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 Today's Take:  NCR's daily Web column
Each weekday over the course of a week, a member of the NCR staff offers a commentary on one or more topics in the news.  It's our way of introducing you to some of the people carrying out the NCR mission of faith and justice based journalism.

April 22, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 12




global perspective Courageous people find ways to survive

by Thomas C. Fox, publisher of NCR

I write again today from Hanoi, Vietnam, a bustling city full of energy and life. This is truly an outdoors city as most Asian cities are. By this I mean that unlike most American cities, commerce takes place on the streets and in open-air markets. It's Manhattan without the tall buildings.

One cannot come here without marveling at how things that once seemed so permanent change over time. Three decades ago, Hanoi was the U.S. archenemy, an outpost of an expanding Communist empire ready to take over the world. Or so we were told.

The hawks of that time insisted we had to pay any military price to stop the advance. Failure could mean the end of the American way of life and the enslavement of the free world. Talk then was of the "Dominos Theory" and fear and hate-filled slogans such as "Better dead than red" and "Bomb 'em back to the stone-age."

So we slipped into the Vietnam quagmire disregarding the French experience. The war cost 2.5 million Vietnamese and 58,000 American lives. Half of the Vietnamese people became refugees.

I worked among those refugees as a young civilian volunteer. As I learned the language, the dimensions of the Vietnam tragedy became ever more clear. U.S. arrogance did not factor in culture and national pride. It failed to realize the war was every bit as much of a political conflict as a military one. As for our own work as members of a nonprofit organization, we made a difference in small ways, mostly as witnesses to evil that is war. Some of us wondered if we were mere sugarcoating on the genocide.

Eventually, I became a journalist, writing about the war. In January 1971 I married a Vietnamese social worker. In December 1972 we returned to the United States. That was the month of the horrendous bombing of this very city. As the war went from bad to worse, President Richard Nixon, acting out of anger and frustration, unleashed American firepower upon the parents and grandparents of those who now call Hanoi home.

American pilots flew nearly 4,000 sorties in a matter of days. It came to be known as the "Christmas bombing." B-52s, the carpet bombers, flew 700 sorties. Never before had these planes been used against cities. It was the forefather of "shock and awe."

Years later, the American author, James Carroll wrote that the reason to remember the Christmas bombing of 1972 "is not to feel morally superior to those responsible for it." Rather, it is to understand something basic to the experience of war. "Those who ordered and carried out the brutal attacks against population centers at the end of the Vietnam War would never have done so at the beginning," wrote Carroll. "What Nixon commanded in 1972 he would have condemned in 1969."

The lesson is that the war deadened America's moral sensibility. Wars do that - and we should all be forewarned.

So I write today saddened by the sense that our nation's leaders have yet to learn or leave behind a sense of national arrogance and its twin brother, military omnipotence. We see it in Iraq today. At the same time, life goes on and wounds heal and courageous people find ways to survive. Not without pain and bad memories, but compelled forward by energy giving expectations that life can be better for one's children and grandchildren.

The Vietnamese here seem to live with a sense of purpose tempered by decades of hardship and poverty. The pride is clear but not overbearing. They have regained their balance. No if only the same could be said of those Americans who have failed to learn the lessons of the Vietnam War.

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