Fond Memories of a Syria at Peace


Listening to music broadcast by a radio station in Damascus evoked a flood of memories from a long ago trip to Syria that included the capital, the country’s second largest port city, Tartus, and the eventful bus ride that took me there.  I was there to set up a summer study abroad program for US students that would have included Jordan and Syria, definitely an off-the-beaten path destination in 2000.  The program never materialized because of political issues that subsequently began heating up in Israel. 

Some of my memories are of the beautiful scenery in and around Damascus and near the Mediterranean Sea, the delicious cuisine, and the friendliness of the people.  The fact that I held a US passport did not affect people’s attitudes towards me.  They wondered why I was there, what I thought of Syria, and what was really it like in the US, among other questions.  (These conversations were in English because my Arabic was limited to a few useful phrases.)  I also remember how safe I felt wherever I was.

By Ali kattoub – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

The Syria of 1999 was a country at peace, a country in which people of different religions got along, were friends, and did business together.  That was before the US invasion, occupation, and near-total annihilation of Iraq, a neighboring country, which became a magnet for regional terrorism.  That was before the US and other competing geopolitical entities sunk their claws into Syria.  I have watched the war there – and the resulting death and destruction – with great sadness and anger.  The recent US missile strike is the latest outrage du jour. 

The US did what it is so good at, using its military to attack a sovereign country, this time under the pretense that the Syrian government used chemical weapons.  (The international community is still waiting for solid evidence to confirm this assertion.)

The US itself has one of the largest stockpiles of chemical weapons in the world.  Its clients have included a rogue’s gallery of leaders and countries including Saddam Hussein and Iraq, an ally that became a mortal enemy and joined a long and growing list of countries that the US has invaded, waged war on, or otherwise violated.

The US military launched 66 Tomahawk cruise missiles on three (3) Syrian targets at a total cost of $92.4 million.  It fired an additional 19 missiles of a different kind at a cost of $26.6 million.  (In case you’re counting, that’s a net total of $119 million.)  This does not include the many other costs associated with this attack, including, and most importantly, the lives of innocents that were snuffed out, cynically referred to by those firing the missiles as “collateral damage.”

fulbrightNow contrast this with President Trump’s request to cut funding to the Fulbright program by 71% from $252 million, already a drop in the bucket that is the US federal discretionary budget.  This program “has been a powerful force for peace, building relationships and understanding between the U.S. and 165 countries around the world” for more than 71 years.  Such are the twisted value and fiscal of the world’s leading rogue state. 

Peace, MAA

R.I.P. Michael Cull: A Life Well-Lived

I received a very sad but not totally unexpected message last night from my friend, Chuck Searcy, informing me and many others that Mike had died at 8:50 EST (8:50 p.m. Viet Nam time) of pancreatic cancer, after slipping into a coma almost four hours earlier.  Here’s what Chuck wrote, which best sums up the kind of person Mike was and what many of us will remember about him:

Mike’s gentle spirit, his kindness that gave way to moments of indignation and anger when he saw injustices, and his good humor and contagious laugh will comfort us as warm memories of a good friend, a Vietnam veteran who gave much back to Viet Nam over the past two decades.


mike friendship village
Mike with a young friend at the Friendship Village in Ha Noi, where he worked as a volunteer for many years helping children and veterans who were dealing with medical and other problems believed to be caused by Agent Orange.

maa FB pic

I remember meeting Mike for the first time on a beautiful sunny day in Nha Trang, where he lived and worked.  I was wearing a New York Yankees cap, not because I’m a fan but because I needed a hat.  A New England guy, Mike was a loyal fan of the Boston Red Sox, archrival and mortal enemy of the Yankees.  His first comment after “Hi, great to meet you!” was about my cap.  I assured him that it was only to protect my follicly-challenged head from the tropical sun, not a display of team loyalty.  🙂

I enjoyed hearing and reading, since most of our contact was via email and Facebook, his comments about important issues of the day and from the past.  One of the things we had in common was our love of and respect for Viet Nam.  Another one was what Chuck referred to as kindness giving way to moments of indignation and anger when we saw injustices.  Mike was a soul mate in that respect.  I will miss his passion and honest feedback.

It seems as if many of my US expat friends, few in number, are veterans of the American War in Viet Nam who have returned to Viet Nam to do penance, so to speak.  I counted Mike among them.  Below is a photo taken by Catherine Karnow at General Võ Nguyên Giáp’s state funeral in October 2013.  From left to right:  Mike Cull, Manus Campbell, MAA, and Chuck Searcy.
Photo by Catherine Karnow
Here is a story in English and Vietnamese entitled The Long Goodbye written by Manus, who spent nearly two months with Mike and his wife, Lan, from the day he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer to the moment he passed away.  

I will miss his playfulness, the sparkle in his eye, and his smile.

Don’t say goodbye.  Say see you again, my brother

-Manus Campbell

Life goes on and people like Mike Cull inspire us to be grateful for each and every day and to keep our eyes on the prize of what’s truly important in this exceedingly short journey we call life. 


My heartfelt condolences to Lan, Mike’s Vietnamese and US families, and his many friends in Viet Nam, the US, and around the world.