Thursday, October 6, 2016

Being the Bad Guy – Erich

Reading the title of this post, you might guess it would be about parenting. And that would be an appropriate appellation for such an essay. How many times does a parent have to deny his child the thing that said child wants because the parent knows it is not really the best want? And many other examples.

But as apropos as it might seem, this blog post is not about that. It is about the Vietnam War.

We visited the War Remnants Museum here in Ho Chi Minh City. It was previously named The Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes. The old name certainly hints at what one will find when one enters.

The good side: It is a powerful museum. Some of the photographs make your heart leap to your throat. There are pictures of prisoners liberated at the end of the war, so thin and so broken it amazes the viewer. There are reconstructed “tiger cages” which were tiny barbed wire cells that prisoners had to stay in, so short, you can only kneel, so short across that you cannot lay down. There are a lot of exhibits about the horrors that these prisoners and civilians went through.

When we were in Berlin, we visited several museums that had similar hard-hitting photographs and horrifying facts. But in all of that one had the luxury of saying “those horrible people” referring to Nazi Germany as the “them” and separating the “us”.

You couldn't do that in the War Remnants Museum. These conditions were created by the government of South Vietnam at the time, a government being propped up and advised by Americans. Throughout the museum (and I suspect throughout all history classes in Vietnam) what we call the Vietnam War, they call the War of U.S. Aggression Against Vietnam.

Yes, I know, the victor writes the histories. North Vietnam won. But these are well documented histories. And it included pictures of U.S. advisers in the prisons. The U.S. Government had to know what was going on. They had to know about some of the galling forms of torture being used. Maybe it was only a tacit approval, but even a tacit approval is approval. And maybe it was much more than tacit.

We couldn't hide behind the comfort of saying “those horrible people” as though we were from a different place, a different culture, one that would never allow such things. We are from the United States, and the U.S. was unquestionably a partner and participant in the activities of “those horrible people.”

There was a group of Vietnamese High Schoolers touring the museum while we were there. How could we meet their eyes? Yes, this was all ancient history to them. Several were more interested in their ear buds than in their tour guide. But I felt sort of guilty.

I know I wasn't the one who did it. Much of this occurred before I was born or when I was a tiny baby. Still, I would have felt better if I could have removed myself even further from the cause of so much suffering.

So what am I saying here? Am I saying America was wrong to get involved? Well, that's not a fair question. I have hindsight, our leaders did not. I do believe that leaders have to make their decisions with the best information and judgment available to them at the time of the decision. It's easy for history to laud or condemn them for deciding whatever they decided. But in that moment, they have to make a decision. We can only hope they make the most just and thoughtful one. I even wrote a play about that exact theme. It's called For Us the Living in which Abraham Lincoln and James Buchanan are hanging out (and drinking) in the Shriner-Concord Cemetery in Lancaster, Pennsylvania on the night before Lincoln delivers the Gettysburg Address.

So while I don't want to condemn those who made the decisions of that period, I do want all of us, looking forward, to make decisions that do not demean, torture, or dehumanize our “enemies”. The consequences are too great and too long lasting. And ignoring all of that, we need to possess and consistently demonstrate our humanity.

You know, maybe this post is about parenting. Because as a parent, I certainly hope this is a lesson I pass on to my children.

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