School shooting tragedy by the numbers

Every time I have written about gun violence and mass shootings, one reader or another (you know who you are) will charge me with being a bleeding heart liberal.  So, let’s take the emotion out of the equation.  After all, we’ve been through this scenario multiple times.  The horror has become part of our national brand. Let’s look at some numbers.

A mentally ill 19-year old was too young to buy a beer or a handun but legally allowed to purchase an AR-15 assault rifle. His out-of-control actions as a high-school student spurred up to 39 calls to local police about his disruptive and threatening behavior.  He had posted multiple messages on social media that he owned a gun and wanted to carry out a school shooting. (The FBI today admitted it had failed to follow protocols having been tipped off to this information.) The killer accomplished his goal this week, discharging some 150 bullets into children and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. He left 17 dead and 15 wounded, some with life-threatening injuries. Hundreds of students fled into nearby streets, afraid for their lives, possibly traumatized forever.

In December, 2012 a Newtown, CT elementary school shooting left 26 dead, 20 chidren and 6 teachers.  After the Sandy Hook slaughter, despite innumerable calls for limiting the ready availability of guns,  especially assault weapons, the U. S. Congress did nothing.  It wouldn’t even bar terrorists on the no-fly list from buying weapons. Since then, there have been 239 school shootings,  with 438 persons shot, and 138 killed. For a breakdown on all these events, check out the non-profit Gun Violence Archive.

There are 55 million elementary and secondary school children who deserve a safe school environment. And we can’t guarantee it, thanks to the gun lobby and the cowardice of the Senators and Representatives whom it has bought.  The  President, whose own son is school-aged and presumably vulnerable, gave a saccharine “thoughts-and-prayers” speech and decried the lack of attention to mental illness. He obviously did not acknowledge that his own budget cuts funding for mental illness. Nor did he mention gun control or the lax laws that weaponize that mental illness.  The advocates are calling for stricter regulation.  And, before long, it will all blow over….until the next time.

Mind you, these are only the school shootings.  This doesn’t include the atrocities committed at concerts, houses of worship, retail establishments and other public spaces. The Washington Post has compiled another list.

Another set of numbers.  The National Rifle Association gave about a million dollars to candidates in the 2016 election cycle. Ninety-nine percent went to Republicans. (Notice the silence of Florida Senator Marco Rubio, bought and paid for by gun rights groups.) The NRA also spends more than $3 million a year in lobbying. Draw your own conclusion.

There is a sad predictability to all this, as captured by Nestor Ramos in today’s Boston Globe.   The only things we don’t know about the next shooting, as he points out, are who? where? and how many?

So where do we go from here?  In listening to interviews with some of the youngsters who survived the Stoneman Douglas shooting, I was struck by how reasonable they are and how disgusted they are with the refusal of elected officials to act. So here’s another number: there are 24 million young people – aged 18 to 29 years- who are eligible to vote. Only half of them voted in the last national election. One can only hope more will be energized by the craven neglect of elected officials to pass reasonable gun safety laws and get involved in the electoral process.

I was surprised to learn that the Murdoch-owned New York Post, a Trump supporter, said on its front page today “we need sensible gun control to help stop the slaughter.” It urged the President, like Nixon going to China, to take the lead in restoring the federal assault weapon ban, raising the age to buy firearms, banning bump stocks and killing the proposed concealed carry reciprocity act. Trump doesn’t consider the Post fake news, but will he listen?

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Vietnam through New Eyes, part 5: The faces of today

The images will last forever, I am certain. The bustling narrow streets of the Old Quarter area of Hanoi,  the water puppet show dating back to the 10th century,  the 11th century Temple of Literature honoring scholars and men of learning, the Museum of Ethnology, the Women’s Museum in Hanoi, the War Remnants Museum in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), the Imperial Citadel of Hue, the lantern-lit old town of Hoi An with its charming tile-roofed wooden buildings, the ruins of the ancient Cham kingdom (Vietnam’s version of the newer but larger Angkor Wat), the French influence on Hanoi and Saigon, the site of John McCain’s imprisonment, Mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh and his humble homes, and the umpteen temples and pagodas, markets, rivers, beaches and rice paddies.   But it’s the people whose images are most deeply imprinted and who will be the face of the future in this fascinating country.

