Today is Christmas, and I’ve been thinking about forgiveness. I visited the War Remnants Museum today (formerly the American War Crimes Museum) and it makes me awed–and humbled–that the Vietnamese have basically forgiven (and now welcome) Americans. To Americans, it’s the war where 50,000 U.S. soldiers died. But to the Vietnamese, it’s the war where *three million* Vietnamese died. Half a million Vietnamese have birth defects related to the spraying of Agent Orange, most of the infrastructure was destroyed, and their ecology wrecked–60% of the mangrove forests and 25% of the forest cover destroyed with Agent Orange. Up until 1993, the U.S. effectively impeded rebuilding by blocking access to international funds.
As far as I know, we’ve never apologized (or offered reparations) for any of it–despite a general consensus that the war was a mistake, and that we should never have been there. In the U.S., if you hear about the Vietnam War, it’s either mistreatment of POWs or our several thousand MIAs–well, after the war, *three hundred thousand* Vietnamese were MIAs. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Vietnamese hated us; they certainly have cause. We should never have been there; they suffered ten or twenty times as much as the U.S. did; and they’re still suffering for it now.
And yet they’re past all that. In fact, they’re extremely friendly to Americans, and quite curious about the U.S.. I try to imagine the U.S.’s response to losing three million Americans, and the word “carpet bombing” comes to mind. Comparing our behavior lately with the Vietnamese, I can’t help wondering if perhaps we as a Christian country aren’t perhaps a little short on Christian forgiveness. If we’d had done to us what we did to the Vietnamese, I don’t think we’d rest until we’d conquered the offending country and obliterated any trace of potential threat (that’s what we’ve historically done, and are about to try in Iraq); it amazes me that they’re willing to let the past be. I don’t think we, as a country, could do it.
Cambodia is the same; astonishingly, after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, many of the KR demobilized, went home, and started tilling the rice fields. At the Tuol Sleng Museum, I thought one of the most amazing displays was a series of photos taken of former S-21 guards and workers, who have gone back to village life and are working as rice farmers, carpenters, etc. It’s not that there wasn’t a lot of bitterness, or a lot of hatred. There was (and is). But in large part the former Khmer Rouge and the Cambodians who suffered under them are living together peacefully, and the country has largely put the affair in the past–which frankly amazes me, after only twenty years. I think this is in large part because of their Buddhist faith, which teaches nonviolence and karmic redemption. “An eye for an eye” just isn’t a part of their culture, as it is ours.
This, of course, causes other problems (I didn’t say it was entirely positive). One of the reasons corruption is so common in Asian countries is because the culture as a whole isn’t into social crusades–very inclined to let things go, and trust karma to punish wrongdoers. “Sin” here is a purely individual concept; each person has to live with the consequences of their actions. Christianity is fundamentally rooted in a war between good and evil–God, an independent entity, punishes sinners/fights Satan, and Christians are obliged to join God in that war. (Thus, the American emphasis on “justice” and our tendency to take off on self-righteous crusades).
Buddhism is totally different–it doesn’t recognize the existence of sin at all, only actions and consequences. If you do X, Y naturally happens; no interventionist deity is involved, it’s a law of nature. If you sin, you suffer, much as if you drop a pen, it falls to the floor.
(Side note: Buddhists have a very interesting “take” on the Book of Genesis. It makes perfect sense to them, but as a Buddhist parable: Adam started out with nirvana, but once he ate of the fruit of the knowledge of Good and Evil–i.e., came up with the *concept* of good/bad, he created desire, thus suffering, and was cast out of the Garden of Eden (nirvana), entirely as a consequence of his actions. The concept of God as an active entity during any of this just doesn’t seem to cross their minds, though; the Fall was the creation of the *idea* of good and evil, not disobedience to God.
I found this utterly fascinating; it’s interesting how one religion looks at (and misinterprets) another. For example, Wat Suan Mok mentioned that Christianity also includes the idea of eliminating the self, noting that the cross is symbolically an “I” with a line through it, i.e. crossed-out “I”, “no self”. I found this neat because it’s so utterly logical (to a Buddhist), and so utterly wrong. Makes me seriously wonder whether one culture is ever equipped to comment on another. (You are hereby warned that any of the cultural interpretations I’ve made may be, and probably are, every bit as wildly inaccurate. This will not prevent me from making them, however. 😉 ))
At any rate, Buddhism also emphasizes impermanence, calmness, and letting go of worldly passions, which undoubtedly contributes to this unexpected forgiveness as well. I can’t help wishing that the U.S., as a country, were a little more inclined in that direction. Lately we’ve had an alarming tendency to embark on crusades, without (IMO) serious thought about consequences or our membership in the world community. I look at the situation in Iraq and think–on many different levels–“Oh no…not another Vietnam. Please, not again.”
