by Michael Gallagher
There were all sorts of ironies attending President Obama’s visit to Vietnam. One struck me with special force when I saw a picture of some happy and healthy Vietnamese children clutching little American flags as they waited at the airport for the arrival of the president of the nation that devastated their homeland. They were chosen, I was sure, precisely because they were so happy and healthy.
I’m also sure that among those now guiding the fortunes of Vietnam there must have been a few diehards who had argued for a different children’s lineup on the tarmac, diplomatic niceties be damned—children in wheelchairs, children with missing arms and legs, children with grotesquely twisted bodies, children without eyes—all alike either born of mothers affected by Agent Orange or victims of the unexploded munitions that have claimed the lives of some 40,000 Vietnamese since the end of the war, a disproportionate percentage of whom were young children,
As a sentimental Irishman, I freely admit that the sight of an American president, a black American president, being greeted with such joyous enthusiasm by a people who suffered so terribly from the worst that the world’s most powerful military could throw at them brought me close to tears. Especially moving, no matter how obvious the choreography, was Barack Obama’s sitting down for lunch in a little restaurant that specialized in a fatty Vietnamese delicacy.
But unbidden tears to the contrary notwithstanding, we Irish also have a critical streak as you may know. Even as I watched Obama expertly wielding his chopsticks and flashing that marvelous smile, I wasn’t too happy about his choice of a lunch companion—a renowned food critic, whose renown I’ll not increase by naming.
Had I been asked—LOL—I would have suggested another sort of guide to the real Vietnam. Take Brian Willson, for example, a Vietnam veteran and peace activist who enjoys no renown whatsoever except among those of us who are concerned about constant war having become the new American normal.
Willson has dedicated much of his life to reconciling his own nation and Vietnam, Among other things he has arranged conferences between his fellow veterans and their former enemies. He’s posted pictures of himself before the memorial at My Lai and talking with the children whom Obama was shielded from.
Willson moves easily among those who are maimed and crippled because he walks on two prosthetic legs. He lost his own just beneath the knee because, during the Contra aid affair, he refused to get out of the way of a train carrying munitions bound for for Latin America, an act that another Vietnam Veteran, his friend Charlie Liteky, a man who renounced his Medal of Honor as a protest against Contra aid, confessed to being in awe of.
So on your next trip to Vietnam, Mr. President, why not eschew fatty lunches (which Michelle would not approve of anyway) and let Brian Willson show you around. He can take you to My Lai, and you can lay a wreath at the foot of its memorial. And he can introduce you to some of those children you didn’t see on your first trip—children who, like the five hundred women and children brutally murdered at My Lai, personify the achingly human dimension of the “collateral damage” inflicted and still being inflicted by our nation’s ferocious defense of freedom, a cause in which there can be no excess.
Michael Gallagher May 31, 2016