A child living in the heavily bombed countryside outside Hanoi during the war, whose father was killed fighting in the North Vietnamese Army, works hard at her job but makes time for a wide range of charitable activities.  Her daughter is at college in the U.S.  An artist whose studio is in her small home, but whose paintings have been acquired by the families of French and American presidents.  A proud and tough former South Vietnamese officer,  who invited us for tea in his home and showed us his creative art work that belies his painful past. A young student of history, whose farmer father lost seven of his ten siblings when a Viet Cong guerrilla fired into his Mekong Delta home on the misinformation that South Vietnamese officers were quartered there. Afterwards, the student’s father cut off his right index finger so he couldn’t shoot a gun and could avoid conscription.

We found uniformly positive attitudes toward American people,  especially when contrasted with negative views of China. Attitudes toward American presidents differed dramatically. Trump was widely criticized for his indifferent Danang and Hanoi appearances last year. Obama and Bill Clinton are missed. But there was one former war photographer we met in Saigon who greeted us in his tiny apartment wearing a navy Trump 2016 tee shirt and a red “Make America Great Again” cap.  We thought it was a joke, but it wasn’t.

Outsiders tend to look at the Vietnamese in binary terms: Hanoi versus Saigon, Communists versus anti-communists, bad guys and good guys. Post 1975 Vietnamese who settled in the United States have still another take.  But the reality is more complex.

The Vietnamese were victims of foreign aggression, for millennia by the Chinese, for more than a century by the French. (A French guillotine stands near barbed wire tiger cages in one of the war museums in mute testimony of that era’s brutality.)  And then the Americans, beginning with the Truman administration. But the Vietnamese were not just victims; they were brutal to one another and also to the Laotians and Cambodians. They don’t like to discuss this aspect of their history.

The economy is growing rapidly, spurred on by the privatization of formerly state-owned companies and vibrant foreign investments.  South Koreans, for example, who were fighting Communism in Vietnam during the war are making large investments today.  South Korean tourists are there in high numbers, along with Japanese, Chinese and Thai.  There are fewer Russians, but they are still a presence.

For people who traditionally shop fresh daily, super markets and frozen foods are coming; upscale shopping malls are spreading; foreign brands from Hermes to Starbucks are increasingly present.    Rows of luxury condo developments marketed to foreigners are under construction on the beaches near Danang. With increased prosperity, and few if any environmental controls, has come throat-burning, eye tearing air pollution and contaminated  water.    With staggering new wealth and old-style corruption has come growing income inequality, with the World Bank estimating that the richest five percent of Vietnamese hold a quarter of all income.

Reconciliation is an ongoing process, but what all the people we met have in common is that they are survivors. They will educate their children. They will hold down two or three jobs if necessary. They will look for economic opportunities. They seem to compartmentalize the Communist government’s refusal to share power, the constraints on freedoms of speech and press.  To our questions, they smile meaningfully but turn the conversation in other directions.  They shrug knowingly when asked about well-known corruption at all levels of government, but are more comfortable discussing  pay-offs for promotions and other benefits common in the private sector. They go about their lives.

Despite all these challenges, they are pragmatic individuals, forward-looking and optimistic. They’re easy to like and to admire.

Early evening on Tuesday, January 23rd, as we were returning to our hotel in Hue from a day in the DMZ, loud cheers erupted from the cafes and bars. Jubilant people poured onto the streets, cheering and waving their arms in joy. The Vietnamese soccer team had just done the impossible. It had defeated the Qatar team with a post-regulation-time penalty kick and had, against all odds, made it into the finals of the Asia 23 Cup.  (Think

Hugh Harkness photo

Philadelphia Eagles.) The streets of Hue and other places across Vietnam went wild, with young people on motorbikes and piled into rickety pickup trucks waving red Vietnam flags.  We joined the crowd.  Our camera battery depleted, British photographer Hugh Harkness shared this photo.  “We’re small, but we’re tough and resilient,” was the enthusiastic consensus among team supporters. (It was a lesson learned the hard way decades before by the American military.)

Saturday’s final was against Uzbekistan in a snowstorm in China. Snow is not the natural habitat for the heavily under-dog Vietnamese.  The taller and heavier Uzbeks are used to snow. The Vietnamese persevered, and at halftime the score was 1-to-1.  In Hoi An, we were the only non-Vietnamese watching with the staff of our hotel, rooting along with them. The score was still tied at the end of regulation time. Could they do it again? With a minute of overtime left, the Uzbeks scored, and it was over.

