One of the odder moments of life with my dad was watching movies with him about the Vietnam War. One of these movies was Casualties of War with Michael J. Fox and Sean Penn. It wasn’t intentional but just happened to be on the television that night. So there we both were watching a movie about a war crime committed by American soldiers against a young Vietnamese girl.
At the point in the movie where Michael J. Fox’s character tried to help the young teenager, she began pleading with him. She was speaking in Vietnamese. There were no subtitles but none were needed to convey her pain and fear. I remember turning to my dad and saying, “Dad, do you know what she’s saying?”
“She’s saying, ‘I can’t believe Americans would do something like this,’” he replied flatly.
I didn’t believe for a second that my dad understood that much Vietnamese. Her pleas continue on for a couple of minutes or so which I thought much too long to be summed up so easily. However, I let the subject drop. I later wondered why Dad hadn’t simply said he didn’t know. Was he expressing his own thoughts instead?
At the time I was 19 or 20, supposedly older and wiser, but I think it was the first time I’d consciously questioned my adoptive father’s perspective of the war in Vietnam. Or maybe it wasn’t. I started remembering things from my childhood. My mind flashed back to when I was still in elementary school. I’d asked my dad who’d won the Vietnam war. “We did, ” he’d answered. Later on, I remember wondering why Vietnam was a Communist country if America had “won” the war.
Just like with everything regarding my dad and Vietnam, I can only guess at why he twisted history the way he did. His tendency to spin events doesn’t do a lot of his credibility in my eyes, but some part of me still wishes to understand him and the war that changed both our lives.
I’ve often wondered where the compartmentalization of me began and ended in his head. While we were watching the movie, did he try to completely separate me from the young girl in the film? Did he try to “forget” that I was Vietnamese and see me as simply his daughter? Or did my Vietnamese face glare out at him forcing him to associate me with her. Did he realize that I was seeing his face among the soldiers in the film and wondering about his time in Vietnam?
It’s amusing when people I talk to about my Dad insinuate that I’m naive about the war. I understand it and human beings better than many of them think. Of course, I don’t know everything and wouldn’t even bother to pretend I’m always right. I do, however, know enough to understand that everyone has their own interpretation depending on who they are, what they have invested and how deeply they look.
Ever the late bloomer, I’m behind and have tons of catching up to do. That’s what I tell people who question my seeming obsession with the past. Others were allowed to mourn their losses, build their memorials and come to grips with the war in Vietnam, but I wasn’t suppose to think about it. At least not beyond what I was told to think. I guess in many ways, I’m just doing what other people did only much later after the fact.
In our own way, my dad and I are remnants of the war, pieces scattered like so much shrapnel. He has come to terms with it in his own way. Hopefully, he’s beginning to understand that his way wasn’t working for me. The Vietnam War has always been a sensitive subject between us. These days, I’m not sure if it’s due to his discomfort, mine or both, but we’ve never really talked about it. We seem to be repeating an old scenario where I’m digging up bones and trying to reassemble them into skeletons that he’d like nothing more than to forget.