The Vietnam War came into our homes in the 1960s and ’70s through the nightly news and newspaper headlines. We learned that three million Americans served in the war, 58,220 soldiers were killed and 150,000 were wounded.
We knew thousands of Americans came here to avoid the draft. We remember the fatal shooting at Kent State University, the riots at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago and the 1968 massacre at My Lai and platoon leader Lt. William Calley. What we don’t remember is that one to three million Vietnamese were killed in the war, and how others were affected by this heinous massacre.
One of them walked into my home the other day to install California shutters. For this column, I’ll call him Thic.
Thic was born in 1960, the same year as me. He remembers all too well the corpses piled up outside his home after America changed its policy and pulled its troops out of Vietnam.
Thic told me he was “scared” throughout his childhood in Saigon. Today, he often zones out imagining that hill of loss beside his family’s raised house.
“I wake up just seeing the dead people,” he said as he measured my windows.
Thic is anxious. A little shirty. Thic is tired. The elegance in his demeanour, though, reminded me of Phan Thi Kim Phúc, the little girl in the famous picture, running down a road naked near Trang Bàng, Vietnam, on June 8, 1972, after a napalm bomb was dropped on her village. I interviewed her once. She was the face of the war, but today she is mostly another forgotten survivor of another atrocious war.
I consider the people on our native reserves, in Rwanda, Cambodia, the Congo, Liberia, Sudan and in South America, where massacres were like omelettes (popular) and genocides chuckled like tricksters who pull your chair out from under you. I wondered how those people are doing, what they are fixing in people’s homes and how they’re sleeping.
I considered how many survivors are walking around our planet, their pain and suffering overshadowed by statistics and historical accounts of battles, the costs of the wars and their effect on our oil bills.
Our world is populated by Thics. More of them are being created every day in places like Southern Sudan, where children are being butchered once again while others are crawling into thickets with machete slashes to their heads. Their childhoods, like Thic’s, have been stolen.
One day, one of those grown-up children will deliver deep-dish pizza to our home or lay some laminate down in our Florida room. He’ll show up months after jumping a vessel in a Canadian harbour, after getting over his befuddlement about our sometimes careless, always blessed existence. When you see that scar on his cheek, ask him about it. (I wonder if our survivors were asked about their numbers by strangers.)
Once you’ve heard his story, figure he is suffering alone and that there aren’t too many Sudanese or Vietnamese Spielbergs out there recording his life. Then introduce him to someone in our community, maybe a survivor or maybe an Israeli who has suffered through wars. Go past the petition you signed for Darfurians and be a humanitarian matchmaker.
Make that one of the lessons of Holocaust education, Birthright and March of the Living – to help the Thics.