The Vietnam War was part of the background of my early childhood. Every day the local-ish radio station, WGY in Albany, N.Y. (only ninety miles away!), announced the war dead, and U.S. troop deaths were, without fail, miniscule compared to the number of Viet Cong dead. They were weirdly specific, as well, for example – two-hundred and eighty-nine American dead, three-thousand and seventy-eight Viet Cong. The daily numbers confused and perplexed me, and I asked my teacher at the time, Mrs. Roney, how it was we weren’t winning the war when these numbers told such a different, and unbalanced, story? Surely, we had to be winning? She explained that the Chinese Communists were sending hordes of fighters over the border between China and Vietnam, endless hordes of fighting men (she may have referred to them as little yellow men), to support vile, evil communism. Huh. Okay. Maybe? I imagined actual streams of men running south across the border – but even China couldn’t have an endless supply of young men to fight old men’s wars, could they? 

Photos of the war, and of the My Lai massacre in particular, were on the cover of and inside almost every magazine that came into our home, and the children in the pictures were my peers. That little girl, naked, running, mouth agape, surrounded by carnage: she was my age. How as it possible that we – we, the collective good people of the United States – would allow this to happen, allow the murder, the gassing – or whatever Napalm was, the bombing of families, whoever and wherever they were? How did this happen? What were we fighting about, again? I did a report on Ho Chi Minh for 5th grade Social Studies. I didn’t really see much difference between him and some of our founding fathers, seeking freedom and independence for his people (he also wrote poetry, and spoke five languages), and because my teacher that year was a hippie, he approved, giving me an ‘A’. We weren’t taught the war in school as it was on-going, history in the making; we were merely child witnesses, watching from afar. I do remember being grateful my male classmates, my friends, would not face the draft, conscription ending in 1973 when we were just entering high school, although the war didn’t end until 1975. And while there were returning Vietnam Vets in my community, I didn’t personally know any, or wasn’t aware if I did, until one very angry Veteran started teaching us – and scaring us – in ’73. He’d been a sharpshooter, and four years later he would sexually assault me about a week after I graduated and turned eighteen. 

I now know that the numbers of the dead, ours and the Vietnamese, were faked, deflated and inflated respectively in turn by successive Presidential administrations, administrations who lied to the American people for political gain, for reasons of propaganda, vanity, ego, and arrogance. I watched on TV, our one channel, as Hanoi fell, Vietnamese people clinging to helicopters and boats desperate to escape; I saw pictures and read about ‘The Boat People’, and atrocities committed in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and elsewhere. The world was complicated, I was a kid – not even born when the military complications of Vietnam began. All I wanted to do when the war ended was survive high school and my adolescence, get out and away, while dreaming dreams about a life I wasn’t sure I wanted to lead, because I didn’t know who I was and where I wanted to be, other than not where I was. 

Cecile Pin’s debut novel, Wandering Souls, which I read and loved recently, along with Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer and his follow-up novel,The Committed, all examine aspects of the events surrounding the Vietnam War from the perspective of those Vietnamese who lived through and – mostly – survived it. In all four novels, the authors primarily focus on those who emigrated from Vietnam to America, France, or the U.K. It felt necessary and important for me to read these books, because I was ignorant about the lives of the Vietnamese, in the U.S. and elsewhere, including Vietnam, along with the multi-generational impact of the actions of the U.S. and its allies – our allies. Yet – when Ms. Pin writes about the boat people and their painful, circuitous journey, I knew, I’d seen, I remembered the place of lift off, the scenes witnessed or read about as a child, and it felt good to know what happened, even if just to one family, although the novel is broader than that implies, and very powerful. 

Coincidentally, last night’s PBS episode featured a segment about Asian Am. & Pacific Islanders, regarding their often violent and deadly interactions with the police in the U.S. In the segment, I learned there were approximately one million Vietnamese, Laotians, Cambodians and Hmong who emigrated to the U.S. as a result of the Vietnam War, a significant amount, worth noting here, I thought. 

The Sympathizer is hilarious, raucous, and shocking; I could not put it down, and like its follow-up The Committed and Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous and Wandering Souls there are specific, reality-based incidents of what war is, what happens in conflict zones, that are stomach churning, and heart-breaking. One of my several daily meditation mantras is ‘may the whole world know peace and healing’, which I repeat throughout the day, ‘may the whole world know peace and healing, may the whole world know peace and healing’. Often, I add, ‘which world includes me, thank you very much’, because I need reminding, and it calms my heart, and helps to unravel my grudges and anger, and my fear – fear that peace is impossible to achieve, as long as men seek power, and are incapable of giving a shit about the lives of others, including, often, their own citizens, from whom they supposedly derive that power. What’s that saying, ‘how can we have world peace when people can’t even get along with their neighbors?’ Seems about right to me, and, happily, I have a great neighbor, one I am committed to – if not loving, at least liking – tolerating, and consistently treating with kindness and decency, always.

JFK said, ‘World peace, like community peace, does not require that each man love his neighbor—it requires only that they live together in mutual tolerance, submitting their disputes to a just and peaceful settlement.’ Sadly, there are more conflicts going on right now, around this blue and green and brown and white planet, than I or anyone else can comprehend. It’s daunting, and so I try to create peace in my tiny corner, not always successfully, but, I try. 

George Carlin, whom I admire and love so much, said in one of his stand-up specials, “The planet is going anywhere. We are.” We are. Unless, unless, unless – we can pull together. Fingers and toes and everything else crossed.