Southeast Asia Thoughts: Saigon, Cu Chi Tunnels, and the Reminders of War

Saigon, Vietnam, 2018

Since 1975 and the reunification of the country, the official name of Saigon is Ho Chi Minh city. For the locals, they use this as a way of separating the natives from those who came later.

If you refer to the city as Ho Chi Minh city, you are not native. As one travels through the country, the distinct cultural differences from the Mekong Delta to Hoi An to Hue and north are subtle but evident. The majority of the Vietnamese still have an intimate connection to the land and a self-sustaining lifestyle. From the fish traps on the Mekong to the rice paddies, much of their food is grown or caught.

What they don’t use, they sell. Every city, town, or small village has a night market. There are few grocery type stores, their food is bought daily if they cannot grow or catch what they need.

One has to stand in the middle of night market to appreciate it. The ones in the bigger cities are a spectacle. Try to imagine an open-air market, in some cases several city blocks wide, with every manner of familiar and unfamiliar vegetable, live and soon-not-to-be-live fowl, flopping fish, flying fish scales, rising and falling meat cleavers, displaced pig’s snouts, or feet, or some once functioning organ, roiling pots of soup, set to the soundtrack of animated negotiations over price and quality. All permeated with an aroma of coppery blood saturated with garlic and fish sauce, orchids and jasmine, sweat and motorcycle exhaust.  The walkways are slick with a mixture of melted ice, blood, oil, and who knows what else that makes dodging the motorbikes, who cruise through like an armored version of a pedestrian, a challenge.

And that’s just the food area. There are vendors selling everything. All of it genuine fakes with the occasional real thing that “fell off the truck.”

In the bigger cities, a more cosmopolitan world is taking hold. Foreign investment–Chinese, Japanese and South Korean-is altering Vietnamese society with fewer and fewer of the next generation following in their ancestors’ footsteps into the fields.

There is a price to pay for this capitalism within a Socialist government. Those who benefit most from the economic boom are the police, military, and government officials.; their hands out in exchange for favorable access to land, security, and business development.

The local traffic cops stake out prime areas for enforcing traffic using the “pay-on-the-spot” fine collection method. I use the term “traffic enforcement” as a joke, no one follows traffic laws so if you are stopped they consider it a nuisance road toll, pay the fine, and speed off. Usually the wrong way at a rotary.

The more “successful” cops are rewarded with prime posts to enhance their ability to “pay-it-forward” to the commanders.

Socialism indeed.

Corruption is rampant. As we drive by the more ostentatious houses, we are cautiously told the official positions of the owners. The socialist government imposes effective, albeit subtle, control over the general population. Much of their life, from required registration of cell phones with the owner’s picture on file to blocked sites on the internet, is controlled by the government.

The Vietnamese are circumspect in their criticism of officials, but they get the point across. Those in the south, below the old demilitarized zone (DMZ) have more experience with a free capitalist economy, and many openly express their wish that the Americans had never left.

For most, they are free to live their lives as they like while toeing the official line in the public view.

One of the most profoundly striking aspects of Viet Nam (despite our penchant for writing Vietnam, Viet Nam is the proper name) is the attitude toward the “American War.” Now I am not talking about the official government position but that of the everyday Vietnamese.

They take great pride in the reunification of the country. The Vietnamese see Ho Chi Minh as a national hero is the same light as we view Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson. The declaration of independence made by Ho Chi Minh on September 2, 1945, is modeled on our own of 1776.

Yet they harbor no ill-feelings over our time there. There are differences, of course, between the north and south. In the south, they would have preferred us to stick to the original commitment made after World War II and let the Vietnamese determine their own course. In the north, they are a bit less embracing of the newly evolved capitalism driven by tourism and outside investment but see their victory in the south as their manifest destiny.

To the Vietnamese, we are their British.

We tried to prevent self-determination, and they fought to win it. But in this predominantly Buddhist country, the people do not cling to the past. The war is over, and now we can live and let live.

