Iraq Massacre Can’t Shake Vietnamese- American Support for U.S. Troops

June 14, 2006

Iraq Massacre Can't Shake Vietnamese- American Support for U.S. Troops



New America Media, News Feature, Andrew Lam, Jun 13, 2006

Editor's Note: Though many Vietnamese-Americans see parallels between My Lai and Haditha, most remain solidly behind President Bush's policy in Iraq. Andrew Lam is a New America Media editor and the author of "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora" (Heyday Books, 2005).

SAN FRANCISCO–Of all ethnic groups in America, the most conservative and pro-war is undoubtedly the Vietnamese. While San Francisco was flooded with anti-war demonstrators during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in April 2002, Vietnamese in Orange County marched to support the U.S. troops. "We Love Our Troops," was one of two signs that hung in front of Little Saigon's biggest shopping mall on Bolsa Avenue in Orange County, where the largest Vietnamese population in the United States resides. "We support President Bush" was the other.

Their points of view will not be swayed easily, many Vietnamese are now saying, even as U.S. Marines are being accused of killing 24 civilians in Haditha, Iraq, last November, after a roadside bomb killed one of their own. Nor do they find the parallels with My Lai — where hundreds of Vietnamese civilians were massacred by U.S. soldiers in March 1968 — compelling enough to change their opinions.

"Images of My Lai undoubtedly helped strengthen the American anti-war movement," notes Dung Ngo in the op-ed page of Nguoi Viet, the largest Vietnamese language paper in the United States. "Now, with Haditha, Americans are asking why: Why would soldiers in most respected corps of U.S. Army shoot civilians they were sent to 'liberate?'" But Ngo concludes that "while in Vietnam, people won't have that ability to ask publicly under a communist dictatorship, in the U.S., in a democracy, you can. Hadithta will be covered extensively. That's healthy."

Linda Vo, a professor of Asian American studies at U.C. Irvine, says that Haditha does have an eerie resemblance to My Lai. "It seems there's more accountability this time and I hope that this is because of what happened during the Vietnam War, that we've learned a lesson from the past." However, she doesn't think Haditha will change the minds of Vietnamese Americans who support the war.

More than 1.2 million Vietnamese reside in the United States.

This reporter's father, former Lt. Gen. Lam Quang Thi of the South Vietnamese army, says that, "Innocent people are killed in any war, conventional or unconventional. For example: the Nazi crimes in Europe and the Japanese massacre at Nanking during WWII. The difference is that it is a policy for dictatorial regimes and an accident or breakdown in discipline for Western democracies."

On the other hand, General Lam, author of a Vietnam war memoir called "The 25 Year Century," says that while his support for the war is unwavering, he's angry at the U.S. military's indiscriminate killings in Iraq. "I think it is mandatory for the U.S. generals in Iraq to clearly spell out the rules of engagement, and any violations should be severely punished."

Phu Bui, a high school teacher in East Bay and a writer for many Vietnamese American publications, agrees: "American soldiers, whether serving the country at home or abroad, have to follow codes of conduct." Vietnamese Americans won't see Haditha as a turning point in the war, Phu predicts. Vietnamese, he says, understand the consequences of losing wars. "We had long wars throughout our history."

Sympathies too are given to the U.S. soldiers involved in Haditha. "When you put a lot of stress on people who carry guns, things like this are bound to happen sooner or later," says Hao Nhien, managing editor of Nguoi Viet. "When I think of the Haditha massacre, even if everything happened the way witnesses are claiming, I still think the Marines are also victims."

Quang X. Pham, author of "A Sense of Duty" and a former lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, says that "the grunts are always under the microscope," while the media often ignores bombing from the air, which kills thousands of innocent civilians. Both My Lai and Haditha, Pham says, affect the American media and society more than the troops in the field. Pham, who flew helicopter missions in Operation Desert Storm and Mogadishu, Somalia, believes that "Haditha was an anomaly, not the norm. The troops now are not draftees and the officers are not like Lieutenant Calley [who led the killing in My Lai]."

But Pham adds that two of his Vietnam War heroes are "former helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson and his gunner Lawrence Colburn, who confronted the GIs and stopped the killing [in My Lai] at the risk of their own life."

If My Lai still haunts Americans who remember the war, for many Vietnamese who lived through that drawn-out, bloody conflict and came to America, the deaths of a few hundred Vietnamese pale in comparison to subsequent atrocities — re-education camps, forced labor in new economic zones, arrests without due process — that the North Vietnamese inflicted upon the South after the war ended. The lesson for many is that despite atrocities committed by all sides, to lose a war is far worse.

"I am in full support for our troops in Iraq," says Thuy Nguyen, who lost two family members to the Vietnam War and fled overseas when communist tanks rolled into Saigon. "We need a strong army," she says. "We need to win in Iraq, no matter what. More innocent people will die if we pull out."

Younger Vietnamese Americans, however, offer far more mixed views.
Hong Tran, 40, is a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate from Washington State. "I support the quick withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq," she writes on her Web site. "The U.S. invasion of Iraq was a mistake that cost thousands of lives, billions of dollars, and has increased regional instability."

Binh Danh, 31, an artist famous for his Vietnam War images imprinted on leaves, says that the Iraq war is "a big mess, and in the Haditha case, like My Lai, the American Marines took it out on the local people."

Danh says he is not too optimistic that incidents like Haditha will sway the conservative Vietnamese American community. "I feel that their own American nationalism plays out in these times, to be loyal to this country, to not question our government."

image by Binh Danh

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