Sunday, October 10, 2004

Hearts & Minds

I have watched several documentaries about the Vietnam War recently. I guess it helps me to think about our actions in the world today, or maybe it's just easier than thinking about our actions in the world today. It's easier to see things clearly once you are a few decades beyond them. Today I saw the documentary "Hearts and Minds." Parts of it made me feel desperate and depressed. Parts of it were shocking -- both the violence and the things people, our country's leaders, spoke about what was happening there.

I have no doubt that what we did in Vietnam was wrong, that it was done for wrong and misleading or simply untruthful reasons. It's harder for me to look at the war we're involved in now and know with any clarity what is really happening there and how we should respond to that. It seems clear to me that some of the Iraqis under Saddam Hussein were brutalized and/or oppressed. It seems clear to me that we were not told the truth about why we should invade. It seems clear to me that we cannot leave now until we straighten things out in some way, and I'm really glad I am not the one in power who has to figure out how to do that, because it seems like a huge mess that is now our responsibility. It's very hard for me to listen to our president make unequivocal statements about the value of unborn human life when I know that he has sent so many soldiers to Iraq to die and to kill. It's also hard for me to listen to him glorify our "volunteer army" when I know that it is so often children like my students who "volunteer" to work for the military partly out of patriotism but more often because we aren't truly committed in this country to closing the gap in education and income that makes the military the best option for so many poor and under-educated young people.

If you've seen another provocative documentary, "Control Room," then you've seen the interview with a US prisoner of war who looks scared, confused, and heartbreakingly young as he tries to explain what he is doing there. I don't think that he imagined himself fighting and being captured when he enlisted; I think it was just a decent job (and yet!).

I have a lot of questions about war (so does Nicole). I wonder when war is the right answer - if ever. Sometimes I think there are situations when war probably is the best possible solution, though not a good one, but I am close to people who think war is never okay. When I see images from the war in Vietnam--of houses destroyed and people wailing and soldiers kicking Vietnamese men and arresting elderly people and of children with napalm burns and children today with birth defects--then I doubt that war is ever a solution. I wonder when it is appropriate for the US to intervene in another country's affairs--and whether there are times when it is not just appropriate, but a moral obligation. I wonder how you know, as a leader, that this time military action is called for, but that time it is not. Some people say you know because you have a world consensus backing you, and that sounds right, but then I wonder if there are times when the world might be wrong. After all, we tell children that they should be ready to stand up for their beliefs even if everyone disagrees with them.

I know for sure that the costs of war are barely fathomable to me: the people who die, the physical and emotional trauma to people who survive, both civilians and soldiers, the rapes that go hand-in-hand with war, the torture of prisoners, the destruction of homes and irreplaceable artifacts and the environment (the environmental damage caused by war is immense and lasts for generations), the hatreds and grudges that are passed on for generations. A country may lose most of a generation of young people. Humans are remarkably resilient, but I can hardly understand how a country and a culture recovers from war in their own land.

One of the people interviewed in the documentary is Daniel Ellsberg, best known for giving the Pentagon Papers to the press:
Truman lied from 1950 on on the nature and purpose of the French involvement in
the colonial reconquest of Vietnam that we were financing and encouraging.
Eisenhower lied about the reasons for and the nature of our involvement with Diem and the fact that he was in power essentially because of American support and American money and for no other reason.
Kennedy lied about the type of involvement we were doing there, our own combat involvement, and about the recommendations that were being made to him for greater involvement. President Kennedy lied about the degree of our participation in the overthrow of Diem.
Johnson, of course, lied and lied and lied about our provocations against the North Vietnamese prior to and after the Tonkin Gulf incident, about the plans for bombing North Vietnam, and the nature of the build-up of American troops in Vietnam.
Nixon, as we now know, misled and lied to the American public for the first months of his office in terms of our bombing of Cambodia and Laos, ground operations in Laos, the reasons for our invasions of Cambodia and Laos, and the prospects for the mining of Haiphong which finally came about in 1972 but was envisioned as early as 1969. The American public was lied to month by month by each of these five administrations.
As I say, it's a tribute to the American public that their leaders perceived that they had to be lied to. It's no tribute to us that it was so easy to fool the public.

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