Two Places – What is Real These Days?

This weekend I was in Santa Monica. It’s a magical place; but there is something surreal about it. I think it’s because I can’t help comparing it to Vietnam and the contrast is so astonishing. Don’t get me wrong; Santa Monica is fabulous. This morning I grabbed a coffee and walked along the boardwalk, actually a paved multi-use walkway that borders the beach. On Sunday morning, probably every morning, the whole spectrum of humanity is there to feast on – runners, walkers, roller-bladers, cyclists, people in wheelchairs, little people, BIG people, tall bikini clad girls with after-market augmentation, children, Russian speakers, Spanish speakers, Arabic speakers, Asians, Africans, Europeans, gringos, dogs and a guy on a tricked out bike with a huge boombox broadcasting loud enough to carry from Malibu to Manhattan Beach. It’s a crazy wonderful kaleidoscopic visual treat. But I still think it’s a bit surreal.

I flew to LA on Saturday to help arrange an event that will honor a doctor who has been helping the people of Vietnam ever since he served there as a Navy doc 35 years ago. Peter is not a saint, but he does have a big heart and he wants to help reverse some impressions America left with the Vietnamese those long years ago. Not that he needs to do it for the Vietnamese, 65% of that population was born after the war and most of the others have forgiven us or moved on. I have never felt the least bit of resentment toward me as an American, even though America did terrible things to the people and the landscape. Vietnam is fresh in my mind. I’ve been back in the US about a month and I’m still involved with my office in Saigon on a daily basis. I work with my staff there early in the morning and late at night when it’s business hours there. I can almost see the traffic, hear the noise, feel the heat, and smell the smells as if I was actually there. I suppose that’s why Santa Monica seems surreal. It’s such a contrast.

I think the contrast is heightened because in the last 3 months I’ve read two Vietnam war novels; one just released and written by a former Marine platoon commander and the other a few years older by a former NVA soldier who left Hanoi in 1965 and spent the next 10 years in the jungle. Their stories are not that different – not nearly as different as the contrast between Santa Monica and Saigon. The American novel is called Matterhorn, and the author, Karl Marlantes, spent 30 years putting it together. The Vietnamese novel is The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh. It’s one of the most powerful novels I’ve ever read. Karl’s may be in the same category. I haven’t met Bao Ninh and probably never will but I had lunch with Karl Marlantes today. He lives just a few miles from me, and my friend, Kit Duane, edited his book.

I had lunch with another Vietnam vet recently and we agreed that the war in Vietnam, what the Vietnamese call the American War, was the single most important geopolitical event of our respective lifetimes. It has shaped and reshaped the thinking of my generation, My son, Doug, spent 9 months in Afghanistan in 2002 and it’s likely he’ll be there again in 2011. That will be his war. I don’t want him to go, but he’s a Special Forces warrior and it’s part of his contract if he does. Nobody wins these things. If you read Matterhorn or The Sorrow of War you get two sides of the same terrible story – carnage, death, misery, vanity, and a crippling sense of the futility of it all. Santa Monica seems like a dream, war is a nightmare. Saigon has emerged from the nightmare, but it has a long way to go before it feels like Santa Monica.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *