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Tony was a kid in a migrant worker family, doing the strawberry fields on the central coast of California. When he was eighteen, he joined the army with a couple of other Mexican boys he’d known all of his childhood. It was in Vietnam that he learned the usefulness of heroin: self-medication, he called it.
“It wasn’t such a big thing really,” he told me. “We just shot up so we could kick back. You know it was very stressful over there.”
I was moved by the poetry and compassion in some of his stories about Nam: his friendship with a Buddhist monk, the time he intervened when another grunt began raping a Vietnamese woman in front of her children. “He was a big scary guy, and I was real afraid of him, but when I told him to pay attention to the children, he said, ‘Oh. I didn’t think of that,’ and he stopped!”
Tony was nothing if not laid back. A week before the end of his tour of duty, he was relieved that, to the best of his knowledge, he hadn’t killed anybody. “I thought I was going to make it back to the world clean,” is how he put it.
No such luck.
It was so simple: a Vietnamese man carrying a burden along an irrigation ditch. Tony told him to stop in Vietnamese. He didn’t. Tony shot him almost without thinking. “Why did I do that?” he asked me. “Ever since that moment, my heart has been dead meat. I don’t feel nothing there anymore.”
His heroin habit that initially had softened the harshness of the war became a monkey on his back. His moral inventory began with an almost casual killing and ran through his fifteen years as a junkie.
In Step Four we strive to be accountable to ourselves. Here the painful solitude of moral inquiry opens up towards a transparency before God and the human community, very much including the enemy who may not be present but is nonetheless receiving the gesture of reconciliation.
This is the fulcrum point from which the desire for peace approaches manifestation.
“We think the Vietnam war was something that happened to us,” Tony told me. “But actually it was something we did to them.”
Imagine the unimaginable.
Roughly sixty to seventy Vietnamese died for every American who shed blood in Southeast Asia. But that doesn’t really say it. The Americans were combatants. Nine out of ten Vietnamese casualties were civilian, altogether one-sixteenth of the population.
It was far worse in Cambodia and Laos. The war took the lives of no less than a quarter of their people, again, almost all civilians. Having participated in the deaths of twenty percent of the population of Cambodia, how much outrage can we have that the Khmer Rouge killed another third in their bizarre autogenocide? After all, we, alongside China and Thailand, armed them: our allies in the war of attrition against Vietnam after the fall of Saigon. Enough of layering numbers upon numbers. They are available in the public domain. For America the war was a tragedy; for Southeast Asians it was a holocaust.
Vietnam era vets are heroes not because they fought for their country–this war served nothing that most Americans believe in. Betrayed by their country to participate in a bloody display of power, their anguish mystified, their duty idealized or scorned, they are heroes because they have borne the unbearable knowledge of the American shadow that few of their fellow citizens are willing to countenance. Their souls never needed parades and blaring trumpets; they just needed us to listen to their stories without fear, sentimentality or judgment.
To speak from the heart and listen from the heart–so simple and so rare. Step Five is the moment ethical reflection begins seeping into the bones.
MICHAEL ORTIZ HILL is the coauthor (with Augustine Kandemwa) of Gathering in the Names ( Spring Audio and Journal 2003) and Dreaming the End of the World. The full text of this essay is posted at www.gatheringin.com He can be reached at email@example.com