MCC, Vietnam and Legacies of War (Spring 2017)

[Individual articles from the Spring 2017 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

On November 1, 1955, the American War in Vietnam began. On April 30, 1975, the last of the U.S. troops evacuated the country. Evidence of the war is everywhere in today’s Vietnam. Museums and memorials marking the war are scattered across the country. Both former soldiers and civilians, along with their children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren, continue to be affected by a chemical defoliant sprayed during the war. The environment may never recover fully.

The governments of the United States and Vietnam have begun to hold 40-, 50-, and 60-year memorials of various events related to the war. Such commemorations of the war naturally attempt to grapple with atrocities endured, seek to honor notable acts of bravery and strive to draw conclusions about lessons learned. Most of these commemorations (American and Vietnamese) will focus on the impact of the war in terms that evoke an emotional response of nationalistic support of one side, while vilifying or ignoring the other. The Vietnamese will celebrate the heroic triumph of an outnumbered and ill-equipped military over the American imperialist invaders. The Americans will honor the service and sacrifice of the American veterans who fought in the war.

The stories that the Vietnamese and U.S. governments will tell are not the only stories. Soldiers were not the only people affected. In 1954, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) sent personnel to support suffering Vietnamese people following the French Indochina War. MCC maintained a presence in Vietnam until 1976, when the government of newly reunited Vietnam required that all non-Vietnamese citizens leave the country. At that time, MCC continued to coordinate humanitarian assistance to Vietnam from Thailand. In 1990, when Vietnam reopened its doors, MCC was among the first international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) to establish an office in Hanoi.

Over the decades, MCC workers in Vietnam have sought to engage Vietnamese neighbors, colleagues, and partners on a personal and human level. This engagement has yielded important stories to remember and share. This issue of Intersections shows how the commitment to continue seeing people’s humanity can affect not only relationships in the present, but also lay groundwork for how partnerships develop into the future.

When people are reduced to being seen only as “the enemy,” their humanity is stripped; in a heated conflict, almost anything can seem excusable in trying to overcome this “other.” Reducing people to enemy status provided justification for the U.S. military to pummel the Vietnamese landscape with bombs and spray dioxin-contaminated Agent
Orange that withered foliage, crippled livestock and sickened both soldiers and civilians who breathed its stifling fog. More than one million people died in the course of the American war in Vietnam (some estimates are as high as 3.6 million); millions more have suffered the ongoing impact of Agent Orange. Even today, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of people who lived through the war are born with severe disabilities and
other health problems due to dioxin exposure from Agent Orange. Another legacy of the war simultaneously developed amid the atrocities. This legacy maintained a determination to see humans as human—as fellow image-bearers of the great Creator, equally deserving of life and love, even amid conflict. Those who remained faithful to peaceful conflict resolution and to the principle of providing assistance to anyone in need not only helped to preserve life at the time, but also began to defoliate the cover of protection that exists when labeling someone as “enemy.”

Before the war began, throughout the conflict, in its aftermath and continuing today, MCC has sought to come to the aid of people affected by the American War in Vietnam. Sixty years from the onset of the war and forty years from its conclusion, this issue of Intersections offers the opportunity to reflect on the importance of direct engagement with the Vietnamese people. There are important stories to remember and to tell. While there is intrinsic value in the practice of remembering and storytelling, we hope that the reflections in this issue can be relevant to MCC and other humanitarian organizations operating in pre-conflict, active conflict and post-conflict settings.

Karen and Major Treadway are MCC representatives in Vietnam.

Learn More

Vietnam Full Disclosure: http://vietnamfulldisclosure.org/. Website with a wide range
of advocacy and educational resources related to the Vietnam War and its legacies.

The United States of America Vietnam War Commemoration website: http://www.vietnamwar50th.com/. Official website connected to U.S. commemorations of the Vietnam War.

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