It was nearly sunset on Easter Saturday when I met Marie Dz’dza. She was sitting on a set of steps in a hospital compound in the town of Bunia. Near her was her mother, Jesinne Dhewedza, and her niece, six-year-old Irene Mave. Two weeks earlier, I might have noticed any number of things about them—Dz’dza’s prominent cheekbones, Mave’s smile, Dhewedza’s graying hair. Instead, my attention was focused on what had been taken from them when men with machetes fell upon their village. Dhewedza now had six fingers instead of 10; Mave, one arm instead of two; and Dz’dza’s arms ended just below the elbow.
They were victims of an outbreak of hyper-violence that had swept through the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Ituri Province in the first months of this year, part of a constellation of conflicts affecting a country long plagued by such violence. The three of them were also among the millions of victims of the wars of the last century that have disproportionately affected civilians.
The end of World War I, that war to end all wars a century ago, marked the passing of conflicts in which soldiers’ deaths outnumbered those of civilians. Since then, noncombatants, people like Dz’dza, Dhewedza, and Mave, have borne the brunt of war. As it happens, this grim anniversary year coincides with one of my own. While I didn’t realise it at the time, my recent reporting on an ethnic-cleansing campaign in the Democratic Republic of Congo for Vice News marked roughly 12 years since I first began interviewing people who had lost parts of themselves to armed conflicts. Over that span, I’ve regularly witnessed the way war’s barbarism is inscribed on the bodies of men, women, and children. I’ve seen civilian victims who have lost eyes and ears, hands and feet, arms and legs—people who are now a living testament to our inhumanity.
While I’ve spoken to many hundreds of war victims and chronicled atrocities from Afghanistan to Cameroon to South Sudan, interviews with people whom war has literally reshaped have often stuck with me, though few more vividly than those in the 2008 TomDispatch piece reposted below. A decade ago, reporting from Vietnam for this website, I interviewed two men who had lost legs to the “American War” almost 40 years earlier. The generosity of readers led to a happy result: those two survivors received new prosthetics—hardly compensation for what they had lost, but perhaps the bare minimum we owe to the civilian casualties of our conflicts; the bare minimum, in fact, that the world owes all the victims, including Dz’dza, Dhewedza, and Mave, from conflicts that were supposed to have been over and done with a century ago, but which, sadly enough, churn on today, from Afghanistan and Syria to Yemen and Congo.
The article that follows flowed far more from the questions those survivors of war asked me than the ones I asked them. It also taught me something about another bare minimum we owe to the victims of our wars: listening to them. Sadly, since this piece was published in 2008, a decade’s worth of new war victims have been added to the pages of humanity’s most appalling ledger. Who will chronicle all of their stories? And even if someone did, would we have the courage to read them? Nick Turse
America’s Forgotten Vietnamese Victims
Nguyen Van Tu asks if I’m serious. Am I really willing to tell his story—to tell the story of the Vietnamese who live in this rural corner of the Mekong Delta? Almost 40 years after guerrilla fighters in his country threw the limits of US military power into stark relief—during the 1968 Tet Offensive—we sit in his rustic home, built of wood and thatch with an earthen floor, and speak of two hallmarks of that power: ignorance and lack of accountability. As awkward chicks scurry past my feet, I have the sickening feeling that, in decades to come, far too many Iraqis and Afghans will have similar stories to tell. Similar memories of American troops. Similar accounts of air strikes and artillery bombardments. Nightmare knowledge of what “America” means to far too many outside the United States.
“Do you really want to publicise this thing,” Nguyen asks. “Do you really dare tell everyone about all the losses and sufferings of the Vietnamese people here?” I assure this well-weathered 60-year old grandfather that that’s just why I’ve come to Vietnam for the third time in three years. I tell him I have every intention of reporting what he’s told me—decades-old memories of daily artillery shelling, of near constant air attacks, of farming families forced to live in their fields because of the constant bombardment of their homes, of women and children killed by bombs, of going hungry because US troops and allied South Vietnamese forces confiscated their rice, lest it be used to feed guerrillas.
After hearing of the many horrors he endured, I hesitantly ask him about the greatest hardship he lived through during what’s appropriately known here as the American War. I expect him to mention his brother, a simple farmer shot dead by America’s South Vietnamese allies in the early years of the war, when the United States was engaged primarily in an “advisory” role. Or his father who was killed just after the war, while tending his garden, when an M-79 round—a 40 mm shell fired from a single-shot grenade launcher—buried in the soil, exploded. Or that afternoon in 1971 when he heard outgoing artillery being fired and warned his family to scramble for their bunker by shouting, “Shelling, shelling!” They made it to safety. He didn’t. The 105 mm artillery shell that landed near him ripped off most of his right leg.
But he didn’t name any of these tragedies.
