Here is my latest piece for CounterPunch. Think of it as a Viet Nam-related sociopolitical fantasy. A guy can dream, can’t he?
Here is my latest piece for CounterPunch. Think of it as a Viet Nam-related sociopolitical fantasy. A guy can dream, can’t he?
Twice a year, I have the opportunity, schedule permitting, to speak to a group of US students who are in Viet Nam for the semester under the auspices of the School for International Training’s Vietnam – Culture, Social Change, and Development program.
They come from a range of higher education institutions, mostly private liberal arts colleges, and are majoring in a variety of subjects, including Anthropology, Asian Studies, Biopsychology, History, Human Rights & Democratization, International Studies, Microbiology, Philosophy, Political Science, Psychology, Sociology, and Women’s Studies
While the students are based in HCMC, they travel from south to north as part of the program. Some stay in Hanoi to do an internship, a program requirement, while their classmates return to HCMC, or go to another location to do the same.
As I told them, it’s a rare opportunity for me to share my knowledge of and passion for Viet Nam with US students. (Most of my interaction with US Americans is with colleagues from secondary and postsecondary institutions.) My time with them, the better part part of a weekday morning, consists of a presentation, an overview of what I consider to be some of the defining characteristics of Viet Nam – a country I know from books, articles, reports, and personal experience – and discussion.
I always ask them why they chose Viet Nam as a study abroad destination. In 2015-16, the top 10 destinations for US students were the UK, Italy, Spain, France, Germany, China, Ireland, Australia, Costa Rica, and Japan. (Not surprisingly, the top five were in Europe.) There were 1,012 US students in Viet Nam, most on short-term programs. To put that number in perspective 325,339 American students received academic credit last year for study abroad in 2015/2016. One of the reasons mentioned was the opportunity to get out of their comfort zone. I’m pretty sure that Viet Nam has not disappointed in that respect.
I also want to know which students have become passionate about Viet Nam in their short time here, and who plans to make this dynamic and exciting country a part of their academic, professional, and personal future. There are usually two or three who fall into this category. Amy Tournas, a Colby College student and aspiring journalist/writer, is one of them. Below is an excerpt from one of her blogs, Does Anybody Know I’m here?, about the first part of her first day in Hanoi
November 15, 2017
After arriving at 11 pm, driving to the hotel to be told there wasn’t room for all of us, and then having to walk 20 minutes down the road to another hotel, we finally were in Hanoi!
We classically woke up early and headed through the streets of Hanoi. On our first morning, we met a man named Mark Ashwill. Mr. Ashwill is the co-founder of Capstone Vietnam among many other things. We had a discussion about many different aspects of Vietnam, and talked a lot about his journalism and papers he has written in his life about many controversial topics. He really engaged us because a lot of it was centered around things we are all interested in. I was really captured by his view of the War, along with the books he recommended to us. He told us of the book titled Kill Anything That Moves, which is an extremely controversial book that reveals the horrors of the war in a way that explains parts of the war that many Americans did not want to know about. I haven’t started reading it yet, but my friend just finished it and said it was extremely difficult to get through. I’m looking forward to reading it but I am not looking forward to being further exposed to the horrors of the war.
Another book that he recommended to us which I actually started a few days before we met him was a book called The Sympathizer. Though I am only one hundred pages in, I am already deep in it. Its not the actual story that I think that I am in love with, though a story about a communist spy in America is extremely fascinating. It is the language in which the author speaks that really pulls me in further. It actually gives me shivers when the author, Viet Thanh Nguyen writes. When he says things like, “As the debacle unfolded, calcium and lime deposits of memory from the last days of the damned republic encrusted themselves in the pipes of my brain.” The way he speaks is just astounding. The Sympathizer is fantastic that I think anyone who is interested in the War should read.
