I made a new friend a few weeks ago. His name is Mr. Nghia, and he lives in a village not far from Da Nang in Vietnam. With his smooth skin, he looks 50. But he’s not. He’s in his mid-70s, and a half-century ago he was part of a Viet Cong unit that attacked Da Nang during the 1968 Tet Offensive.

Dressed in a crisp, dry white shirt on one of the hottest days I have ever encountered, he was waiting for me at the end of a path through tropical greenery that led to his modest, neatly-kept house. We talked, and he showed me war souvenirs, such as a U.S. parachute that he had converted into both a hammock and a mosquito net. That is how they beat us in that war. They innovated and persisted, despite losing three million people to our 58,000 KIA (not to mention the five million who have suffered the effects of Agent Orange since then).

At one point we hugged — two former enemies, now comrades in a sense. I thanked him for his service and he smiled.

I was an artillery officer with the Army’s 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment. My contact with locals was limited to paying “Mama-san” five bucks for a piglet that I passed on to my gun crews for a spontaneous down home barbecue. Other than that, it was just glimpses of villagers bending over in rice fields and children guiding enormous buffaloes with nothing more than a small stick as we stirred up clouds of dust and clanked by in our “armored cavalry assault vehicles” and self-propelled howitzers. They were peasants, part of the scenery, and not much more.

But to them, we were invaders in what they called the “American War.” Mr. Nghia was a fighter defending the homeland, not a communist zealot. Nor did American GIs view themselves as anti-communist crusaders. When we fought, we fought to avoid the stigma of cowardice in front of our buddies and to keep each other alive so we could return to “the World.”

Mr. Nghia was proud of his 15 years in a combat unit (compared to my 10 months), and who could blame him? Lacking air power, heavy artillery and armor in what was then South Vietnam, he and his comrades wore out the biggest military power in the world. One way to understand that is to visit the famous Cu Chi tunnel complex north of Saigon, with underground rooms devoted to surgery and, bespeaking as-long-as-it takes resistance — pregnancy and child care.

To be sure, the government in Hanoi is still communist, but in the 1990s it followed China’s lead by allowing small business entrepreneurial instincts to flourish, thereby moving from collectivism to a sort of capitalism. It is still a poor country, especially in the provinces, and health care is available to a favored few, but compared to what I remember, there is an air of prosperity about the country.

So where does that leave me? Who cares about a war that most people of my generation would prefer to forget? Well, talking to Mr. Nghia, I couldn’t help but be aware of my American traveling companions silently watching our eager interactions through an interpreter. After all, they were old enough to remember the Vietnam War resistance trauma of the 1960s and early 1970s. Later on, some of them actually called the meeting the highlight of our trip.

In their reaction, they represented, to me, the tens of millions who didn’t wear the uniform back then, but still wonder what it was all about. And Mr. Nghia himself stood in for the Vietnamese of that generation who survived and lost so many loved ones.

Yet here was his message: We don’t blame Americans like you for the American War; we blame your government.

I began this column hoping to find a connection with the America of today. I am not sure I can, but this much I do know: After that cleansing experience, it was wrenching to come back to a country that is more divided than any other time in my 70 years.

David Griffiths is a resident of Mechanic Falls.

Dave Griffiths


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