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Testimony given in Detroit, Michigan, on January 31, 1971, February 1 and 2, 1971
"WHAT ARE WE DOING TO VIETNAM?"
MODERATOR. I'm Wilbur Forrester, former 1st Lt. in the United States Marine Corps. During my 13 months in Vietnam, I spent five months as a Civil Affairs Officer on the regimental level. The topic of our panel tonight will be "What We Are Doing to Vietnam." Certainly testimony that we've had previously in this Winter Soldier Invetigation has shown very well the effects to the ecology, the land, and the atrocities performed on the people, physically. We will not go into that type of testimony on this panel: we will focus our attention primarily on the cultural aspects. I'd like at this time for the panel to introduce themselves and give you a brief background.
SPELLMAN. My name is J.W. Spellman, and I'm a teacher.
CLARK. My name is Jim Clark. I was in Vietnam from 1966 through 1969. I was there originally with the Agency for International Development. I resigned from that organization 1968 and took a position with Catholic Relief Services. I coordinated a project dealing with social welfare and the training of social workers in Vietnam under that. With AID I was a refugee officer for a year on the central coast and I spent a little over a year in Saigon as a special assistant for voluntary agencies. The remarks I will make will be primarily related to refugees and the problems associated with the generation of large numbers of refugees in Vietnam.
EMENY. My name is Mary Emeny. I was in Vietnam in 1967-68 with the American Friends Service Committee. Home was a Buddhist orphanage in Da Nang and after the Tet offensive, or the Tet whatever-you-call-it in 1968, I spent a large amount of time in Hue, some in Quang Tri and Cam Lo in refugee camps and mostly working with refugees and Buddhists in Central Vietnam.
CRAVEN. I'm J. Craven. I'm a student at Boston University and I was recently on a student delegation to Vietnam. I was in North Vietnam between December 4th and December 20th just this past year.
MODERATOR. Okay, we'll open the panel with Dr. Spellman.
SPELLMAN. I should begin by saying that I make no claim to any special expertise in the field of Vietnamese studies. I may have some knowledge of Asian societies in a more general context and it is in this regard that I speak. The United States presence in Vietnam is only one aspect of American involvement in Southeast Asia which is related, in my judgment, to its cultural imperialism throughout most of the traditional societies of the world. At no time in previous human history has the cultural integrity of so many millions of people of the world been threatened as it is today by the United States. This issue this evening touches not merely questions of national self-determination or the right to decide one's own self interest, it involves, if I may say so, matters of the gravest importance regarding the quality and the quantity of the life of this species. We are not very old as far as a species goes.
By our own proclamation, we are the most intelligent, the most powerful, the most creative, and the best of all life that this planet has seen. Indeed, the Book of Genesis tells us that after creating this world, with its apex as man, God gave man dominion over it. Now, we have been around for approximately two million years and our future is reasonably uncertain. Even the dinosaurs, whom we classify as rather dumb creatures, managed to survive for about 12 million years. There are many who question the likelihood of this species surviving for that long a period. The experiments of Darwin on the Galapagos Islands and the work of other scholars have shown that adaptation to environment is crucial to survival.
As I understand these lessons, they mean that each society has its own integrity, physical and cultural. As a consequence of its adaptation, according to its past experiences, its judgment and self-interest, values which may be desirable for one society, cause the gravest physical and mental harm when imposed on another. And it is in this light that I wish to view what we are doing to Vietnam. The bulk of Western values are based on the historical experiences of the Judaic-Christian and Greco-Roman cultures. Of prime importance in that value system has been the role assigned to the importance of belief, and this concept of belief occupies a cardinal role, particularly in Christianity.
Unless, we are told, you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, you shall not have eternal life. And in this sense I wish to contrast that statement with the statement of the Lord Krishna and the Bhagavad Gita, the sacred Hindu text: "Whatsoever divine form any devotee with faith seek to worship, that same is divine." But the beliefs of Christianity were understood as exclusive and excluding beliefs. And it was part of our heritage, and it is part of our heritage to this day, that what is good for us ought to be universal and it ought to be good for everyone.
