Word Choice

Welcome Home, Son. 30 May 1986, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Angle Fire, NM. Engelmann had to capture these WW II veterans who traveled to shake hands with Viet Nam veterans. (Photo© 1986 by Ted Engelmann)





You cannot learn about a war without learning about language.

Ted Engelmann enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 1966, during what we call the Vietnam War. Just a kid, but a bright one, he was charged with helping direct air strikes for the U.S. and Vietnamese armies at the age of twenty-one. After his tour of duty ended, he became the first Veterans Service Advocate in Denver, offering counseling for “PTSD” before it became a diagnosis. He then became a teacher, a professional photographer, and a distinguished lecturer with the Organization of American Historians. So far as he knows, Engelmann was the only American invited to Ho Chi Minh’s wartime base of operations, and he was the first American war veteran to teach about the war at the United Nations International School in Ha Noi. Later, as a freelance photographer, he embedded with U.S. soldiers in Baghdad and then in northeast Afghanistan.

His entire adult life has been an effort to “help people understand a denied war” and the damage it did—to individuals and to the nation. I wanted that deeper understanding, so I emailed him—and his reply began my schooling with a gentle spelling suggestion. “Việt Nam is a country, not a war,” he wrote, quoting reporter and military veteran Jack Smith. (Oh, and “war” is wrong, too. No matter how many people fought and died, it remained, for political reasons, only a “conflict.” And, as its messiness became apparent, a “quagmire.”)

The importance of spelling the country’s age-old name, strenuously avoided by colonial powers, was reinforced when Engelmann read author Huu Ngoc:



To understand Việt Nam, you must first understand the country’s name. Since the Vietnamese language is monosyllabic, Vietnamese write and pronounce ‘Việt Nam’ as two words, even though foreigners sometimes write our country’s name as well as “Hà Nội,” “Sài Gòn,” and other names as one word. ‘Việt’ refers to the Việt (or Kinh), the largest of our fifty-four ethnic groups with 85 per-cent of the population. Thus, Việt Nam is the land of the Việt, just as etymologically speaking, France is the country of the Francs, and England is the land of the Angles. Since ‘Nam’ means ‘South,’ ‘Việt Nam’ means ‘the country of the Việt of the South.’

Yet, if we modern-day Vietnamese are descendants of the Việt of the South, where are the Việt of the North?

They became Chinese.



In the West, the correct spelling was lost in translation. Vietnamese is a monosyllabic language; those of us who speak multisyllabic languages, like English, tend to stick syllables together. There is also the influence of stingy newspaper publishers to consider. During the First Indochina War, reporters filed stories using cable, and each word cost money, so it made sense to condense Viet Nam, Ha Noi, Sai Gon, and other names. But those days are long gone. Using the correct spelling is more than courtesy; it lets us see the place fresh, as a country with a rich history and culture, not a war we lost.

“There is ample evidence that if we were to spell Việt Nam correctly, it would help us develop an emotionally healthy outlook about this small country (and perhaps ourselves),” Engelmann has written. “A first step in recognizing ‘that was then, this is now.’ This is not ‘forgetting,’ rather, allowing the pain of the past to reside in the past while the individual creates a better life in the present.

Instead, we have what he calls national PTSD—with the D standing for “denial.” Our “Vietnam War” was a miserable failure for a cocky young country used to winning. Worse, it was a revelation of betrayal by the highest authority figures in the land. Like Spain, where losing the Spanish-American War and what was left of Spain’s empire came as a shock to the national psyche, we were destabilized for decades. We have yet to heal from that loss of confidence in our country.

After the glorious, good-triumphs-over-evil victory of World War II, what happened in Việt Nam felt like shame. “We learned from the Pentagon Papers that the war was a farce,” Engelmann says. “Americans didn’t want to acknowledge that they really screwed up—politically, militarily, and socially. The veterans started to show up and act out to get support and help. But what they had been through was difficult to acknowledge.”

In between, of course, was the stalemate of the Korean War, which gave our soldiers the useful ethnic slur “gook” they could then use to dehumanize the Vietnamese. The Korean word for America is miguk, a Korean pronunciation of the Chinese characters mei-guo, “beautiful country.” So if a Korean came up to a U.S. soldier and exclaimed, “Miguk,” it sounded like “me gook,” and the soldier took it as self-identification instead of a compliment. “The term quickly became pejorative slang for all Asians,” Engelmann says, “and when we got to Việt Nam, they were all gooks. We always have these names for the enemy; that helps you kill them.”

Then, once the fighting is over, you carry it home inside you. Now you need new language again.

During the Civil War, the term was “soldier’s heart,” which described only the physical effects of battle. No one yet realized the emotional toll of killing; of not knowing who you were killing; of risking your own death daily; of trying to help, being unable to help, friends who were maimed or dying.

In World War I, as weaponry changed and psychological insight increased, the term changed to “shell shock.” In World War II, it shifted to “combat fatigue,” the commonsense consequence of forty-five days (or more) of battle at the front lines. Combat fatigue was treatable: you brought the soldiers back for R&R or at least “three hots and a cot,” giving them a break from the stress, fear, danger, and casualties before returning them to the fight.

Some soldiers suffered more than combat fatigue, though. They were coded “n-p,” for “neuropsychiatric.” Renowned psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk writes that between 1945 and 1947, half of the beds in the VA hospitals were filled with n-p cases.

“Between 1947 and 1980, the VA did nothing, and the military said nothing, about neuropsychiatric issues in the Korean and Vietnam wars,” Engelmann notes, a weary bitterness in his voice. Veterans who had survived World War II’s trauma thought these younger guys ought to “buck up.” Admitting the suffering would show weakness—or cost money, because once acknowledged, it would have to be treated. Psychological issues too obvious to deny were assumed to have other origins, unrelated to combat.

Finally, in 1980—five years after the war in Viet Nam ended—a new name was declared. Post-traumatic stress disorder. Engelmann, who had already put together, on his own, a counseling program for veterans, dislikes the phrase. “It was better than ‘having a hard time adjusting to adulthood,’ which was the 1968 version,” he acknowledges dryly. “And it was helpful because for the first time, it forced the VA to offer treatment.” But the term, awkward and coldly clinical, swiftly lost import from overuse. And it felt glib; it came off the tongue without anyone needing to feel anything.

Engelmann prefers “emotional wounds.” We all have them; you cannot live without incurring a few. In war, “the emotional wound happens immediately,” he points out, not “post.” “You absorb the event. And then your life situation and temperament influence how you respond. You don’t forget that trauma; it’s with you for life. But you have to put it into context, so you become stronger by absorbing what happened and moving beyond it. Then it does not debilitate you, and you are able, in time, to do something positive with it.” Unlike a syndrome, a “wound” carries the possibility healing in its definition. And an emotional wound is a reality we have to make our peace with, instead of refusing to believe a warrior has emotions.

What about an entire nation’s recovery? Where are we now, after years of exposés, painful books and films, and rising political cynicism, in our understanding of the damage done in Việt Nam?

Engelmann holds up a brochure titled Vietnam War Commemoration, his expression wry. “They want to give every veteran a lapel pin,” he says. “This will go until 2025. There’s obviously a group that is trying to, I don’t know, placate, smooth over, pat you on the back and give you a pin. Thank you for a job well done. Well, we did the best we could. But nobody’s talking about the problem of the war in the first place, and nobody’s apologizing for that, because in this country, our government doesn’t seem able to apologize.”


Read about the diaries Engelmann returned, and how they became a bestseller.

Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.