Learning From the Vietnamese
I would love to be able to write:
" These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it NOW, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. "
I cannot. Tyranny, like hell, may not be conquered at all. At least not by us as we are. We have had the life sucked out of us-gigantic blood-swollen ticks sucking at our hearts and heads. The statue with the big torch has burned us to ashes. We can no longer love nor desire nor even hate. We will have to sink back into the clay again in order to form ourselves as men. That's how I will begin. Clay first, then men.
" Les choses etant ce qu'elles sont, les hommes font ce qu'ils font. " -Jean Lacouture
The second floor of the Harvard CRIMSON. A young, liberal member of the Harvard Corporation is sitting on a broken, green leather chair, stuffing falling out all over. A dozen reporters watch eagerly with notebooks.
"Are you against the war?" I ask.
"Of course I am."
"What are you doing to end it?"
Pause, "Why, nothing."
" The most revolutionary consciousness is to be found among the most ruthlessly exploited classes, animals, trees, water, air, and grass. " -Gary Snyder
Most of us are human racists. We think that the world was made for us. Some even think that we made the world (and therefore we can destroy it). Adam and Eve were kicked out of the Garden because they thought that it was all theirs. God was the first ecological revolutionary.
Roxanne O'Connell reports that 10,000 pelican chicks won't be born this year because pelican eggs are collapsing and killing the embryos. The mothers ingested DDT which upset their calcium metabolism. That caused them to lay thin-shelled eggs that could not support their weight. Pelican eggs collapsed in the rookeries all the way from Anacapa to Mexico. The pelican, the osprey, the cormorant, the petrel, the seagull, the American Bald Eagle and the peregrine falcon: all of their eggs are collapsing, the shells are too thin. No new generations are being born.
From the Old Mole: On the banks of the Mississippi below St. Louis, there are signs warning picnickers not to eat their lunch on or near the banks. The spray from the river contains typhoid, colitis, hepatitis,, diarrhea, salmonella, tuberculosis, and polio. It is an open sewer. If you place a fish in a container of river water, it will die in 60 seconds. Dilute the water 100 times with clear water, and the fish will die in 24 hours.
A Nader's Raider called the CRIMSON from Washington last summer and announced that they had discovered scandals in the Agriculture Department bigger than Billy Sol Estes. He said that halt of the Ag Dept, was so corrupt that they d have to be fired.
In his research on chemical disinfectants, he found that the crop sprays used by large Midwestern land owners caused cancer in chickens. It turns out that about half of the chickens we eat have cancer in their bodies, or maybe it's a third in Massachusetts. Cancerous chicken tissue is supposed to cause brain lesions in dogs and cats.
He also found that the Ag Dept, had covered up a trichinosis epidemic in St. Louis that had been caused by poor meat inspection. In fact, the Ag Dept, had information showing that meat inspection standards were already far too liberal, yet they were preparing to liberalize the standards even more.
With New York City, America has fallen into its own nightmare. The day after the revolution, eight million people will be in the streets, tearing it down with sledge hammers. America presents New York to the world as the model of how millions of people can live together. Every American city tries to look as much like New York as it can-high-rise towers of plate glass and steel.
But New York is nothing more than the most efficient way of stacking corporations one on top of another. The most efficient color seems to be grey. What New York efficiency has given to the country is the color grey. Grey streets, grey buildings, grey skies, grey smoke, grey cement, even grey snow.
The separation of life from work sends millions out to parasite communities around the smoking city. The rest have to work in boxes, travel underground in boxes, and live in boxes. The horror of the City pushes people even farther into themselves as they walk down the street. All of the buildings weigh on your shoulders as you touch the sidewalk.
A FRIEND picked me up at the San Diego airport last Christmas and drove me 15 miles to where I live. As I got out of the car, I saw my little brother watering the green grass under a blue sky.
My brother is now a freshman at Berkeley. In his last year in high school, he invested the $500 he had inherited from my grandmother and made a couple thousand dollars in the stock market.
When he saw me, he smiled and chanted, in Chinese, "Long live Mao Tse-tung!" As he chanted he punched through the sky with his right fist three times.
We talked for a while about the war, and then he turned down the garden hose and laid it in a trough he had made around a lemon tree.
"Jesus, Larry, you've become a raving anti-imperialist!"
He looked down as he began to talk. I looked down too.