The Vietnamese were disappointed but not crestfallen. They had done better than anyone had dared dream. The next day, we watched storefront television sets in Saigon’s Chinatown as all Vietnam welcomed home their silver medal national team. All were proud of their achievement. They are scrappy and determined.  They will be back. It is a metaphor for their future.

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Vietnam through New Eyes, part 4. My Lai and the trail of tears

Ronald S. Haeberle//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

So many places drew us away from the breathtaking landscape, the mouth-watering cuisine, and inviting art galleries and toward the American experience in Vietnam. Toward places familiar from books and contemporaneous television news: Red Beach #2 in Danang, where the first U.S. combat troops landed in March, 1965; China Beach, where the GI’s went for R ‘n’ R; Hien Luong Bridge, over the Ben Hai River in Quang Tri Province at the 17th parallel, dividing north Vietnam from south; the head of the Ho Chi Minh trail, and the Vinh Moc tunnels, which the North Vietnamese dug by hand to move people and supplies to their soldiers – tunnels in which they hid by day and from which they emerged at night to fight. The tunnels are a testament to North Vietnam’s ingenuity and included meeting rooms, wells, and health room. Sixty families lived in the Vinh Moc tunnels, and 17 children were born in the narrow, dank interior.

There are many military cemeteries, those in the North better maintained than those in the South, per order of the Communist government in Hanoi.  Some cemeteries have graves for the unknown as far as the eye can see; others have mass graves to collect remnants of soldiers.

No place drew us more ineluctably than My Lai, a hamlet in Son My village, in Quang Ngai Province, site of the infamous My Lai massacre. There, on March 16, 1968 Lt. William Calley

led some 100 soldiers from Charlie Company in the mass killing of 504 Vietnamese villagers. They were civilians, mostly women and children, including 56 infants.  Calley’s orders were to wipe out the Viet Cong in Son My, but army intelligence had been wrong. The VC were nowhere to be found. Frustrated and reportedly enraged by American casualties suffered in the recent Tet offensive, Calley and his men drove on, setting homes on fire, slaughtering farm animals, gang-raping women and, finally, shooting people as they lay on top of each other in a ditch, throwing a grenade or two after them for good measure.

But for a few brave Americans who defied his orders and gathered evidence to prove the crime, the horror might have gone unnoticed. Freelance writer Seymour Hersh took the story public late in 1969. He received a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage. Noteworthy for standing tall were Hugh Thompson, the helicopter pilot who refused to turn his guns on the terrorized civilians and helped guide some villagers to safety, crew members Lawrence Colburn and Glen Andreotta. It took until 1998 for the three to be honored for their bravery, Andreotta posthumously. The museum at My Lai also pays tribute to GI Ronald Ridenhour, who heard from buddies what had happened at My Lai, gathered eyewitness accounts on his own, and wrote to officials in Congress and the Pentagon, finally prompting an official investigation.

Calley was the only soldier tried for the slaughter. He was given a life sentence at hard labor, but President Richard Nixon, having previously tried to discredit a witness to the massacre, set Calley’s release in motion, which happened shortly after Nixon left office.  Fourteen others were charged but never tried. One other officer was court martialed but found not guilty. The event polarized both those for and against the war but especially intensified home front opposition.

As we stand in the modest museum in My Lai commemorating the massacre, it’s hard to get our heads around this event. Could it just have been the fog of war? The confusion of challenging circumstances? The depravity that all wars engender? Remember the Haditha massacre of 2007, when U.S. Marines in Iraq shot to death 24 unarmed Iraqi civilians, including women, children and elderly,  in revenge for the IED killing of a comrade? Are such horrors inevitable accidents, or are atrocities simply tacitly accepted war policy?

Such crimes probably happen more often than we like to think. The very same day in My Son in March of 1968, there were similar slaughters in other nearby My Lai area hamlets.  A large bronze plate is inscribed with the names and ages of the slain villagers. My Lai is not on the usual tourist itinerary. On the day we went, our guide, my husband and I were the only visitors. We viewed the horrific photos and relics while moving silently from room to room.

