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Killers at the orphanage gates. They’ve all come with their blades, their grins and their candy. Everyone in town recognizes their arm sleeve insignia, their flags and their loud, easy talk. To cut off the heads of one’s enemies while sparing the heads of their offspring must be a horrific enterprise. Even if one of these killers were to sever and then burn down his enemy’s bloodline, another line could be traced back to a rubber tree in a plantation on the western edge of town that survived the onslaught.

These mercenaries photograph themselves performing puppet shows or giving the tikes rides in their Jeeps. All the while, their humanity and magnanimity clash with their mission to engage in the sordid business of murdering these kids’ parents. Their wide fleshy smiles seemingly cradle the enemy’s children as if they were their own; as if they had fathered these children themselves.

Life is crowded in by death. It is a bizarre, fatalistic, ritual these Grim Reapers engage in when they hand out food and supplies to the sons and daughters of liberation. They mingle among the living, finicky about whom they take an interest in, searching for the cutest in the bunch. These shadows of death cross in front of the bright, shining orbs of young life lying expectant in their cribs, creating a voiceless void that sucks in both the infants and the soldiers, minute by minute and molecule by molecule.


[NOTE OF EXPLANATION: Duong Van Mai Elliott’s book, The Sacred Willow, is a well-researched account of her family’s long history in Vietnam. Particularly interesting for me are the historical narratives of political intrigue and corruption that rooted themselves in the Republic of South Vietnam. The following excerpt from Elliott’s book recounts the general situation during the last several years of President Nguyen Van Thieu’s regime (1967-1975). Bold is my emphasis.]


In a bid to extract more aid from Washington, Saigon claimed it was facing a severe shortage of ammunition and limited the use of ordnance across the board.

… No doubt the aid cutback forced Saigon to economize, but the measures taken were extreme and ill-considered. When the Pentagon sent its own logistics expert to assess Saigon’s needs in 1974, he reported that South Vietnam still had huge stockpiles of ammunition, and that much of its gasoline was being diverted into the black market. Even as its army began to fall apart in March 1975, Saigon still had two-thirds of the ammunition supplied by Washington during the massive buildup prior to the signing of the Paris agreement. Unfortunately, this ammunition was stored near Saigon and not available to field soldiers and officers.

The cut in aid made Thieu’s position precarious. As long as he could extract bountiful aid from Washington, the generals left him alone. But now, his usefulness was gone. Precisely because his position had weakened, Thieu became even more reluctant to clean house to win the popular support he needed to defeat the communists. He clung even more to officers whom he could trust, although they were incompetent or dishonest — or both. And the more he felt threatened, the less he tolerated opposition. The more he cracked down on dissidents, the more unpopular he became. It was a vicious circle, and he grew more and more isolated. Opposition to Thieu continued to intensify, fed by discontent over the economic crisis and also by war weariness. Even among the middle and upper middle class, among people who had the most to lose in a communist victory, more and more voices were rising to protest Thieu’s belligerence and intransigience. The yearning for peace grew, even among some Catholics. Encouraged by the Vatican’s 1973 endorsement of a policy of accommodation with the communists, a small group of Catholic priests came out in favor of peace. They joined their demand with that of Buddhist leaders, who had been their bitter political opponents in the past. …

Thieu refused to listen to these voices, dismissing those who demanded a negotiated settlement as “communist sympathizers” and “communist dupes.” … Thinking the United States had invested too much blood and too much money in Vietnam to simply walk away, they kept waiting for the cavalry to come to the rescue. The Americans themselves had created this dependency, which permeated not only the top leadership, but all levels of government. No one took the initiative to do anything, and no one was held accountable for not taking action. Passing the buck became a favorite pastime for everyone, from the militia in the outpost to the ministers in Thieu’s government. At the most critical times, when Saigon’s survival hung in the balance, Thieu would press his closest advisors for comments on a policy he was contemplating. Used to letting the Americans plan and execute for them, these advisors would be at a loss as to what to do, and would keep silent or defer to Thieu’s judgment.

