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Altered Perceptions

Family Cruise: Joe on Honor


HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam – Muriel is my favorite lady on ship. She's 89, a former grammar teacher, and the wife of a fellow named Wink. She is sweeter than broiled peaches and brown sugar for breakfast. But as we approach the Mekong Delta, she tells me about her son, a fighter pilot, who was shot down here. She still has tears to shed for his loss.

I was too young to serve in Vietnam or even to form much of an opinion about the war, and my son has fortunately never experienced war firsthand. In fact, I can't ever remember talking to Paul about war or duty or honor. It was never a big family matter. Although his granddads are both ex-servicemen, their medals are in drawers, not display cases.

Ho Chi Minh City is the former Saigon, the one-time capital of South Vietnam. Nearby are the Cu Chi Tunnels, a 75-mile underground network that is indicative of the Communists' guerrilla tactics. The area saw intense fighting. Indeed, many of the villagers we glimpse through our bus window probably had family killed by Americans. Yet the hands they raise toward us are waves, not fists.

Cu Chi is a memorial park now. Paul and I watch an introductory film, then embark on the guided tour, which features booby-trap exhibits, uniformed mannequins, tunnel crawls, a gift shop, and the opportunity to fire AK-47s and machine guns at $1 per bullet. There's a weird amusement-park feel to it all that's bothersome, since this is holy ground. But why do I expect reverence in a place like this? What is it about war that's supposed to be worshipped?

As I interact with the Vietnamese, it's reinforced to me that people don't wage war, governments do. And while some Americans still wince at the memory of our efforts here, to the Vietnamese we are just the latest in a long line of vanquished invaders. And maybe that's why there's no palpable animosity toward us, why the Vietnamese seem so willing to forget. Beyond that knowledge, they realize grudges interfere with progress, and that's what the whole country is obsessed with now.

We end our day's tour at the War Cemetery, where rows of white tombs with red headstones march off into the distance. Tens of thousands of Viet Cong rest here. I'm surprised at how sad I feel. This was the enemy after all. But the Communist flag with its gold star and blood-red field still flies overhead. And in the graveyard's center square is a giant statue of a mother holding her dying soldier-son and shedding a tear. It's a Viet Cong mother, but it just as easily could be Muriel.

The holiness I feel, my desire to kneel, does not stem from the worship of war but from its tragedy. The best thing we can do as fathers is to take our children to places like this and let them feel it, too. Consider it our duty, the honorable thing to do. And maybe, one by one, our sons will form a new army that will finally make a difference—one that fights just as valiantly for a cause, but without guns or bloodshed.

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