There is another difference between the north, near Hanoi, and the south, near Saigon, that underscores the benefit of an “open” society.

In Hanoi, the streets are dark and dank. People gather in sidewalks, alleyways, and various other locations to cook and eat meals. We think it is a combination of limited space and the heat inside their apartments.  The long-term effect of communism in the north contrasts dramatically with the more vibrant Saigon and the south.

Cu Chi tunnels and the American War

We had the opportunity to tour the Cu Chi tunnels. To say it was troubling is an understatement.

We were warned that the story is told from the perspective of the Viet Cong and their victory over the South. During our visit, a busload of former Viet Cong and NVA military veterans visited the area. A Vietnamese version of the honor flight.

It was difficult to hear the recounting of valor in battle where the soldiers were awarded medals called American Killer Heroes. But such is the fact that victors write history. While the point is often made that the North Vietnamese Army or the Viet Cong never defeated American forces on the battlefield, as a North Vietnamese army officer once said, “that is true and it is also irrelevant.”

Displayed was the shell of a US Army M-48 tank. All of the salvageable pieces were stripped away. Some of the tourists chose to climb on for a picture op. I declined. While I can understand the point of view of those Vietnamese who fought here and destroyed that tank, I chose to honor the memory of the young Americans who likely died there.

It is this failure to recall the horrors and cost of war that drives us to repeat this mistake over and over.

For many Americans, the mention of Vietnam invokes memories of war and the protests against it. Body bags, casualty lists, draft dodgers, and war heroes. The loyalties of the shattered bodies in a body bag or on a battlefield are as irrelevant as who won. 

The dead neither celebrate victory nor rest in defeat. Often the worst casualties of war are those who survive.

War is always the consequences of human frailties. No matter how we justify the need to end it with force, the start of it is always a failure of reason.

There is little nobility on a casualty-strewn battlefield. Severed limbs and shortened lives are not the best of humanity.

One cannot measure past decisions with the standards of the present, but you can use them to illustrate why we failed. And, more importantly, how we need learn from it.

The way to convince young men and women to kill the enemy-often other young men and women themselves-is to dehumanize them.

Turn them into demons and devils beneath human considerations.

To name them gooks, slopes, and chinks.

These are the faces of a gook

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An 88-year-old woman, once the secretary to a military commander during the war, she rides her bike a mile each day to care for a centuries-old temple

 

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Combat is a mutual experience where each side demonizes the enemy and tries to kill them. Ideologies are irrelevant to bullets and bombs, and heroes are defined by the victors. It’s easy to kill an epithet, hard to kill a smiling boy named Nguyen, or John, or Le, or Joe.

What I have taken away from all these travels in Southeast Asia is that our misplaced focus on surface differences deters us from seeking commonality. Sitting in a restaurant in Saigon, Bangkok, Siem Reap, Hue, or Hanoi, looking out at the street, it appeared like many of the cities and towns of America as long as you focused on the shared human activity; taking kids to school, carrying home groceries, sipping beer with friends, kids playing in a park. If all you see are differences, you’ve missed the opportunity to see yourself in those very same people.

We are shaped by the geography of our birth yet still share the commonality of our humanity.

Our time in Viet Nam was a lost opportunity. Not caused by those who fought there, but by intolerance, hatred, and insensitivity of those there and in the US whose actions sent us on a collision course.

If anything, we should learn we don’t need to send B-52s or machine guns to free a people. Send tourists with fistfuls of dollars. Let countries and people make their own choices, then wave the flag of the entrepreneur.

Victory is certain.

Until you stand in the Viet Nam of  2018 you can never see how deep the tragedy of the Viet Nam of 1964-1975 really was.

Go there, you will not regret it.

Born in the USA: The Bright Shining Lie of Uninformed Patriotism

Last night we went to the first of six Pawtucket Red Sox games which feature a themed firework display after the game. (I know this may seem like heresy from a Yankee fan, but it is a nice place to watch a game despite the Red Sox aura.)