Earlier in our history we found that those who held a different perspective than we did on religion, and we made our ultimatum very clear, after we had poured scorn and ridicule on these people, calling them heathens and pagans and superstitious polytheists, we then killed them in the name of our religion. And the Crusades and witchcraft and the religious persecutions followed. Later (and this continues today), we felt that we had the righteous responsibility to condemn those who believed in political systems (rather than religious systems) that were different from our own. Thus it became quite legitimate to kill Communists and others simply because they were Communists, and because they believed in a different form of government from ours. There are still those today who believe with all the fervor that righteousness often summons, that we ought to continue on this path of killing those who disagree with us. I believe that we are now on the threshold of a new killing crusade.
Having killed for religious beliefs and then political beliefs, I believe we are now on the threshold of killing for economic beliefs. It takes no prophet to predict that there will be destruction and riots and killings in the name of economic creeds in the future. And that these will seem just as valid as religion and politics have seemed to our predecessors historically. Such values as these are alien to Asian society. Neither Hinduism nor Buddhism, Confucianism nor Taoism have ever engaged in religious crusades because of their beliefs. Indeed, both Hinduism and Buddhism advocate non-injury as among the highest of values.
Truth, Hinduism states, is like a great diamond with many facets, and no person, no government, no institution can see all of the facets of the great diamond of truth. There are not merely two sides, but inherently truth is multi- dimensional. In that area known as Indochina, the great civilizations of India and China and the values of those societies have been merged with the beliefs of life that were held by the peoples of Southeast Asia. How Vietnam is culturally related to the civilization of China. The impact of Confucianism and Taoism is still strong in Vietnamese values, and the Buddhism which arose from India won the hearts of much of Asia as it was adopted to the various cultures of the area.
The Confucian orthodoxy assumed that there was nothing evil or inherently evil in human nature, including, it held, the barbarian nature. But if the barbarian could be reformed by education, then tolerance and kindness were the basis, it held, of a sound foreign policy. Prince Kung enjoined his fellow countrymen to hate the evil that a barbarian might do, but not the barbarian himself; to be kind to men from afar in accordance with the classics, to the end that myriad nations might be tranquilized, that China might flourish, and that not government, but virtue, might prevail throughout the world. Mencius, the great Chinese philosopher, said that all men might have a sense of commiseration. When a commiserating government is conducted from a commiserating heart, then one can rule a whole empire as if one were turning it on one's palm. I say all men have a sense of commiseration; here is a man who suddenly notices a child about to fall into a well. Invariably he will feel a sense of alarm and compassion, and this is not for the purpose of gaining the favor of the child's parents or seeking the approbation of his neighbors and friends, or from fear of blame should he fall to rescue it.
Thus we see that no man is without a sense of right and wrong. And Mencius went on: "The sense of compassion is the beginning of humanity. The sense of shame is the beginning of righteousness. The sense of courtesy is the beginning of decorum, and the sense of right and wrong is the beginning of wisdom. Let every man but attend to expanding and developing these four beginnings that are in our very being, and they will issue forth like a conflagration being kindled and a spring being opened out." To those who will listen, the greatness of the civilization of China speaks far more eloquently than I, or I think anyone else ever could about it.
European travelers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were lavish in their praise. Duhald, whose famous description of China may well be regarded as the synthesis of seventeenth and early eighteenth century works on China, said of Chinese commerce, "The riches peculiar to each province and the facility of conveying merchandise by means of rivers and canals, have rendered the domestic trade of the Empire always very flourishing. The inland trade of China is so great that the commerce of all Europe is not to be compared therewith; the provinces being like so many kingdoms which communicate to each other their respective production. This tends to unite the several inhabitants among themselves and make plenty reign in all the cities."
But I think more to the point was a very classic reply given by the Emperor of China to King George III, when the King asked the Emperor for trade and enclaves in China. (And perhaps some may regret that Western imperialism and colonialism were too strong for this well-mannered society.) The Emperor replied to the King as follows:
Yesterday your ambassador petitioned my ministers to memorialize me regarding your trade with China. But his proposal is not consistent with our dynastic usage and cannot be entertained. Hitherto, all European nations, including your own country's barbarian merchants, have carried on their trade with our celestial Empire at Canton. Such has been the procedure for many years. Our celestial Empire possessed all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its borders. There was, therefore, no need to import the manufacture of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce. But as the tea, silk, and porcelain, which the celestial Empire produces, are absolute necessities to European nations and yourselves, we have permitted, as a single mark of favor, that foreign hongs or business associations should be established at Canton so that your wants might be supplied and your country thus participate in our beneficence. But your ambassador has now put forward new requests which completely fail to recognize the throne's principles to treat strangers from afar with indulgence, and to exercise a pacifying control over barbarian tribes the world over. Your England is not the only nation trading at Canton. If other nations, following your bad example, wrongfully importune nay ear with further impossible requests, how will it be possible for me to treat them with easy indulgence? Nevertheless, I do not forget the lonely remoteness of your island cut off from the world by intervening wastes of sea. Nor do I overlook your excusable ignorance of the usages of our celestial Empire. I have consequently commanded by ministers to enlighten your ambassadors on this subject, and have ordered the departure of this mission.
