‘Just memory’ of Vietnam

44 years after war ended, its effects linger in health problems

Oct 7, 2019 by and

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HANOI, Vietnam — My husband, Josh Kvernen, and I visited Nguyen Thi Thanh, a 74-year-old woman living in the central part of Vietnam, as we laid the groundwork for a 2018 Mennonite Central Committee learning tour to the area. She was angry.

“The poison [dioxin] has brought sorrow on the Vietnamese people, and my family in particular,” she shouted. “Why did you bring this poison to us here?”

Phung Thi Tuyet carries her teenage son Tran Minh Son to see the cow they received from MCC’s partner, Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange, to help with the family’s income and security. Tran Minh Son suffers from severe disabilities from birth, a side effect of exposure to Agent ­Orange, but considers the cow his own. — Matthew Sawatzky/MCC

Phung Thi Tuyet carries her teenage son Tran Minh Son to see the cow they received from MCC’s partner, Vietnam Association for Victims of Agent Orange, to help with the family’s income and security. Tran Minh Son suffers from severe disabilities from birth, a side effect of exposure to Agent ­Orange, but considers the cow his own. — Matthew Sawatzky/MCC

She was addressing her words to us because we are from the United States, whose military used Agent Orange for 11 years during the war in Vietnam, which lasted from 1954 to 1975. This herbicide and chemical defoliant contained dioxin, a potent toxin that has since been shown to cause multigenerational birth defects and disabilities among those exposed to it.

She had good reason to be angry. Her husband had been bedridden for 10 years. He lay comatose on their bed, requiring her full-time care. During the war he served as a doctor, and he lived and worked in areas heavily sprayed by Agent Orange while he helped care for Vietnamese soldiers.

Ten years after the war he began to experience major health problems and had to stop working. His family connects his illness to his exposure to dioxin through the United States’ Agent Orange spray missions during the war. Their son also has intellectual and physical disabilities that prevent him from working and that could have been caused by dioxin exposure.

We sat with her and listened to her story. We apologized for what our country had done and for the enduring impact dioxin has had on her family. We explained that we also thought what the U.S. government did was wrong.

Since we were preparing to host an MCC learning tour from Canada and the U.S., we explained our hope that the tour participants would come to Vietnam and learn about the ongoing effects of war from  people like her. Then those people would be better able to petition the U.S. government for support for those affected by the war.

Our host asked that we encourage the U.S. government to take responsibility and give support to people like her family who are still affected by its war-time actions. By the end of our visit, she served us tea and invited us to visit again, which we later did with a learning tour. For better or worse, she was no longer angry by that visit.

What do we remember?

After having experiences like this in Vietnam, where we have served since 2016, we were taken aback while visiting Washington, D.C., during the summer of 2018. Hanging on the side of the National Archives was a large banner with the words, “Remembering Vietnam.” It took us a moment to understand that by “Vietnam,” the banner was referring to the U.S. wartime involvement there — not to the people of Vietnam, past or present. This is how we in the U.S. remember Vietnam — on our own terms and through our own eyes.

How can we remember better and more justly? In his book Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, the Vietnamese-American cultural critic and literature professor Viet Thanh Nguyen writes, “A just memory constantly tries to recall what might be forgotten,  accidentally or deliberately, through self-serving interests, the debilitating effects of trauma or the distraction offered by excessively remembering something else, such as the heroism of the nation’s soldiers.”

What have we forgotten in the 40-plus years since the war ended? Do we remember those who continue to be affected by the U.S. government’s actions?

Building a better peace

MCC seeks to engage in this “just memory” work through learning tours. We believe this work is part of our calling as followers of Christ to build a better peace. We do this work through bringing people to see and experience for themselves the legacy of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

To express interest in a future learning tour, email learningtour@mcc.org.

We take steps toward remembering more justly when we provide occupational therapy and cow bank programs that support communities living where the spraying of Agent Orange was especially heavy, and whose children and grandchildren still face higher levels of intellectual and physical disabilities.

Please join our “just memory” work by contacting your legislators and asking them to co-sponsor H.R. 326, a bill to fund Agent Orange cleanup in Vietnam and health-care assistance for people who have been affected. To learn more about the bill, visit washingtonmemo.org/portfolio/agent-orange.

Elisabeth Kvernen and her husband, Joshua Kvernen, from Washington, D.C., are connecting people coordinators for MCC in Vietnam.


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