For the Memorial Day Weekend, the theme was a patriotic one. Commemorating the lives of those who served in the military and those who paid the ultimate sacrifice, defending the freedom of this country and others around the world.

There is much for which this country should be proud. We’ve been willing to sacrifice our young men and women for our ideals.  In the words of President John F. Kennedy, we’ve been willing to,

“pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

We survived and thrived because we valued dedication, intelligence, and determination in pursuit of these ideals. We haven’t always been perfect, no nation or people are, but we have always been willing to learn from our mistakes.

I wonder where that brilliance has gone.

One song chosen to accompany the spectacular and inspiring display was the Bruce Springsteen song, “Born in America.”

Odd how an anti-war, anti-military-industrial complex song critical of the way we treat veterans has somehow become a rousing “hurray for America” theme. It strikes me as an indictment of our inability to think things through anymore. Our failure to find solutions to problems. Favoring slogans to rouse emotions over doing the difficult things.

To quote the lines I found most troubling amid the applause and cheers of the crowd,

“Got in a little hometown jam

So they put a rifle in my hand

Sent me off to a foreign land

To go and kill the yellow man”

I couldn’t help but notice the families of many Southeast Asians in the crowd. I wonder what they’d think if they knew the lyrics?

This underscores the rising rampant dangerous nationalism within this country that screams for a “target of opportunity.”  Today’s target is Islam.

But our failing to even bother to understand the meaning of these songs we use as a soundtrack to patriotic displays underscores our failure to understand the nature of warfare today.

In World War I and II we helped defeat a military-supported government seeking to impose themselves on others. One can debate the many reasons behind how these wars started, but the goal was clear.

Today is a different world.  Today is a world of asymmetric warfare requiring asymmetric thinking. We face any enemy of ideas, not divisions and tanks.

We must fight the genesis of these concepts of twisted jihad with intelligence and thoughtful policies, not B-1 stealth bombers and cruise missiles.

Weapons such as these have their purpose, make no doubt about it, but we could double the stockpile of weapons and it would have no effect on the enemy. Calling for the leveling of Mecca or Medina may make for rousing sound bites but would be a wasteful, inhumane, and ineffective policy.

Perhaps we should think about the ideas behind Springsteen’s lyrics.

Wars are started by ambitious politicians but fought by young men and women.

Wars are won and lost by these same politicians. (See Vietnam as an example.)

Our enemies today are enemies of everyone who opposes their ideas. We must bring the world together to fight these insidious twisted 14th-century concepts, not push ourselves into an America first isolationism.

Before entering into both World Wars, we sought to stay out of the “European” problem. That was the world where most people never traveled more than fifty miles from where they were born. Where communications between countries took weeks.

That is not today’s world.

The time of unleashing “Ole’ Blood and Guts” military leaders of Patton, Eisenhower, Marshall, and MacArthur is over. Now, more than ever, we need intelligent policies that utilize the selective application of military power to compliment our once formidable determination.

It is the only way to change the conditions that breed these terrorists.

We have the big stick, we need to remember to walk softly.

I doubt I’ll see it in my lifetime, but I hope for a day when we celebrate the passing of the last veteran. For when that day comes, all the sacrifices of every veteran will be worth it.

Russian Hacking, Spokesman Lacking

The Russians hacked and attempted to influence an election. Those who find this troubling consider this a threat to our democracy, some call it an act of war. Those in the Trump camp, who find it inconvenient to their position, call it “alleged” hacking.

I think the evidence presented by the President is compelling. It is laughable to think President Obama would use his last few weeks in office to create a fraudulent international crisis with the Russians, then walk away. That is beyond any rational thinking.

The lack of rationality part is the problem.

Sean Spicer, the incoming White House spokesman, had this to say,

“Nobody by any way or shape is suggesting that that’s acceptable behavior,” Spicer said. “But I don’t believe once I’ve ever seen an interview where anyone at the DNC was ever asked a question about whether they take any responsibility for what clearly appears to be a lax effort on them to protect their own networks.”

