An anniversary of war-making
Jeff Severns Guntzel, NCR staff writer
Americans call it the Vietnam War. Vietnamese call it the American War. Both wars share an anniversary this month. "The fall of Saigon" 30 years ago will be celebrated or mourned or merely noted on April 30.
No doubt for many the anniversary of hasty American retreat from a bitterly contested war that killed millions will ring ominous this year as many newer anniversaries -- those that mark the major events of the Iraq war's beginnings two years ago -- are muted beneath the headlines of seemingly infinite chaos and tragedy.
It has become impossible for me to resist standing the two wars next to each other.
If you squinted at Donald Rumsfeld's typically bold and smiling assertion last week that "We do not really have an exit strategy. We have a victory strategy," you could almost see Robert McNamara smirking at a reporter's use of the word "stalemate" and declaring "The large unit military operations continue to show very substantial progress."
I'm eyeball-deep in the Vietnam War right now. On Wednesday I'll travel to Los Angeles to spend some time with Ron Kovic -- one of America's best-known Vietnam veterans and author of the tragic memoir Born on the Forth of July -- for an NCR profile. To prepare myself I'm slogging through hours of documentary footage and piles of library books and filling my notebook with scribbled lines connecting the war of 30 years ago to the war of today.
Making those connections, of course, requires the temporary laying down of countless small and large political and geographical differences that distinguish the two wars from one another.
Actually, once those differences are cast aside the war in Iraq looks not just like Vietnam -- it looks like all war: Neighbors murder neighbors. Strangers murder strangers. Physical and emotional damage is immeasurable. Usually I am trying to empathize, or at least sympathize, with war's victims. I have always operated under the assumption that the quickest way to illuminate the futility of war and thereby to make it much less common is to make the instigators of war -- or at least the supporters of the instigators -- understand and somehow feel its true human cost.
I am beginning to wonder, however, if mine is not a flawed paradigm. On Saturday I attended a lecture by Francois Birzot who, in 1971 as a young French ethnologist was working in Cambodia. He was captured by the brutal Khmer Rouge and sentenced to death under suspicion that he was working as a spy. In his memoir, The Gate, Birzot describes the slow and unsteady process of befriending his captor and interrogator, Douche, who became a sort of protector. Douche is still alive and is ranked among the most brutal of the Khmer Rouge torturers.
Birzot rejected the "never again" approach of identifying only with war's victims. Instead, he urged his captivated audience to try to identify with the perpetrator. "When you do so," he said, "you may realize that the bad guy is us."
This paradigm shift, Birzot said, would force us to ask not how do we end war, but how are war and torture and other forms of human evil even possible.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, in his book The Gulag Archipelago, wrote: "The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being." It is, like Birzot's assertions, a difficult notion to keep hold of.
It is a difficult notion when you see an American soldier all smiles and thumbs up standing over the murdered body of an Iraqi prisoner just as it is a difficult notion when you see a Holy Warrior removing his enemy's head on a made-for-television broadcast.
"Man," Birzot wrote in his introduction to The Gate, "when, exceptionally, he becomes his true self -- can bring about excellence, but also bring about the worst. A slayer of monsters, and forever a monster himself. …"
It is a cold and potentially paralyzing analysis, but it does offer us a choice, and each of us no doubt has underused powers in either direction: Excellence. Or the worst.
I say there is no better time than an anniversary to re-imagine our potential.
Jeff Severns Guntzel's e-mail address is email@example.com
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