"I saw Felix Greene's Inside North Vietnam, " he said. "I went to see it every night for a week. There was this one scene where a buffalo boy got machine-gunned by American planes as he was trying to push his buffalo to cover."
As I looked up, I saw that he was searching my eyes.
"I swear, Dick, all he was doing was pushing his buffalo to cover."
About the war. In April, the Man, the President, promised that we would not have to worry, that there will still be 225,000 troops in Vietnam in July 1971.
The actual number of soldiers does not matter much. Marines back from the war explain that the U.S. has built massive fortified bastions at places like Cam Ran Bay and Da Nang. The U.S. Army isn't fixing to leave.
The strategy is to pull all of the American, troops back behind the battlements and cease a lot of the American ground attacks. "Vietnamization" means supplying guns as fast as we can make them to the South Vietnamese army and then putting a butter of South Vietnamese troops between the attacking NLF and the Americans-in order to cut American casualties.
During the '50's, when Nixon was Vice-President, John Foster Dulles liked to explain that he wanted to build up a gigantic bomber fleet that could contain communism simply by devastating any country that liked land reform too much.
But when Kennedy was elected, the new set of intellectuals that invaded the White House decided that bombing was a little too spectacular. What was needed, they decided, were specially-trained Marines who would be ready to make a quick trip to a rebellious land, get rid of the rebellion, set up a puppet government, and then return to defend the homeland. After all, hadn't the CIA coup in Guatemala worked just that way in 1954?
So Kennedy dispatched advisors to Vietnam, adopting the recommendations of General Maxwell Taylor and Stanford economist Eugene Staley. U.S. advisors would arm the South Vietnamese army and help them with three objectives:
first stage: pacification of South Vietnam and implantation of bases in North Vietnam;
second stage: economic rehabilitation of South Vietnam, reinforcement of the army and intensification of sabotage activity in North Vietnam;
third stage: development of the South Vietnamese economy and a march to the North.
The whole thing was to take 18 months. What happened was that the South Vietnamese proved that the Kennedy strategy couldn't work. The U.S. sent all of the troops it could find into South Vietnam but they couldn't defeat the Vietnamese.
So, it turns out, the Dulles strategy was better after all. The U.S. has ceased most of its ground activity in South Vietnam and is simply bombing the whole country. The areas friendly to the NLF, which are now more than 80 per cent of the South, will be bombed until they are totally isolated from each other and can no longer receive medical supplies, ammunition, or information. The idea is to kill enough Vietnamese so that the NLF has to understand that the U.S. wouldn't hesitate to kill them all. Then the NLF will have to call a cease-fire. That, at least, is the plan.
Sometimes the bored Defense Department public relations officers make an effort, yawn, to explain that the U.S. is only bombing the NLF supply lines in Laos. But as Noam Chomsky points out, it is difficult to defend the bombing of population centers and civilian targets in Northern Laos by saying that the U.S. is bombing the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Northern Laos is at the opposite end of the country. Chomsky interviewed one Laotian refugee in a concentration camp outside of Vientiane recently who told him that the U.S. had bombed his village and forced them to move into the hills and build tunnels to protect themselves. Then the U.S. bombed the tunnels, so that they had to move yet farther out and build more tunnels. The U.S. eventually forced them to build new tunnel systems to house the entire village nine separate times. There are supposed to be one and two-year old kids in Northern Laos who have never seen the sun.
The whole bombing thing makes a lot of sense when you realize that it solves the so-called problems very easily. First, there are spectacularly fewer American casualties, mostly those who are shot down on the bombing raids. Remember, they moved the airfields to Thailand after the NLF began attacking them in October 1964.
Second, by bombing the villages in the countryside, the U.S. has forced almost a third of the country into concentration camps around Vientiane. The rest are forced into the hills. Neither group can help the Pathet Lao by giving food to them, because they've all been forced from their farms.
It now seems that Nixon invaded Cambodia to give a pretext for the continued bombing of Cambodia after the U.S. troops pull out. The plans for Cambodia come from the same drawing board that produced those for Laos. In any case, the U.S. Army found very few NLF soldiers in Parrot's Beak. As they passed through the densely populated rice-producing area-if we can believe the American papers-they razed village after village, thinks that the Red Khmers and theCambodian resistance is not yet as killing only peasants. Maybe Nixon strong as the Laotians and the Vietnamese, and that his policy of intimidation-by-genocide may work there. In any case, it is clear that the attacks in Cambodia were directed against the rural opposition to the Lon Nol government.
