HANOI -- American and Vietnamese soldiers who used to shoot at each other read poems to each other this week during an extraordinary two-day writers conference in this capital bombed by the United States during the Vietnam War.
The aim of this first such conference, its sponsors said, was to spur reconciliation of the United States and Vietnam through the work of those who fought in the war and then went home to write about it, rather than wait for their governments to reach a formal accommodation.
W. D. Ehrhart, a U.S. Marine who fought in the Battle of Hue in 1968, received a warm response from the former enemy soldiers sitting across the table when he read a poem he'd written to try to explain his guilt about being part of the "terrible evil" of the war.
Recalling how he and his fellow Marines often terrorized Vietnamese villagers as they swept through the countryside, Ehrhart, in his poem, asked of those villagers: "When they tell stories to their children of the evil that awaits misbehavior, is it me they conjure?"
Several of the former North Vietnamese soldiers responded with stories about their own traumas during and after the "American war." In one poem, Tran Ninh Ho conveyed the feelings he had while searching for his buddy after a U.S. bombing raid: "The moment you're looking for your friend, everybody seems all strangers." He wrote that after the two soldiers found each other alive, "We both laughed while tears were running down our cheeks."
Vietnamese writer Nguyen Thi Ngoc Tu told the American veterans that she had taken pictures of "beautiful women" from the bodies of dead U.S. Marines and had always wondered if the Vietnam War had been as tough on American women as it had been on her. She said her own husband came home from the war only to die from chemical poisoning she said U.S. forces dropped on Vietnam.
The atmosphere of this unprecedented conference of writer-veterans was one of mutual curiosity. Eschewing propagandistic polemics about the "glorious revolution" and aggressor Americans, the Vietnamese participants emphasized forgetting who won or lost and entering a new era of normal relationships between the two countries.
Vietnamese government officials appear most interested in having the U.S. economic embargo lifted, clearing the way for trade and perhaps economic aid. Officials here acknowledge that their economy, though improved by increased food production, is still extremely fragile. The primary need, they say, is reconstruction of the nation's roads, bridges and rail lines.
Joint sponsors of the writers conference, which concluded Thursday, were the Joiner Center of the University of Massachusetts and the Vietnam Writers' Union. U.S. delegates to the conference included Philip Caputo ("A Rumor of War"), Larry Heinemann ("Paco's Story"), Yusef Komunyakaa ("Dien Cai Dau") and Bruce Weigl ("Song of Napalm").
Caputo, a former Marine platoon leader in Vietnam, said during one of the many exchanges with his former enemies that the Vietnam War exploded the myth that the United States had "a manifest destiny to put little Americas all around the world."