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Wounds begin to heal between US, Viet Nam

Update: July, 27/2015 - 08:41

Veteran Pham Ba Lu

by Luu Van Dat

HCM CITY (VNS) — Pham Ba Lu swore thousands of times that he "would not live under the same sky as the United States".

The torture he had to suffer during the time he was jailed with his comrades in Pleiku and Phu Quoc Island in Viet Nam more than four decades ago had deepened his hatred against the US administration.

"Frankly, if I had not felt such deep resentment against the US, I would not have been strong enough to bear the numerous thrashings in prison," Lu said. "With such torture, I sometimes thought I would not be able to survive."

Lu could not have imagined at the time that one day he would have a complete change of heart.

During a recent visit to the War Remnants Museum in HCM City, more than 40 years after the US withdrew its last soldiers out of Viet Nam, the 73-year-old recalled the days of torture during his imprisonment.

He said that he woke up and found himself jailed in the enemy's prison in Pleiku with a serious wound on his leg and other parts of his body after a period of fierce combat in the spring of 1968.

Lu, 24 at the time, had seen bombs falling, chemicals sprayed and bullets flying over his shoulders on the Pleiku battlefield in Viet Nam's Central Highlands before being imprisoned and tortured for information.

"I told them that I decided to be a soldier because I had seen several of my fellow citizens killed. I swore not to live under the same sky with them," he recalled.

Despite his wounded leg and body, he was tortured by Vietnamese under the supervision of American soldiers for about half a month.

Of the various methods used, torture by electrical shock is the one he remembers the most clearly.

"They put one electrical wire on my hand and the other on my penis. When I fainted, they showered me in a tank of water and resumed the torture when I woke up," said Lu, adding that the pain did not stop until seven days later.

He was put inside a barrel containing water. Blood ran out from his ears, nose and mouth, when the men hit the barrel with hammers. Lu often had his fingers clamped or hands pressed on a grid of nails.

He pointed to scars on his body and one ear, which has lost hearing.

"I volunteered to hit myself since I could not feel pain any more. Blood sometimes sprayed on my face. Several comrades of mine decided to kill themselves as they could not stand the torture," he said.

Lu, a member of the Viet Nam Communist Party, was among millions of other Vietnamese who held deep resentment against the US during and after the war, which ended in 1975.

American Lionel Pinn Jr shows a portrait of his father who was lucky to survive the Viet Nam War. — VNS Photos Van Dat

But four decades later, as the countries have drawn closer together, his hatred – like that of many American veterans – has given way to forgiveness and hope for a better future together with security cooperation and bilateral trade growth.

The Vietnamese veteran said that he had gradually changed his mind after seeing that the country needed to recover economically after decades suffering from a trade embargo from the US.

"The benefits of the two peoples are great. I was among millions of Vietnamese expressing happiness upon hearing the normalisation of the two countries' relations. The American people are not guilty. In contrast, they are close friends of Vietnamese as many protested the war," Lu said.

Until 1991, travel between citizens of the two countries was restricted. However, some people at the time had special permission to visit, including reporters, tourists and war veterans from the US.

Later, after the US trade embargo was lifted in 1995, images of veterans from both sides holding hands or even hugging each other were published in international media. Reconciliation began as both countries started to deal with the legacy of war that had deeply affected both countries.

In 2013, the two countries established a more comprehensive partnership.

Now, 20 years after the two countries established diplomatic relations in 1995, bilateral trade between the two countries now totals US$30 billion, a 134-fold increase from 1994. The US is now Viet Nam's largest export market.

Besides partially lifting its decades-old embargo on providing lethal weapons, the US has recently signed a Joint Vision Statement on Defense Relations, which paves the way for closer military ties. According to DefenseNews, the defense agreement will "eventually lead to co-production of military equipment."

In addition, negotiations that allow Viet Nam to be part of the Trans-Pacific-Partnership (TPP) are in the final stages. Being a member of the TPP along with the world's most robust economies representing 40 per cent of global GDP, Viet Nam will be able to further enhance relations in trade and other issues, such as security, with the US as well.

