helenaworthen

An American woman of the Viet Nam War generation goes to Viet Nam 40 years later to teach and learn

August, 2016 — August 26, 2016

August, 2016

State capitol

Entryway of the Iowa State Capitol building seen from second floor landing of grand staircase

Exactly one year ago today Joe and I went to Viet Nam. The plane (San Francisco to Taipei, Taipei to Ho Chi Minh City) landed in HCMC about mid-day. Dean Hoa and Vinh met us at the airport, piled us — with our half dozen suitcases, heavy with books — into a van and took us first to our room at TDTU and then to lunch. The next day we staggered into class. Joe “taught” for 6 hours straight. Like being thrown into a chest-high river and trying to walk across it.

 

We stayed for 6 months. It was great. We want to go back.

 

Today, a year later, I have been upstairs in the guest room at the top of the house in Berkeley, where I have a sort of desk, going through a set of file folders full of anti-war material gathered by my parents between 1962 and 1970. The war in question is the Viet Nam war, known to the Vietnamese as the American War. I discovered these folders back in June, when we were in Vermont. They were up in the barn in a cardboard box. The loft of the barn is full of boxes. Every year I try to open at least one box up there, and this was the last box I opened in June of this year, two months ago.

 

I remember my mother saying, when she was in her late 80’s, “Oh, all the stuff in the barn!” And I would say, “Don’t throw it away! We’ll deal with it.” Now, twenty years later, bit by bit, I’m dealing with it. Often, it is stuff that I did not know existed. The box of Felix Greene photos that Joe and I donated to the War Remnants Museum in HCMC is an example of that stuff. And now, here are these file folders with the anti-war movement material inside.

 

So I have been going through these folders, reading most of the material, but skipping some things if they are too long or too technical. I am riveted by what I am reading. The documents range from handmade fliers, newspaper clippings and hand-written messages to an annual report of the South East Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) that includes the treaty itself. I’m entering each of them into a table, which will serve as a sort of annotated bibliography. So far, the table is 12 pages long. I hope to take the whole archive back to Viet Nam and give it to the War Remnants Museum, which has expressed an interest in the US anti-war movement. Altogether, this material creates a day-to-day picture of what participating in that movement was like on the ground for ordinary people who were pushing back as hard as they could against the juggernaut of a government intoxicated by military imperialist ambitions.

 

This picture supports my overall argument that change for the better comes from below, which is related to the sub-argument that enforcement of anything good for the 99% (in current terminology) comes from below. This in turn is related to what we were trying to teach in our classes and in our discussions about higher education in Viet Nam last year. I think I can write a bullet-point explanation of the implications of this assertion – its implications for organizing, labor education, labor law, unions, labor judicial procedures, industrial relations regimes, etc. etc.

 

Among the documents are newspaper clippings about one of the Moratorium demonstrations, which my parents attended. There is a speech by Tran Van Dinh, along with photos of him and my father’s handwritten notes on that speech. There is a newspaper ad signed by fifty or more activists. It announces a silent vigil to be held at mid-day on the town common in Hudson, Ohio, where my father worked as a teacher at a boy’s private school. There is a letter to the editor of the local paper blaming the theft of Christmas decorations on the ‘rebellious” participants in that silent vigil. The writer’s son in law is a Marine in Viet Nam. There are some handwritten notes addressed to my mother, thanking her for staffing an anti-war booth at a county fair in Cummington, Massachusetts, a small farming village where we spent every summer. My grandfather, who was a professor and had long summer vacations, owned a very old house up on the side of a mountain above the fairground. I remember helping my mother at that booth, but I don’t remember much else. In one of her replies, she explains that a couple of weeks before the fair she had the idea of the booth, got one assigned to her (and some friends? How could she do this alone?), and wrote to various anti-war organizations who promptly sent along flyers, posters, petitions, etc. which she distributed. There are pages from I.F. Stone’s Weekly, Minority of One, a Catholic magazine and The Guardian (NY)

 

Of course, the first things that grabbed my attention in these files were copies of LOOK, LIFE, Newsweek and Saturday Evening Post with multi-page photo essays about life in North Vietnam under the bombings, some by Lee Lockwood, with text by David Schoenbrun.

 

I am embarrassed to say how much I am learning. I can’t believe that I went to Viet Nam and tried to teach anybody anything without knowing all this stuff first.

