“I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”
— Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore, Apocalypse Now
That iconic line, delivered by Robert Duvall in Francis Ford Coppola’s epic movie, defines the horrors of the war experience as we watch soldiers surfing the waves behind a destroyed village.
He ends the little soliloquy by saying it smells like “victory.”
The movie, the experience, the war, the horrors, the “victory” – were much on my mind as I made my first trip to Vietnam last week. I – and I’m sorry for the cliché – felt like I was making a pilgrimage.
You see Americans my age (60 this summer) knew as much about Vietnam as we did about the UK or France – maybe even more – in fact, way more. In the era before digital – the war was nevertheless in our lives and in our living rooms, as the technology of the day took TV and print and, if not instantaneous, made them constant so that we knew the topography, the faces, the food, the politics of Vietnam in ways that we might not have even known regions of our own country. In fact, when I landed – driving through the streets was deja vu….
Yet, it wasn’t shared knowledge. It wasn’t the happy knowledge of discovery that connects so much of our world today and helps to define Generation World. And for sure it wasn’t the kind of knowledge that leads to wisdom as we assimilate the new and add it to our own bank of stored experiences, evolving and shaping new thinking and ideas through shared culture.
What we knew about Vietnam was seen through one particular lens – the lens of war – and it was filtered by people on all sides who used information and disinformation in efforts to shape their own particular point of view.
Truth told – like many – as a young teenager I supported the US efforts. I believed in the famous Domino Effect and was chilled by the thought of the world becoming a Communist entity. I believed that we were trying hard to win the hearts and minds of the people of Vietnam and was convinced that all atrocities were attributable only to the Vietcong.
For me the turning point came when I heard a graduate of my high school, who went to the West Point Military Academy, tell us that the My Lai Massacre, which had just started to hit our consciousness, could never have happened. You see, he took a course on it at the Academy – it was proven that logistically it was an impossibility – it was a lie.
Only a few months later – we knew the truth and I remember wondering what did he now think; what did he now believe…it changed my POV.
Interestingly enough, Coppola, in commenting on his own movie, made the same point. While considered a classic, there has been some discussion and controversy over whether or not the movie was antiwar or actually glorified it – hard to see how the latter could be derived – but Coppola set the record straight….
According to Coppola, the film may be considered antiwar, but is even more anti-lie: “…the fact that a culture can lie about what’s really going on in warfare, that people are being brutalized, tortured, maimed, and killed, and somehow present this as moral is what horrifies me, and perpetuates the possibility of war.”
And there you have it – it’s about perpetuating the possibility of war and frankly, that is what I have taken away from a most exciting and rewarding trip – it’s how do you end the cycle; how do you change what in so many regions seems inevitable – how do you move on….
And this is my learning: a country – a people who have broken the cycle – with long-term vision and short-term hatred – so unlike others who are long on hatred and short on vision….
But what makes it so empowering is that everyone gets that war and lies and all of its horrors can be found on all sides. So while there may be aggressors and victims – all suffer.
Yuum (that is the pronunciation, not the spelling) my friend and colleague at work, took me to the War Remnants Museum. It’s a little disconcerting to see the US planes and tanks and such outside – easy to confuse them as a tribute, and it requires a double take to realize that they are there in defeat – not victory….
Obviously, history belongs to the real victors and there is a fair amount of propaganda anywhere – as you would imagine – yet there are also real messages of peace. There is no glorification of war in the museum, and in the most ironic exhibition, seeing the way the US media and journalists reported on the war makes you realize that the truth was always out there to be uncovered, even when it was not reported as such.
I asked Yuum – whose family is from the North – what did he grow up with? What was he taught? His reply was that everyone understood propaganda – no matter which side it came from – was just that – his generation just believed that war was bad.
The next day we visited the Cu Chi tunnels – famous for their role in the harassment of US troops. I crawled through, walked the jungle pathways, saw the terrible people traps and such – and tried to imagine myself a young US soldier walking in fear; and then tried to picture myself a Vietnamese farmer who just wanted to get back to the land and worried about which side might kill me; and finally as a Vietcong attacking a foreign invader. My mind was reeling….
And then we went back to Saigon – officially called Ho Chi Minh City (by no one but the government in the North; our guide Vinh said – Saigon is romantic…who wants a city named Ho Chi Minh?) – and there we rejoined the throngs of young energetic people – in a country with low unemployment and great universities (I spoke at RMIT and had an amazing dialogue with the students about Generation World – which they helped to define), fabulous food, great markets and where we have an inspirational office.
So, while like many in the cliché I was ready to do penance…I found that it was not only unnecessary – it was irrelevant – redemption lies in moving on in ways that move the world – not in dwelling in the past and wallowing in self-pity.
So I thank all my new friends in Vietnam for the lesson, for the warmth, and I hope that I have accurately portrayed you and what I have learned.
As I continue my rounds in Asia – let me share with you some thoughts from Vietnam that I think are universal as we all try to end the “possibility of war.” Listen:
Có công mài sắt có ngày nên kim. Translation: If you put in the work to sharpen the steel, it will eventually turn into needles. Vietnamese proverb – meaning that you have to keep at it – work hard and it all works out – visit and you will understand….
Dĩ hoà vi quý. Translation: Making peace is treasured. Idiomatic translation: A bad compromise is better than a good lawsuit – another proverb…the world can learn from that….
And finally the one I love the most…listen:
“Smiling is very important. If we are not able to smile, then the world will not have peace. It is not by going out for a demonstration against nuclear missiles that we can bring about peace. It is with our capacity of smiling, breathing, and being peace that we can make peace.” Thich Nhat Ha
That my friend is true victory…and in a world where we can share just about anything instantly – let’s drop the “likes” and head for the smiles…way more engaging, way more immersive, way more real…imagine a Domino Effect based on smiles….
The final quote from Kilgore’s napalm soliloquy: “Someday this war is going to end….” It did…not as he thought…way better…smile….
What do you think?
Update July 8, 2015: Let’s learn about real engagement from both of our leaders — US and Vietnam — meeting in person to talk about moving on