[NOTE OF EXPLANATION: Duong Van Mai Elliott’s book, The Sacred Willow, is a well-researched account of her family’s long history in Vietnam. Particularly interesting for me are the historical narratives of political intrigue and corruption that rooted themselves in the Republic of South Vietnam. The following excerpt from Elliott’s book recounts the general situation during the last several years of President Nguyen Van Thieu’s regime (1967-1975). Bold is my emphasis.]


…When they left, the Americans had taken their dollars with them. The economy dried up. Jobs disappeared. … In all, two million people — 30 percent of the workforce — were thrown out of work. In the second half of 1973, inflation rose drastically, eroding income even more. … the ripple originated with the Yom Kippur war and the Arab oil embargo, which led to a fourfold increase in the price of gasoline. The cost of oil and other commodities that the South had to impart, such as rice, then shot up. With every dollar in economic aid that Washington continued to provide, Saigon could only import fifty cents’ worth of goods. To reflect its declining value, the currency had to be devalued almost monthly. This only made imports more expensive and inflation worse.

The Thieu government made some attempts to cope with the crisis. But lack of planning and sheer incompetence, combined with factors it could not control, such as worldwide inflation and the continuing disruption and instability caused by the war, doomed its efforts. Except for a few feeble initiatives, such as hiring workers to sweep the streets and clean the gutters of Saigon, the government had no strategy to cope with the worsening situation. Instead, it pinned all its hopes on foreign investments and especially on the prospect of striking oil off the coast of Vung Tau. But the continued fighting made foreign investors leery, and although oil was discovered, it was too little, too late. …

… Waste and corruption were also undermining their fighting capability, as vital supplies were siphoned off and even sold to the communists, and equipment left to deteriorate. The malfeasance reached the highest levels of government. General Nguyen Vinh Nghi, the army commander in the Mekong Delta, who was later dismissed for corruption, pilfered tens of thousands of small arms and sold most of the equipment to the Viet Cong. Some senior officers were even pocketing their units’ payroll.

Government corruption had been endemic and brazen. Bribery was the grease that kept everything running. Even getting a passport and exit visa required bribing the powerful. The daughter of one wealthy family was said to have paid President Thieu’s special assistant for national security six million piasters, which were delivered to him stuffed in a suitcase in exchange for a passport and exit visa to France. Government positions that could provide opportunities for graft, such as district and province chiefs, were up for sale through the prime minister’s office or Thieu’s own political party. Those that paid huge sums of money to get these positions could count or getting their investment back several times over through corruption and extortion. …

The corruption had become so widespread that even those who would normally shy away from doing anything that might undermine Saigon and bolster the communists were moved to action. A group of Catholic priests — usually the staunchest supporters of Saigon and the most ardent anticommunists — publicly indicted Thieu and his family as corrupt and accused Thieu and his prime minister of involvement in heroin traffic. They also demanded that Thieu’s wife be prosecuted for corruption. Thieu knew he could not ignore this movement, so he responded by firing two division commanders for selling rice to the Viet Cong and dismissing three of his four region commanders. In addition, he forced four of his cabinet ministers to resign. But this hardly scratched the surface, and left top officials like Thieu himself, General Dang Van Quang, and Prime Minister Tran Thien Khiem and their wives untouched. They continued to make their fortunes in real estate and other business deals.

[NOTE OF EXPLANATION: Duong Van Mai Elliott’s book, The Sacred Willow, is a well-researched account of her family’s long history in Vietnam. Particularly interesting for me are the historical narratives of political intrigue and corruption that rooted themselves in the Republic of South Vietnam. The following excerpt from Elliott’s book recounts the general situation during the last several years of President Nguyen Van Thieu’s regime (1967-1975). Bold is my emphasis.]


