The Boy in the Batman Shirt

Montagnard kids, joyous and disarming. Note the loincloth on the boy with the Batman t-shirt. The further you got from town and from the missionaries who gave the kids Western clothing, the more primitive the attire.

My friend Mike Little was an Army MP patrolling Route 19, forty miles upstream from me in Cheo Reo. Burned out on the war, Mike lost his heart to the Montagnard kids frolicking in the local river. Soon he was visiting their village, bringing them gifts and supplies, and forging a remarkable bond. These Montagnard kids and their families “redeemed” him, Mike says. He has gone back nine times since the war to visit his extended family of 172 villagers, even taking his own seven-year-old son, Sean C. Little. At nine, Sean wrote his wonderful account of the experience,  They Don’t Speak English Here.

Mike’s trips have grown difficult since the tribes in the Highlands rose up to protest human-rights violations. Since 2003, he’s been turned back, detained, interrogated, arrested, his former three-day visits cut down to four hours. But he hasn’t given up.

Like Mike, many American soldiers (myself included) developed much closer ties to the indigenous Montagnards than to our nominal allies, the South Vietnamese. As one of the characters in Red Flags says, it’s pretty impossible not to love people who are “innately honest, don’t have a calendar, can’t read or count, rely almost entirely on barter to get by, and insist that everyone get drunk at their ceremonies.”

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