It is regrettable that subsequent leaders of the societies of Asia were not able to speak as forthrightly or have the ability, as the Emperor did in this reply. When we impose our values on traditional societies it is well that we ask what they get for these losses. Thich Nhat Hanh had described some of the cultural impacts as a direct consequence of this war. "Sporadically," he writes, "during the course of the war, there have been expressions of interest in the idea of strategic hamlets."
These were intended to draw people together in an area of some protection, and to make available to them such social services as would improve their lives and introduce the concept of cooperative efforts. On paper they look good. In practice, like every other promise of social improvement in the history of the South Vietnamese government, they turned out to be another device related to the military effort of that government. People were herded into villages against their wills, and the total concept of the village became a military concept. Peasants were forced to leave villages that had been the homes of the families for generations, and in leaving them, to leave behind not only the graves of their ancestors, but many relics and mementoes, including family altars which perished in the same flames which consumed the village. Thus, they went to the new strategic hamlets in a frame of mind to create a new society.
The hamlets were created to keep out the Viet Cong so that the villagers could live in them and not be intoxicated by the Viet Cong. But the fact is that the Viet Cong themselves lived in many of the villages among their fellow Vietnamese. Since the war has become the national preoccupation of Vietnam, the numerous professions serving the war have become numerous and profitable. Literally hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese work at various services for the Americans at their bases, on airfields, in their headquarter buildings, and in many other ways. Landlords are constantly seeking to evict their Vietnamese tenants so they may rent their premises to Americans at prices that are ten or twenty times as high as the Vietnamese are paying. It is almost impossible for Vietnamese to find housing since there are almost no Vietnamese who can afford such prices.
Taxi and pedicab drivers avoid Vietnamese customers for the far more profitable Americans. They do not charge according to the taxi-meter any longer. Americans, accustomed to the costs in their own country, pay ten times as much as the normal rate for such a ride, and in so doing, of course, increase the pressure on the normal Vietnamese person. Profit. In addition, taxi drivers frequently operate a profitable sideline in taking foreigners, especially American soldiers, to girls of "friendly disposition," who will compensate the driver in addition to what he receives from his passenger. Bars, dance halls, and rest halls catering to foreigners, thrive. The number of prostitutes increases daily and at a frightening rate. For many it is the only way in which they can support themselves and their family.
The tradesmen and businessmen working with Americans earn large sums of money, while the majority of their fellow countrymen are going through a major economic crisis. Inflation that occurs from the hoarding of scarce goods for profit, the pouring in of American dollars, and the spending of great sums on non-productive war enterprises--all this means that the Vietnamese, without access to these American funds, are in an increasingly desperate plight. Another large group in the cities are the peasants who fled from their ancestral homes, leaving their possessions and their farms behind. They fled not only from the actual dangers of the war, but from the frustration of a situation in which crops may be grown only to be destroyed by one side or the other as a measure of war to keep the other side from getting them.
Planes of the United States and South Vietnamese Air Forces drop napalm bombs on these crops so that they may be burned rather than fall into the hands of the Viet Cong. In such circumstances, priests and nuns cannot go on preaching morality. The war has destroyed not only human lives, but human values as well. It undermines all government structures and systems of societies, destroys the very foundations of democracy, freedom, and all human systems of values. Its shame is not just the shame of the Vietnamese, but of the whole world. The whole family of mankind will share the guilt if they do not stop this war. It is not possible in this land of thirty million people, 90% of whom are engaged in agriculture, to ignore the terrible destruction that has been brought to the land and families.
