A Culpable Innocence

Chapter 25: The American Dream (pg. 307)


It was not shame or anger that he felt during the flight to L.A. Remembering his mother’s disappointment did not generate the confusion it had in the past when he was torn between her disapproval and his urge to rebel. Rather, he felt ecstatic, not unlike the high he experienced when he lied to the Deputy Ambassador’s assistant about his relationship with Michelle. There no longer seemed to be any rules that could govern him, except those he personally valued. The flight was now past the halfway point. Regis began to fidget in his seat with a growing impatience. He was a kid again, inching forward in line at his favorite amusement park ride. Soon the plane would be landing, and Sharon would be waiting for him. Probably, he told himself, she would look different than what he imagined. Nevertheless, she would be there, and he would know her at once. With each minute that passed, his nerves seemed to stretch tighter.

In order to distract his mind and calm his nerves, he opened the “San Francisco Chronicle” he had picked up in the airport. The headline had attracted his attention: “Huge War Protest in DC.” Browsing the article, he was shocked at the size of the event. “Stars and Stripes” had carried only passing reference to the anti-war movement. Some of what he now read really irritated him because the protesters seemed to hold the soldiers as responsible as the government. Regis saw them mostly as victims and some, as heroes. He wondered how a Vietnam War veteran like Antwaan or Erickson would be received or remembered. Other articles and editorials also surprised him. They quoted military press briefings without offering any interpretation or insight into their meaning. It disturbed Regis that the journalists seemed so incapable of challenging the alleged facts and figures touted by the military or of seeing past the statistics. “Body counts,” for example, were reported without reservation. They were the military’s scorecard for success. Yet, Regis knew, they were artificially manufactured numbers with little substance behind them. Regis recalled that Erickson never counted the dead in the cave, that no one matched up all the body parts of the massacred PleikuVC battalion in order to get an accurate body count, that the millions of tons of bombs dropped along the Ho Chi Minh trail killed indiscriminately and bore no witness to their victims’ fate, that Antwaan’s Brigade like other units operating in free-fire zones annihilated whole villages without any accounting of actual enemy combatants. Body counts served as blinders that demonstrated American prowess in head-to-head combat which, except for Tet, the enemy judicially avoided. Maybe all they really showed was the extent to which the Vietnamese would go in order to throw out the foreign invaders. But they had little bearing on changing the underlying nature of a civil strife between differing ideological, ethnic, political, and religious parties.

Washington bureaucrats and politicians seemed to bias the journalistic focus in the same way. Editorials offered pragmatic criticism of the administration’s strategies and campaign tactics without reflection on the war’s real import. They catered to Washington’s control of the policy debate in terms of geopolitical advantage, the preservation of America’s prestige, economic cost effectiveness, and public opinion polls. Ideological and pragmatic considerations were seen through American lenses without regard for the Vietnamese perspective or for the real costs to humanity—both Vietnamese and American. Regis had come to understand that this war was simply a failure of American diplomacy, that it was waged without reference to the cultural, social, and human situation of the Vietnamese people, that probably every war is to some degree indiscriminate in its slaughter, and that the Vietnam War had simply raised the bar to a new level of atrocity.

He wondered how an average American would be affected after one evening spent at Nguyen Ba Linh’s dinner table. What would be the reaction to the torture of an idealistic young woman like Michelle? Would the deaths of Tam and her family not be seen as human trajedies? Then a sidebar column caught Regis’ attention. There was a brief announcement from General Westmoreland’s office: MACV was planning to abandon Khe Sanh. On the day Regis left the hospital at Cam Ranh Bay, news that the siege had been lifted had spread like wild fire. Highway 9 had been recaptured. Supplies and medical assistance would finally flow freely into the badly battered Marine base. Now, barely two months later, the largest military outpost close to the DMZ was about to be abandoned. Regis recalled Linh’s prediction that America would eventually leave Vietnam because there was nothing there to be won. The battle for Khe Sanh was a metaphor for the whole war. The Marines had never defeated the NVA there, although they inflicted brutally heavy casualties. For the North, the battle was merely a diversion to tie down the Americans while attempting to take control of the rest of the country. American intelligence could not foresee what Michelle had known from the start: the moment in history for Vietnam to become one nation was at hand. American battlefield supremacy had been rendered irrelevant. Regis could not read further. He discarded the paper in the seat pocket facing him. It had replaced his nervous impatience with unwelcome anger. He would rather deal with the eminently looming prospect of seeing Sharon.

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