From The Asian Reporter, V13, #23 (June 3-9, 2003),
Making meaning out of sacrifice
A Gift Of Barbed Wire: America’s Allies Abandoned in
By Robert S. McKelvey
University of Washington Press, 2002
Hardbound, 266 pages, $28.95
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
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