The morning with Mr. Ashwill was pretty inspiring. He has such passion for both the world and Vietnam. The pieces he has written are incredible. I will attach some of them to this post because I think his words are provocative and inspiring, and he is someone I hope to be like when I am older; he is so passionate about his work.
noun: hypocrisy; plural noun: hypocrisies
the practice of claiming to have moral standards or beliefs to which one’s own behavior does not conform; pretense.
This is a concept to which US Americans, including and perhaps especially those who represent the US government and affiliated institutions, pay lip service. Presumably, this also includes a new US-style university in Viet Nam, a private initiative, led by private citizens from Vietnam and the US.
Imagine my surprise when I posted an innocuous comment on the Fulbright University Vietnam (FUV) Facebook page stating something along the lines that “It’s full steam ahead for FUV now that Bob Kerrey is no longer chairman of its board of trustees” and included a link to my 26 May 2017 article The Fat Lady Finally Sings: Bob Kerrey Quietly Resigns from Fulbright University Vietnam Leadership Position When I tried to post a link to a Vietnamese translation my original comment had disappeared and I was already blocked from the FUV Facebook page. Compare and contrast the screenshots below.
The original article had nearly 1,000 Facebook shares, before the site migrated to a new server. It was quickly translated into Vietnamese and widely discussed on Vietnamese language blogs and Facebook pages. Maybe the latter was the icing on the censorship cake?
My comment reflected something I wrote in that article about having no need to play the quiet game because I’m not a diplomat. (Bob Kerrey was appointed with much fanfare and some fanfare should accompany his surrender.) Its prompt deletion also confirmed something else that I wrote, namely, that the silent treatment was an attempt to Clean up the mess and move on, as if nothing happened. If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? If an online comment is deleted, was there ever an original comment?
The irony of a university that claims to be inspired by the American tradition of liberal arts education (think critical thinking and other skills and knowledge) yet wastes no time in digitally erasing views with which it disagrees was not lost on me. It’s yet another example of do as we say, not as we do. We (US) claim to believe in freedom of speech and are constantly lecturing other countries, including Viet Nam, about their transgressions but we (US) practice it selectively. Shameless and shameful.
This arrogance reminds of something Ron Suskind wrote about a 2004 interview with a George W. Bush aide who was later revealed to be Karl Rove: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” In other words, the US government can do and say whatever the hell it wants because, well, the US is an empire.
Speaking of arrogance, J. William Fulbright wrote about this mindset in a classic book entitled The Arrogance of Power written during the American War in Viet Nam. Yes, that Fulbright after whom FUV is named. Irony piled upon irony. Shameless and shameful ad nauseam.
P.S.: Bob Kerrey is still a member of the FUV board of trustees, according to the FUV website, a textbook definition of a flawed compromise.
No Single Truth?
This is the tag line of the latest documentary by Burns and Novick. There are many stories to be told, mostly from the US American perspective because it’s usually “all about US,” but there is one truth, I believe: the US should never have been in Viet Nam in the first place. There should never have been a 2nd Indochina War that resulted in 3.8 million Vietnamese deaths and wholesale destruction of the infrastructure, flora, and fauna of Viet Nam, in addition to debilitating and deadly war legacies such as Agent Orange (AO) and Unexploded Ordnance (UXO) that continue to haunt Viet Nam. (AO, of course, has also affected US veterans who were exposed to this poison, along with many of their children.)
It started when the US made the decision to follow in the footsteps of the French by ignoring the Geneva Accords of 1954, which called for a national election in 1956. President Ho Chi Minh would have received 80% of the vote, according to none other than President Dwight D. Eisenhower, thus unifying his country and ushering in an era of peace and development. US support of its client state, the Republic of Viet Nam (South Vietnam), ensured that the war against the latest invader and occupier du jour would continue until it was forced to pick up and leave, which it eventually did initially in 1973 and, finally, in 1975.
