Book review: ‘A Vietnam Presence’

Aug 28, 2017 by

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Beyond the history books, articles, memoirs and novels published about the U.S. war in Vietnam, Luke S. Martin’s A Vietnam Presence stands apart, presenting an entirely new context.

"A Vietnam Presence"

“A Vietnam Presence”

Martin takes a forceful look at important events and efforts by American volunteers — missionaries, social workers, clinicians, community development and agricultural workers and their supporting agencies — who were not part of the American military presence. These individuals are typically left out of most writing about America’s war in Vietnam.

Martin’s book is essential reading for anyone interested in understanding what was happening in Vietnam from the 1954 separation of North and South to the fall of Saigon in 1975 — and particularly the stories of Americans who came to ease human suffering and spread the gospel rather than to fight.

The author, who lived with his family in Vietnam from 1962 to 1975, focuses on the experiences of the Mennonite community that began working in South Vietnam in 1954 and still has a presence there today. But this is not simply a Mennonite story. It is also a story of the Vietnamese people caught up in an overwhelming U.S. military presence and the work of largely American civilian volunteers who worked alongside the Vietnamese in attempting to temper the horrendous impact of the war.

The volunteers came from many walks of life. They included Mennonite missionaries and other Mennonites working to provide material aid such as food and clothing, Christian and Missionary Alliance missionaries, volunteers serving their alternative service commitment as conscientious objectors, social workers and clinicians, Quakers from the American Friends Service Committee. As the author documents, they not always work in harmony with each other, nor at times with the Vietnamese or the American military.

Most of the volunteers described in the book came to Vietnam under religious organizational sponsorship and were committed to demonstrating their Christian faith through their presence in Vietnam. However, there was a continuum of religious expression among the volunteers, from those who were: 1) comfortable that their presence alone was sufficient to demonstrate their faith; to 2) those committed to building of churches and helping to create Christian religious experiences and expression among the Vietnamese population. This continuum itself created tensions and challenges among many of the volunteers, regardless of how they had arrived in Vietnam.

Martin divides the book into three sections covering different time periods: Engagement, 1954-1963; Partnership, 1964-1970; and Transition, 1971-1975. A brief afterward documents the continuation of Mennonite Central Committee material aid efforts after the change in the government.

Each of the book’s three time periods is marked by major organizational and military events. “Engagement” begins with the 1954 separation of North and South Vietnam at the Ben Hai River. This coincides with the arrival of Mennonite missionaries. “Partnership” highlights the expansion of the American war presence and the development of cooperative organizational structures among Mennonites and other Protestant groups. “Transition” documents how the challenges these organizations faced drove them to re-examine their goals and led to organizational realignments during the time of a diminishing American military presence leading up to the April 1975 fall of Saigon.

Even with these clear demarcations of time and events, Martin documents themes that endured through each of the time periods. The heart of the story is the challenge Mennonites faced in proclaiming the gospel of peace while the U.S. engaged in a conflict that killed 3 million Vietnamese.

A Vietnam Presence is an extraordinary work, especially valuable for those who have never been to Vietnam but seek to understand the war years. Martin brings the reader close not only to the action but to the people, Vietnamese and American, who experienced it firsthand. His insights are likely not available in any other written accounts. He brings the reader along through the challenges nonmilitary personnel faced in attempting to reach out to the Vietnamese people in spite of an overwhelming American military presence.

In our digital age, it is refreshing to learn from documentation based on written reports, letters, news articles and personal conversations — many in the Vietnamese language — that Martin uses in telling the story. In an era where “documentation” is provided through Facebook, Tweets and email messages, our ability to learn from and understand historical events from original sources may be severely compromised.

Lynn Harold Vogel served from 1969 to 1971 with Vietnam Christian Service, fulfilling his alternative service as a conscientious objector.


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