“During the war, the greatest difficulty was a lack of freedom,” he tells me. “We had no freedom.”
A Simple Request
Elsewhere in the Mekong Delta, Pham Van Chap, a solidly-built 52 year-old with jet black hair tells a similar story. His was a farming family, but the lands they worked and lived on were regularly blasted by US ordnance. “During the ten years of the war, there was serious bombing and shelling in this region—two to three times a day,” he recalls while sitting in front of his home, a one-story house surrounded by animal pens in a bucolic setting deep in the Delta countryside. “So many houses and trees were destroyed. There were so many bomb craters around here.”
In January 1973, the first month of the last year US troops fought in Vietnam, Pham heard the ubiquitous sound of artillery and started to run to safety. It was too late. A 105 mm shell slammed into the earth four meters in front of him, propelling razor-sharp shrapnel into both legs. When he awoke in the hospital, one leg was gone from the thigh down. After 40 days in the hospital, he was sent home, but he didn’t get his first prosthetic leg until the 1990s. His new replacement is now eight years old and a far cry from the advanced, computerised prosthetics and carbon fiber and titanium artificial legs that wounded US veterans of America’s latest wars get. His wooden prosthetic instead resembles a table leg with a hoof at the bottom. “It has not been easy for me without my leg,” he confides.
When I ask if there are any questions he’d like to ask me or anything he’d like to say to Americans, he has a quick response. He doesn’t ask for money for his pain and suffering. Nor for compensation for living his adult life without a leg. Nor vengeance, that all-American urge, in the words of George W. Bush to “kick some ass.” Not even an apology. His request is entirely too reasonable. He simply asks for a new leg. Nothing more.
Ignorance Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry
I ask Nguyen Van Tu the same thing. And it turns out he has a question of his own: “Americans caused many losses and much suffering for the Vietnamese during the war, do Americans now feel remorse?” I wish I could answer “yes.” Instead, I tell him that most Americans are totally ignorant of the pain of the Vietnamese people, and then I think to myself, as I glance at the ample pile of tiny, local potatoes on his floor, about widespread American indifference to civilians killed, maimed, or suffering in other ways in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Even those Vietnamese who didn’t lose a limb—or a loved one—carry memories of years of anguish, grief, and terror from the American War. The fall-out here is still palpable. The elderly woman who tells me how her home was destroyed by an incendiary bomb. The people who speak of utter devastation—of villages laid waste by shelling and bombing, of gardens and orchards decimated by chemical defoliants. The older woman who, with trepidation, peeks into a home where I’m interviewing—she hasn’t seen a Caucasian since the war—and is visibly unnerved by the memories I conjure up. Another begins trembling upon hearing that the Americans have arrived again, fearing she might be taken away, as her son was almost 40 years earlier. The people with memories of heavily armed American patrols disrupting their lives, searching their homes, killing their livestock. The people for whom English was only one phrase, the one they all seem to remember: “VC, VC”—slang for the pejorative term “Viet Cong”; and those who recall model names and official designations of US weaponry of the era—from bombs to rifles—as intimately as Americans today know their sports and celebrities.
I wish I could tell Nguyen Van Tu that most Americans know something of his country’s torture and torment during the war. I wish I could tell him that most Americans care. I wish I could tell him that Americans feel true remorse for the terror visited upon the Vietnamese in their name, or that an apology is forthcoming and reparations on their way. But then I’d be lying. Mercifully, he doesn’t quiz me as I’ve quizzed him for the better part of an hour. He doesn’t ask how Americans can be so ignorant or hard-hearted, how they could allow their country to repeatedly invade other nations and leave them littered with corpses and filled with shattered families, lives, and dreams. Instead he answers calmly and methodically:
“I have two things to say. First, there have been many consequences due to the war and even now the Vietnamese people suffer greatly because of it, so I think that the American government must do something in response—they caused all of these losses here in Vietnam, so they must take responsibility for that. Secondly, this interview should be an article in the press.”
I sit there knowing that the chances of the former are nil. The US government won’t do it and the American people don’t know, let alone care, enough to make it happen. But for the latter, I tell him I share his sentiments and I’ll do my best.
Nguyen Van Tu grasps my hands in thanks as we end the interview. His story is part of a hidden, if not forbidden, history that few in the US know. It’s a story that was written in blood in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos during the 1960s and 1970s and now is being rewritten in Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s a story to which new episodes are added each day that US forces roll armored vehicles down other people’s streets, kick down other people’s doors, carry out attacks in other people’s neighbourhoods and occupy other people’s countries.
It took nearly 40 years for word of Nguyen Van Tu’s hardships at the hands of the United States to filter back to America. Perhaps a few more Americans will feel remorse as a result. But who will come forward to take responsibility for all this suffering? And who will Pham Van Chap a new leg?.
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