The boys came home, but the wounds of war didn’t really heal. Muller believed the antidote was reconciliation between the United States and Vietnam and that it was the veterans, not the government, who were the appropriate ones to begin a dialogue with Hanoi. In 1981, he led the first group of U.S. vets to return to Vietnam since the war. He could find only one business willing to underwrite the trip—Penthouse magazine.
“Vietnam was really off-limits then,” Muller recalled. “Good Morning, America gave me a camcorder and said, ‘Shoot anything.’ But we were re¬ceived with total grace and friendship and courtesy. I was blown away. And I went home and told vets, ‘Come on, you can do this. You gotta do this.’” Before leaving Hanoi, Muller and his delegation laid a wreath at the memorial for North Vietnam’s war dead, with the agreement no pho¬tographs be taken. The card they attached to it said simply, “With re¬spect, Vietnam Veterans of America.” Two hundred death threats poured into Muller’s Washington, D.C., office.
Muller has come back to Vietnam often since then, to oversee the health-related projects his nonprofit group operates, including one that provides prosthetic limbs to landmine victims. Vietnam’s countryside is still strewn with 3.5 million unexploded landmines, which, since the war ended, have claimed the lives of 38,000 civilians—-just a third less than the total number of Americans killed during ten years of war.
It was getting toward late afternoon, and shadows swept over the cemetery. The only sound was a barking dog somewhere down the road. The gardeners had gone home, leaving the caretaker to await our return. Around us the world felt peaceful and lonely. Muller wheeled his way up to the visitors’ center. Crunch, crunch, crunch. He opened the guest register and wrote:
The magnitude of the Vietnamese people’s suffering is hard to imagine even though we are so connected in our history and hearts. Let these sacri¬fices inform and inspire all of us to continue working for peace, healing and to prevent anything like what happened here from happening again.
ANYONE WHO ISN’T MOVED by military cemeteries has a stone heart. I can lose myself for hours in U.S. Civil War burial grounds. I have wan¬dered through the U.S. World War II cemetery in Manila and Egypt’s desert graveyard at El-Alamein and Thailand’s cemetery in Kan- chanaburi for the Allies who built the bridge over the River Kwai. I think the manner in which a nation honors its war dead—and, indeed, treats its living who have answered the call—says something about the traditions and civility of the country. In Hanoi, I arranged a half-dozen interviews with veterans groups and government officials to talk about benefits for military families and the role of former soldiers in society. Vietnam had 4 million veterans after thirty years of war, and the Veterans’ Association of Vietnam was one of the country’s most powerful mass organizations. Viet¬nam, 1 was told, had not forgotten the sacrifices. Mothers of soldiers killed in battle received a one-time payment of $272 and a lifelong monthly pension of $21 dollars, in addition to free medical care. They were honored as “Heroic Mothers”—similar to Gold Star Mothers in the United States—and, along with war widows, afforded priority in getting jobs. The government ensured that their boys were buried in pristine cemeteries, like the one near Dong Ha, and that families received support in the search for sons and husbands whose remains had never been found.
“There is a saying in Vietnam that when you drink the water, you re¬member the source,” Huynh Van Trinh, an official with the veterans asso¬ciation, told me. “And the men and women who served their country are the source of our strength. For those who fell, taking care of their moth¬ers is the duty not just of the government but of all society.”
I was impressed. But I made a naive assumption. I assumed that since Vietnam was unified and Ho Chi Minh had long advocated reconcilia¬tion between the two Vietnams, all mothers received the same respect and all former soldiers were entitled to the same dignity. So I never said, “We’re talking about all Vietnamese, right, whether from the North or the South?” Had I asked that, I would have been told, no, just the ones from the North. The Southerners who hadn’t been revolutionaries grieved silently. They received nothing, not even a burial place for their sons and husbands. The North had Retsy (martyrs), the South had nguy (puppets).