Nearly 50 years to the day from the massacre, we stopped en route to the My Lai killing field at a local pig market, vibrant and colorful. (Seeing the little squealers jammed together into crates and hauled off to become next day’s spring roll or pho soup was enough to make me consider becoming a vegetarian!)  Through our translator, Jim questioned farmers and buyers about their thoughts on My Lai, just down the road. Their recollections were dim, if they remembered at all. (Three quarters of the population of Vietnam are under 40 years old.)  Even for the older generation, more prone to “forgive but not forget,” their minds are on their families and their livelihoods.  Perhaps today’s economic and security relationship with the United States, especially given Vietnamese tensions with China, transcends that horrifying history.  As Americans, however, there are valuable lessons in forcing ourselves to remember what happened here.

Some American veterans have done just that.  A group from Veterans for Peace helped to restore a Guernica-like mosaic mural near the museum depicting the slaughter. GI’s have raised money for scholarships for Vietnamese children. Some have left plantings and memorial plaques. We left a contribution.

Under a fragrant frangipani tree, a plaque from veteran Billy Kelly reads in part “Mai Khong Quen,” which translates as “Never Forget.” And we shall not.

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Vietnam through New Eyes, part 3. The war goes on

Today half the 94 million Vietnamese are under 29 years old. They were not alive during what they call the American War. For the younger generation, that’s ancient history. They are focused on the future. But, for a significant number of other Vietnamese, the war  goes on. It persists in the dangers of so-called UXO (unexploded ordnance), cluster bombs and landmines, and the effects of toxic herbicides the United States dropped on the country to destroy food crops and defoliate the jungle, making it harder for the enemy to hide.

First, the landmines and unexploded bombs.  The United States dropped about 8 million tons of ordnance during the Vietnam War. (That’s roughly three times what the Allies dropped on Germany in WWII.)  The Defense Department estimates that some ten percent went unexploded. Since the war ended in 1975, more than 100,000 people have been killed or injured by UXO. In Quang Tri province alone, the central band of the country around the DMZ, there have been 8,256 casualties, including 3,425 deaths, a third of whom were children.  It’s particularly shocking except if you understand that Germany has been quietly dealing with UXO left from World Wars I and II, 5000 bombs last year alone.

Enter Chuck Searcy.  Chuck is a silver-haired gentleman from a military family in Georgia. His father had been captured in the Battle of the Bulge in WWII and was a POW. Chuck enlisted in the army in 1967 and was assigned to military intelligence in Vietnam. The Combined Intelligence Center, he said, was a hotbed of skepticism about the war, and, by the time of Chuck’s departure, he and his buddies were flat out against it.  He said at the time he no longer knew what it meant to be an American.  “Everything I had believed about America and decency and honor and truth was shaken to the core,” he told us.

Eventually Chuck returned to the University of Georgia.  He and eight or nine other vets found each other and started  a chapter of Vietnam Vets Against the War. His parents kicked him out, saying they didn’t know who he was. They didn’t talk to him for two years. Eventually they reconciled, when his parents acknowledged he had been right about the war.

Over the ensuing years, Chuck went on with his life. Different jobs, two marriages, two divorces.  But he always knew he wanted to return to Vietnam.  When he and an army buddy visited there in 1992, he was stunned that the Vietnamese people were overwhelmingly positive, warm and friendly.  Searcy moved to Vietnam in 1995 and, with other Americans living there, started pressuring the American government do something about cleaning up unexploded mines and bombs. He solicited funds from vets who had become highly successful in business, including Vietnam Vet Marsh Carter, former head of State Street Bank and of the New York Stock Exchange. Working with the Vietnamese and friends in Quang Tri Province, they came up with Project Renew. With the help of Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, they finally got serious money for the purpose.

Nearly 900,000 square meters of land have been cleaned up and released for agricultural production. More than 50 million square meters of hazardous areas are slated for clearance.  But it’s impossible to eliminate every mine. So Project Renew and others have established a school curriculum on how to recognize the danger and whom to call.  Risk education has been provided to nearly 350,000 children and adults. Technical teams are available to go out and defuse bombs. 48,379 cluster bombs, grenades and other ordnance have been safely removed and destroyed.   Between 2001 and 2016, 1200 amputees injured by UXO have been provided artificial limbs and other assistance; 700 families disabled by UXO accidents are supporting themselves by raising cows and pigs, growing mushrooms and making brooms and other products.