There are lines that The Vietnam War does not cross because either the truth is beyond the comprehension and ideological confines of the filmmakers and/or because their corporate sponsors would not allow it. This is part of a larger issue, namely, the inability of the US to overcome its past, unlike other countries, including Germany. (Although Adolf Hitler is a part of German history, there are no statues of him in Germany only memorials to his millions of victims. The US is still having this debate, e.g., statues of Confederate generals such as Robert E. Lee.)
Here’s a story that Bill Ehrhart , who was interviewed for this series, encouraged people to share “far and wide.” Ehrhart is a US poet, writer, scholar and war veteran who has been called “the dean of Vietnam war poetry.” (He was a signatory to my 2016 letter calling on Bob Kerrey, a self-confessed war criminal, to resign from his position as chairman of the Fulbright University Vietnam board of trustees. He eventually did in 2017.)
The day after I came home from Vietnam in early March 1968, I took the money I’d saved in those 13 months and went to West German Motors in Ft. Washington, PA, and bought a brand new Volkswagen. VW Beetle. Red with black interior.
Only I didn’t buy it. I had to give the money to my father, and he bought it because I was not legally old enough to buy a car. The owner’s card remained in my father’s name for the next year and a half until I turned 21, which was the age of majority then in Pennsylvania.
The day after that, I went to McKeever Insurance, in my home town of Perkasie, PA, to get insurance for my car. But Mrs. McKeever told me I couldn’t get a policy in my name. I would have to be carried on my parents’ policy as a dependent child.
Understand what I’m saying here: I had just spent 13 months fighting in Vietnam. I was a combat-wounded Marine Corps sergeant, but the state of Pennsylvania recognized me only as a child dependent on my parents.
Let me say that again: I had just spent 13 months fighting in Vietnam. I was a combat-wounded Marine Corps sergeant, but the state of Pennsylvania recognized me only as a dependent child.
You want to talk spat-upon? I sure as hell was spit on when I came home, but it wasn’t the antiwar people who did the spitting.
I begged Lynn Novick of Florentine Films to get this story on film and into their documentary, but you will not see this true story among the 18 hours of film you are about to watch. Instead, you will see and hear some teary-eyed woman apologizing for something there is no proof ever actually happened.
You are welcome to spread this story of mine far and wide. It’s the only way anyone will hear it because, as I said, it didn’t even make onto film, let alone into the documentary.
BONUS: Here’s a post on the Vietnam Studies Group listserv by Christoph Giebel, an Associate Professor of International Studies and History at the University of Washington, Seattle, in a threaded- discussion about the film.
I have no problem with the depiction in episode 1 (and others) of Le Duan’s role. I have huge problems with episode 1 overall though. I watched it last night, prepared for some US centrism, to be sure, since this is a series heavily privileging American perspectives, experiences, feelings, but also anticipating to find the edgy “new take” by Burns/Novick that was so heavily promoted. Like with many books, I am particularly interested in the introduction and conclusion (episodes 1 and 10) for the “beef” of the argument, where the deep framing, contextualization etc. takes place
Episode 1 was, frankly, crushingly dispiriting in its unreflective depiction of ahistorical American exceptionalism and uncritical repetition of worn-out Cold War tropes and Western frames. Its flawed choice of key terminology and mapping and its condensation of extraordinarily complex issues over more than 100 years into 75 minutes, all marshaled to set up Burns’ “flawed, but innocently well-meaning” redemptionist narrative of the US, fell even short of the 1983 PBS series (which itself badly needs overhauling). After a decade of working on this, where is the damn novelty? I’ll need a bit of time to formulate my thoughts, but I must say that episode 1 was profoundly troubling.
History / Int’l Studies
Below are some thoughts about the US War in Viet Nam (the “Vietnam War”) from Mike Hastie, a war veteran whom I had the privilege of meeting in Ha Noi. They were originally posted on the Vietnam Full Disclosure website in the context of the Burns/Novick PBS documentary, The Vietnam War. It is Mike’s story but a common one – in broad strokes – told by many veterans of that war.
