As I walked across the U.S. Naval Academy today, I listened to a man who has one of the best stories, a story we all like to hear. Ordinary people in ordinary places as we are, this is a truth that is true for all of us: we long to know that sometimes someone is graced, extruded into relationships and responsibilities that are completely unexpected.
A land-locked Kansan in the 1950s, his father died unexpectedly when he was a senior in high school, and he joined the Navy with the hope of the G.I. Bill making college possible someday. A year into his service, a World War II veteran told him that he ought to “go to the Naval Academy,” and helped make it happen. After four years there, the same years that Roger Staubach played football for Navy—for those who are interested in things like that –he went off to Vietnam.
Apart from a few years in other overseas locations, the rest of his life he has lived in the Annapolis area, and it was obvious to me that the Academy has deeply formed him. The people and the place have made him “him,” and he sees life from the perspective of whom he has known and the setting in which he has known them.
A couple of weeks ago we met at a retreat focused on the book, Visions of Vocation, and to my great surprise, he was already on his second reading—even taking very careful notes. The ears of my heart opened at hearing that, and of course I wanted to know more. So today we had lunch, and talked for several hours about many things. Families, histories, interests, and more. Vocation is always a big word, a complex word, as it has to account for all of life for all of us.
About ten years ago he returned to Vietnam for the first time since the war, along with 15 other former Marine Corps officers, simply to see what had happened to the battleground that had so shaped their early lives. They traveled across roads, saw fields and bridges, visited with people, and talked and talked among themselves.
With a great solemnity, feeling the weight of these words very deeply, he said that, to a person, they came to the conclusion that the U.S had misread the intelligence that led us into the war. We didn’t understand the people, history and culture of Vietnam, and most importantly we didn’t understand what motivated Ho Chi Minh. Rather than being a communist, from their own reading of history, they had concluded that he was a nationalist, fighting for his country and culture—and the U.S. didn’t understand that.
I cannot write those words without sighing, a great sigh it is. So much of my coming-of-age experience was in and around the meaning of Vietnam; in fact, differences over its meaning tore America apart. Our national Mall remembers this with the architectural “scar” that is the Vietnam Memorial; at one and the same time both beautiful and broken, a wedge carved into our consciousness.
It is simply true that I don’t know enough to weigh in here. I don’t have enough knowledge of that part of the world to sort through what happened, and to know what it meant. But I will confess that hearing this from a proud patriot, a former Marine Corps officer whose first years out of the Academy were spent in Vietnam, was very sobering. In his own reading of history, of the history of the U.S. over the last half century and more, he thinks we have become arrogant, assuming things to be true of us that can never be of any people in any time. And tragically, we misread our moment, and its meaning.
And now this man has begun the Visions book a third time, still thinking about his own life and what it means. The best gift to me is to have a serious person read the book seriously—and he has, and he has, and he is at it again.
(Photo is from the chapel at the Naval Academy.)