Despite that progress, the problems left by herbicides like Agent Orange have yet to be dealt with. Agent Orange is perhaps the most notorious of the toxins, the effect of which is now felt by two subsequent generations of victims.  Since the war ended, the trees and grasses have grown back, but the poison remains in parts of the food supply. Mental and physical disabilities, now carried genetically from one generation to another to another, have scarcely been addressed. An estimated three million Vietnamese have health problems linked to Agent Orange.

Project Renew wants to provide practical assistance to families that may have as many as five disabled children. We saw some in the streets, especially in Quang Tri Province. Those we saw are among those who can walk. As Chuck Searcy points out, many cannot. Pictures of their deformities are horrifying. Their bones are misshapen. They are blind. They can’t speak. Many, he says, can only writhe and moan or scream.  They’re cared for by aging parents. What will happen to them when their parents are gone?

It took the United States a long time to recognize the impacts of Agent Orange on its own GI’s who served there, including those involved with C-123 aircraft used to spray the poisons. Many developed cancer and other problems; their children were born with birth defects. U.S. veterans benefits are now available. Finally, there’s a growing acknowledgement of the need for the United States to help the Vietnamese victims.  Project Renew and other advocates continue to push for more help from USAID.  It’s a minuscule rounding-off figure in the State Department, but I wonder what its fate will be in the current political environment.

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Vietnam through New Eyes, part 2. A kaleidoscope of images

Coming from Boston, you’d think we’d be used to crazy traffic and pedestrian behavior.  Boston is an Eden compared to Vietnamese cities, where the intensity of the traffic takes your breath away. Most people ride motor bikes (due to the high cost of cars and huge taxes imposed on the purchase).  Many wear face masks to protect against pollution. Sometimes a family of four, or two people,supplies, and a dog, pile onto a single bike.  Other times, it’s a single rider, with an over-sized stack of product tied to the back of the bike, towering over him or her and extending two feet on either side.  Their balancing skills are prodigious.

Pedestrians are at a distinct disadvantage. There are few cross walks and even fewer traffic signals. Those that exist are ignored. Once you start crossing, you must walk straight ahead and assume the traffic will swerve to avoid you.  Traffic accidents and fatalities, I am told, are common. Changing your pace or showing trepidation is an invitation to disaster. There’s a constant tooting of horns, but we saw no expression of driver road rage or even swearing. With a guide on one side of me and my husband on the other, I practically closed my eyes and let them propel me across the street.

Walking through the Old Quarter of Hanoi, its narrow streets going back more than five  centuries, you pick your way among the street sellers, people young and old selling everything from spring rolls and dumplings they’re steaming or frying, to fruits and vegetables they’ve grown, to stacks of enough shoes to make Imelda Marcos envious.  Often they’re squatting on tiny plastic stools, eating a meal, paying little attention to passers-by.

The women farm in the countryside and come into the city to sell their produce, staying for up to two weeks in rooming houses, ten women to a room. They may have little more than $20 profit to show for their labor.  Private enterprise has been allowed by the Communist government only since 1986, and the people take advantage of the opportunity. They are industrious and entrepreneurial.  You are expected to bargain, but they earn so little it’s hard to feel right about haggling to reduce already-low prices.

When you leave the cities, the beauty of the landscape is inescapable.  As far as the eye can see are rice paddies, always being worked by farmers up to their knees in water, their bend-from-the-waist position an orthopedist’s dream in our country. Typically, they wear traditional conical hats (“Non la”) woven of palm leaves with bamboo.

Elsewhere jungle-covered hills and mountains are eerie reminders of wartime settings enabling Viet Cong guerrillas to hide and slip from one attack place to another. It’s wet and humid even in the non-rainy season.  American troops struggled in these conditions, getting supplies dropped in by helicopter whenever the dense cloud cover lifted. Even without the scars of defoliation, ghosts of the war are everywhere.

Rising from bays and narrow waterways are towering limestone karsts, looming peaks sometimes inhabited by birds and monkeys. Beneath the karsts, it was remarkable to explore caves in the Ninh Binh nature reserve in a tiny bamboo boat rowed by a hard-working woman of indeterminate age with sinewy hands and back, head protected from sun and rain by the ubiquitous conical hat.

The still-Communist country has lifted its ban on religious practices, which continued in various forms even during the darkest years after the North defeated the South. The Vietnamese are steeped in their founding mythology, dragons, sea monsters and evil omens. Even cosmopolitan young professionals believe in numerology and consult with seers for advice on good dates for events like getting married or launching a new business.

