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From The Asian Reporter, V13, #23 (June 3-9, 2003), page 14.

Making meaning out of sacrifice

A Gift Of Barbed Wire: America’s Allies Abandoned in South Vietnam

By Robert S. McKelvey

University of Washington Press, 2002

Hardbound, 266 pages, $28.95

By Polo

Two pages into his new book, A Gift Of Barbed Wire: America’s Allies Abandoned in South Vietnam, Oregon Health & Science University physician Robert S. McKelvey writes, "This book is intended to show Americans what happened to our Vietnamese allies and their families after our troops went home." And I was hooked.

I trust this doctor’s hands for two reasons. First, he uses the term "our." He says, "our Vietnamese allies." Not "the Vietnamese allies," not "U.S. allies." He engages no emotional distancing. Dr. McKelvey immediately owns up to our relationship, in blood. In so doing, he also takes responsibility for our betrayal, and our shared unresolved grief.

Second, A Gift Of Barbed Wire earns immediate credibility by Dr. McKelvey’s inclusion of our allies’ families. In fairness, surely there’s plenty of mainstream professionals who, in their daily practice, understand traditional folk as always operating within a social context and an emotional constellation of familia — but you don’t bump into those teachers, doctors, or social workers often enough.

A Gift Of Barbed Wire is a look back at an American war executed far far away, and the fate of those we fought hard beside, but then hastily abandoned. It is told by those who suffered long sentences in Communist "re-education" camps, and eventually made their way to asylum in America. Barbed Wire is also told in the words of wives and children who endured husbands’ and fathers’ long absences.

Among many others, Dr. McKelvey includes stories by an imprisoned doctor, a pilot, and a spy; the stories of a released politician, his wife, his son, and his grandson. Each is an essential story; they may well all be elemental lessons, for our deadly times. Sorrow does not end, Dr. McKelvey and his distinguished elders tell us, when politicians say they’re done, when generals pull their soldiers out.

There is a pewter lining to all this leaden overcast. "As I began to learn about former political prisoners…" the doctor writes, "…to my surprise…(w)hile a few (former re-education camp prisoners) I got to know were bitter, none seemed broken, and almost all displayed an enormous resilience in the face of seemingly overwhelming trauma."

The author has taken on a difficult task. He notes, of course, the limitations of his narratives. There are big differences in "emotional openness" between his self-minimizing Viet respondents and typical mainstream Americans. This is not Jerry Springer. If that is intimate disclosure, then Dr. McKelvey’s book is not. What it is — what A Gift Of Barbed Wire demonstrates and its author exemplifies — is what benefits should accrue to American society in exchange for the grave price paid by our nation’s vanquished allies and their sorrowing families. Robert McKelvey makes meaning out of sacrifice.


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