The integration of the veterans into the community reflected Viet¬nam’s belief that the best rehabilitation was not to isolate war invalids. Most of the vets, if they didn’t need continuing medical attention, were reabsorbed into families and villages, where the local populace granted them a large measure of lifetime respect in recognition of their sacrifice.
“Sometimes you see psychological scars of wartime experiences,” Dr. San said, “but most of the veterans have dealt with their injuries in an amazingly optimistic manner. One man has learned how to repair radios. Another is writing short stories. Several are learning English. You’ll find surprisingly little self-pity or bitterness.”
Dr. San introduced me to Nguyen Van Hoi, a lieutenant wounded in Quang Tri Province after a three-month trek down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. I told him I had spent a lot of time in the province in the late 1960s. We looked at each other for a moment in silent acknowledgment of a shared past. What passed between us is what the nineteenth-century Vietnamese poet Nguyen Trai must have had in mind when he wrote: “After war the people you meet differ so from former times.” I asked Hoi if he didn’t sometimes ask himself, what if?
“Sure I wonder what my life would have been like if no war had hap¬pened,” he said. “But if I am angry, it is mostly with myself. I need help to do anything. Eat. Dress. Piss. And that makes me angry. I see my friends feeding themselves, using the toilet, and I say, ‘If they can do that, why can’t I learn to take care of myself, too?”’
The center at Thuan Thanh was established in 1965, the year the United States began its sustained bombing of North Vietnam. Today all sixty-one provinces have similar facilities, and in principle soldiers from the defeated South were entitled to the same care Hoi and Nhop re¬ceived. In reality it didn’t work out that way. Priority went to the North¬ern victors. The Southerners, for the most part, were left to fend for themselves.
FIVE YEARS AFTER THUAN THANH RECEIVED ITS FIRST PATIENT, Bill Clinton, who had written, spoken, and marched against the war, sent a letter to the head of a local Arkansas ROTC, thanking him for “saving me from the draft,” which he called “illegitimate” for forcing men to fight a war they might oppose. It was a decision that would color his relation¬ship with GIs, past and present, when he became commander in chief of U.S. forces. But now, as my assignment in Hanoi was drawing to a close, Clinton, serving as president of the United States, was flying across the Pacific, headed for Vietnam. His state visit would symbolize all that was ironic and inexplicable about the war: The most prominent American to dodge the jungles of Vietnam was the one who would make reconcilia¬tion and closure a hallmark of his presidency.
“He has a lot of nerve [to go to Vietnam] after he dodged the draft and failed to do his part,” retired Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, a wartime chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told my Times colleague Robin Wright before she left Washington to travel with Clinton to Vietnam. “I wrote to the mothers of the men who were killed, and I know how they feci. I don’t sec how he has the nerve to go. It’s totally inappropriate.”
I couldn’t follow his reasoning. If Clinton didn’t move the relationship between the United States and Vietnam out of the past, who would? His successor, George W. Bush, who also had taken a pass on Vietnam and hardly ever left the shores of North America? Or were we to grieve and wrestle with guilt and redemption for another generation, as Robert Mc¬Namara had done in his books and his trips back to Hanoi to discuss “missed opportunities for peace” with former North Vietnamese com¬manders? (McNamara had expected a frank exchange of views. That’s not the Vietnamese’s style; they insisted the only ones who missed opportuni¬ties were the Americans by not going home earlier.) Yet Admiral Moorer was right in that Clinton did have nerve to make the trip, even if he had widespread bipartisan support at home for the trip. A lot was at stake: If Vietnam’s communist leadership decided to play hardball, Clinton stood to look like a fool; if he made one small misstep—if, for example, he paid tribute to Ho Chi Minh or laid a wreath at Hanoi’s memorial to its fallen soldiers or acknowledged that Agent Orange had caused birth deformi¬ties—he would anger millions in the United States.
Hanoi’s leadership was ambivalent about the visit. On one hand, senior officials very much wanted good relations with Washington, and they re¬alized the visit represented a kind of final triumph—an acceptance by Washington of Vietnam’s war-won unification and independence. On the other hand, they were nervous. If Clinton was confrontational on human rights and religious freedom, it would be embarrassing. If he was bom¬bastic on the strengths of democracy and the weaknesses of communism, his visit could be a catalyst for political change, particularly among the postwar generation. What the leadership did not want was a free ex¬change of ideas that might get people wondering if communism really was the best route for economic development and individual fulfillment. So the Old Guard opted to downplay the visit.
The news that Clinton was coming to Vietnam in four days was lim¬ited in the Vietnamese press to a thirty-four-word announcement. In Vietnam News, it appeared next to a long article in which a senior official urged journalists to have “firm political convictions” in order to “firmly defend socialist Vietnam.” No details of the visit were provided the rest of the week. The time of Clinton’s arrival wasn’t mentioned. Neither were the name of his hotel, the route his cavalcade would travel, his schedule, and whom he would meet. But the lapel buttons Coca-Cola executives passed out by the thousands—American and Vietnamese flags sprouting out of a Coke bottle—confirmed something big was afoot.