a career as a newspaper journalist and photographer.
Susan discovered a man who was not only living with his memories, he was living in them. He sent her a journal of his second tour and asked her to read it. The story "breached any defenses I had put up, any secure perimeter I had built for myself over the years." His memories were an assault upon her civilian anti-war sensibilities. "We enjoyed freedoms such as none of our peers would ever know," he had written. "Even if we weren't eager to kill people, we were conscious that we had the absolute freedom to do so. We had the freedom to rob graves, to burn whole villages, to call in artillery on abandoned churches, to order jets to bomb and napalm homes, and no one was going to question us about it."
He had done two tours, with an assignment in Germany in between. In the second tour, they had lost their optimism. "The war is getting worse but here I am." Years later, he talked with Susan and said he felt Vietnam was home to him. She suggested a return trip to Vietnam, and he readily accepted the idea.
She found resources to make the trip possible, and a few avid participants to accompany them. Susan brought her spouse, and Mark traveled alone. There were many exchanges with the modern-day Vietnamese, and moments when Mark had to confront his past, but usually, he could only embrace it. Accompanying him, watching his reactions, Susan writes "He came of age in war and part of him never grew out of it. He came to think of Vietnam as home and to recognize Vietnamese veterans as brothers. In that, he found what peace he would know in life." This book is the story of the journeys each of them took. Unfortunately, Mark died in an automobile accident last year. Susan and Mark were on parallel paths, but their viewpoints will always be separate. It is impossible to review this book and the two personalities who are captured in it, within the confines of this review. It is an enormous book, overflowing with insights, reflections, the horrors of war, and some valid analyses of the kinds of people we have become today, shaped by Vietnam. Yes, we are all individuals, but as veterans, we will not only relate to Mark, we will recognize him from the inside out, and ourselves, too. This is a wonderful book, a travelogue of sorts through a country and a mindset we once visited. It has all changed, and so have we, but many scars remain. It's not an easy book to read, but it is supportive, revealing, uplifting, and highly recommended.
John Ketwig is a lifetime member of VVAW, and the author of …and a hard rain fell: A G.I. 's True Story of the War in Vietnam and Vietnam Reconsidered: The War, the Times, and Why They Matter.