Friday, October 29, 2004

Reflections from Vietnam

I woke up today in Saigon, a city that was the focus of so much attention in my coming of age. I still find it hard to believe that I'm here. It's a city of faded elegance if ever there was one. All around the center of the city where I'm staying, it's obvious that the French -- who held sway here for so many years before we Americans ever got interested in this country -- had a great deal of influence on the city, at least from an architectural point of view. Early 20th century, French belle epoque architecture still prevails, albeit faded. My hotel room in a slick 5-star hotel overlooks the Opera House, another one of those French inspired buildings. There are concert announcements outside for European orchestras and local pop stars alike.

Despite all the old fashioned elegance that was once Saigon's to claim, the city has a definite "Third World-developing country" feel to it. The air is heavy with fumes from the hundreds of motorbikes and the lumbering cargo trucks that fill the streets. There is a cacaphony of horns that rivals that of Cairo. In fact, there is a feel of Cairo here......it's a dirty city despite the fact that it sits right on a huge river; there is no semblance of traffic rules except if you consider the honk-when-you-approach-the-intersection-but-keep-on-going-through-anyway rule. It seems to work, though....I have yet to see any battered cars, bikes or people. The street vendors are aggressive, knowing just enough English/French/Japanese or whatever to hawk their wares: knock-off watches, pirated books and tapes, trinkets of all kinds. These folks don't seem to want to take "no" for an answer!

I walked this morning to the Remnants of War Museum which is not too far from the center of the city. My visit there was a sobering one. There are old US planes, tanks, bull-dozers, etc arranged in the center of the open-air museum. All of them bearing silent testimony to my country's mis-guided war in this far-away land. On the walls of the buildings of the museum were many, many photographs of The War. And lots of charts and graphs showing the extent of our American involvement. Interestingly, one chart showed how much the war cost us back then.....a "mere" $300 billion. And to think that we're going to have spent that on Iraq in just a few months more there! My, how the cost of war has risen in the 30 years since that one!!

But, the "cost" was higher, I found. There were displays of some pretty dramatic examples of the ravages of Agent Orange on children born after the war. Haunting images that were brought home by the armless vendor in the courtyard who was hawking pirated copies of Robert McNamara's book, "In Retrospect: The tragedy and lessons of Vietnam." The vendor was obviously one of those deformed children born in the years since we left in 1972.

Then, there was the "faithfully re-created" version of the Tiger Cages where political dissidents from the Diem regime (the one we fought to prop up, remember?) were incarcerated. Tiger Cages: the name says it all. There was, in this recreation, a hauntingly faithful recreation of a human being chained and shackled to the prison wall.

Finally, there were the things from former US soldiers that had been donated to the museum. One piece was most interesting.....a collection of war medals (Purple Heart, etc) that had been sent to the museum from a US soldier with the note: "I am very sorry. We were wrong." The fellow isn't running for President. If he were, he'd be crucified by his fellow veterans for admitting what many of us thought then and continue to think since: that American was indeed wrong.

Wasn't The Domino Theory the one that we were operating on back then? Was it Johnson or Nixon who espoused that particular one? It went something like this: If South Vietnam fell to the Communists, then the rest of Asia would fall. One big Communist Continent. As I sit here typing this, I hear the sounds of Saigon outside and I can see the lights of the city as the sun goes down. If Saigon "fell" it didn't fall to a God-less Communism as much as it fell into a God-less Capitalism which we Americans, along with all our Western friends, seem quite willing to exploit today. If anything, Vietnam has fallen into line with the rest of the world, looking for the best and the most beautiful......chasing after Louis Vuitton and Dior and Chanel and all the other luxury goods that seem to be proliferating. Rest in peace Presidents Johnson and Nixon......Vietnam didn't "fall." The Domino Theory was a figment of your imagination.

The saddest part of all of this for me is the realization that we really didn't learn much from our experience here in Vietnam. There is a disconcertingly familiar feel to the Iraq War today. That same Domino Theory is operative. We just don't call it that in Iraq. We're spending more money but not losing quite so many soldiers in Iraq. It seems to be just as futile a quest in Iraq as it was in Vietnam. So, time hasn't changed too much. We Americans can still be as blinded by our sense of right and goodness today as we were 30 years ago.

Saturday, October 16, 2004

Bush Wired? Deja vu perhaps

All the hullabaloo about the possibility of Bush having been "wired" in the first Presidential Debate of this season brings back memories from my youth at Phillips Academy, Andover....that honorable institution that prepared not only George Herbert Walker Bush but his son, "W." I was a few years behind "W" but I know from interviews I've read that he was taught by many of the same teachers who taught me. That's about where any similarities end between me and the current president. He came to Andover the "old fashioned way," out of a line of Andover alumni as blue-blooded as any who matriculated. I got to Andover under the "youth from all quarters" phrase of the school's Mission Statement: I was the scholarship boy from the other side of the tracks who trekked his way up The Hill every morning to take my seat next to the fellows from better, more monied ZIP codes. No resentment on my part, believe me. I will always count myself as one very lucky fellow for having had the opportunity to go to Andover.

But now, all you fellow bloggers (see "National Public Nate") are charging that my fellow Andover alum had something hidden in those debates with the renegade from St. Paul's School. Hidden (but not quite), secret, or whatever......the whole thing, if it is true, simply points up how deceptive and ultimately dishonest the President is. He reminds me of some of the fellows I knew at Andover.....they didn't lack intelligence as much as they mis-directed it. They would spend inordinate amounts of time, energy and (sometimes) money to beat the academic system. One of the most interesting examples was a fellow (name escapes me now but I think it was "Starr" -- how ironic!) who reproduced his copious notes from the required senior year "US History" course.

The course was a bear of a course, designed to challenge the brightest of the bright and it cast a dark shadow over senior year. (Please note, by the way, that in order to gradaute one had to pass all of one's courses in the Senior Year......that was NOT an easy task, believe me......I was almost living proof of it, myself.) This kid, Starr, who eventually went on to Harvard (like 30% of our classmates in those heady years) got the bright idea to sell his notes to us poor slobs back at Andover. In the US History course, each of us students was required to do tons of reading and take outlined notes on the reading each night.....the notes were examined by the teacher and were the basis for class recitation as well as studying for the lengthy, written exams at mid-term and term-end. But, those with the money (I think it cost $100 or more -- a huge sum in the mid-60s, believe me) bought these out-lawed notes and smuggled them back to Andover. Andover had said that any evidence of these notes would be a breach of academic honesty and render a student liable to disciplinary action, including expulsion. (I got to see a copy of some of those notes that a good friend of mine had obtained......A copy, mind you, that I was NOT allowed to copy myself because I couldn't anti up the fee. I would have died of shame if I'd ever been a part of that! Besides, I kind of enjoyed the reading itself.)

But a thriving, under-ground business was established at Andover. Not a whole lot different from wearing a listening device in a Presidential debate, it doesn't seem. My guess is that "W" knew all about the Starr notes as did brother, Jeb. "W", the now-famous Andover cheerleader (just the types who funded the Starr notes, I might add) hasn't changed much.....just gotten older and grayer like the rest of us. Still trying to lead those same old cheers, just like he used to do at Saturday morning football rallies in George Washington Hall. This time around, they sound tired and lack the punch that they did in our youth. Wired or not, "W" just doesn't cut it with a scholarship guy like me. Never did, and never will.