The Full Disclosure campaign is a Veterans For Peace effort to speak truth to power and keep alive the antiwar perspective on the American war in Viet Nam. This is what US Americans, especially young people, should be learning about that war in an effort to come to terms with that part of their country’s past – in the spirit of Vergangenheitsbewältigung.
Thanks, Mike, for sharing, and for speaking truth to lies and to power.
I’m starting to watch the Burns/Novick documentary on PBS. I am visiting my sister and brother-in-law in Spokane, Washington, both of whom have health problems. I want to focus on them more, but they wanted to watch the second episode last night. I have read several articles about the PBS series, along with what people are posting on Full Disclosure. I am sure I am no different than most people. I have been somewhat hesitant to watch the Burns film, because I am away from my friends and support group back in Portland, Oregon. When I came back from Vietnam, I was eventually hospitalized in a psychiatric facility for PTSD, once in 1980, and in 1994 after I came back from my first return to Vietnam with three close friends who were also Vietnam veterans. One of those friends was involved in the Phoenix Program, where he was personally pulling the trigger on assassinations. Another friend in our group was involved in radio intercept. Halfway through his tour in Vietnam, he realized he was giving B-52 pilots coordinates in the bombing of civilian targets. When he realized he was involved in mass murder, he walked into the orderly room on his base, and told his company commander that his tour in Vietnam was officially over. Well, they threatened him with a court-martial, and even a firing squad, but he stuck to his guns, and told them to go fuck themselves. He was eventually sent back to the US as a psychiatric case, and wound up on a psyche ward at Madigan Army Hospital. His war was over, and he spent the next twenty years drinking heavily, and packing a pistol. He was basically suffering from the LIE of the Vietnam War, and the dismantling of his core belief system. He absolutely hated the US Government, and called the Pentagon a house of goons. He used profound articulate sarcasm to get through his day, as he referred to the American flag as a Nazi symbol riddled with madness. To this day, he is a person I have the utmost respect for, because he walked into his orderly room in Vietnam, and told people that he could no longer morally commit murder for corporate America. Now, run this voice through the 18-hour Burns documentary on The Vietnam War. This is not complicated, except for people who are still looking for a noble cause for America’s involvement in Vietnam. The LIE is the truth of the Vietnam War. That LIE put me in two psychiatric hospitals, and that is why I dearly love my friend, because he validated me to the core.
Before I went to Vietnam, I spent a year in Denver, Colorado at Fitzsimmons Army Hospital attending an advanced 41 week medic course. Fitzsimmons had a lot of amputees from Vietnam, as they were going through various stages of being severely wounded. I saw a lot of people in wheelchairs during the year that I was there. One experience I had, as we were involved in many medical rotations throughout the hospital, was my two-week rotation on the psyche ward. Many soldiers coming back from Vietnam were severely wounded psychologically, and the drug of choice was Thorazine. You could tell soldiers were on heavy doses of Thorazine, because they had the Thorazine shuffle. When soldiers did not respond to drugs ( if they ever would ), they often received shock therapy. As a student, I witnessed one of those high voltage treatments. I remember they brought this young American kid into the room on a gurney and we transferred him to the shock table. He was strapped down to the table, a padded tongue blade was put in his mouth. He was already on a sedative, but the nurses were there to give him as much comfort as they could. Electrodes were attached to his head, and the switched was executed. His body became very rigid, and he convulsed with jerking movements that seemed to elevate him off the table. What I saw in that moment, was the utter LIE of the entire Vietnam War in a nutshell. I wish Ken Burns had a clip of that shock therapy session in his 18-hour epic on The Vietnam War, as it would cut through a lot of bullshit ideological rhetoric. When you get away from emotional intelligence, and the incredible grief and sorrow of the Vietnam Holocaust, you are still discussing whether it was a noble cause. When I saw the end results of a couple of American soldiers commit suicide in Vietnam, and a good Vietnam vet friend hang himself in a motel room twenty years after he got back from Vietnam, I didn’t need anymore proof on whether it was a noble cause of not. I had the blood on my hands to prove it, and the emotional trauma of the LIE for a lifetime.