(Probably the worst thing I saw in the War Remnants Museum wasn’t anything to do with weaponry, at least not directly: it was the photos of deformed children, the results of widespread dioxin use. There was a jar with two preserved, dead fetuses/babies: one had a horribly deformed head–misshapen, with one of the eyes was missing–and equally deformed body. The other was a pair of mangled, conjoined Siamese twins. One photo was of a man, with normal size head, no more than two feet tall; his arms and legs deformed into bizarre, stringy curves; his tiny back horribly hunchbacked, with a big protuberance from his chest in front (as big as the hump on his back). One of the captions said there were half a million dioxin deformations in Vietnam, as a result of the Agent Orange. And they’ve still forgiven us. The mind reels.)
I’m not in any way suggesting, incidentally, that the situation in Iraq is simple (or that there weren’t justifications for our being in Vietnam, either). I’m also not anti-American at all; being the daughter of immigrants, I’m quite aware that there are plenty of worse places to live. (I could have grown up in China; I’m very glad to be an American.)
But I don’t think the U.S. is perfect, and I don’t we had any real understanding of what we were getting ourselves into/the moral aspects of what we were doing in Vietnam. (I frankly think we still haven’t really confronted the moral responsibility for our actions in the Vietnam war.) I think in a very similar way, we don’t understand, and haven’t thought about, what we’re about to do in Iraq. Among other things, “an eye for an eye” is very much part of the Muslim faith–very unlike Buddhism. i don’t think we’ve really considered this; I think we’re letting ourselves in for decades of terrorism and war, in exchange for ousting someone who isn’t–currently–a serious threat. But I hope I’m wrong.
On another tangent, this one to do with propaganda–I thought it was very odd that the Cambodian government is effectively trying to close Tuol Sleng. They’ve withdrawn financial support from it, so the museum doesn’t have money to preserve the documents–so says the museum flier–or to keep up the buildings, either. But it turns out that Tuol Sleng was initially used as a propaganda tool by the Vietnamese, to justify their invasion and occupation of Cambodia (the Cambodians welcomed them as saviors–the Khmer Rouge were that bad), so I suspect that’s part of it. (There are also a lot of former Khmer Rouge in the current government, which may be more important.)
At any rate, justice vs. moving on and exaggerating atrocities as propaganda are very much themes in both Cambodia and Vietnam; the War Remnants Museum started out as the American War Crimes Museum, for example. (It also used to contain anti-Chinese exhibits until they normalized relations with China.) Now that relations are normalized and the countries are friends again, it’s a reasonably balanced exhibit IMO; it’s funny how history changes over time, isn’t it?)
Anyway, my apologies for the rambling–I seem to have conjoined three different (and probably very good) essays into a single piece of incoherent mush. This is largely because I got almost no sleep last night and got badly dehydrated while running around today (some people have no sense whatsoever 😉 )–so I’m not in any way up to par. So I’m off to get dinner and catch up on sleep, hopefully to remedy this. 😉
Tomorrow at 6am I catch a flight north to Danang (in central Vietnam), from which I’ll catch a bus south to Hoi An. After that last bus ride, I decided that I’ve had it with long-distance ground travel in the Third World; it’s OK for short hops, but not for long hauls. (Average speed seems to be about 10-15 mph; so covering 100 miles literally takes all day. I’ve finally abandoned my Western assumption that ground travel averages 50-60 mph; here, that kind of speed is purely a pipe dream.)
So I will be flying from southern Vietnam to Hoi An, then doing the short ground hop from Hoi An to Hue, most likely by train–the scenery’s supposed to be *gorgeous*. After that I’m not sure–I may fly north to Hanoi and then fly from Hanoi to Vientiane, Laos; or I may be brave and try a land crossing into Laos. Most of it depends on what I find there.
enough rambling–off for food, then sleep. Tomorrow, maybe I’ll drop you an email from central Vietnam. 😉
P.S. The Vietnamese–at least the ones I’ve dealt with so far–are extremely friendly, and wonderful to deal with; quite a change from Cambodia. Despite a horrible beginning (which I still want to write up later–it’s a great story), I’ve really enjoyed Vietnam so far. hoping it continues…!