 

Concurrently I am reading Truth Is The First Casualty: The Gulf of Tonkin Affair – Illusion and Reality, by Joseph C. Goulden, Rand McNally, 1969, which tracks the provocation of North Vietnamese patrol boats by the spy ship Maddox, coincident with an attack on nearby islands by South Vietnamese-piloted but US-provided Swift boats, through deliberate misrepresentations of reports of what happened next, up through Lyndon Johnson’s shoving of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution through Congress. He later used this resolution to claim unlimited war powers. All of this despite repeated attempts by the Captain of the Maddox to cast doubt on the reality of the aggression on the part of any patrol boats and requests to be allowed to move his ship away from the North Vietnamese coast, arguing “unacceptable risk.” Of course it turns out he was being ordered to put his boat and his men at risk in order to provoke an attack. The book ends with the hearings led by Senator Fulbright in which his committee pushes McNamara to admit that the Tonkin Gulf resolution was based on lies. It took another couple of years for investigative journalists to really uncover the true story.

 

It’s was another variation on the fraudulent rationales for the beginnings of many other US wars — the Mexican War (“American blood has been shed on American soil” ), the Spanish-American War (“Remember the Maine”), even WWI (the sinking of the “harmless, civilian and unarmed Lusitania”), not to mention Korea and virtually all the US wars since Vietnam. And today there’s an article in the Chronicle about “an Iranian boat” tickling the nose of the American ship in the Persian Gulf. The US boat – actually a destroyer named the Tempest- fired three “warning shots” to challenge the “unprofessional” behavior of the Iranian boats.

 

So now Fulbright, the critic of Johnson and his Vietnam war policy, gets the new Harvard-related university in Ho Chi Minh City named after him. Someone probably thought this had to be balanced by naming Bob Kerrey, who as a Navy SEAL conducted a massacre of Vietnamese civilians during the war, to the position of Chairman of the Board.

 

I am mentally comparing the breadth and depth of the anti-war movement then, and the situation we are in now. To the extent that there is a movement in this country, it’s Black Lives Matter and Bernie. The current wars, although ignited by our invasion of Iraq in 2003, have been swept into the fallout from climate change (drought, hunger, migration) but the pieces have not been linked up into a coherent front of opposition.

 

The Roosevelt High School in Des Moines, Iowa, 50th Reunion

 

We were in Vermont in June but have spent July and August in Berkeley. The house in Vermont was rented out for much of that time, which helps pay the property tax and upkeep. But in August we took 5 days and went back to Iowa to attend Joe’s 50th high school reunion. Iowa is in the middle of the country. It’s got thousands and thousands of acres of fertile prairie planted with corn and soybeans, mostly agribusiness. Driving through Iowa is like driving along the ocean, except that the sea is green, not blue. There are no real cities in Iowa. Des Moines, at 200,000 people, (600,000 metro) is the biggest town and very spread out.

 

Joe graduated in 1966 from Roosevelt High School in Des Moines. It claimed, probably correctly, to be the best high school in Iowa. It was proud of being a “ranked” high school nationally. Back in the 1960s it was almost completely white, the kids came from wealthy families, and as far as I can tell what was going on was mostly athletics of the most gung-ho pep squad variety. So in 1965, the year after the Tonkin Gulf resolution, Joe was getting drawn into early (for Iowa) civil rights and anti-war movement activity along with a small group of other students. This activity included a student-led demonstration against the war in Viet Nam, in support of the North Vietnamese and Robert Kennedy calling for an open-ended Christmas truce. Students participating in the demonstration wore black armbands and got suspended from the their schools. The case filed in protest of this discipline went to the Supreme Court, which decided that black armbands were a form of free speech and that students and teachers “do not lose the right to free speech at the schoolhouse door”. The case is referred to as “the Tinker case” because the lead plaintiffs were named Tinker. Because Joe’s father was a public school teacher (at a different school, but he still could have been fired in retaliation for Joe’s behavior) Joe and one other student (also a “teacher’s kid”) wore black suits that day instead of black armbands. They were not sent home, but other kids threatened them, encouraged by the very popular football and basketball head coaches.

