Thursday, September 10, 2009

In Vietnam, You're Never Just a Tourist

By Larry Hildes

In this time when the U.S. is mired in two wars with no end in sight, no plan for ending them and absolutely no sense of history, it seems appropriate to look back at another war that the US fought for many years, under other regimes, Democrat and Republican, for no good reason, and based on lies.

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 Hanoi in June of this year to attend the Quadrennial Congress of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers which brings together radical civil rights and human rights lawyers from around the world. As we prepared to go and mentioned to various activists where we were going, the Vietnam Vets among them kept emphasizing the significance of going there because of the War. In our naiveté, we agreed, and thought to ourselves, ‘Yeah, I know, but the War has been over for 35 years. It'll come up. But mostly Vietnam is an exotic place to go for a great conference to discuss important issues of peace and human rights. It's a beautiful country, and it's been on our travel list for a long time.'

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 Vietnam to pay their respects.

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 U.S., some of them with medals hanging from their front pockets. I became as curious and stared as much as all the Vietnamese stare at me (white faces are still vastly in the minority, despite the opening up of Vietnam and the encouragement of tourism). I was excited and so much wanted to talk to them: what state were they from? Where had they fought? Did they get to meet their Uncle Ho? Did they ever hear him talk? How do they feel about the U.S. today? We are supporters of the U.S. group, Veterans for Peace, which helped to start the Vietnam Friendship Village, an organization that helps children and veterans affected by land mines and Agent Orange. We know several Americans who fought in the war. I ached to reach out to them, to offer a bridge of peace, or even a contact of peace. But it was too sudden, to come across them like this. I could not formulate the words to tell our translator why I was so excited, and my Vietnamese is non-existent. We stared at each other several times in the walk through the complex, sometimes only two or three feet away, but it might as well have been opposite sides of the Grand Canyon. I finally asked permission to take a photo. I wanted to not just take a picture of them, but to have a picture with them, but even that part didn't come across. They shook their heads no. To have it come down to such a dumb tourist kind of gesture. I felt so sad. They are clearly all older; they must be in their 60s and 70s, who knew if we would have another chance. And who knows how they feel about being approached by this overweight middle-class white American woman after all they had been through.

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 Army Museum. There was McCain's plane, and various captured US military equipment displayed outside, and inside, a guide from the Vietnamese Army proudly led us through exhibits on the Japanese, French, and American Wars and how the Vietnamese had won. We, a delegation coincidently or not, Japanese, French, and American lawyers and law students responded to the guide's gracious hope that we could all live in peace, with heartfelt statements about how glad we were that the Vietnamese had won their country back from each of our countries, the wave after wave of invaders. It was true, and allowed us to all feel good about defying empire.

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 US law students, Dan, brought the discussion to the heart of the issue, The War. The Vietnamese students are very angry about Agent Orange (the Orange Poison as they aptly call it) and everyone seems to know people who are affected by it, now into a third generation. There are now grandchildren being born affected by this scourge we have left on and, as the water leeches it, in the land, and worse, in the genes of the people we brutalized with our toxic chemicals, turned into weapons of war, sprayed from on high by those who never saw the effect of what they did. Shock and awe, 1970s style. Our war crimes continue long after we have left.

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 Vietnam and made the government stop fighting the war. They have pictures in their history books and museums showing the major marches in the US against what we call the Vietnam War, and they call the American War, and display signs and leaflets from our end of the struggle to end that horrible War.

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 U.S. In the midst of crying, I was able to apologize and to tell them how glad I was that they had won the war and to sit here in a free Vietnam.

Karen, the US law students, and others made wonderful eloquent statements.

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 Vietnam Friendship Village. The Friendship Village was established by a member of Vets for Peace to atone for his actions during The War. It is now funded by donations from at least five countries, four of which did not even participate in the War, as well as by the Vietnamese government. At the Friendship Village victims of Agent Orange (mostly children), now into the third generation, are treated, educated, and taught skills. We were, out of typical Vietnamese graciousness, not shown the worst victims, scarred, and deformed, but what we saw was still extraordinarily painful, and unknown in the US. As one of the students from the discussion the day before demanded with polite anger, "When will Americans accept responsibility for the suffering they cause?" When indeed. Larry found himself getting angry the rest of the day, and only later understood how much of that was anger at what we had seen in those children's faces and bodies.

At the Friendship Village, we finally made the connection that Karen had craved, meeting a group of Vietnamese Veterans of the American War, still in uniform, at the Friendship Village for medical treatment. Smiling, they greeted us, took our hands, and posed for pictures. There was a sense of unity and solidarity that Larry has yet to find language to express.

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 Hanoi, in one of the most peaceful places we've ever found in a big city. We were sitting on a bench out at the temple in the middle of Hoan Kiem Lake, looking for the legendary turtles that inhabit the lake and are said to be emissaries from the Gods. We were approached by an elderly Vietnamese man, who at first said, "American?" When we nodded, he responded with a rush of Vietnamese. Karen held her hands up in confusion, and said, in English, that we don't speak Vietnamese. Again, he said, "American?" Larry said, yes, but we don't speak Vietnamese. We went through this another time, with him speaking Vietnamese and us speaking English. It was obviously very important to him to make the connection with us, but the Congress was over and we had no translators. Suddenly, he pulled his neatly tucked shirt out of his pants, squatted down in front of us, with his back turned to his. He continued to pull his shirt up to his shoulders, so that his entire back was clearly visible. He continued to speak in Vietnamese, very insistently. Larry suddenly connected: He was showing us the scars across the middle of his back. They could have been marks of torture, or marks from bullets. He was not content, and would not get up again, until both of us had touched the scars on his back, demonstrating that we knew that was what he was showing us.

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 US, which takes responsibility still for nothing and acts as if everything it does and every harm it causes, is approved by God, we struggle with the lessons we have learned:

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 Afghanistan and a free Iraq and talk with gracious people who will thank us for our small contribution to ending the occupations and wars.

Larry Hildes is a civil rights lawyer based in Bellingham, WA specializing in the rights of demonstrators in particular anti-War demonstrators in Olympia, WA.. His wife Karen Weill is a former journalist and corporate HR manager who now works with him in their practice. Together they travel frequently to conferences around the world. The article came out of a series of postings Larry and Karen made to a blog the National Lawyers Guild's International Committee set up for participants to post their observations about the conference and Vietnam.