There are 54 ethnic groups in the country, many still practicing folk religions, but the dominant faith is Buddhism, honored in pagodas across the country. There, local people come to pray, light incense sticks and deposit offerings of fresh flowers and fruits.  More omnipresent than pagodas are temples, honoring guardian spirits, whether Confucian, Taoist, royal or personal.   Remarkable are the tombs in Hue, offering tribute to  kings and emperors from dynasties long ago. There are almost always steep stone stairs leading upward to the structures (in one I counted well over 130 steps), and rarely are there hand railings. That I survived that challenge was itself a kind of religious experience. (Caption this photo “grunt and groan.”)

Buddhism embraces non-violence and compassion, and I found myself wondering if that accounts for the friendliness  of Vietnamese people and even the benign attitude of drivers as they inexorably compete for space on crowded roads.

Consistent with their religious beliefs, the Vietnamese have deep respect for ancestors. Even the most modest private homes usually have small altars guaranteeing constant awareness of deceased family members, to whom prayers are offered.  Some cemetery plots in the countryside include structures resembling small temples, even in sodden rice paddies.

A Confucian tradition is manifest in respect for elders both dead and alive.  Extended families live together, with additions to homes built as each son or daughter marries and a spouse moves in.  Respect for elders is given far more than lip service, and it is taken for granted that, as parents and grandparents age and become infirm, the younger generation will take care of them.  One of our guides was perplexed that our grown children didn’t live close enough to care for us if we become incapable of being independent. That, dear reader, is a discussion for later. Much later.

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Vietnam through New Eyes, pt. 1: why we went

Thirty years ago, I stood with my husband on the banks of the Mekong River in Thailand, where that country comes together with Burma to the west and Laos to the east, and knew that we had to return someday, somehow, to Southeast Asia, to Vietnam.  At the time, the U.S.  embargo was still in effect, and travel was restricted.  Over the years, we traveled elsewhere, but Vietnam remained atop our bucket list. The country, its people and politics and relationship to America had lived long in our brains.

In many ways, the Vietnam era shaped our psyches. Our experiences, as for many of our generation, had a lot to say about who we are. Whether people fought in the war or against it, events of the era, as late brilliant writer David Lamb put it, signifies the time when we lost our innocence.

My husband Jim’s family had served in the military, and he had considered going to college on a Navy plan that would have had him in Southeast Asia in 1966-67, using his language skills in intelligence work. Instead, he came under the influence of faculty who taught him, long before teach-ins, the sordid history of the French in Vietnam and the extent to which the US had been playing a not-so-subtle role there even in the 1950’s. His first anti-war demonstration was a protest against the Dragon Lady, Madame Nhu, who had come to the US in October 1963 to win public support for her brother, President President Ngô Đình Diệm, and his repressive policies shortly before his Kennedy-backed assassination.

Later in the sixties, I was volunteering for anti-war candidates, marching in anti-war demonstrations, participating in local protests.  My young family was enduring constant television news reports of the war into which we were being drawn deeper and deeper.  (Years later I came to feel guilty about exposing my sons to wartime news videos at dinnertime.)

Prior to Vietnam, I, unlike Jim, had tended to trust institutional authority. I took our government at its word that it meant to do good in the world and would tell us the truth. Then it became increasingly clear they were lying to us. From Eisenhower to Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, they were out to “win” even while privately acknowledging the war was unwinnable. Despite that certainty, they sent more than 2.7 million of our young (mostly) men to Vietnam, 58,000 to die there.  Three million Vietnamese soldiers died, two thirds of them civilians; four million if you add in those who died in Cambodia and Laos.  I won’t even go into relitigating that wrong-headed reasons that our government used to justify the war.

Despite generations of strife and occupation, it is the friendliness of the Vietnamese people that impresses the visitor. Some have reflected that, well, the Chinese occupied Vietnam for a millennium, the French brutalized them for a century, and the United States was overtly there for just a little more than a decade.  But it was a brutal decade, and the residue of what the Vietnamese call the American War (and others call the Civil War)  is still present in the physical and mental disabilities caused by our use of defoliants like Agent Orange and the bodies maimed by land mines and cluster bombs.

