By Drew Pham
This is the second story in Drew Pham’s four-part series “Letters to My Country That She Will Never Read,” published the week of September 11, 2018.
I write this, in part, as an apology to my parents for inflicting on others what America had inflicted on them. My mother arrived home late that night in September after the authorities had finally reopened the roads and she’d made it through the traffic. We cried together. I hadn’t known if I’d ever see her again; the phones had been down. I cried because nothing so immense had ever happened to me. I cried because she cried. At the time, I didn’t yet comprehend the depth of her emotion. It would be easy to say she’d cried out of compassion for the dead; it’s difficult not to have empathy. But looking back, I think a wound had reopened.
She told me this story once, from when she was a young girl in North Viet Nam during the war: She had walked out into the streets after an American bombing raid. There was nothing unusual about that. Air raids were as normal to her as breakfast or the ride to school—though she often went without food and always walked. The bombers would come, flying so high they were invisible, and drop what they carried in their bellies. But life had to go on. The communist government had dug ersatz shelters along the streets, large enough for two or three. Everyone wore dubious-looking helmets made of layers of straw mats instead of steel, which was in short supply. Not even the soldiers headed south got steel helmets. This time, a bomb had struck a factory down the road, and the wounded and dying spilled out onto the road in a procession. Just ordinary people, working men and women. An arm missing here. A seeping wound there. They bled from their ears and lacerations. They didn’t scream. What was the point? The Americans would come again, drop their bombs again. Again and again until my mother was an adult and the war had ended. There’s no moral to the story, no arc or epiphany. But like shrapnel, it lodged in her memory deep enough for her to tell me, and now I can’t help but trace a line between two acts of inhumanity.
I want my mother to know that I saw her in Afghanistan, 10 years after the first day of my war. I saw her in the girls who took their lives into their hands every day they went to the school just outside my outpost. I saw her in a young girl doing her washing by a stream in the valley I patrolled each day. In a mother who grieved for a son torn in half by an American bomb. When the Taliban attacked the outpost, we shot out the windows of the girls’ school. We drowned that valley in bullets. We gave no apology to that mother. Her boy, no more than 10 years old, had been counted as an enemy combatant. I look back on this and I want to tell my mother I’m sorry—it has come to feel as if every epithet or bomb or bullet I’d loosed had been aimed at her. And these women, like my mother, would carry their memories of everything I’d done to them long after this war ends.
Memory can be cruel. It can come uninvited as it has always come to my mother, sending her into weeklong bouts of silence and depression. Memory can drive a man to cruelty, as it did my father. He was also a refugee, but from the south. Once, he told me he hated nothing more than a lie. The year he was born, the CIA had circulated a fiction that the communists had planned to slaughter the Catholics, so my father’s family fled Hanoi, across the line that split his country in two. Hostilities mounted. The ensuing war robbed him of what should’ve been carefree years. His country burned and fell. He fled again—alone this time, leaving his family behind. His father—my grandfather, a colonel in the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam—died in a reeducation camp after the war ended. My father told me how he’d watched his home shrinking into the horizon as he stood on the bay of a landing craft on the day that Saigon fell. He was 16. I don’t think he ever let go of that memory. And it all started with a lie.
My parents met in the States, while they were students. Some might say their marriage was a sort of reconciliation between the republican South and communist North. But the union between a lonely young man and woman who happened to share the same language, who found a little familiarity, a little comfort in each other, didn’t lighten the burden of the past. He wasn’t around much when I was a kid; he returned to Viet Nam to start a business, start a life there. There was a rumor that he’d started a new family there, too, though it’s hard to say. I remember watching him drag my mother up the stairs by her hair. Her breaking a dustpan over his head, from which his hearing never truly recovered. Him beating her with a closed fist. Her brandishing a knife. I sometimes wonder if the final years of my parents’ marriage were the parting shots of their long civil war, which for them had never really ended. Eventually he left for good, but not before that day in September.
My father had smiled that evening when 2,996 people died; he’d said America had become no different than the countries they’d bombed. I sometimes wish I could hate him for that, but it was a simple statement of fact. His entire childhood was full of days like this, years like this. My classmates and I worried about the fates of our parents for one day. Every day during the war, my father didn’t know if his father—an Army doctor—would come home. I’d heard a story about my grandfather, how he’d had to perform surgery on someone who’d been hit by a 40mm grenade that didn’t detonate. My grandfather had operated on this person behind a wall of sandbags. I’d been told it was a common occurrence. I try to imagine what it would’ve been like to live in Alexandria, Virginia, knowing that people were dying by the thousands just a few miles away, that my parents might be killed at any time. It’s too strange, the stuff of apocalyptic fiction, but for my father, it was reality. Like our adoptive country, he had never really gotten over the Viet Nam War. But there’s a line between humiliation and loss. America had been defeated, humiliated, and I felt the sting of that defeat in slurs hurled against me on the playground and in the cowed rhetoric of politicians on the news and the piles of corpses the heroes made in all those movies about my parents’ war. But where a country loses its pride in defeat, a refugee loses everything. My father had lost his home, his family, his country. I wonder if he was thinking of what he’d lost when smiled, said what he’d said. I won’t excuse the hatred in his heart, but I can understand that smile, that pronouncement that America was now no different than the countries they’d bombed. After all, he abided by that imperative to always remember, to never forget.
He left later that year. I haven’t forgiven him exactly, but I like to think I can empathize with him. I thought of him on the day I left Afghanistan. I felt free, as I boarded the first aircraft of many that would fly me home. Free from all the fear and grit and death and shit. Free from my duty to that forsaken country. But not from guilt. There’s a chain of abandonment here. America abandoned my father’s country; my father abandoned me; I abandoned another country, another people whom I’d promised to protect and defend. I look back on the day I stepped onto the ramp of that helicopter as the day I walked out on my friends—the Afghan soldiers and interpreters and schoolteachers and bureaucrats. I wish I knew if they’re still alive, but I don’t. This year, I watched bombings in Kabul and thought of Saigon burning, and I wondered if my father was thinking of the Vietnamese coastline shrinking into the horizon when he finally abandoned us.
Abandonment makes this apology difficult. Forgiveness isn’t something I’m ready to give—not yet. Perhaps I never will. So I’ll apologize to the civilians caught in the middle, the children—their futures amputated, the refugees who’d fled to strange new countries, to the dead, to my friends. I’ll count my father somewhere among them, lose him in their masses.
Read the third piece in Drew Pham’s four-part series.
Drew Pham is a Brooklyn-based writer. He deployed to Afghanistan in 2010 with the 10th Mountain Division.