In this time when the
It's too easy as Americans living in the relatively comfortable situation that we do, even as we work to end the wars, to not realize the full impact of the destruction being wreaked in our name.
We are as guilty of that as any. You don't really understand the depth of the war crimes, until you talk to the people and see the places where we inflicted them.
We traveled to
We could not have been more wrong. It is a beautiful country, very different from ours in a million ways both delightful and frustrating, and we're very glad to have gone there, but the War, the American War, as it is known by the Vietnamese, was a daily presence in the lives of the people, the suffering that continues, and the baggage we brought with us.
It came up soon after we arrived, and Karen encountered it first, on a government tour that was given to us by the host committee. We were on different conference tracks, and so went on different days, Karen did the tour of the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, and several fabulous museums and cultural sites on Sunday, two days after we arrived. This was her experience:
We came in to the Mausoleum through the VIP/foreigners' entrance; through a snafu with directions, some members of the tour and I had originally come to the People's entrance, the Vietnamese entrance. The line from there wraps around the huge complex; it looked like it was at least a mile, with 10,000 crammed into the narrow walkway just before the entrance. People come from all over
After you come out of the Mausoleum, the line snakes through the complex to view first the Presidential Palace, built by the French for their French-born governor and then appropriated by the Vietnamese. Ho Chi Minh felt it was too grand for a single, simple man, so he lived in two smaller buildings. One was his primary residence and conference room: above, on the second floor, a two-room simple wooden structure, raised on stilts to provide single wide area below, on the ground, left with a dirt floor, about the size of a small conference room, where the breeze could blow while he and his ministers met around a straight-forward table.
At that point, I spied them: a group of Vietnamese soldiers in the old green uniforms that I had seen so often from pictures of the war with the
For Larry, the first moment was easier and relatively safe, at least for Larry: When I took the tour the day after Karen, we went from Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum and museums to the
A couple of days later, it became more personal.
On the last day of the Congress, Karen and I sat in on an incredible discussion between NLG law students and Vietnamese students, some law, some language students, and after feeling each other out and comparing educational systems, one of the
When the war itself came up, they were staggeringly gracious, differentiating between Lyndon Johnson and the American people. Citing the Mobilization march, and other demonstrations, they are taught in school, and talk about how the American people stood in solidarity with the people of
They talked about how American soldiers were victims and suffer as well.
I had to say something: They gave us way too much credit! It was a struggle then as it is a struggle now to get Americans into the streets, and to actually empathize about the suffering of others, to actually see the world beyond the
One of the Vietnamese quoted Uncle Ho saying that we will drive the Americans out of the country and then, when they ask to come back as equals, to roll out the carpet and welcome us back. And, here we are.
We hugged and cried together, and posed for pictures. It was an amazing connection. Solidarity in beautiful radiance.
The next day, the war was revisited as we traveled as part of a delegation from the IADL to the
Throughout the remainder of our stay, once we knew how to look, we found shrines tucked into street corners and in town squares to the at least two million dead of the American War. The dead are mourned and honored as an ongoing, endless process of scar and healing.
One of the most powerful experiences awaited us on the last full day of our trip.
We were relaxing in
A fellow US delegate had celebrated her birthday while on this trip. She had decided early on that a good way to celebrate would be to find someone who had been harmed in the War, and she would apologize to them. Karen remembered her story of having found a man working as a "cyclo" driver, taking people around on his combination bicycle-taxi, and the words she had used. We, too, said, "Sin Loi" (I'm sorry). He turned back around, and his smile was blinding, and his eyes lit up. With each of us, he took one hand in both of his, shaking our hands so warmly, and bowing. His face remains burned in our memories.
Now that we have returned to the
The Vietnamese, as Iraqis and Afghanis, and the others that we wage war against were claimed not to value life as we do. There is the old stupid cliché spouted during the War and now again about Iraqis, Afghanis, Arabs and Muslims, that they don't value life as we do. As we traveled, met the Vietnamese, and came to understand the effect that the War has had on them, it became very clear, that they value life in ways that we as Americans can barely begin to understand. If we dig, it will not take long to find that that is true of the Iraqis and Afghanis as well.
Another lesson has given us hope as we struggle to end our current wars and feel, as we do, isolated, and hopeless. The students showed us that every little demonstration that we suffer through where we think no one is watching, no media are covering it, and only 50 people show up, makes a difference in solidarity. People are watching, and 30 years from now, young Iraqis will learn about our marches in their history books.
Imperialism can be defeated, by determined nations, under-armed, poor, but determined. The empire cannot maintain occupations in the face of committed resistance, and Empires always fall.
Stay strong and keep fighting. We must, if history is any judge, prevail, and one day we will walk in a free
Larry Hildes is a civil rights lawyer based in