In the Vietnam War, most American soldiers did not die in conventional battles, but in small numbers day in and day out by ambush. Patrol was the most dangerous assignment they had.
I won’t compare any figurative ambush I have experienced in Vietnam with the heart-pumping terror and consequences of the real thing, but the word itself is so apt for the emotional reactions that have hit me while visiting here.
I expected the war to serve as the backdrop of all my experiences, but didn’t know how. Now I do.
It comes when you look around a market and start dividing the people you see into those who lived through it and those too young to remember.
It comes when a tour guide casually brings up a name like Hamburger Hill as we pass by an otherwise undifferentiated tangle of greenery.
It comes when you drive by the abandoned Da Nang air base, with high-end beach resorts literally on the other side of the road from the rusted and abandoned airplane hangars, and realize there was nothing between the beach and the base at the time, and that where the resorts stand is where GIs waded ashore.
It comes when you look around Cathedral Square in Ho Chi Minh City, and suddenly realize that on top of an old building now dwarfed by the high rise behind it, is the tower where the helicopters landed in April 1975 to take the last escapees to safety. The ladder they climbed to reach the helipad is gone, but so, so easy to imagine.
It comes when you suddenly see a scarred and maimed body, evidence of the crippling damage of Agent Orange, napalm and land mines.
It comes when you are driving through rice fields and are told some of the graves you see scattered about are of people the farmers found shot dead on that spot and gave a decent burial to without caring who they were, and you realize in that instant just how profoundly decent the Vietnamese are, even in those terrible circumstances.
It comes when you realize you just want to keep saying “I’m sorry” all day long to these lovely, gentle, friendly people, who really, truly seem to have put it behind them. They are doing a better job of that than I am, and I have another week of ambushes to go.
Bring it on. I would much rather remember than forget.