Army Medic Vietnam
September 20, 2017
Below are a question asked by someone on Quora and an answer provided on 1 September 2016 by a young man who describes himself as born in Hanoi, now living in Sai Gon. Quora is a self-described “question-and-answer site where questions are asked, answered, edited and organized by its community of users.” Its slogan is The best answer to any question. Unfortunately, like most corporate slogans, it’s more of an ideal than a reality. The fact is anyone who is a member can answer, and some answers are better than others, to put it mildly.
As with Facebook, the only reason I choose to continue receiving their updates is because of the occasional nugget of gold in the midst of what is mostly ore. Some of the questions and answers are the journalistic equivalent of click bait, e.g., Can humans crossbreed with other primates?, Would you kill someone if it wasn’t illegal? or Did you play “show me yours, I’ll show you mine” as a kid? You get the idea.
Keep in mind that the assumption is Viet Nam is poor.
Why is Vietnam still poor?
Let’s start with corruption. Vietnam’s government is one of the most corrupted government in the world. The Vietnamese government was ranked at 112/168 (2015) in the CPI (Corruption Perceptions Index) [source]. All the money spent towards infrastructure building, social insurance, etc. flows into private pockets. Furthermore, brain drain (or human capital flight) is a huge problem in Vietnam. So you want to get a job in the government, does your father know “someone”? Do you have the money to “buy the position”? All the high quality workforce, if they don’t work oversea, they work for non-government entities. The low quality workforce somehow got into government jobs, and can you imagine what they can do to the countries?
The common Vietnamese people were educated to not having their own opinions, even if they do have opinions, they’ll be suppressed before saying it. Not to mention every problems in society are handled by “the Party” (Communist Party of Vietnam). Even the Vietnamese Constitution states that “the Party” is the only and rightful leading party of Vietnam.
But things are changing towards better. The young generations are now having their own opinions, their standard of living is raising, they have more concerns about politics than ever.
Yes, there’s corruption in Viet Nam but there’s also corruption in the US, which is considered to be an “advanced country” but certainly a cautionary tale in this and other respects. For example, 20 US Americans own as much wealth as 50% of the population, a clear indication of extreme wealth inequality and all of its attendant problems. 20 People Now Own As Much Wealth as Half of All Americans (See Study: US is an oligarchy, not a democracy, based on a study Princeton University and Northwestern University)
Let’s give credit where credit’s due. Here are just a few examples:
1) Viet Nam is among the world’s leaders in converting wealth into national well-being. Vietnam is the 4th best country in converting wealth into well-being – VnExpress International
2) “Vietnam has achieved the fastest reduction in child malnutrition in the region with an average annual decline of 1.5 percent, according to the World Health Organisation and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).” Vietnam leads drop in child malnutrition
3) “Việt Nam is ranked fifth in the list of the world’s most optimistic countries on economic prosperity in 2017, according to a survey by WIN/Gallup, the world’s leading association in market research and polling.” VN among the world’s most optimistic countries on economic prosperity
4) Viet Nam ranks 47th out of 127 countries in the Global Innovation Index 2017 (GII) and 9th in Asia, leading the group of middle- and lower-income economies.
As with any country, it’s important to be objective and well-informed when assessing its achievements and its shortcomings. For example, it’s patently false to assert that “All the money spent towards infrastructure building, social insurance, etc. flows into private pockets.” The world is not black and white but rather like a rainbow.
This statement is an oversimplification of a complex phenomenon: “Furthermore, brain drain (or human capital flight) is a huge problem in Vietnam.” A more accurate term is “brain recirculation.” Growing numbers of overseas-educated Vietnamese are coming home to start new businesses or join existing ones, not to mention overseas Vietnamese who have moved (back) to Viet Nam to work and live for the long term, if not for the rest of their lives.
