Nams Reality A Warning
Most days Viet Nam shocks me. After the nightmare
that was September 11, many Vietnamese, even strangers, came up
to me to express their sincere sympathy. Students, teachers, and
new friends held Vietnamese newspapers with grainy photos of the
former World Trade Center, and said, as if someone had died, Im
so sorry. Weeks later when Im finally able to write
this Im again struck by the seemingly divine forgiveness in
the fact that that so many Vietnamese have compassion for a country
that, besides killing more than two million of its citizens, dumped
more than 19 million gallons of Agent Orange on about 4.5 million
acres of countryside. A 1996 Report by the U.S. Institute of Medicine
suggested that Agent Orange can cause cancers of the brain, bladder
and gastrointestinal system, and that there is sufficient
evidence of an association between the chemical and lymph
node cancer, the skin disease chloracne and connective tissue cancer.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs goes even further
to link Agent Orange with military service-related disabilities.
Veterans may now receive compensation for up to ten equally horrific
diseases, including Hodgkins Disease, which can start from
almost any organ in the body and then spread to the liver, bone
marrow and spleen, multiple myeloma, prostrate, and lung and other
respiratory cancers. It must have come as a great surprise to soldiers
on both sides that in defense of their country they came into contact
with a defoliant so toxic as to worm insidiously through their bodies,
spreading cancer at every turn.
Last week on a ferry across the Mekong Delta I saw
the disastrous effects of Agent Orange handed down from
one generation to the next. A young boy, I guessed he was
about 12 years old, walked slowly from truck to tourist van to car,
offering his face as an unspoken, but sorrowful plea for charity.
Living in Ho Chi Minh City where scores of amputees, burn victims
and other assorted legacies of war snake their way through the city
begging for small change, I had almost gotten used to the sight.
But something about this boy caught me off-guard. His face was so
badly burned that it was stretched taut, locking his lips in a permanent
O, as if he would spend his life forever gasping for
air. I was so shocked and distracted by his features I forgot all
about the ice-cold Pepsi and mineral water he was hawking. No more
than 12 years old, he was much too young to be a direct participant
in the war, the thirty-year period starting in 1945
in which Viet Nam fought off three imperialist powers Japan,
France and finally the United States. It seemed safe to assume that
his deformity had been passed on to him by his parents. What struck
me is the magnitude of pity I felt for this boy.
First, regardless of the leader his parents supported, the use of
chemical warfare seems ethically indefensible. Chemically maiming
an enemys population will produce both physical scars as well
as scars of the psyche for generations to come.
Second, as disturbing as his defects were, I was equally mortified
by my own response to him. Though he stood outside our minibus for
about one minute, my head recoiled after a brief glance. Heeding
the wisdom of polite society, I knew enough not to stare. Yet I
wonder the implications of not staring, of glossing over uncomfortable
situations to paint rosy pictures of the larger world. In the United
States it is relatively easy to avoid the painful reminder of the
Viet Nam War. Veterans who suffer from violent war-related trauma
are cloistered in VA hospitals. For those with more subtle shock,
etiquette dictates that we should never raise the subject. To honor
the dead, we have a sober granite memorial in our nations
capital. If one wants to take an orderly, even logical approach
to reacting to this painful period in our past, this is possible.
One can be certain that even the most heated political debate about
the conflict, which cost the U.S. 57,000 lives, compared with over
two million Vietnamese dead, will not bring further bloodshed.
In Ho Chi Minh City one is constantly barraged by both the ideological
reasons for preserving Viet Nams national identity and the
haunting phsyical reminder of war, the quadruply-padded amputees
who pull themselves by their elbows through the grimy streets of
former Saigon. Every day here I see examples of humanity at its
lowest: blind men with useless eyes rolled back into their head,
being led around by children or grandchildren, dependent on strangers
charity; prostitutes working the corner near our guest house, an
entire class of society introduced to serve the American GIs 40
years ago and who remain today as a thriving social evil; swarms
of children six and seven years old selling lotto tickets for a
dime a ticket, taking a small percentage of that as commission.
This is the winning side, remember.
I write these words not to limit myself to the particular circumstances
which affect Viet Nam, but rather as a call for renewed caution
as the United States moves to respond to the events of Sept. 11.
I know that the young boy bears the legacy of a conflict he knew
no part of, but will continue to haunt him, and his country, for
years to come. Much has been written about the appropriate American
response to what we have unironically called an American
tragedy. If we continue to envision the attack on the World Trade
Center and on the Pentagon as a strictly American catastrophe
then we blind ourselves to the physical and psychic wounds that
result when we meet terror with more terror. The attack was not
just an attack on the American way of life, or even on freedom or
democracy, but it was as much a reminder of the unintended consequences
when we use any means necessary to protect those symbols of America.
The United States is in a position to break the cycle of terror.
Let us hope that we continue to imagine our enemy, consider the
faces of the future amputees and proceed with the utmost restraint.