But the huge American commitment did blunt the communist drive and buy time for Saigon. Instead of using that time wisely to consolidate the gains against the Viet Cong, however, the generals were squandering it in endless squabbles. By this time, they had monopolized power in Vietnam. The only faction that could have challenged them — the Buddhists — had been squashed for good. In September 1967, a semblance of stability returned. General Thieu finally outmaneuvered his rival Ky and became president in an election held at the urging of President Johnson. The election produced a surprise for the Americans: A candidate who advocated an end to the war got the second largest number of votes. Thieu quickly had him thrown in jail for five years. The new government did not gain in stature or popularity. Yet it did not matter, because Thieu had the support of the Americans, who at this point were backing him by default, to avoid making a bad situation worse. And he could buy loyalty from his key commanders through a growing web of corruption. Province and district chiefs could buy their posts, rake in money by diverting funds or trafficking in military supplies — and in some cases even smuggling drugs — pay their kickbacks to those above, and still make a fortune. My father, watching the shenanigans of the generals and officials, would shake his head in disgust and tell me, “With leaders like these, I’m not at all surprised that we’re not making any headway against the Viet Cong. It must be terribly frustrating for the Americans to be the patrons of such greedy idiots. One of these days, the Americans will have enough and they’ll pack up and go home, leaving us to fend for ourselves.” …

It was not surprising to anyone that many of the foot soldiers were not willing to die for a regime with such cynical leaders, a regime that talked about democracy and clean government but never acted on its promises. They saw no point in trying to win the goodwill of the peasants for a regime in which they themselves did not believe. Often, when they went on operation, they stole from the villagers. (Once, Giu [one of the author’s brothers] saw soldiers coming back from a sweep pulling an ox at the back of an armored personnel carrier.) Other problems that plagued an unmotivated army were a high desertion rate and, after general mobilization came into force, widespread draft dodging. As a military prosecutor, my brother Luong saw a long parade of people who tried to get out of the fighting. … he had obtained a law degree, which allowed him to switch to the military tribunal, the harshest in the land — at least for those without the connection or the money to obtain a favorable outcome from the presiding judge. It tried criminal cases involving the military, as well as civilian cases that fell under the broad rubrics of “disturbing order and security,” “treason,” and “hoarding and speculation.”

Some of these clients had powerful connections or were rich, and usually prearranged the outcome of their trials. They hired Luong as their defense lawyer only to maintain the façade that justice was being exercised; yet my brother, and his colleagues in the legal profession, did not question the charade, shrugging it off as the way things were in Saigon. Fortunately, in his private practice Luong had opportunities to help people who did not have the wherewithal to engineer their verdict and for whom the trials were real, such as deserters and draft dodgers from impoverished families. He did not seek them out or become their champion, but for those who came to him for help, he would argue their cases for free and, since their guilt was evident, try to get them a reduced sentence.

[NOTE OF EXPLANATION: Duong Van Mai Elliott’s book, The Sacred Willow, is a well-researched account of her family’s long history in Vietnam. Particularly interesting for me are the historical narratives of political intrigue and corruption that rooted themselves in the Republic of South Vietnam. The following excerpt from Elliott’s book recounts the general situation during the last several years of President Nguyen Van Thieu’s regime (1967-1975). Bold is my emphasis.]


In that early period, some of the Viet Cong prisoners as well as defectors also joined out of dissatisfaction with the Saigon regime. Usually, what pushed them to acting on their sympathy for the communist side was the behavior of the government itself. In fact, at the beginning, Saigon was unwittingly the best ally the Viet Cong had in recruiting peasants. Landlords came back with soldiers to collect back rent at gunpoint; soldiers swept through villages stealing from and roughing up, even murdering peasants; artillery shells landed on the peasants’ houses, maiming and killing their relatives; officials conscripted villagers to build strategic hamlets and then coerced them to move there. I remember one interview with a woman defector who gave me a graphic description of the construction of the strategic hamlet into which she and her family were eventually relocated. It reminded me of a scene from one of my history books, of a time when a Chinese emperor forced a multitude of peasants to erect the Great Wall with their bare hands. Incidents like these convinced the villagers that the Saigon government was “tyrannical,” which angered them and made them receptive to the Viet Cong.

… I could understand why these southern farmers decided that they had to fight to get rid of a regime — backed by a foreign power — that treated them and their families this way. … One day, Martha Gellhorn, an American reporter, asked me to accompany her to a hospital and translate for her. On this visit, I saw for the first time what the weapons were doing to real human beings. I saw children and adults who had lost limbs. I saw eyes staring out of heads swathed in blood, bandages. I saw a woman who had been burned by a phosphorous bomb, with peeling skin showing pink and raw flesh underneath. … I left shaken and more convinced than before that it was unfair to make the peasants bear the brunt of the suffering to save my family and other middle-class families from a communist system they felt they could not live under.

