Doug Hostetter was a Mennonite Central Committee worker in Tam Ky, Vietnam from 1966-1969. A conscientious objector to war, Hostetter did his alternative service in Vietnam. His reflections and journal entries appear below.
Hostetter and friend Anh Buu, Quang Ngai Vietnam, 1969. MCC Photo Credit: Brennon Jones
Students in Thang Binh Class, Tang Binh District, Quang Tin, Vietnam, 1967, Photo Credit: Doug Hostetter
Doug Hostetter eats with Anh Buu's family after their home was destroyed by U.S. forces, 1968. Photo Credit: Doug Hostetter
Vietnam Stories: Video interviews with Doug Hostetter
The town of Tam Ky is located about 50 MK south of Danang and 150 KM south of the Demilitarized Zone in Central Vietnam (I Core in military jargon). It was located on Route 1, the major north south highway in VN, about 3 KM in from the coast. In 1966 Tam Ky was a small town with two paved streets, several restaurants, three high schools (government, Catholic and Buddhist), a barber shop, one gas station, one theater and one bus station.
The population was about 50,000 people if you included the refugees in the refugee camps. It was also a Provincial capital, so there was a "US Embassy house" staffed by 3 - 4 CIA agents, MACV (Military Advisors Corps, Vietnam) Compound, with a dozen or so American officers, and USAID Compound with a half dozen American government civilians.
Tam Ky was also the headquarters for the Vietnamese Sixth Regiment (Saigon Government), the provincial headquarters and a small air strip which received two flights per day from Air America (they had to fly in high, and drop down in one swoop without circling -- the remains of a shot down C-47 were beside the strip to remind the pilots).
When I moved in I was told by the CIA that Tam Ky was safe, most of the time. Route 1 (one of the two streets of the town) was safe to travel north or south during the day, but not at night, and the Viet Cong controlled everything 1 KM east or west of Tam Ky.
The Vietnam Christian Service (VNCS) unit in Tam Ky usually had two American conscientious objectors performing alternative service, although for a period I was the only American member of the unit. Our primary work was a Vietnamese Literacy Program which used Vietnamese high school students as teachers to teach Vietnamese children how to read and write their own language after their schools had been destroyed by the US Air Force.
We started in the refugee camps, and later expanded into rural areas in villages which were often Saigon Government controlled by day and National Liberation Front controlled by night. By 1969 we had about 90 high school students working as teachers for 3000-4,000 students. Our other program were a Bamboo Crafts Cooperative of about 50 families which made bamboo mugs, vases and desk sets to sell to American soldiers at a base 15 KM south of Tam Ky. We also had two small programs to teach barbering and tailoring to refugees.
I have been in Vietnam only a few months, but because of my job (exploring new communities to discover if we should set up programs there) I have been able to travel widely, see many aspects of the war, and look at our work in the country. I have been able to visit six of the seven projects which we now have in operation.
However, I see a few flaws in working only in the areas in which we are now involved. We are serving in areas under the control or partial control of the Vietnamese National Government. We have no people serving in VC controlled areas or North Vietnam.
Photo Credit: Doug Hostetter
Thus while we are proudly proclaiming love and service to all people regardless of race, ideology, or nationality, in fact we are loving and serving only the people who by choice or default are living under the influence of the GVN. We are willing to love and help “bad” people, but only if they are willing to live in the “good” part of the country. We further emphasize our willingness to help “bad” people if they are willing to live in “good” country by giving food support to a government Chieu Hoi camp (program for VC to return for re-education).
In essence, I feel that we are doing the same thing as the Military Civic Actions teams and USAID, who are also serving people who live in “good” country. I have been further confirmed in this opinion by the many military men with whom I have had opportunity to talk. The VN and US military are definitely behind us in our program, evidenced by the $1,000.00 gift which the Air Force gave us for our Pleiku Hospital. I have had great cooperation from all the military and government men whom I have contacted. They often express that they feel that our work is very important in the winning of this war. Two weeks ago, an Army captain told me, “You know, I’m just like you guys. I had wanted to come over here in psychological warfare and work with the people just like you are.”
I felt that our message of peace and a God who is above nations and ideologies has been badly muddled. In fact, I think it has often been misunderstood to be support of our government’s actions in the war….
Stopped and had a good talk with Bob Kenny of USAID tonight. I asked him about some of the tensions between us and USAID and their causes. He said just our existence here as pacifists was a threat to most of them. He said most of them either have served their time or are serving their time and they look at us as “draft dodgers.” I think it is a kind of jealousy because we are so close to the people and so free from fear and hate.
Our houses are only 200 yds. Apart, and both the same distance from the VC territory, but they have 12 guards, big lights, six foot wall, sand bags and barbed wire while our house is in the open, not even a fence around us. During the VC attack they received eight hits from 57 and 78 cal recoilless rifle while we were not hit at all.
Bob also informed us that they were currently checking us out and if they found that we were doing any proselytizing for pacifism we would be out in two days. We have the real challenge of living love here.
