IN VIETNAM I FOUND PEACE
On July 21, 1954, Vietnam was divided into two sections, the communist North and the capitalist South. The United States responded by sending more and more of its sons to Vietnam, into a war, in which success was measured by the fallen, the body count of the North Vietnamese Army. The youth followed with the illusion to save South Vietnam of becoming enslaved by the communist North. After years of killing, the patriotism of the early years dwindled, giving way to anti-war protests, when the uprising of new media and technology made the images and stories of human rights violations accessible to the public. On April 30, 1975, the communist North conquered Saigon, the capital of the capitalist South. When Saigon fell, the United States declared the war officially over. The once celebrated American soldiers, having come of age in a war zone, returned home and carried the nightmares of the battlefield with them. Upon their return, those who served in Vietnam were portrayed as baby killers, psychos, drug addicts and warmongers for many years after.
Forty years later, these young adults are old men. With advancing age, they increasingly forget the details of their lives, but never those of their time in Vietnam. Guilt and powerlessness are some of the feelings which are still vivid as if not a day had passed. The downward spiral of self-destruction has become a silent killer: According to a study by the Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention, the number of US veterans who fought in the Vietnam War and committed suicide is higher than the number of fallen American soldiers during the Vietnam war itself.
The mental illness that afflicts many veterans is labeled post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It manifests itself as a form of sleep disturbance, irritability, difficulty of concentration and increased alertness. Sometimes they can no longer remember important aspects of the traumatic experience. In the daytime, PTSD triggers flashbacks and anxiety attacks, in the nighttime, the trauma comes back in dreams.
For some Veterans, the solution for dealing with the past became returning or moving permanently to Vietnam. Only by being exposed daily to the place where all the suffering had started, could they deal with their trauma and attempt to overcome it. Today, these veterans call Vietnam their home – not the United States
Bill Harris (70) was a security police officer in Cam Ranh for two years. Since 1996 he has been living in Vietnam.
“I arrived in Vietnam at a very young age of 19 and left the country as a very old 21-year-old. I still have my mental health issues, but I feel better here than in the United States. I remember events and stories that have happened, but now these memories are being replaced by good new ones.“
David Clark (69) was stationed as a Marine near the Marble Mountains for a year. Since 2010 he has been living in Vietnam.
“When I’m in the US, the Vietnam War haunts me day and night. In Vietnam, strange as it may sound, I have found peace. Only on anniversaries of the war, when friends die or when I get sick, then all the grief and horror suddenly come back. It’s like trying to find a space at a parking lot, but there is none. The parking lot is your head, the circles of the car are the terrible thoughts that never stop. That’s how I would describe post-traumatic stress disorder.“
Chuck Searcy (73) served for one year as an intelligence analyst at the Combined Intelligence Center Vietnam (CICV). Since 1999 he has been living in Vietnam.
“For a long time, PTSD was not taken seriously. Only in the more recent years has it become clear that trauma from the war will not let people go for years to come. When US veterans are warmly welcomed by Vietnamese, many feel like it’s the first time they have truly been forgiven.”
Nguyen Ngoc Hung (70) fought as a North Vietnamese soldier for six years and was one of the first North Vietnamese to visit the United States in 1999.
“After the war, the country was very poor, but the population cared for the wounds and pains of our veterans. We were very respected when we returned to our homes, we were greeted by the loving arms of our families and communities. In 1990, I was invited by the American television station CBS to the US to give lectures to US veterans. At first, it was difficult for me to meet US veterans and tell them my story. But later I heard from them that my experiences were very similar to theirs. Friends who died and who they had to bury them during the ongoing operation. For the first time, we met as humans."
For Bill Harris, David Clark and Chuck Searcy returning to Vietnam permanently meant focusing dealing with the legacy of war. Today, these men are anti-war activists, who highlight the importance of supporting the Vietnamese veteran community. They organize motorcycle tours to historically relevant places and visit the victims of Agent Orange attacks, a herbicide and defoliant chemical, once used by the US military as part of their warfare program. The aftermath of the use of Agent Orange, both among the Vietnamese people and the US military, resulted in severe health issues - such as cancer, psychological and neurological problems, and birth defects. The consequences of the war are still devastating for North Vietnamese veteran Nguyen Ngoc Hung, despite his country having largely moved on from the past. Hung was one of the first North Vietnamese to visit the United States in the 90s to publicly forgive US veterans. For him and many others, the war was a devastating experience, but the support of the Vietnamese community helped to rebuild the country and also to fix the broken minds of the Vietnamese veterans.
War is a never-ending story with no winners, but seeing how Bill, David and Chuck found a way to help rebuild Vietnam as well as dealing with their own inner demons, could become a role model for veterans of other wars, that are suffering from PTSD hope to maybe someday do the same.
It not only feels like Vietnam has forgiven the American veterans, but in weird twist also idolizes everything connected with the United States. The ever-present influence of American pop culture was once highlighted by the photographers Hahn + Hartung. In the project “Texas Saigon“, the photographers took a closer look at a country under communist rule that had opened up, with a new generation being highly exposed to growing Western influence. The photographers state: “Even though America lost the war, capitalism finally triumphed and the remains of the war serve its prosperity. Roughly 40 years after the conflict ended, the absurdity of war and its consequences are as obvious as ever.“
When American troops were in Vietnam, Danang was one of the world's busiest aircraft hubs during the war and a destination for rest and recreation. The stretch of beach famously known as China Beach is now dominated by a long line of lavish luxury hotels and five-star golf courses. Not far from the Beach Tams Pub and Surf Shop often serves as the first point of contact for Americans looking to reconnect with their past whilst visiting Da Nang. The owner not only worked closely with the American soldiers during the war as a translator but also adores everything American. The walls of the restaurant are covered with images of the Vietnam War. Next to countless images, relics can be found: pieces of uniforms and weapons of American soldiers covered in dirt for decades until finally being given a second life in a shrine at the pub. The aged military relics show how much time has passed since the end of the war.
Even 40 later, the Veterans are trapped between the past and the present. To archive, this split on an experimental level, the colors red and blue became tools to help to see an old story in a new light. With closed eyes, the Veterans were asked to remember a significant moment of the past that changed everything for them. The results are raw experimental portraits of men who found peace.