And, yes, Viet Nam’s past continues to haunt its present, including war legacies and the fact that 3.8 million Vietnamese, over half of whom were civilians, were killed during the American War. As others have mentioned, the devastating US-led economic embargo, which was imposed in 1965 on the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (“North Vietnam”), was only lifted in 1994 (!). These are tragic realities not excuses.
In short, Mr. Đức’s one-sided answer reflects a lack of knowledge and perspective. He lacks an appreciation for just how far his country has come in a very short period of time. He does, however, end on an optimistic note: “But things are changing towards better. The young generations are now having their own opinions, their standard of living is raising, they have more concerns about politics than ever.” That’s called development. Why is the standard of living rising? In large part because of key government policies that date to the Renovation (Đổi Mới) reforms of 1986.
In spite of its problems, many of which I consider to be the “growing pains” of a rapidly developing economy, Viet Nam is widely considered to be one of the great success stories of the developing world. Isn’t that something Vietnamese and others who have Viet Nam’s best interests at heart can be rightfully be proud of?
Below is an excerpt from my latest CounterPunch article about Bob Kerrey and Fulbright University Vietnam. Think of it as the 2017 bookend to my 2016 CP article, Bob Kerrey and Fulbright University – What were they thinking?, published a month after the controversy erupted. Follow this link to read it in its entirety.
“One simply cannot engage in barbarous action without becoming a barbarian… one cannot defend human values by calculated and unprovoked violence without doing mortal damage to the values one is trying to defend.”
– J William Fulbright, The Arrogance of Power
More than 48 years after mortal damage was inflicted with a vengeance on both human beings and human values in a quiet village in Bến Tre province in the Mekong Delta, justice, fairness, and common decency won a minor victory when Bob Kerrey, former Nebraska governor, U.S. senator, New School president, decorated veteran, and self-confessed war criminal, quietly resigned from his high-profile position as chairman of the Fulbright University Vietnam (FUV) board of trustees, according to reliable sources.
Kerrey, whose appointment was announced one year ago at the iconic Rex Hotel in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) by then Secretary of State, John Kerry during President Barack Obama’s visit to Viet Nam, has stepped down behind closed doors. He was reportedly replaced by Đàm Bích Thủy, a prominent Vietnamese businesswoman who is the current FUV president.
It was Bob Kerrey himself who said in an interview last June, as all rhetorical hell was breaking loose, that he would not step down. This about-face came after first saying, in response to questions emailed to him by a New York Times reporter, that he would resign if he felt his role was jeopardizing the U.S.-Vietnamese joint education venture. I’m not a diplomat and therefore have no need to play the quiet game. Bob Kerrey was appointed with much fanfare and some fanfare should accompany his surrender.
Never Say Never
Never say never and never forget this timeless wisdom from Proverbs 16:18: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” It was Kerrey’s arrogance that made him dig in his heels and delay the inevitable. It was a firestorm of controversy and, most importantly, steely and steadfast official Vietnamese opposition, that forced him to do the right thing. It wasn’t only about Bob Kerrey. Jeopardize FUV he did, at the end of the day, as some predicted.
Kerrey’s long overdue resignation is a cause for celebration and a sense of vindication for many. It is, however, a bitter disappointment for his supporters, both Vietnamese and U.S., who probably still cluelessly wonder why a man who led a U.S. Navy SEALS unit that murdered 21 men, women, and children in the village of Thạnh Phong in February 1969 would not be considered morally fit to assume such a leadership position.
Keep in mind that this is a man who has the dishonor and disgrace of having his very own war crimes exhibit in the War Remnants Museum in HCMC, one of many such incidents in the bloodbath and industrial-scale slaughter that was the American War in Viet Nam.