 

The reunion took place on three days, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Out of 700 odd in the class, a little over 100 returned. The returnees were all white with one exception on one day and three on another — a Black man, who came with a Black woman graduate, had taken a good look at the crowd and counted, but he included a woman from Hawaii as being a “person of color.” So that’s a story in itself. We went on a tour of the school. I found myself walking alongside a man (white, of course) about my age. I asked him, “Which way do you think this crowd is leaning, politically?” And he said, “50-50 Trump.” I had heard this from someone else, earlier. Looking around at the crowd, I saw fairly healthy looking people – yes, overwhelmingly white – nicely dressed, people who got at least a good high school education if not college (over 85% at least started college). Most of the people who talked with me seem to have worked for or maybe owned small businesses; trucking, communications, restaurants. Many retirees. I thought, is this the real Trump demographic? This is not the poor, uneducated, angry working class. These are people with something to lose. What’s happening here? What do these people think Trump can get them?

 

To me, a vote for Trump is like putting a gun in your mouth and pulling the trigger but expecting to rise up and live a new life afterwards, in a different body (but better-looking, and rich). I’ve heard that somewhere before, but it applies here.

 

Upon hearing that we had spent 6 months in Viet Nam, a pretty red-haired woman, Catholic, told the story of her husband who came back from Viet Nam with PTSD “before they knew what it was.” They had married five months before he went overseas. Her husband told her stories of taking big motorized equipment out along country roads to trigger explosives before troop movements, going into the jungle to collect body parts, and being told that he couldn’t shoot unless he was shot at. They had 3 kids. Over the next 20 years he drank himself to death.

 

There must be many Viet Nam vet stories in this crowd. Iowa was known to be a state where draft boards took their quotas religiously and were pitilessly patriotic about sending boys to war. Nearly all the men in this crowd must have had some brush with the war. The lottery saved some of them, of course. Either way, this crowd must still be living with those memories. But no attempt had been made by the organizers of the reunion to collect, synthesize and interpret the group experience of that cohort then and now.

 

Back in Viet Nam, when I tried to explain my knee-jerk distaste for military exhibitions by describing to our friends there how the trauma of the war shaped our generation in the US, they would nod respectfully but without much real interest. I don’t blame them. Viet Nam is a country that has been invaded over and over again. We are a country that invades other countries; that’s a big difference. On the other hand, while this has made me loathe military pomp, it seems to have had the opposite effect on many people in Iowa, at least people we saw at the Iowa State Fair (see below).

 

One hefty white male in a baseball cap, from Milwaukee (where there are a lot of demonstrations going on right now following another police shooting of a Black man) told me that he was retired and enjoys Bible study with an orthodox rabbi. This rabbi does not have a real congregation because he is “at odds’ with the orthodox community. He collects guns, has a sign in his kitchen saying “In Glock I trust”, rides a motorcycle, and keeps a kosher house. While this guy may have been making this all up just to horrify me, I doubt it. This same guy walked across the a whole room to talk to the only Black man in the room, who Joe was speaking with at the time, to tell him he was from Milwaukee, the “current riot capital of America” and the do a libertarian-racist rant about Black protestors and the government.

 

My main impression of the Roosevelt school buildings themselves is the amazing quantity of trophies – those gold-colored plastic (the older ones  are hard metal) models of athletes performing various sports, mounted on pedestals with plaques listing names and years – that seemed to decorate every single ledge or cabinet. Every trophy commemorates someone winning and someone losing. It’s as if winning or losing is the whole story of human experience. Joe says the coaches ran the school, and this seems to confirm that legacy. No art, no bookcases, no use of the long halls to educate or broaden the experience of kids by surrounding them with evidence of the wider world in which their high school is a part. No displays of student work, either art or writing or photography or crafts. No ethnic studies art or history, although today the school apparently has substantial African American, Latino and other minority enrollment. Come to think of it, we were not taken to see the library. We saw the gym, the weight room, the band room, the art studio, the swimming pool – but no library. In all of these locations, the décor was trophies or victory banners.

 

Among the 100-plus returnees, we connected with half a dozen kindred spirits, and will stay in touch with them if possible.

 

The Iowa State Fair

 

Once a year there is an enormous fair at the Fair Grounds outside of Des Moines. It runs for two weeks and is attended by over 100,000 people. The reunion program suggested going to the State Fair on the third day, so we went.