Tam Ky 29/11/67
A very frustrating, diverse and interesting day! It started late by waking up at 7:30, but by 8:30 I had hired a three wheel Lambretta and was on my way to Chu Lai to check about sales for bamboo this weekend and to scrounge empty boxes. I was disappointed to find the USO had no definite opening date and from there went over to the R0K club to try to get empty beer cartons. It was in that club where I met two young mechanics from M.A.G. 13 who were quite interested in the project. They took me back to their outfit and showed me all around the hangar and the F104 phantom jets. They even took me up inside one of the jets.
I had some real qualms of conscience about all I was seeing and hearing. I don't know why, but it seemed almost a betrayal of the Vietnamese people to be there looking at the instruments used to destroy them.
I also had qualms about going to the party they invited me to, but I knew if I was going to get the boxes I needed for my project I would have to go. It was very interesting and the food was good. I got my empty boxes - about a hundred…
Tam Ky 30/11/67
Here I am not only a Mennonite, but also a pacifist in a nation at war….. Can I as a pacifist sell my bamboo cups to GI's? How can I justify going onto a military base - even sitting in a jet bomber and hearing all about its destructive powers - and saying nothing? I feel sure that I would have spoken up if the right opportunity had come along - I don't think that I try to hide it. I am not ashamed of my position, and I can easily rationalize that I do love everyone - even the military people, so why shouldn't I sell to them or even make friends with them?
… But then isn't the moral decay of Vietnam caused by the people who just go along and associate and make their money off of whoever happens to be in power at the time? Perhaps Bill is right when he says that it is not the association but the giving in to the others philosophy that is wrong. But do we have a responsibility to speak out against evil? What about Jesus Christ when he discovered the buying and selling in the temple? Is silence or inaction sometimes also wrong? Can I just stand by in silence and "love" and watch my country destroy the people and culture of Vietnam?
Photo Credit: Doug Hostetter
...There is something very personal about the pain that comes when you hear that a town in which you worked …was leveled by American jets.
I think that probably the most frightening thing I see about this war is how ready everybody is to sacrifice civilian lives - Vietnamese lives in order to protect American lives: How many Vietnamese are worth one American? How many civilians can be sacrificed to save one military camp? Or how many civilians are we willing to kill to get one V.C.???.
Am I a danger to Friends?
Tam Ky 5/2/68
The last couple of nights the V.C. have come about as close as they possibly can without coming inside the room. Two nights ago there was a V.C. sniper within 20 feet of my window - he was shooting at an ARVN guard in the other direction, but it was a little too close for comfort. Last night 2 mortar shells landed 30 yards from the room. They were isolated, not from a mass mortar attack. Were they aimed at me? Did our neighbor who was wounded take shrapnel which was meant for me?
Photo Credit: Doug Hostetter
The kids in the next room think they may have been aimed at my room. They are not sleeping in their room tonight, and feel I shouldn't either. This raises some serious moral problems. If I am unwanted by some of the Vietnamese people and am a danger to others, I should not be here. If I am in fact (or even just thought to be) here assisting in the psychological warfare of one and only one side I cannot stay. I have asked twice for permission from our headquarters to assist directly, personally some of the Vietnamese in V.C. territory, and they have prohibited me both times. If the war continues to widen, it will be more difficult to get your message across, you will become just another unwanted white face.
I helped to bury one of my students today, It was one of the saddest experiences I have ever had. I hauled 25 students, his classmates, out to his home in the countryside to attend his simple funeral. His casket was a plain home-made wooden box covered with red paper and carried hanging from two bamboo poles. He was carried up on a hillside overlooking his home and the rice fields below and there he was carefully lowered into a shallow grave. Candles and papers were burned for him and then all helped to throw some of the red dirt back into the grave.
Thanh was only 17, and still in high school. In fact he had been studying at a friend's house in Tam Ky last Friday night. The V.C. had started to mortar and he had run to the door of the house to get into the bomb shelter, but had been shot in the door way, no one knows by whom. I had been to his house to visit him and his family over a year ago, this was the first time I had been back since then. There were fresh 50 foot wide bomb craters around the house that had not been there a year ago and his father pointed to the holes in the wall caused by the 105 shell (fired from Tam Ky) that had killed his grandchild over Tet. The motto with the threetraditional blessings of the Chinese cultures - happiness, prosperity, and long life, had been cracked in the blast and still hung broken on the wall. God, Stop It!
Tam Ky 7/2/68
Photo Credit: Doug Hostetter
I'm really too tired to write well, but I feel I must get down some of the things I have seen, heard and experienced today. Today I took 24 students up to Thang Binh to help clean up the refugee camps which were burned last week. The kids worked hard when we finally got up there and we had a really great time, but the stories that came out of there were little short of hell. The figures vary depending on who you talk to and when you talk to them, but they range in number from 130-300 "enemy killed." Of this number an American told me only 2 persons were actually V.C. soldiers, the rest were civilians, evidently killed while they were demonstrating. The V.C. tried to repay the debt by burning two refugee camps and killing as many of the occupants as possible. Over 40 people were killed, many of them women and children as the V.C. ran through the camp throwing hand grenades into their bomb shelters. They reported one GVN soldier killed.