After the war ended in 1975 with a North Vietnamese victory, there were the dark years of a repressive Communist regime. Many of those associated with the south were shipped off to “reeducation” camps in the countryside. Since 1986, the government has allowed private enterprise, but democratic political gains have not kept pace with economic ones.  Free market enterprise is everywhere you turn, from pig markets to restaurants to galleries and technology firms.  Vietnam has become the world’s second largest exporter of rice and of coffee. Construction projects are everywhere, as are tourists, especially from South Korea, China and Japan.

The same American government that had lied to those both supporting and protesting the war broke its compact with our vets, whose welcome home was anything but warm and who had to fight hard for benefits they deserved.  VA Hospital waiting lists endure; Vietnam vets’ suicides persist, out of proportion to the general population. And from Iraq to Afghanistan we keep sending our young men and women off to die, in countries many can’t locate on a map, for reasons that are never made clear while the truth is never told.

So off we went, on this  my husband’s and my 40th wedding anniversary, which turns out to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive, a series of battles that helped turn American public opinion against our involvement, as well as the 50th anniversary of the My Lai massacre this March.

In upcoming blogs, I will reflect on how this history has evolved, the breathtaking beauty of Vietnam, the richness of its culture, the growing wealth gap of much of its population, and the complex spirit of its people today.

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Donald Trump an embarrassment everywhere

Just when you thought Donald Trump had already taken the Presidency as low as it could go, he asked, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries coming here?” Our esteemed President, according to credible reports, told a group of bipartisan legislators Thursday he didn’t want Haiti, El Salvador and African nations sending their foul and nasty immigrants here. At a meeting about saving the DACA program, Trump wondered why we just couldn’t have more (pure and white) immigrants from Norway.  Sounds like Adolph Hitler’s preference for Aryan types.

The timing of Trump’s disparagement of places with black and Latino populations couldn’t have been more telling. A day later he was issuing a Martin Luther King Day proclamation with MLK’s nephew looking on. Sadly, his racist remarks were predictable.  The specific language, crude as it is, is not the issue. We’ve heard his “locker room” style before and have come to expect his racist persona, manifest in his dog whistle innuendos, re-tweets of white nationalist propaganda, ignorant misrepresentations of fact and outright lies.  From his New York race-baiting days and discriminatory practices as a landlord, to the Obama birther calumny to his countless 2016 campaign ethnic slanders  to his Charlottesville white nationalist embrace, his record is clear and undeniable.

To his defenders I say, what’s in his heart is not the issue.  Trump is sullying our international reputation and besmirching such fundamental American values as diversity and inclusion. In diminishing our standing in the world and giving succor to our enemies, he is making us less safe.

Last night in Palm Beach, our august President proclaimed, “I am not a racist.” Kind of reminds you of Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook,” doesn’t it?  Trump’s rhetoric is far less important that his policies and the need to provide a check on his powers by winning back at least the House in this year’s mid-term election.

Trump’s base was largely unmoved by the “shithole” episode, save for the David Duke, The Daily Stormer and their neo-Nazi soulmates cheering that their guy wasn’t going soft on immigration. Fox commentators provided an expected amen chorus, though some of their reporters acknowledged Trump’s language was disparaging and ham-handed.

Remember when Speaker Paul Ryan described candidate Trump’s assault on a Mexican heritage federal judge as a “textbook definition of racist comment.”  This time he could only muster that the President’s language was “very unfortunate, unhelpful.” Shame on Paul Ryan and the rest of the GOP Trump-enabling leadership team.

Republican Utah Congresswoman Mia Love, whose parents came from Haiti, said “The president must apologize to both the American people and the nations he so wantonly maligned.” But will she prepare a resolution condemning the remarks? Democrats will try to do so, but will Ryan or Senate President Mitch McConnell permit a vote? The press should get on record, preferably on tape, the response of every targeted, and retiring House and Senate Republican.

I assume Trump has never been to Africa and seen the modern cities that belie his “huts” slur or the graduate students in STEM fields and medicine who chose to stay and contribute to their home countries.  I suspect he is also ignorant of data describing the reality of immigrants from his “shithole” countries who come here, many of whom do as well if not better than native-born Americans.

Since 1994, Presidents of both parties have participated in a day of service to commemorate Martin Luther King Day. Not Donald Trump. No, he took off for Florida for a round of golf. Better were he to attend a naturalization service for wounded veterans at Walter Reed Hospital and personally thank those from “shithole” countries who have sacrificed more for this country than he ever has.

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