Thursday, July 4, 2013

Independence Day 2013

Today, Independence Day, 2013, like most Americans, I am thinking about freedom, the right to self-determination, and in a larger sense, human rights.

I have written before about how this journey to visit, photograph and honor Vietnam memorials around the nation has been fraught with incidents or coincidences for which I have absolutely no explanation. My wife attributes these to some greater plan that is ensuring that this work gets done, and done by me. I, on the other hand, scoff at this idea (and most others of this sort) but these things do keep happening. I am at a point where I no longer have much of an argument for her.

The latest of these events took place recently while we were in Texas. I had set up a schedule which included a long day trip to Houston and Galveston to see the memorials in these cities.

We had just this one day, so I was disappointed to arise to nasty weather.  It was cloudy, rainy, grey and completely uninviting. I stalled around hoping the day would improve. It did not and not, surprisingly, neither did my mood. The worse the weather got, the fouler my mood became. As you might guess these trips are not always easy and missed opportunities are not easily reclaimed.

When I was finally forced to give up on this long trip it was mid afternoon.  To try to salvage something, we decided to visit the LBJ Library in Austin, not too far from where we were staying. This, at least, would give me a chance to see a model of the proposed Vietnam Memorial that is to be constructed on the Capitol grounds.

As we were preparing to go, my wife said, “Maybe this means something else is supposed to happen.” And, as always, I scoffed. I said something like “Even if that is true, it certainly won’t happen if you expect it or ask for it!” 

While at the Johnson Library, I was surprised to find an exhibit by a local artist who had created a display of dog tags, accurately inscribed, with the names of the more than 3100 Texans who lost their lives in Vietnam. It was breathtaking and I was able to photograph it. (Pics of these and the model of the coming memorial will be posted on this site at a future time)

While speaking to a docent at the library, she suggested we take the time to go see ”What Austin used to be like” She directed us to the Congress Street section of town where we found eclectic stores and restaurants and a whole array of Food Trucks, for which the area has become famous.

As we walked the streets we passed a book store. In the window was a large format photo book called Vietnam in Flames.    

What immediately caught my eye was that it was by two Vietnamese authors. I thought that it might have an interesting perspective.

 I went in and pulled it out of the window and began paging through it. It turns out that the authors were actually photographers and it was filled with photos of the war. Then I noticed a note on the first page inside. Handwritten was “Inscribed by the Prime Minister to the National Security Advisor.”  I paged over to find a hand written inscription that began with “To my  friend Walt W. Rostow…”  Well, I know who Rostow is; A speech writer to Eisenhower, and NSA to both Kennedy and Johnson. He was a war hawk and was instrumental in the increasing American involvement in Vietnam. I found all this interesting, but I had seen the price being asked and put the book back in the window.

We left the store and as we got a few yards away, I turned to my wife and said, “No, I need to go back and look at that some more.”  So we returned.

I, once again, removed the book from the window. On the first visit, I had not even finished reading the inscription because I had no knowledge of the Prime Minister of Vietnam. Didn’t even know they had a Prime Minister, I figured it was just some ceremonial position. Well, I looked again and the inscription continued and was signed by; Nguyen Cao Ky! Yes, that Ky!

Ky's note and signature

I was stunned. I went to the counter and told the owner that Ky was not the Prime Minister, but, in fact, then first elected Vice President of Vietnam. (Later research confirmed that he was Prime Minister before the elections) He and General Thieu were elected in the first ”Free elections” in the country. Their validity and “Free”ness can be debated at another time. So, I was in a little bit of shock. I was holding in my hands a book signed by Nguyen Cao Ky! I was in 'Nam during the elections and his name was heard every day.

For those who may not know, Ky was one of those larger than life figures. He was a fighter pilot in the Vietnamese Air Force, and a General. He was young, handsome, and flamboyant. He was usually seen in a leather pilot’s jacket, shades, and a long white scare around his neck. Very Cary Grant!  He was immensely popular with the people and my guess is that is why Thieu hated him so much. That aside, they were elected to govern The Republic.

The inscription is dated November 28, 1970 and a Vietnamese Christmas card was tucked inside, too. I had sent a few of these home, so it was a little unnerving to see one again.

The owner of the book store told me that she had handled the estate of Mr. Rostow. It seems his son is not particularly proud of his father’s role in the escalation of the war and just wanted all of this stuff gone. I told her my story and eventually said, "What do I have to do to get this book? I can’t possibly afford the price you are asking." She said, “It seems to me that you are the guy that SHOULD have this book, let’s see what we can work out.” We worked it out and I became the owner.

When we got outside, I turned to my wife and said, "You were right. This is why we didn't get to go to Houston!" Words I never expected to hear from my mouth, but there you go!

Once it arrived home, I had the opportunity to sit and actually read the text. There is not too much, it is primarily a book of photographs. The text that is there, however, is somewhat heart wrenching.
The book was written in 1969, as a propaganda piece, in an effort to boost flagging support for the war effort. It speaks in glowing terms of the bravery and mission of the Vietnamese forces and how they are driving the enemy in to the sea. Allied forces are not mentioned and the U.S. is mentioned only in one sentence. Interesting!
The book is abounding in hope. They still think they can win! For that matter, so did we! It is incredibly sad to read these words knowing what happened and how it all turned out!

Photo from the book; the universal portrait of a soldier reading mail from home.

So, back to my original thought. 

No matter what you think about the war, those who created it, or those who fought it, at some level it was an effort to afford to those who did not have them, the freedom, self-determination, and human rights we so regularly take for granted.

So, as you celebrate this July 4th, set down your beer and hot dog just long enough to remember all of those who made this day, this country, this Nation possible and who continue to work for its betterment and those who keep us safe.

Here are a few additional shots I merely photographed from the book.

A nun attending an injured child, the most innocent victims of war

This unidentified destruction makes me think of pictures of Hiroshima.

The regular posts, continuing from Utah, will pick up again at 9:00am on the 9th of July. Until then enjoy the holiday and see you on the 9th.

1 comment:

  1. I'm not telling you anything you don't already know... but your wife is one smart lady. xoxo