Now, when one considers that 80% of the people live on approximately 20% of the land (which was so fertile that Vietnam was known as the "Rice Bowl" of Asia), then that tragedy is heightened. When one considers the great skills of artisans that were handed from father to son as guarded secrets, that now lie somewhere hidden amongst the body count figures, then the loss to the world of art is, I suggest, also not insignificant. When one considers the waters which provided over three hundred kinds of fish along the nine- hundred-mile coastline of Vietnam, which fed much of the population, and the bombs and the chemicals now destroying that form of life, no cease-fire or truce or withdrawal will end the effects of those ravages, which will be felt for generations. But it will not be the Vietnamese alone who will bear this burden or who will suffer this evil, although undoubtedly their burden will be the greatest.
The Buddha has said, and I believe correctly, "Think not lightly of evil, spying it will not come to me. Even a waterpod is filled by the falling of drops; likewise the fool gathering little by little fills himself with evil. Whosoever offends an innocent person, pure and guiltless his evil comes back on himself like fine dust thrown against the wind, and as rust sprung from iron eats itself away when arisen. Even so the deeds and his own deeds leads the transgressor to the states of woe." The fifteen hundred species of wooded plants, of the tropical forest of Vietnam, that provide cover for numberless wild animals, that have been bombed, may appear only a casual consequence of this war. But the ecological toll to Vietnam will be counted there too.
It is difficult for us to understand how great is the feeling for family in Vietnam. Stemming from the principles of Confucianism, the family and not the individual, not the government, was the basic core of society. Through it, honor and loyalty and nobility were expressed. And it was this which was the thread which gave much of the expression of the joy and the warmth and the love for which men live. For it is difficult to understand why it was necessary not only to violate the integrity of the heart of Vietnam in this way, but also to act in such a way that even death was not enough. The decapitations and the body slayings and the other mutilations--which religiously affected the passage of the soul to the next life--even that has not been spared in this war. And when one goes through all of these things and much more in terms of what we are doing to Vietnam, the list becomes enormous--and enormous is a very small word, it seems to me, to describe these things. One asks what are the values that are being imposed on this society; values which we espouse such as efficiency and productivity and urbanization and equality and democracy--values which may indeed be unviable even in our own society.
There is no compelling evidence, certainly no compelling historical evidence, that suggests that democracy necessarily provides a greater degree of justice or happiness than, say, kinship or other forms of government. The evidence with respect to the supporting of the concepts of equality, political equality, has very little philosophic basis to support it, in my judgment. The assumption that illiteracy equals poverty seems to me at best a false assumption. There is a vast degree of difference between our system of education, which is essentially aimed at information for the sake of economic productivity, and that system of education which has been at the heart of Asian education, which is based not on information but on knowledge or on wisdom or enlightenment.
And there is a very considerable difference between wisdom and information, between knowledge and technical ability for productive purposes. And the emphasis on wisdom and knowledge is, I am sorry to say, very little to be found in our own academic system. Now there are some who argue that at least we have been beneficent in terms of what we have done medically--in terms of what we have done in the area of health. Here, too, I think the evidence is not very compelling, particularly if one looks at our own society. There are something like six out of ten adolescents who are supposed to be in need of mental treatment, where there are few people who are not popping one pill or another into themselves, where the competency of physicians in the area of drugs is one of the lowest in the world, where we are, in fact, involved in a gigantic medical vested-interest situation, which under the AMA, the insurance companies, the pharmaceutical companies, the physicians, the government, all underwrite a system of chemical medicine that is related to the chemical productivity of the society.
One wonders how the species could have lived for the nearly two million years that it has--before the introduction of chemical medicine. But the great systems of acupuncture, Chinese medicine, the indigenous systems of medicine--of plant and herb medicine, that have been developed in the countries of Asia; all of these are ridiculed as being primitive superstitions, while more and more chemicals in the forms of medicines are imposed not only on a supine and glib American population, but which we now tout to the rest of the world as being their only salvation for the betterment of their health. It would be a nice idea if perhaps we could have adopted the ancient Chinese system where one paid one's physician only so long as one was well. When one was sick, one didn't pay. Under such a situation, it seems to me, we might be disposed to make a very dramatic reappraisal of that system of medicine which we tout to the rest of the world as being absolutely necessary for their lives.
I hold the same view with respect to the concept of Western law, which seems to me one of the most iniquitous systems of law in the world, and I will explain why. I recently reviewed a book by a scholar from the Sorbonne who was complaining that in India there were great problems in getting Western law introduced at the village level. He was pointing out, which is correct, that the traditional law is free, it is flexible, and it is merciful, as opposed to our own system of law, which is _____ expensive, very rigid, and very harsh. He was wondering why the villagers were so adamant to this progressive system of law that we have in the West, which, once again, we think all the world ought to adopt.