So, if I understand his argument, he’s saying the Democrats are at fault for the Russian hacking. At least he’s not denying it happened. But his argument is like blaming the way a woman dressed for her being raped. She is responsible for letting the crime happen.

I mean, come on. Look at her. She was asking for it.

So was the DNC, apparently.

If that’s the argument the future White House spokesman is making, this is going to be an interesting year. Spicer sounds more like a spin doctor for the Russians. Maybe we should see who is signing his paycheck? If it wasn’t so serious, it would be hysterical.

 

Better Way of War: Learning from Star Trek

As I predicted in an earlier piece, (https://joebroadmeadowblog.wordpress.com/2015/11/14/roots-of-evil/),
France has responded in kind to the attacks in Paris. They’ve launched a two-pronged assault, using Law Enforcement to arrest and seize terrorists within their borders and using the might of their military on targets in Syria.

The use of the police to investigate and arrest those responsible I applaud. I hope it results in the dismantling of the terrorist cells. The use of the military I understand, but I have less hope for the effectiveness of such tactics.

I have no doubt of the efficiency of the French attacks, or the effectiveness of the weapons. I am sure they managed to kill a number of ISIS members and those that support them.

The failure lies in they cannot succeed in killing the ideas (as warped as they may seem) that encourage and inspire people to commit such acts through military force alone.

Over the course of the last century, our ideas and abilities regarding warfare have changed. Militarily (meaning all those with sophisticated military hardware and capabilities) have exponentially improved our ability to reach out and kill someone.

We can do it from the relative safely of an Air Force base in Nevada, remotely piloting UAV equipped with HARM missiles to destroy targets on the other side of the world with the push of a button.

The violence and gore of death mitigated by watching it on a screen rather than smelling the blood and stepping over the body parts.

Since the War to End all Wars (WWI) upwards of 80 million people have died (and perhaps more) in war.  Yet we continue down this path.  And we do it because we’ve become better at the advertising that sells this approach.

In December of 1941 President Roosevelt announced we were at war with Japan and Germany. He called on all Americans to dedicate themselves to victory. To commit themselves to battle. To be willing to sacrifice themselves in a noble cause, even at the price of their own lives.

In September of 2001, President Bush told us to go shopping. Yes, we were at war with terrorists. Yes, we would use our military might to smite our enemies. Those enemies that hate us because of our freedom (and shopping malls apparently) and we would hunt them down and kill them.

Between 1941 and 2001 our wars went from all-out calls for the commitment and blood of Americans to the “Police action” of Korea, to the “Assistance” of the Democratic Government of South Viet Nam.

Just a kinder and gentler way of selling war to the world.

So how can we learn from Star Trek? There was an episode wherein Kirk and crew encounter two planets at war. But there are no weapons being fired, no bodies being exploded or shot, no horribly wounded sent home without limbs to recover.

It was a “civilized” way of warfare. Virtual weapons were fired back and forth. Computers randomly selected the “casualties” and dutiful citizens so selected reported to the chambers to be “eliminated” without the horrors of real war.

It worked well at eliminating the horrors of war, without eliminating the motivation of war. No one on either planet could explain the reason they were at war, that had faded into the past.

Kirk, as he always did, violated the Prime Directive and interfered. He gave them back the horrors and reality of war. The two planets chose to negotiate. Happy ending all around.

Perhaps we can learn something here. Either find a willingness to solve the problems that motivate a people to choose to kill another people by virtue of a difference of beliefs, or adapt a more “civilized” way to war.

Think of it. Eliminate the horrors of the wounded, both civilian and military. Eliminate the effect of war on children (they would be ineligible for selection until their 21st birthday.) Redirect the resources of the military into more productive activities.

Let the computers fight the war.

The reality is it wouldn’t work. Until we as a species learn to extend tolerance as much as seek it for ourselves, war will remain with us.

I find it amazing that those that scream the loudest for the path to war, are almost always those that don’t go to war. It seems to me that those who have never seen the effect of a bullet on a human body in person are the first to hand someone else a weapon, identify the target, and send them off to fight. Staying safely behind.