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BACH MAI HOSPITAL, one would have thought from most press accounts, was merely one of many North Vietnamese hospitals. But, as the French-made film, The Price of Peace, demonstrates, Bach Mai was a critical facility for the North Vietnamese. It was the most advanced health institution in the country. It was one of the few hospitals still standing: American warplanes had leveled the rest. It was busily re-training young Vietnamese children who had lost their hearing and ability to speak from concussions caused by American bombs. Its destruction last Christmas, clumsily masked as a mistake by the Nixon government, was a particularly criminal act in a long and savage war.
We have forgotten too easily the December terror-bombing -- which ended only four months ago. Watergate is now the central issue of the moment; the burning cities, the clinging napalm fire and the screaming children have been replaced by the Mitchells and the Magruders and the Deans.
But Vietnam cannot forget. Five years will be required to repair the hospitals; no one knows how long it will take to rebuild the ruined cities or fill in the bomb craters -- if peace is maintained.
The North Vietnamese are taking no chances. The Price of Peace cuts from joyous throngs in Hanoi last February celebrating Tet to anti-aircraft crews drilling, still watching and waiting. In a stunning, red-filtered rapid-fire sequence, the film then returns to the awful scene last Christmas. Air raid sirens wail in the background, Hanoi's people retrace familiar paths to their bomb shelters, gun crews peer upward into the darkness, bombs carpet the screaming night, missiles streak skyward, periodically to rendezvous with their unwilling targets.
After the bombers pass over, the dead are extricated from collapsed buildings and crushed shelters. A woman cannot hear. A little girl has injured her leg; it will be amputated in a makeshift emergency hospital. The bombing will continue tomorrow.
How could the people of Vietnam withstand this continual bombardment? Vo Nguyen Giap, the North Vietnamese defense minister, explains their resolve by citing a poem written by a 16-year-old girl. "She dedicates her life to Vietnam in this poem, and then she is killed in a bombing raid," Giap says. "Our people have her dedication."
Military leaders who read poetry and care what young girls think are anomalous to the American viewer. Felix Greene, a British film-maker who made Inside North Vietnam in 1967, documents an entire society of such anomalies. The literacy rate in Vietnam was lower after the French left than before they arrived in the nineteenth century, but North Vietnamese children attend school next to air-raid bunkers. When American bombers are sighted, the teacher bangs a gong and the kids retreat into the shelters. When the alarm is over, they emerge happily, grinning like American kids when the ice cream man comes around the corner.
Youth groups patrol the countryside, repairing bombed out bridges, railways and roads so truck and bicycle convoys can pass during the night. They move earth and heavy stones with their hands. Ho Chi Minh, one of the greatest and most humane political leaders of this century, travels from village to village, squatting on the ground awaiting his turn to speak at political meetings.
American warplanes were already taking their toll in 1967. A ten-year-old kid, who guides a water buffalo plowing the rice fields, refuses to heed an air-raid warning, instead remaining with his animal. An anti-personnel bomb hits near him, killing the buffalo and tearing his shoulder to shreds with one of its sinister pellets. Greene shows him in a hospital, in screaming pain as his injury is being tended to. His agony, his tears, are a vivid reminder of the searing guilt no amount of post-war reparations could ever repay.
This is Vietnam-America Friendship Week. These two films serve the Week's purpose well. They do not discuss Vietnam's political strategy, or its economy, or its social structure. They depict its people: laughing, singing, screaming, mourning. They sketch faces on a people our government would have us believe was our enemy. By portraying humanity, they fulfill a preliminary condition for friendship.
Greene interviewed a 21-year-old woman textile worker who shouldered a rifle to work. "It is the American government we are fighting," she told him shyly. "The American people are not our enemy."
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