This system of law, of which I speak, involves again, as it does in the field of medicine, an extraordinary vested- interest group which handles the whole business. That is to say, the lawyers are the legislators, the lawyers write the laws, the lawyers are the judges and the lawyers are the prosecutors. The lawyers in fact have the entire system sewed up to such a degree that the law, in its relationship to the people, is a vast gap. A gap which does not exist in the traditional societies of Asia. Any mother, I'm sure, will tell you that if you want to treat people justly, you do not treat them equally. And I suggest to you that the greater the degree of equality you have in a society, the lesser the likelihood of justice in society. I go further than this. If you examine some of the traditional lawbooks of these societies you don't find very many laws. And I am almost disposed to put to you a hypothesis which goes something like this: the greater the number of laws in a society, the less the amount of liberty that society will have. For every law is, by definition, a limitation on the ability to exercise options. When you constantly confine these options, as we do in our legal system (and you have this most incredible vested interest enforcing this), then I believe that our system of law and our concept of law in this society is essentially bankrupt. It is morally bankrupt, just as I believe that our system of medicine is bankrupt, just as I believe that our system of education in bankrupt. And why, in the name of any kind of morality or humanity, we should think that we are giving other societies (which we call "underdeveloped," "backward" societies or, less pejoratively, "Third World") we are giving them any kind of a deal by foisting upon them the rot which many of us cannot even stand in our own society, seems to me a most incredible kind of reasoning.
This goes beyond the suggestions that I make here. We have great ideas about employment in our society. I do not recall in history any other society, including the most dominant slave societies, where people worked for 50 weeks out of a year in order to get a two-week holiday. Not even the most thoroughgoing slave societies had the kind of voluntary slavery which seems to be a hallmark of our society. And now it seems that we have conned the blacks and women and all kinds of other groups into feeling that we're offering them a great deal by joining this kind of slavery. I suggest to you that if the indices of well-being would change with simply one word, and instead of employment we used the concept of self-employment, that this would be one of the most underdeveloped societies in the world. Self-employment is creative employment. Self-employment is the kind of thing you see throughout Southeast Asia--whether it's the family running a teashop or a person taking fruits and vegetables down to the railway station--whatever it is, it is self- employment.
It is not the huge, mechanized complex that we have here. Just change that word from employment to self- employment and we will be the "underdeveloped," "primitive" society, and I think it would not be a bad change to understand what the basic values consist of in terms of economic development. But we insist that these nations of Southeast Asia--Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, wherever we go, that we are to industrialize them and we are to put them working on the same kind of mill-value system that we have. I believe that this exchange is unjust. I believe it is unequal. I believe that what we are doing to Vietnam goes far beyond Vietnam; that it goes far beyond Southeast Asia; that it goes beyond this generation; and I believe that it also goes beyond reasonable belief. It goes beyond any concept, any viable concept of humanity. I may say that it is hard, it is difficult for anyone to sum up the truly awful consequences of what this means in terms of the species. For if this species is not diversified, if this world adopts this value system, which we are imposing and exporting to the rest of the world, then the danger becomes far more than rhetorical. We have this big thing on health and on diets we well. How the people of Asia managed to live until our nutritionists told them where they ought to get their protein is also remarkable, a kind of observation that does not seem to occur to our foreign advisers and to their experts. The whole field is just so incredibly immoral, though I know that so many people do this with the best intentions in the world, but with the most damaging and disastrous consequences. I can express my feeling on this perhaps best with a poem, a short poem from Tagore, the great Indian poet, who said this:
Mother, I shall weave a chain of pearls
For thy neck with my tears of sorrow.
The stars have wrought their anklet of light
To deck thy feet.
But mine will hang upon thy breast.
Wealth and fame come from thee
And it is for thee to give or to withhold them
But this, my sorrow, is absolutely mine own,
And when I bring it to thee as my offering
Thou rewardest me with thy grace.
And if there were a prayer that would be appropriate for this situation and for this country, I would, again, take that request from the same poet, who said, "Where the mind is without fear, and the head is held high; where knowledge is free, where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic wars; where words come out from the depths of truth, where tireless striving stretches its arms toward perfection, where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit; where the mind is led forward by thee into ever widening thought and action, into that heaven of freedom, my father, let my country awake."