But if bombing the South Vietnamese, the Cambodians and the Laotians doesn't bring peace quickly enough, then Nixon has shown that he is ready to begin the continuous saturation bombing of North Vietnam once again. He's been denying the possibility of using tactical nuclear weapons lately, which, I bet. really scares the North Vietnamese.
In a word, if the NLF, the Pathet Lao and the Red Khmers continue to make it difficult for the U.S. to commit genocide on the peoples of their countries, then Nixon will respond by committing it on North Vietnam.
I used to think that war was Henry Fonda shooting it out behind a water trough on a dusty Wyoming street. Or Achilles chasing Hector around Troy. So the only way that I have been able to understand the war in Vietnam is to pretend, each time a GI or a Vietnamese died, that it was my brother or my father or my mother that died. By now over a million Vietnamese have been killed and probably 80 thousand Americans. If all of us felt even a little bit of that in our stomachs, not even all of America could digest that much sorrow.
The other thing I used to think about war is that when it got really evil. God would come down and stop it. The day of the eclipse, I prayed that God would blot out the sun and announce that the earth would stay black and cold until the war ended. That would fix them, I thought, Hoo-hah, I thought. Finally I'd have someone really big on my side.
But as the eclipse came and went, I realized that if God hadn't intervened for the Crusades or for the American Indians, and for the black people torn from their roots in Africa and stomped into the mud in this country, then He wasn't going to step in this time either.
It is very tempting to give one stroke of the pen for each of the millions of people that America has killed or starved or maimed, or the thousands of rivers that it has polluted, and reduce it all to a table or graph and then say, "Look!"
Six or seven million South Vietnamese-nearly half of the population of the country-now live in concentration camps. Some of the camps are near the major cities, but many are placed around American army bases to absorb the NLF mortar attacks. Saigon now has 2,800,000 people in it, making it the densest city in the world-twice as crowded as Tokyo.
The newspapers give the number of dead every morning. But numbers have turned into the ultimate refuge of rational man. A bleeding, dying man is not even in the same world as a number.
The New York Times, March 17, 1968, page one:
"Saigon-American troops caught a North Vietnamese force in a pincer movement in the central coastal plain yesterday, killing 128 enemy soldiers in day-long fighting."
That's the Times story about the My Lai massacre. Like most of the news in American papers about the war, it is written from an Army press handout, which means it's a lie. But even if it had said "128 massacred," how could you understand that at breakfast? How hard is it to understand the fact that the U.S. sent 217 separate GIs-mostly black-to their own separate deaths a couple weeks ago? How many stories like the one in the Times have you read in the last year?
The horror stories give me nightmares, and what I see in nightmares are faces. Mostly of kids. One is the face of a kid who is rolling over and over on the ground, trying to extinguish the burning napalm, his flesh turning to charcoal underneath.
At 5 a.m. on October 28, 1967, Oakland policeman John Frey tried to kill Huey Newton. Minister of Defense for the Black Panther Party. Immediately after Huey hit the ground, someone, from somewhere, shot and killed John Frey, Newton finally hailed a passing car, and asked to be driven to Kaiser Hospital. Now from Gene Marine's The Black Panthers:
"Newton arrived at Kaiser Hospital with four bullet holes in his abdomen and one in his thigh... The hospital refused to treat him until the police arrived, and then, when they did treat him, allowed the cops to shackle him to an operating table. Although he was shouting in pain for the doctors to ease the shackles, the doctor treating him told him to shut up. He insists that at least one cop hit him in his wounded abdomen with a nightstick and that several beat him on the wrists and elsewhere until he passed out from the pain.
"Later, when he was in a hospital room being fed intravenously, police guards told him that they were going to cut the tubes. One pointed a loaded shotgun at his head and announced that he was going to kill him and report that he had tried to escape: then the policeman lowered his gun and said he wouldn't shoot Newton because he was going to die in the gas chamber anyway. It was a common practice for the police guards to kick the foot of the bed to jar Newton's wound open and to start it bleeding under the bandage."
They may let Huey out of jail soon. After all, he's innocent. People tell me that the American judicial system goes lumbering on, sometimes with a few hitches and inconveniences, but justice just the same. Except that the same day that Huey was shot, and 80-year-old Palo Alto black man, who was later proved to be guilty of no crime, was shot to death by a Palo Alto policeman.
