Our son is in Vietnam.
I’m old enough to remember the terror in the eyes of families who had to say that same thing about their sons.
I remember being 8 or 9 years old, and going to a welcome home party for a man who had been a POW. He sat in the living room, politely refusing to answer the curious questions of the kids who surrounded him. Were you scared? Were they mean? How did you get that scar? All I can remember him saying was, “I can’t tell you.”
I earned a small music scholarship in high school that was named for a Burbank High graduate who had died in the Vietnam War. The memorial wall on campus had hundreds of names on it—most were from WWII, but there were a handful of other conflicts represented, too. I imagine there are a few more names on it than when I last saw it in 1981.
My parents bought the house I grew up in from an older couple whose son was a Medal of Honor recipient, but who had given his life to earn it. They were kind and gentle people, but even at 7 years old I noticed that there was no life in their eyes, especially when they realized there would be another little boy in their son’s room.
For a few months I wore one of those shiny steel bracelets with the name of a POW engraved on it. My mom and I got up very early in the morning once to watch some of them return home. I can remember her crying.
Our situation could hardly be more different.
Our son is joining 15 or so of his fellow students from Polytechnic High School on a trip to Vietnam and Cambodia, to learn how those countries continue to heal after decades of war and genocide. They’ll spend time with Arn Chorn-Pond, who survived the Khmer Rouge first by playing music, then by being forced to fight in their army. They’re meeting Kim Phúc, the young girl burned by napalm in that famous picture, along with Nick Ut, the man who captured the image. (Ut also carried Kim away and got her treatment for her injuries. He made sure she was in a medical facility before he filed the pictures.) The two have stayed friends for more than 40 years.
Ian will be touring Ho Chi Minh City and learning some of the history of the long war in Southeast Asia. He’ll stay with families in Cambodia and teach English in an orphanage there. He’ll realize a dream of his to see the great temple at Angkor Wat. He’s making and solidifying friendships at a school that still feels new to him. It’s a life-changing opportunity, and we’re so proud of him.
But it has me thinking of the 60,000 or so American families whose sons and daughters didn’t come home from their visit to Vietnam, and for the hundreds of thousands of families whose kids came back permanently scarred from the experience. It has me reflecting on the million or so Vietnamese who died or were wounded in the conflict—kids like Kim Phúc, only without the photographer there to immortalize them.
War is such a complicated thing. In the last few weeks we’ve remembered America’s war dead on Memorial Day and celebrated the achievement of Allied soldiers in the Normandy landings. I get the awe of heroism, and I even get the cruel necessity of conflict—how the world can be so upside-down that all-out military action becomes somehow the merciful option. But as a Christian I struggle so much with the awful intersection of lethal human sin and the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Today, though, I’m thinking of the people who bear the weight of conflict—the soldiers and civilians who are thrust into the chaos of war, who do things and see things that change them forever. Where is the good news for them?
I’m not sure there’s ever enough grief to go around for the survivors of war. Part of them dies, too, and that living death becomes a part of what they pass on to their children and grandchildren. Too many of them come home to face the questions of the curious, only to respond, “I can’t tell you.”
That can’t be the end of the conversation. They may never be able to communicate the awfulness of what they’ve seen or even done, but we can tell them that their experience isn’t the whole story—that there can be good news even in the shadow of horrible conflict. Christ came to redeem all things, and if all things means ALL THINGS, then even the catastrophe of war is included in that promise.
Besides, right at this moment, a group of high school students are walking around Old Saigon, learning a little of how peace is made and maintained there. A dozen or so kids—a dozen or so glimmers of hope for a different kind of future.
I’m glad our son is in Vietnam. How amazing is that?