The Great Ghost Chase: Can You Dig It?

PEACE. (Photo Credit: John Riedy)

It’s time to sober up and evaluate this thing. Back here in The World there’s a little elbow room, a little space that’s not filled with specters of an old and controversial war. There’s been a day or two to fight through the roiling brain mists that engulfed most of us on the return engagement to Vietnam, so there’s no balm in shirking. What we need now are insights and inspirations, florid vocabulary that will instantly and accurately convey the nature and depth of strange, otherworldly sensations. What we need is a nuclear detonation of trenchant phrasing to describe the raw emotions we felt practically every waking moment during our return to ancient battlefields in a country long past the war that nearly destroyed it fifty years ago.

Indeed. But as Jon Fogarty fronting CCR reminds me, I ain’t no fortunate son. So we’re doomed to take it as it comes. And what comes first for those of us who last saw Vietnam as a war-ravaged third-world country is an instant realization that the societal worm has turned in Southeast Asia. You can call it the triumph of capitalism, you can call it empirical evidence that communism is, was, and always will be a failed social model for everything except UN desk-pounding and May Day Parades. What you can’t deny — assuming even a modicum of objectivity — is that the Vietnamese are generally thriving and pounding down the road to a commerce-based meritocracy.

So if you’re one of the hang-dog, cry-the-poor-ass Vietnam Veterans, take heart. We didn’t get our Victory Parade, and even the knee-jerk Welcome Home razzle-dazzle was several billion short and a couple of decades late. But never mind. We made a difference in the long game which is now being won by the people we fought to protect. Societies are simply human political structures. The people are the prize and we won that one.

The young Vietnamese we saw during our trip to old operating areas from Danang proper, to Hue and west to the Laotian border areas are a couple of generations past all the war ugliness. They have some vague notion that their country was involved in significant world events involving Americans and other round-eyes but your average millennial piloting a shiny Vespa down Hue’s picturesque Le Loi Street knows about as much about all that as the average American does about our Civil War. Not much…and it’s just not important to them anymore.

Even the poor South Vietnamese veterans — at least those finally released from the infamous “Re-education Camps” — don’t dwell much on the bad old days. Ask about those unfortunates and you discover that a great many of them fled to nearby countries or managed to resettle somewhere in the west. There is no VA for the ARVN vets and those who remained in their home country generally stay in the shadows. There’s something those of us who survived the war can be pissed off about, should another reason be necessary beyond our country’s shameful abandonment of a long-suffering ally in mid-fight back in 1975.

None of us who accepted The Greatest Generations Foundation’s kind offer to go off chasing half-century old battlefield ghosts really had any idea if we were off on yet another legendary Snuffy spree or if we were walking into an emotional minefield. It turned out to be a bit of both. What’s significant here is the minefield thing. Our experience going back to The Nam after contemplating it from The World for so long was enough to give us watery guts. From the moment we arrived in the first patch of familiar terrain, the Bouncing Betty’s began to pop up from the ground. And with each detonation, a spray of emotion hit us. I’d probably be there right now, standing at several places shaking like an old dog passing peach-pits, if it hadn’t been for my buddies. That’s the key counterattack when you’re facing old ghosts in their lair. Don’t be alone. And in a situation like that, alone doesn’t necessarily mean the absence of company. If we’d made the return trek with veterans from other units it would have been a hard hump. The key to our survival in close contact with old ghosts was the same as it was during tight situations in the 1960s: Close buddies at your side. We knew each other so well, so intimately, that words were rarely necessary at hyper-charged moments when we were trading fire with free-roaming phantasm from Hue, An Hoa, the Que Sons or Khe Sanh. It was all about that look, that wry smile, the touch on elbow or shoulder.

Can you dig it?

Affirmative…I can most definitely dig it.

So if you get the opportunity to go back, do it…but do it with people you served with and not just an admixture of fellow vets. What you learn at times like this is that 50 years means about as much as 15 minutes to guys who were tight when tight meant more than standard family relations.

There it is.

Marine officer Dale A. Dye rose through the ranks to retire as a captain after 21 years of service in war and peace. Following retirement from active duty in 1984, and upset with Hollywood’s treatment of the American military, he went to Hollywood and established Warriors, Inc., the preeminent military training and advisory service to the entertainment industry. Dye has worked on more than 50 movies and TV shows, including several Oscar- and Emmy-winning productions. He is a novelist, actor, director, and showbusiness innovator who wanders between Los Angeles and Lockhart, Texas. Look for Dye’s new Shake Davis novel, Havana File.

This piece originally appeared in Huffington Post.

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