In the fall of 1968, I helped Peace and Freedom canvass Cambridge for rent control. Most of the people just stared back blankly when I tried to tell them that their rents were too high and that their rooms were dangerous.
The system has forced people to think that they live in Hell because they deserve no better. You are poor because you are dumb and uncreative and your breath smells.
I went into a gray-haired woman's apartment that had an inch-wide crack running across the ceiling. I tried to tell her that with rent control, she could force the landlord to abide by the housing code, She could make him fix the crack.
"No," she said, "everywhere I go I have cracks in my ceiling. It's not the landlord's fault, it's mine. Somehow leaky ceilings are part of my life."
Jesus, I thought. You mean that this woman has lived 60-odd years thinking that her presence in rooms causes the ceilings to leak?
I grabbed her by the hand and took her next door to her neighbors, where, of course, she had never been. In this atomistic society, you are crammed into your own room and told not to visit your neighbor. When the neighbors answered, we went inside and looked at their ceiling. The crack continued all the way across their room too.
"You see." I said, "it isn't your crack, it's the landlord's crack. You didn't cause it, he did. He let your apartment deteriorate. He's only interested in taking your money."
She signed the rent control petition and thanked me and went back into her room. For all I know she may think that "her" rooms never have electrical outlets because she lives in them. I am really frightened to think how many people live in this country thinking that all of their troubles are their own fault.
THE FATHER of a friend of mine is the vice-mayor of the little town I live in outside of San Diego. He sells washing machines, refrigerators and stoves. We were eating dinner one night about five years ago, and I told him that I thought I wanted to become a professor.
"Dick," he said, "you don't want to be a teacher. You've got too much life in you for that. We go through a special routine when teachers walk into the store. You have to make them feel secure. Teachers are afraid of life. They're afraid to step up to the plate and take a crack at it."
He had started with a little hardware store and was now one of the most influential men in the city. I suppose he's in the ruling class. But he spent his life putting his head and his hands together. He learned to fix things and work with his hands to stay alive. He could have been destroyed by the tooth and claw of petty bourgeois competition. Instead, he saw only one way up and he followed it.
Like most of our parents, the ugliness of the success vanished before the necessity of obtaining it. He struggled because he would have starved if he hadn't.
I can almost envy that necessity as I sit here with a dozen books scattered over my desk, a sales slip marking the first or second or fourth page of each of them.
America imposes the model of a life in which you are supposed to struggle to the top. Society then imposes collective moral sanctions against anyone who does not accept the hysteria. But if you don't accept the model, you are lost as well as hated. You are not so much ostracized as left to find your own way. There's no-where left to walk if you refuse to climb their ladder.
We are left with the freedom to invent ourselves, because there is little left in this society worth imitating. But by rejecting the pre-programmed lives that the kindergarten-through-college channeling system provides, we also have the necessity of creating our own lives. The ones that have been planned for us have already been lived, and there is no sense for us to follow their futile path, carrying our cog's worth of American culture to the scrap heap. In exchange for having to live through some of the greatest horrors the world has ever seen, we are left to our creativity to find our own left to our creativity to find our own direction.
The Vietnamese, for example, are different. Their condition, the material necessity of their lives, requires that they fight the American occupying army. They accept that necessity as valid-that necessity gives meaning to their lives.
From the Vietnamese we will have to learn, I will conclude with the women's liberation program from the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam. Fourier once explained that the change in a historical epoch can always be determined by the progress of women towards freedom and that the emancipation of women is the natural measure of general emancipation. Comparing the position of women in America and in Vietnam shows how much we must learn from the Vietnamese.
From the NLF's expanded ten-point program, adopted in August 1967:
To carry out equality between man and woman to protect mother and children.
To pay the utmost attention to raising the political, cultural and vocational standard of the women, in view of their merits in the struggle against U.S. aggression, for national salvation. To develop the Vietnamese women's traditions of heroism, dauntlessness, fidelity and ability to shoulder responsibilities.
Women are equal to men in the political, economic, cultural and social fields.
Women who do the same job receive the same salary and allowances and enjoy the same rights as men.
Women workers and civil servants enjoy two months' maternity leave with full pay, before and after childbirth.
To apply a policy of actively favoring, fostering and training women cadres.
To promulgate progressive marriage and family regulations.
To protect the rights of mothers and children. To develop the network of maternity homes, creches and infant classes.
To eliminate all social evils brought about by the U.S. imperialists and their lackeys, which are harmful to women's health and dignity."