Earlier this month, Ho Van Thanh, 82, and his son, Ho Van Lang, 41, were found living deep in the jungle of Vietnam, into which they had fled from the violence in 1973. The American phase of the war ostensibly ended that January; US bombings continued until 40 years ago this week; US-made ordnance kept falling for two years afterward. Carrying his then-infant child, the father had bolted away from some kind of firestorm. Reports from long ago were muddied: In one account, Thanh’s wife and two other children had been killed; no, said another, the victims were his mother and her grandchildren. Whatever precise conflagration set the father running, one sees him clutching the baby to his chest, desperate to get away.
Across subsequent decades, the two had little if any contact with the outside world. They had to be coaxed from their wilderness isolation now. The decrepit Thanh was carried from the jungle in a sling. The pair had been living in a treehouse akin to a bird nest, wearing loincloths, subsisting on foraged food, and tending a primitive garden with hand-crafted tools. Twenty years ago, a second son, Ho Van Tri, had tracked down Thanh and Lang, but they had rebuffed his pleas to leave their jungle lair. They were hostages to terror.
These two men are the embodiment of post-traumatic stress syndrome. Their fate suggests, though, that “post-” may be a misnomer, since their trauma is anything but over. Time moved on outside the tiny world of the jungle sanctuary, but it did not move on for Thanh and Lang. They have lived in a permanent present tense. The bombs blew the father and son out of normal time, obliterating the past and the future, locking them in the horror of a 1973 that refused to end.
American society seems to have moved on from Vietnam, but has it? An unresolved disorder, tied to a societal PTSD, shows itself in the way the United States has replayed the mistakes of Vietnam not once, but again and again. An unreckoned-with denial of our unfinished Vietnam trauma certainly undergirds this nation’s war-making in Iraq and Afghanistan, where, for Americans, it is 1973 all over again.
About the time Ho Van Thanh and Ho Van Lang emerged from the jungle of Vietnam this month, an unlikely person was sworn in as one of the shapers of American foreign policy — Samantha Power, the new US ambassador to the United Nations. Though she herself was only 2 years old in 1973, Power holds a key to Vietnam’s lock on the American psyche. She expressed it this way in a New Republic article in 2003: “We need a historical reckoning with crimes committed, sponsored, or permitted by the United States . . . A country has to look back before it can move forward. Instituting a doctrine of the mea culpa would enhance our credibility by showing that American decision-makers do not endorse the sins of their predecessors.” Power invoked the image of West German Chancellor Willy Brandt falling to his knees in penance at the Warsaw ghetto as “ennobling and cathartic” for Germany. “Would such an approach,” she asked, “be futile for the United States?”
In office, Power has had to distance herself from the mea culpa doctrine, and, given the political realities, no American leader will be seen on his — or her — knees in the conceivable future. But perhaps the unexpected surfacing in Vietnam of the apparition-like jungle men offers an opportunity for the moral reckoning Samantha Power advocates. From her new place of responsibility, she could help it happen.
That Vietnam blew America out of normal time, making the nation a moral hostage, can be seen in the now-haggard face of Secretary of State John Kerry. With John McCain, he permanently personifies the ever-haunting echoes of the war that refuses to release its grip on America. Four decades ago, Kerry, the conscience-stricken veteran, passionately denounced the very violence that was then sending a panicked father into the jungle, clutching his baby for dear life. Kerry, also, was seared by that moment. For him, too, it is still 1973.
Ambassador Power has eloquently articulated the rationale, and Secretary Kerry possesses both the moral and political authority required. On behalf of the United States, the nation’s two top diplomats should reach out to Ho Van Thanh and Ho Van Lang. If their broken lives cannot be made whole, and if kneeling is out of the question, can we not manage, at least, the profound bow of sorrow?
James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.