 

One reason to go to the Fair are the animals. Horses, cows, goats, chickens, dogs, rabbits — anything that has been domesticated is there showing off its best qualities, whether it is obedience, gorgeous fur, huge muscles, shiny coats, or just plain hugeness. This is the Big Boar, who weighs 1500 pounds. A woman farmer who was showing at 1250 pound boar in the next pen said that there was nothing special about her guy; he just kept eating and kept growing. Yes, they can stand up and walk, but they spend a lot of time sleeping.

Big Pig

Walking down the center road of the fair, we heard a trumpet playing reveille. I suspected that this was a signal of something ceremonial so I climbed a small slope and found myself looking down into an amphitheater. The crowd in the bleacher seats was just sitting down. It was part of an honor-the-veterans interlude. Then a woman sang a patriotic song – not the national anthem, but something different, and a band came onstage carrying smashed garbage can lids and tin cans as instruments. They were wearing a semi-military guerilla soldier outfit: black boots, puffy-leg black pants, big belts, bare chests under vests, wild haircuts and black rags tied sweat-band Rambo-style around their foreheads. This is the costume of hooligans, bad boys, gangsters and bullies. Pull a balaclava on and you’ve got an ISIS decapitation video costume. Then they started singing. The words of the song were about “I love my freedom” and “I love my country.” It was as if they were saying, “In America today, the true patriots are the bad boys who do desperate, violent, things.” Love of country is a violent, desperate, rebellious emotion. The enemy, they seemed to be saying, is among us.

 

I looked at the audience to see how they were feeling. There was nothing about their behavior that suggested that this performance was meant to be taken ironically. They shouted and raised their fists. Joe said it looked like a pep rally at Roosevelt in the old days; mindless nationalism grown up, with guns.

I love my freedom

 

This country is disturbed. People can shake their fists and shout “I love my freedom,” but they don’t talk to the person next to them. As a visitor, you’d never know there’s an election going on. No discussion. No yard signs, for example. Not a one. We visited Joe’s cousins 100 miles to the east, in Williamsburg, Iowa. No yard signs there, either. People don’t talk about politics there, say his cousins.
Wrecking the Special Ed Curriculum

I asked this guy if I could take a picture of his T-shirt and he said yes. He said it was a size 6-X and he had to buy it on Facebook, since he has a hard time finding his size. The writing says, “Have you ever seen a handgun shot from moving motorcycle? Just keep riding my ass!”

handgun

At one point I was blaming the rise of Trump voters on the destruction of our education system. De-fund education, and what do you expect? Of course it’s more than that, but here’s an example of how bad things are in schools.

One of Joe’s cousins, Anne, a special ed teacher, talked about how her work has changed. The state education system has privatized the curriculum. Now, instead of relying on the teachers to know how to teach, they buy commercially produced “programs” and the teachers have to follow them, word for word. The teacher tells the student things from the script and then the student takes the test. This is all part of the “No Child Left Behind” federal agenda that focuses on test scores. If the scores don’t go up under one program, the state buys another one and the teachers have to switch to the new one.

Anne gave three examples of how meaningless and wrong-headed are the tests that she has to give. Students get one minute to read out loud as many words as possible. “Reading” means pronouncing – nothing else, no comprehension, no understanding or learning, just “de-coding.” So Anne starts the timer and the first case, a little girl begins – but first she heaves a great deep sigh, to calm down. The sigh costs her three or four seconds, so her score goes down and she fails the test. Another little boy reads along fine but when he comes to a word that makes him think about something else, he starts commenting on it to the teacher – and loses more seconds. A third little boy is too short to really see the test, which is taped to a flat table. He can’t read what he can’t see. He fails the test. Anne will get him a stool to stand on for the next time he takes this test.

Anne says teachers hate this approach and feel de-professionalized, but they despair of taking any action against it. So where are these kids whose single opportunity to learn has been choked off by these “education reforms”?

Back in Berkeley

Hillary Clinton has disappeared from my media feed since the convention. All I get from her people is fundraising requests. I believe that she’s serious and works very hard and that people who are close to her trust her. I will vote for her. But we need some leadership to counter Trump. This is not a good time for her to go invisible. She has done three fundraising events with the super rich in CA in two days or so, with one public appearance in swing-state Nevada, but who knows what she is saying at these events.

We are hosting a “Watch Bernie” event at our house in Berkeley tomorrow night. We’re expecting 15-16 people. I’ll make some food and figure out how to stream the broadcast through my laptop into the flatscreen TV. Bernie is expected to talk about what comes next and the new organization he has founded, Our Revolution.