Earlier this week, I stopped in to pick up a take-out order at a popular Vietnamese restaurant in Midtown. The place was packed, every table full. The urgent, high sing-song tones of the waitstaff shouting into the kitchen made it clear they were slammed — deep in the cilantro — and that I would be there awhile.
I sat in a booth by the cash register to wait. Under the glass on the tabletop was a detailed map of Vietnam. I stared at the country's oddly familiar barbell shape — round at the top, where Hanoi was, long and skinny in the middle, and round at the bottom where Ho Chi Minh City (once called Saigon) was.
Back in the 1970s, I had a T-shirt with a map of Vietnam on the front. Underneath were the words: "U.S.A. — Second Place, Southeast Asian War Games." That shirt almost got me into a couple of fights, mostly from people who thought I was disrespecting the troops. I wasn't. The shirt was given to me by a buddy who bought it in Saigon. He came back from the war with shrapnel in his knees and couldn't walk worth a damn. I figured if he thought the T-shirt was funny, I could wear it with pride.
As I stared at the map in the restaurant, I wondered how the hell such a small chunk of the earth's landmass could have dominated the world's politics for so long. What exactly was it about this part of Southeast Asia that was worth 50,000 American lives and the death of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese men, women, and children? What was it about this piece of real estate that was worth carpet-bombing cities or napalming the jungle with deadly Agent Orange chemicals? What the hell were our leaders thinking?
Sure, I remember the "domino theory," how if we didn't stop the commies in Vietnam, they'd rule all of Southeast Asia. Is there an Afghanistan analogy here? I don't know. Not every small piece of war-torn real estate is equal. Not all wars are seen as misguided in hindsight, as Vietnam is now.
The fact is, we didn't stop the communists in 1975, and now Vietnam is a communist country. And, if we're honest, that reality hasn't affected our lives much, except that we can now get great Vietnamese food in Memphis. It has affected the life of my friend who gave me the T-shirt. He still can't walk worth a damn. And I bet the owners of this restaurant have a few tales to tell.