Tuesday, February 01, 2005

The Harp in the Willow Tree

Psalm 137:1-2 (King James Version)

Psalm 137
“1By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
2We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.”

In the two days since the election in Iraq I’ve felt that my joy has been tinged with sadness. It’s not that Sunday’s events weren’t exhilarating; they were. But for me the memories of Vietnam still linger much like Babylon lingered in the collective memory of the children of Israel.

It’s at times like these I wonder what might have been. I think back to a mission that was never completed, to the “boat people,” the “mama-sans” with red smiles stained by betel nut. Faces fill my memory, the round faced Montagnards, the smiling children of Cholon and Tu Do Street. I can still smell the odor of the pungent Nuc Mam wafting through the air.

Even at my worst then I hoped and dreamed that our mission would succeed, that liberty would win. But hopes and dreams often need hands and feet to make them come true and we found that the hands and feet we left were too weak to carry on.

We left too soon, abandoned our mission, and the dream was crushed.

I remember that crushing feeling when Saigon fell. I was later to describe those feelings in a sonnet:

A Sonnet To The Fall of Saigon
Phil Dillon
© 2002 Phil Dillon

The Pearl of Southeast Asia calls from far across the sea
"Come to Saigon, come to Saigon, round-eyed man"
And men of western contemplation now devise their fatal plan
"Go to Saigon, go to Saigon, heed the plea"
Oh Saigon, gentle Saigon, I've approached your beauty rare
But in haste I've touched your flowing saffroned robe
Oh, Saigon, gracious Saigon, precious pearl across the globe
Was it fate or was it faith that brought me there?
I came a man of metal while you stood as one serene
I left by knowledge broken, with a vision not to be
Who was robbed of beauty, then, oh Saigon, you or me?
Oh, Saigon, bitter Saigon, restore my youth unseen
For I've cast my life as pearls before the swine
Whose the dying now, oh Saigon, yours or mine?

The octet described my hopes and dreams; the sestet described my dreams crushed.

It was on that day that I set my harp on the willow tree. The liberty I and others were willing to die to give the people of Vietnam was denied them. Those we came to save and liberate were cast adrift on a sea of despair.

I feel the joy of seeing the foundation of liberty being laid in the Fertile Crescent, but I also sense the sadness of an unfulfilled mission in the “Pearl of the Orient.” They’re intertwined, like a pair of eyes gazing on two futures. One future was born two days ago in hope. The other was cast into despair a generation and a half ago.

I hear the rumblings now of the same voices I heard then. Words like “quagmire” and “another Vietnam” have made their way into our consciousness. The prophets of this new age are sounding the alarm:

“But the difficulties of achieving such objectives, then and now, have led a range of military experts, historians and politicians to consider the parallels between Vietnam and Iraq to warn of potential pitfalls ahead. Nearly two years after the American invasion of Iraq, such comparisons are no longer dismissed in mainstream political discourse as facile and flawed, but are instead bubbling to the top.”

I’m sometimes told that I live in the past. I hear that the past cannot be changed. Those who say so are right of course. But the future is another matter. I dream of a future filled with hope for the people of Iraq. And even through the sadness I still dream of a circle of freedom from Can Tho in the south to Pleiku in the central highlands to DaNang in the north. While one is only a dream with no hands or feet seemingly willing to make that dream come true, the other is sitting on the dawn of a new reality, hoping and praying that the hands and feet who have laid its foundation will not abandon it in its hour of need.

And so, I’m not taking my harp down from the willow tree. I will celebrate, but I will remember too. I’ll be like one of Ezra’s exiles, shouting for joy about a future filled with hope, while at the same time weeping for the pain of the past:

Ezra 3:10-13 (New International Version)

“10 When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the LORD , the priests in their vestments and with trumpets, and the Levites (the sons of Asaph) with cymbals, took their places to praise the LORD , as prescribed by David king of Israel. 11 With praise and thanksgiving they sang to the LORD :

"He is good;
his love to Israel endures forever."

And all the people gave a great shout of praise to the LORD , because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid. 12 But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy. 13 No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise. And the sound was heard far away.”

And so I look forward to the future, but I will not forget the past, nor will I ever stop dreaming of what might have been. I cling to the words of the Psalmist – “May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you.”

I will not forget!

And so, dear reader, I close with a lesson. Do not abandon this mission! The hopes and dreams of the people of Iraq need hands and feet to make them come true. Two futures beckon, one, like the siren’s song, calls us into the pit of despair, the other, like the sweet song of liberty, calls us to the mountain of hope. Choose the future filled with hope. Do not abandon this mission!

1 comment:

Dr Mac said...

A grand commentary on this sensitive subject. I am grateful for your literary abilities which are achieved only by having been there and willing to share the truth. There are many more who would share this view if they were not clouded with biggotry, unforgiveness, and deceit. May God richly bless you for expressing what this retired veteran would like to echo. Thanks for saying it for me and millions of others.