Thursday, February 21, 2013

Cultural Awareness and the Vietnam War

This afternoon I'm reading the transcript of a very long oral history interview with SP4 Antoine Roy (interviewed by Dr. Richard Verrone).  He's got a lot to say about his service in Vietnam with the 173rd Airborne Brigade, but so far this exchange has stuck out:

RV: Let me ask you a question about, going back to that cultural adjustment, how important do you think that is in a war, to be able to come into a country and okay, I can adjust, because of my past experience or my own intellectual or emotional ability I can adjust a little quicker than the guy next to me? How important is that in a war zone? 
AR: Especially in this particular kind of war it was our greatest failure, one of our greatest failures. We should have had an extended, at least two weeks minimum heavy training on Vietnamese culture, some Vietnamese language, Vietnamese history, why the people do the things they do, why they live the way they live and how actually they’re quite similar to us. I can remember, one thing especially that used to turn off a lot of GIs. Vietnamese, a lot of times while they’re talking, one will sit behind the other. While they’re talking they’ll be fingering through the other persons hair. What they do is they’re looking for lice. Well, lice are a fact of life over there. A lot of GIs thought, God, they look like monkeys. Well, they just didn’t understand that that’s part of life over there. You live with pests like that. They didn’t understand. Actually a lot of the history of Vietnam that led up to what was going on at that particular time, the reasons for being there. They didn’t understand and they didn’t have it emphasized tremendously and it should have been emphasized just so tremendously, do not piss off any South Vietnamese because if you do you’re just going to create yourself another enemy. At the very least that South Vietnamese sees trouble coming your way, they’re just going to go in another direction. We should have been taught very heavily, you make friends with these people. Your life depends on it and the course of the war depends upon it. You’re dealing with a bunch of eighteen, nineteen, twenty year olds who are rather egotistic at that age.
RV: You were nineteen, is that right? 
AR: I was eighteen when I got there. I turned nineteen about a month after I got there. But it just should have been pushed so heavily that the people are different, but they’re basically the same people. They have the same emotions. They love their children. The family is everything is that kind of culture, different from ours. They live in poverty. They make think they’re living an average life, but don’t look down upon them because you’ve got things better than they do. They should have explained the cultural differences in some more words. Once in a while you’d get teenagers that would be a little pushy, which is common in war or out of war. That should have been the discipline for that should have just been so heavy, I mean extremely heavy. It wasn’t. It didn’t happen all the time, but I saw a lot of things that, like an abandoned temple that we’d set up in for a while. Well, its like, nobody realized that this is as if foreign troops came to your country and set up in an abandoned church. This temple was the equivalent of a 13 church. It may not be used at the time, but hey it’s still something religious and you never should have set up there, but we never thought about it in that way. 
Did you think about it when you were actually doing these things? 
AR: No. 
RV: But in retrospect you’re able to see this. 
AR: Oh, yes. I know this one time during my third tour there was an abandoned temple we set up in it and the priests had been storing some items there. There’s something in the Buddhist culture about a stork crossing the sky on a turtle’s back or something like that. Well, a couple of guys found some stuff like that and they sent it home. Well, the priests got real upset, went to the company commander, and complained. The company commander immediately went to those troops and said, “You have your parents send that stuff back and then explain the religious significance of it.” The stuff was sent back, but the thing is those kind of things should have been explained in the first place. Yeah, it’s an abandoned temple but it’s the same as a church in your country. You’ve got to respect those things. If you’re searching villages, if you’re pulling roadblock checks and the like, you be very courteous, especially to the elderly. You’ve got to gain these people’s support.

Interview with Antoine Roy,  No Date, Antoine Roy Collection, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Texas Tech University. Accessed 3 Jan. 2013. .

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