Today as I went into the district headquarters the soldiers (V.N.) had just brought in 10 people they had captured on an operation. There was one grey haired man, one young man who looked to be in his early 20's and the rest looked like they were from 28 to 35 years old. One man had been wounded in the leg, it was not bandaged, and still bleeding. When I arrived, they were all sitting on the ground blindfolded and the soldiers were tying their arms behind them and tying them together in groups of three. The old man they decided to free, but the rest they yanked to their feet. They marched them blindfolded and tied together through the entire length of town. The one with the wounded leg couldn't walk, so the one in front of him carried him on his back.
As they marched through the street, there was no shouting and rejoicing from the towns people. The faces which I saw all looked sad and frightened. The wounded man slipped from the back of the one who was carrying him, a Vietnamese soldier kicked the wounded, blindfolded and bound man in the buttocks - he struggled back on the back of his buddy and they staggered on - blood dripping from his leg. When they reached the High School I stopped following and went in and worked with the students and tried not to think and feel. At the edge of town one of the Vietnamese soldiers sent all the children back. They marched into an open field - in a few minutes there were two volleys of shots and then all was quiet.
Two children were killed by my house last night
Two women were dressed in black
Two rifles were found in the ditch by their sides
Two flags were found in their packs
But the color of skin and the stain in the sand
Were the same as they lay by the street
And the Russian made holes looked no different to me
Than those made by the M-16
One lay to the East and one to the West
In the struggle for which they had died
But as the sun rose in its earliest rays
It appeared they lay side by side.
To many Vietnamese still today, the Christian God is only another instrument of Western colonization. This is why the Christians in Vietnam today will have to show clearly to the Vietnamese that Christianity and the Christian God are not the secret weapons of Western colonization, but the instruments of universal freedom and light.
In the light of this background, let us try to understand what the Churches goals should be in the war situation in Vietnam today. As Mennonites we have an excellent historical background for such questions. One of the main concerns of the early Mennonites was for a clear separation of Church and State, and the belief that God could not be hemmed in by geographical or political boundaries. As we can see from history, there has been a clear link of Christianity with the imperial powers and Western culture. For the Christian God in Vietnam to be more than a National God (of the Western powers) and Christianity itself to be more than religious colonization it will be necessary to establish certain things. First of all, it is very important that we clearly distinguish ourselves from both political groups in this conflict. This does not mean that the church cannot speak out on some of the issues involved and the morality of certain actions by one or both sides. This means that the Church must use the same yardstick on all parties involved in the war and must meet the human needs on both sides of the political or geographic boundaries.
Only by being present on both sides of the conflict and administering impartially to all people in need regardless of geography or politics, do we get away from the National God concept. This seems like a very small matter at first until we see how easy it is to fail inadvertently into the heresy of the National God….
I have, in fact, been told quite openly be some of the protestant missionaries in Vietnam that the survival of Christianity in Vietnam depends upon the victory of the American forces in Vietnam. "If the American withdrew" one missionary stated, "the Christian Church is finished…."
Photo Credit: Doug Hostetter
If our God and our Christianity are in reality linked with the American forces in Vietnam today, they will, in fact, be wiped out when the American military forces leave Vietnam. However, if our God is above the national, geographical and ideological conflict going on today, and cut clearly from any links with the Western powers; if he is shown to be the one God of all mankind, offering love, concern and redemption to all men under any political or national system, this God can survive any American pull-out or defeat and still bring light and peace to our yellow-skinned brothers of Vietnam.
I can hear many people say, "Yes, he is just another young idealist. It couldn't work in Vietnam, you would not be allowed to work by the NLF. And if you came into their area, you would be killed immediately."
These assumptions cannot be proven or disproven until someone tries it, but our experience in Tam Ky in the last two and one half years certainly point out that it could be possible. In Tam Ky we have tried to clearly disassociate ourselves from either political side and have not depended on either side for our protection. We have lived in a small unguarded house in an area of town which has often been controlled by the NLF for periods of 2 or 3 hours at night when their guerrillas have infiltrated the town. Everyone in town knows where we live and that we have no guns, mines or barbed wire. In fact, we don't even have a gate in front of our house. Yet in the many times in which NLF guerrillas have been in front of our house at night, they have never molested us or our vehicles which were always parked in plain sight in front of our house.
We have traveled quite freely in some parts of the countryside, and stayed for days in villages which were not sympathetic with the Saigon government. I have slept in the homes of lower level NLF cadre in the country and can count among my personal friends a number of students who have joined the NLF guerrillas in the countryside. I have been thanked personally by a representative of the NLF for work which we have done in Tam Ky, and have been invited by the local NLF to come out into one of their villages to start a sewing class or relief project. They promised me free passage out to the village and the permission to return to Tam Ky whenever I wished. (Permission to go out to investigate this project was emphatically withheld by the Saigon Administration of VNCS) I think it is clear that work could be done on both sides of the lines if Christians thought it was important and were willing to take the risks involved in showing the Vietnamese and the world that the Christian God loves all mankind and is not a puppet of the American Government or any other government…