You may have stuck your dick into her

Pumped some lead into them

Declared yourself satisfied

The world is nothing without you, you bellow

But, you’re not the father of this country

Anymore than I’m a child of her abandonment

War was both a real and abstract occurrence in my life. I was born during and into a war being carried out in a relatively tiny country that I was taught to forget or not consider ‘real’ at all when I grew up as an American. Due to numerous political and economic circumstances, as well as sheer distance and the passage of time, my body and consciousness were well shielded from the ripping and tearing, the decay and degradation, and the dying moans of war.

Because I wasn’t told about it, I didn’t know; because the secreted past wasn’t acknowledged, I didn’t recognize my part in it.

My suburban lifestyle and the mentality that came with it, made the ir-reality of my past even more prominent. I melted in with everyone else and hardly ever thought of what made me different from my peers and other community members. My willingness to ‘pass’ was accepted as a natural stage of development because not to do so would have been the death of me. And, I really don’t think that’s an overstatement.

However, the more my pot was stirred, the more detritus came floating to the top. The truths of war and the aftereffects of others’ decisions in times of crises began expanding past the Keepers of Lies until I started noticing inconsistencies and uncomfortable silences cropped up when I asked inconvenient questions of the elders.

Like many a struggling teenager, I used music as a form of self-expression that went against the grain of the inauthenticity I noticed all around me. Certain songs from specific artists helped me comment on the state of the world and on my own life.

“One”, by Metallica, was a song that gave me a shove out of slack acceptance and woke me up to the stultifying stillness that had clouded my surroundings. It’s a song that starts with the soft, but building, sound of strafing machine gun fire and exploding bombs, as if you were just coming to after a long sleep. The first clanging guitar notes mark the descent into the main subject’s personal torment. Blind, deaf, mute and with no limbs to speak of, this stump of a war veteran is kept alive through the egos of others and the vanity of bureaucrats.

now that the war is through with me
I’m waking up, I cannot see
that there’s not much left of me
nothing is real but pain now

No one pays attention to his humanity because he cannot speak for himself and his vulnerable physical stature causes his caretakers to disregard his mental well-being (“I’m just a piece of meat that keeps on living.”). The guy lives his thoughts, dreams, nightmares and desires in his head, lives through time in a loop of childhood memories, and continually messages for help to end his misery (“Inside me I’m screaming, but nobody pays any attention. If I had arms, I’d kill myself; if I had legs, I could run away; if I had a voice, I could talk and be some kind of company to myself.”).

The italicized quotes come from the movie clips from “Johnny Got His Gun” (1971), which were incorporated into the music video for “One”. At the time, I took the anti-war commentary literally and viewed the song and video as a common critique of the popular glorification of war in our society.

From the benefit of hindsight, however, the song was speaking to me on a much more personal level. The speechless and devalued stump lying on the hospital bed was how I felt whenever I delved into my actual role in my family and in my community. I was simply kept alive for someone else’s amusement, or out of someone else’s sense of duty and responsibility, or because I fit nicely on the mantel for my parents’ friends to gaze at and comment upon.

fed through the tube that sticks in me
just like a wartime novelty
tied to machines that make me be
cut this life off from me

To be made an orphan by the war on the Vietnamese, allowed a segment of the American population to take pity on my predicament. In my mind, the predicament is really this: how does one bring in and raise a child of the enemy? What sort of mental calculations had to be made to account for the fact that these people who brought me into their community to live and become a citizen among them were the same ones who did nothing to end their government’s willful killing off of my countrymen and women?

Well, I think I can offer one educated guess as to how they accomplished this feat: They gave me a second chance. And, I could take it or leave it. My survival, my well-being and my happiness were placed squarely on my shoulders.

My family, my community and the people of the United States could then sit back and pat themselves on the back that at least one good thing came out of that war: I was alive due to their charity.

Now, all I had to do was forgive and forget.


A blog by three adult Vietnamese adoptees as they move forward, reflect back and express their thoughts on just about everything in between. More...

Anh Ðào Kolbe

Kevin Minh Allen

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