American reaction

While Lu has forgiven but not forgotten, former American war veterans and their families are also battling painful memories of the conflict.

In late June, Lionel Pinn Jr, 62, the son of one late veteran who served in the war, and his wife visited the wall of the Viet Nam Veterans Memorial, on which 58,267 names of Americans who died during the war are inscribed.

The councilman from the town of Napavine in the US state of Washington had placed a portrait of his late father against the wall.

After asking a Vietnamese visitor who was standing nearby to sit down under the shade of a tree, he told him about his father, who was sent to Viet Nam in the 1960s as a combat soldier when the war had become intense.

"My father was sent to Viet Nam seven times as a soldier, was captured several times, and wounded five times. Fortunately, he survived, unlike the people whose names are listed on this wall. He died a natural death in the US in 1999," Pinn Jr said.

Pinn's father had regrets about serving in Viet Nam, he said.

During the last years of his life, the father often travelled to and visited the Viet Nam Veterans Memorial wall in Washington, DC to see the names of his fellow soldiers who had died.

Over the years, the father often woke up at night and would drink alone as he could not forget the memories of the battlefield, he said.

His father would often cry, Pinn said, adding that he was pleased that relations between the US and Viet Nam had improved over the last few decades.

In San Jose, California, another American, Francis Bain McVey, who was a P3 pilot of a spy plane during the war and did not see combat, said though he did not suffer long-term trauma after the war, many of his friends had.

"I do know a lot of war veterans who suffered trauma. They felt angry when I visited Viet Nam after the war," he told a group of Vietnamese reporters visiting San Jose in June.

He said the relationship between the two countries had improved, but many in the Vietnamese community in the US were still upset about the results of the war.

"I hope that Viet Nam's economy will improve and the mutual sharing of information through education and the internet will create deeper understanding between the two countries," he said.

Professor Carl Thayer, a Viet Nam expert at the University of New South Wales, in an interview by email, said that the recent visit by Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong to the US would set a precedent for his successors' future visits.

In the past year, Viet Nam has sent two members of the Politburo, Pham Quang Nghi and Tran Dai Quang, to visit the US. The more Politburo members who visit the US, the better understanding there will be in Viet Nam's highest circle of leadership, he said.

"I look for three key outcomes: Viet Nam's commitment to sign the Trans-Pacific Partnership, agreement on the framework to settle the East Sea dispute and some indication of where defense-security cooperation is heading in the future," he said.

During the recent meeting at the White House, the Party General Secretary of Viet Nam Nguyen Phu Trong told US President Barack Obama that "the past cannot be changed but the future depends on our actions, and this is our responsibility to ensure the right future."

The US President said the two countries had made significant progress in cooperation in various fields, especially during the last two years even though there had been a "difficult history" between the two countries.

Former US President Bill Clinton, who returned to Viet Nam five years after his announcement of the normalisation of relations between the two countries in 1995, sent Vietnamese leaders a similar message recently: "We cannot change the past. What we can change is the future."


War veteran Lu of HCM City, who no longer has nightmares about his torture during the war, said he was excited after hearing the news that the two countries were deepening their relationship.

"The painful history of war should be forgotten for the benefit and future of the two countries' peoples," Lu said. "I am among millions of Vietnamese who are happy that Viet Nam and the US established diplomatic relations 20 years ago."

He said that hatred should be abandoned "for a better future and benefit of the peoples of the two countries".

"If we insist on hatred, it is useless," he said.

Lionel Pinn Jr., the son of the American soldier whose war memories had left psychological scars, said he also believed that ill feelings and hatred should be buried, while the memory of those who died should never be forgotten.

As he left the Viet Nam Veterans Memorial to walk back to his car, he suddenly turned back, pointing to the area of the wall buried under grass.

"The further we walk away, the more invisible the wall is. I love to compare the sense of distance with the sense of time. The longer the time passes, the better the wounds will heal," Pinn said. — VNS


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