Mike Sulsona, a former Marine, called the other day, just back from his first trip to Vietnam since the war. He was excited because he surprised himself by liking it there this time and because he was pleased with the research he did for a play he wants to write about an Army tank driver. The tank driver, whom Sulsona did not know, was caught in an ambush between Kontum and Dak To just before the Tet Offensive of 1968.
Sulsona himself was in a Tet battle three years later, but it’s the 1968 Tet that interests him now. Tet proved the Viet Cong could attack anytime, anywhere. Tet gave the Viet Cong control of the US Embassy in Saigon for a few precious hours. Tet, like a flash of lightning, illuminated the American peace movement and brought on demonstrations in city streets and on many college campuses. Tet drove Lyndon Johnson from the White House. Tet, paradoxically, was also a Viet Cong failure, because their fighters were soon routed and because the attack did not spur the spontaneous uprising against the South Vietnamese government and the Americans that the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong had hoped for. It took them seven more years to win the war.
Whether it is viewed as a country, an era or a war, Vietnam does not engage Sulsona politically, only personally. Was it a war for independence, a civil war, a Communist aggression, an insurrection against French colonialism in the first part and American imperialism in the second? Sulsona, originally a boy from Brooklyn and now a burly family man living on Staten Island, still isn’t sure which it was and doesn’t much care. What he does know is that, as the thirtieth anniversary of the war’s end is marked–celebrated in Vietnam, briefly noted here in the losing country–the Vietnamese people have embraced him. Like most of the more than 200,000 American visitors each year, he found the Vietnamese genuinely friendly and determined to emulate the United States economically, if not politically.
Thirty years after the end of World War I in 1918 was already three years past the end of World War II. Thirty years after the end of World War II in 1945 was the end of the war in Vietnam when, on April 30, 1975, the last helicopter pushed off from the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon. Thirty years later, in another war against both real insurgents and terror’s phantoms, we can find some comfort in our increasing closeness, even friendship, with our former enemies. For Sulsona, his return journey was a revelation in terms of his personal acceptance. “I could hardly believe it,” he said. “They not only treated me as a friend, they actually honored me as a former warrior.”
The first time Sulsona was in Vietnam, as a Marine in Quang Nam province south of Danang thirty-four years ago, he left his legs there. When I met him not long after that, he was modestly dismissive of his loss as he practiced walking with his two new prosthetic legs. “There’s really not that much to talk about,” he had said then, smiling shyly. “We were walking on a patrol, and we ran into an ambush–about six, seven guys really got hurt. It was a battalion ambush.” Sulsona stopped talking and looked down at where his real legs used to be, and then he looked back up, still smiling. “We called in two or three medevacs, and they got hit, so finally the last one came in and got us out.” Characteristically, Sulsona did not mention the obvious, that he himself had been hit, but only that several helicopters coming to rescue his buddies and him had been brought down.