Personal Narrative: How World War I Changed My Life
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WWI: The War That Changed Everything
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The country had lost its innocence — and, for a time, its confidence. This war, which had such a great impact on my life, is a dim memory today. There are 58, names on that wall, and it rates but a few pages in a high school history book. I am dismayed by how little our young people know about Vietnam, and how misunderstood it is by others. Now, 40 years later, we must try to understand. Hal Kushner joined the Army and served as a flight surgeon in Vietnam. In , he was captured by the Viet Cong after surviving a helicopter crash. He spent nearly six years as a prisoner of war.
He lives in Daytona Beach, Fla. Having lived through war and seen what it did to my family and to millions of Vietnamese, I feel grateful for the peace and stability I now enjoy in the United States. In Vietnam, my family and I experienced what it was like to be caught in bombing and fighting, and what it was like to flee our home and survive as refugees. During World War II, in my childhood, we huddled in shelters as Allied planes targeting Japanese positions bombed the town in the North where we lived. In , fearing reprisals from the communists about to enter Hanoi, we fled to Saigon with only the clothes on our backs.
In , we fled again when we found ourselves caught in the fighting between the army of President Ngo Dinh Diem and the armed group he was trying to eliminate, leaving behind our home, which was about to burn to the ground in the onslaught. In April , American helicopters plucked my family out of Saigon at the last minute as communist rockets exploded nearby. The fear we felt paled in comparison to the terror that Vietnamese in the countryside of South Vietnam experienced when bombs and artillery shells landed in their villages, or when American and South Vietnamese soldiers swept through their hamlets; or the terror my relatives in North Vietnam felt when American Bs carpet bombed in December Yet, our brushes with war were terrifying enough.
As refugees, we could find shelter and support from middle-class friends and relatives, while destitute peasants had to move to squalid camps and depend on meager handouts and help from the government in Saigon. But we did find out, as they did, that losing everything was psychologically wrenching, and that surviving and rebuilding took fortitude of spirit.
Only those who have known war can truly appreciate peace. I am one of those people. Mai Elliott was born in Vietnam and spent her childhood in Hanoi, where her father was a high-ranking official under the French colonial regime. Her family became divided when her older sister joined the Viet Minh resistance against French rule. She is married to American political scientist David Elliott. They live in Southern California. I graduated from high school in , thinking myself a patriot and aspiring to be a military pilot. Thirteen years later, I sat in a jail cell in Washington, D.
My patriotism wilted in the South in , after a short stint with the civil rights movement. Simultaneously, as the U. The war escalated in , and I became an ardent protester over the next six years. I was fired from two university teaching positions. But my sacrifices were trivial compared with those of young Americans forced into war, or Vietnamese civilians dying under bombs and napalm. With other antiwar activists, I anguished over them all, and seethed with rage at our inability to stop the killing. In our fury, we became more forceful, committing widespread civil disobedience. But our failure that day became a turning point. Antiwar leaders realized that while we had finally convinced a majority of Americans to oppose the war, our militant tactics kept them from joining us.
We changed course. Large demonstrations ended. New organizations sprang up to educate the public and lobby Congress. The work was confrontational but did not ask participants to risk arrest. Millions took part. Richard Nixon escalated the war, but he also felt the heat from a much broader antiwar coalition. In January , his administration signed the Paris Peace Accords, and over the next two years, our intense lobbying persuaded Congress to cut funding for the corrupt South Vietnamese government, leading to its collapse in We learned that in matters of war and peace, presidents regularly lie to the American people.
Every president from Truman to Ford lied about Vietnam. We learned that two presidents, Johnson and Nixon, cared more about their own political survival than the lives of the men under their command. Both sent thousands of Americans to die in a war they already knew could not be won. We learned that our government committed crimes against humanity. Agent Orange and other chemicals were sprayed on millions of acres, leaving a legacy of cancer and birth defects.
Most important, Vietnam taught us to reject blind loyalty and to fight back. In doing so, we meet our obligation as citizens … and become patriots. When I think about the Vietnam War, I am torn by personal emotions that range from anger and sadness to hope. The Vietnam War experience scarred me but also shaped and molded my perspective on life. Marine Corps, willing to fight and die for my country.
I had experienced the tough neighborhood turf battles too often prevalent in the inner city. My father, all of my uncles, including a grand-uncle who rode with Teddy Roosevelt, all served in the military. I saw the war in Vietnam as a win-win situation. I vividly remember trembling with fear from the incoming shells in the mud-filled holes at Con Thien, wishing the shelling would stop and we could fight hand-to-hand. I remember those feelings like it was yesterday. I, along with others, witnessed deaths unimaginable.
We picked up the pieces of Marine bodies obliterated by direct hits.