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Khe Sanh was not a big part of my Viet Nam. In 1966, well before the siege that made it famous, it was a Special Forces camp with an airstrip, a place through which I passed on my way to the smaller and more vulnerable outpost at Lang Vei. But on a return trip to Viet Nam in 2008, I stopped at the little monument and museum the Vietnamese have built to commemorate their sacrifices there in the spring of 1968.

Vet Visits Vietnam

As I drove up, out of the museum came a dozen men who looked like me—gray-headed, walking a little stiffly—and dressed in a haphazard combination of civies and Vietnamese dress uniforms, complete with shoulder-boards and medals, and toting cameras. I walked up, apparently unobserved, not knowing what to expect. I had experienced no animosity in Viet Nam so far, but still, this was a special group in a special place, reliving at this moment the losses they had suffered fighting Americans.

When I caught the eye of one veteran, I drew myself to attention and saluted. I held the salute a long moment while he took me in. Wordlessly he returned the salute, then stepped forward and gripped me in an embrace. Then everyone caught on: cameras clicked, hugs and handshakes were exchanged, and in a welter of bad English and bad Vietnamese, the hard fragments of soldiers’ memories poured out: I was in such a unit, I was wounded in such a place. The cant and abstraction of the monument were instantly rendered, as Hemingway wrote, "obscene beside the concrete names of villages, . . . the numbers of regiments and the dates." In vain, I protested that I had been at Lang Vei, 8 clicks to the west, and in the fall of 1966, a year and a half before the siege, and that all my real fighting had been done along the coast. No matter. We were fellow soldiers. We were brothers.

When forty years have passed, the distinction between friend and foe may seem less important, or less emotionally true, than the distinction between those who share the secret of war and those who do not.

When Shakespeare’s Henry V proclaims before Agincourt that “he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother,” he means, of course, his fellow Englishmen—not his French enemies. But when forty years have passed, the distinction between friend and foe may seem less important, or less emotionally true, than the distinction between those who share the secret of war and those who do not. An old man’s recognition that his war fantasies were adolescent or that his government’s policies were stupid or that the goals for which he fought were illusory in no way diminishes the power of that secret. We have an experience, a reality, a horror in common. So, foolishly but irrepressibly, we shed tears on the shoulders of men we would once willingly have killed and on the graves of those we did kill, because they knew the secret too.

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There is more than a little self-deception in this, of course. The Viet Cong who killed a marine lieutenant friend of mine in a hamlet outside Quang Tri and, for a joke, nailed his corpse to a cross in a local church are not my brothers. Nor are those American soldiers who shot babies in a ditch at My Lai. I do not know whether the veterans I met at Khe Sanh had been as naive about the war as I had been. And they do not know whether I was, as they said they believed, an unwilling participant in the war, sent by my government to fight a war I didn’t understand. I do not know whether the kindly grandfather I am hugging today was forty years ago a torturer, a murderer of civilians, a burner of houses. And I don’t want to know. I want to believe that he was a simple, honorable soldier, defending something he thought he believed in, and I want him to think that about me.

So the secret we old soldiers share is partly a lie. It’s true that we’ve shared the experience of getting shot at, being frightened, seeing friends die. But we did not share then a real knowledge of one another, and we do not share it now. As a young lieutenant in 1966, schooled for three months in the language, trained for three more months in the army’s version of Vietnamese history and culture and politics, I thought I understood the war. I didn’t. As it turned out, of course, nobody did. Not the high command in Saigon, not the Pentagon, not LBJ. And on this trip, when my guide asks why the Americans fought this war and I answer, “Fear of international communism,” he does not understand. On an earlier stop in Quang Tri, where I spent most of my war and whose museum documents the horrific consequences of American bombing, I had been invited to sign the guest book. I had written the only sentence I could think of that was true: “We did not know what we were doing.”

The old vets have got to go. They have a schedule, another monument somewhere. We trade cards, scribble email addresses, promise to send photos. Probably we never will. We wave good-bye, saluting again, and calling one another friend and brother. At best a half-truth. But it will do. We’ll call it a peace.


Dan Embree