Return to Vietnam
by Kit Stolz
Chambers’ new book looks at lasting legacy of Ho Chi Minh and America’s lost opportunity in the region
When Larry Chambers first went to Vietnam in 1969 he didn’t ask a lot of questions. He was eager to fight for his country. He volunteered to become a U.S. Army Ranger and then for the even more difficult and dangerous “Military Assistance Command: Vietnam” school. This was an elite unit that dropped paratroopers far behind the lines in territory controlled by the North Vietnamese Army, where the slightest error could result in detection, capture or death.
“I was young, patriotic, and I believed in what my country was doing and what our leaders said,” he commented in an interview at Java & Joe’s downtown coffee shop in January, on a visit back to Ojai from his new home in Phnom Penh. “We were told that all Communists were evil and wanted to destroy America to rule the world, and it would be up to us to stop them in Vietnam.”
He came back with a bounty of medals — two Bronze Stars, a Purple Heart, two Air Medals for valor, the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, the Army Commendation Medal, and the Vietnam Cross of Gallantry. But he also came back with a lot of questions about the United States, its leaders and the war. He still admired the heroism of his fellow fighters, but after his time on the ground in Vietnam had lost respect for President Nixon and U.S. policy in Southeast Asia.
“I saw the inconsistencies between what I had been taught to believe about Vietnam’s government, its people, and the war,” he said. “I came to the conclusion that practically everything I once believed to be true, was not.”
Although Chambers avoids psychologizing what happened to him, he makes clear that he doesn’t want his legacy to be his service in the war, even though he did well on the battlefield. He’s proud in particular to have captured unharmed a North Vietnamese Army soldier.
“I tackled him like a football play and dragged him back to our position (behind the lines),” Chambers said. “I could see he wasn’t armed and I wasn’t there to kill unarmed soldiers — I still believe that murder is a mortal sin. We turned him over to the ARVN (South Vietnamese Army). They tortured him, which they weren’t supposed to do, so me and my teammate came and sat with him all night, protecting him until the helicopter came in the morning and took him away. I still have his belt buckle, and now I’m trying to find that guy.”
Last year he committed to support a Cambodian family with four children. In an understated way, he makes clear he wants to do all he can to make amends for the horrors this nation visited on Southeast Asia. He especially wants us to have a better understanding of the Vietnamese and their history. One Vietnamese woman in particular haunts him — a beggar on the street in Hanoi.
“Her hands were contorted and her face had been so badly burnt I wanted to look away and hurry past her,” he said. “But instead I turned around and went back, bent down, and put a donation in her cup. I looked deeply into her eyes and saw compassion. She cupped her hands in the Buddhist prayer position, thanking me. She could tell I was an American and she had every right to feel bitter and hateful, but she exuded only dignity, inner peace, and forgiveness.”
It’s this kind of forgiveness — and a desire to write a new chapter about his own life in Southeast Asia — that motivated Chambers to write a new book about Vietnam, one that explains why the Vietnamese seem to understand us so much better than we understand them.
In “The Betrayal of Vietnam: 1945,” published in November, Chambers argues that the key figure in the history of Southeast Asia in the last century was Ho Chi Minh, and that Minh was inspired by the American Revolution. He extols the heroism of this national hero, reviled for his politics in this country, even though Minh worked with Americans and put himself and his cause at risk to escort a downed American flyer to safety in World War II. He went on to write the nation’s constitution on the principles articulated in our Declaration of Independence.
Chambers quotes what Minh — the leader of the Vietnamese resistance to the Japanese, just as he led their resistance to the Americans later — said to an American official in l945. Ho Chi Minh said that the Vietnamese would welcome “ten million Americans, but no French” (their colonial overseers and brutal exploiters). Chambers argues that this careless betrayal of an undeveloped nation would never would have happened if the anti-colonial President Roosevelt had lived long enough to oversee the transition in Vietnam after World War II.
Chambers, in conversation, still has the hypervigilant restlessness of a commando, and the blunt plainspoken style of a combat veteran. Although his first book, “Recondo,” about his experiences behind the lines, published in 2010 by a Random House imprint, sold hundreds of thousands of copies, he’s proudest of what a fellow Army Ranger once said about it to him.
“I liked your book,” said the Ranger. “In fact it’s the only one about the LRRPs (long range reconnaissance patrols) that isn’t full of shit.”
In “The Betrayal of Vietnam,” Chambers documents how much faith the Vietnamese put in the Americans, and how badly we as a nation let them down. The first betrayal came in l945, when we allowed the French to re-colonize Vietnam, after they fought with us against the Japanese, and then again later when the United States gradually took up the war against the Vietnamese themselves. Just as this nation overthrew the British in a war for self-determination, Chambers argues, the Vietnamese wanted their freedom too, for the same reasons. He admires Ho Chi Minh for leading a successful independence movement against the French, the Japanese, and the Americans, and also for being a self-sacrificing man who never used his power for self-gain, but only for the people of his nation. In his own way Chambers is tracing Ho Chi Minh’s footsteps, and even thinking of riding a motorcycle up the Ho Chi Minh Trail this year.
“I’m 69 years old now and I wake up with purpose every day. I write and work for my kids but also for my adopted family in Cambodia,” he said. “I feel like I have connected to the ancient wisdom of this place, and I want to bring that understanding to my own country. It’s touching to me that after all the bombing and the landmines and the misunderstandings, the people of Vietnam and Cambodia still thank me for coming to their country.”
After the interview Chambers heads across the street to a nice Mercedes sportscar. He worked as a stockbroker and a stock investment analyst, first in the South Bay and later in Ojai. He had a great deal of success in the market, and published books for investors, but says he’s moved on now.
“I have made a lot of money, and been a writer and lived “the good life,” but in the end I think that just making money is empty and meaningless,” he said. “So three years ago I put my business on hold and disconnected from my life in Ojai. I used my own money to sponsor projects, and I’m active in Rotary in Phnom Penh. Coming to Cambodia and helping the little I can has completely changed my life.”
He intends to sell the car for perhaps $10,000 to support his Cambodian family for a year.
“I’ve done a lot of different things in my life,” he said. “But this is something I can’t let go.”