Tuesday, February 4, 2014
Knee-deep in History
I have placed this piece in the travel category rather than in politics because my reflections were written during a recent trip to Vietnam and Cambodia. I did no research except to clarify a detail or two; my observations arose from looking about, talking to people, and my imperfect general knowledge. All writers have one bias or another; anyone claiming to be objective is either dissembling or unaware of his or her own blinders. My point of view is at least explicit.
Just as all people are bound by very specifically human perceptual and psychological apparatus, we cannot step outside of history. The traveler may be beguiled by novel cuisine or a white sand beach; deferential hotel staff and hustling vendors may make the tourist feel at times like a benevolent deity and at others like a ridiculous chump, but one is always knee-deep in history’s stream. Even while gazing entranced at the islands in Vietnam’s Halong Bay, the American visitor, particularly one over sixty, will be thinking of what the Vietnamese call the American War. And even when one is transported with the glory and grandeur of Angkor Wat, the horrors of the Pol Pot regime will rise in the mind like those most fearsome of monsters, reality’s demons.
How long will it be before Americans can hear of Danang, Hue, or Hanoi without thinking of the destruction our mighty country brought to this far smaller one? The history of Vietnamese nationalism is unbroken during millennia of struggles against the Chinese, the French, the Japanese, but in the end, the invaders were from Alabama, New Jersey, and California. The legacy of the American stage of their resistance to foreign domination remains grim. Apart from the death of six percent of their population, and the crippling of many survivors, one tenth of US bombs and mines remain unexploded, now and then maiming victims nearly forty years after the treaty in Paris. Twenty million gallons of Agent Orange defoliated great swathes of land and will continue to cause birth defects for generations to come.
While their battle did finally expel those who had come halfway around the world to bring them suffering, the defenders of the homeland had their own problems. At the war’s end, not only were large numbers of potentially valuable citizens sent to harsh reeducation camps for years only to flee when they had a chance; in addition, the NLF and their Provisional Revolutionary Government were shunted aside by the North, and the economy foundered under the American embargo and heavy-handed Soviet patronage. Though Vietnamese peasants were accustomed to traditional forms of mutual aid, collective farms proved inefficient. Due to local politics, corruption, and greed, the system produced a new privileged class rather than equality, conflict rather than solidarity.
Since the “renovation” of 1986, the old collectives are gone, but corruption of all sorts has flourished. It is perhaps not so bad that people know that they can generally evade a traffic ticket by paying half of what the fine would have been to the officer on the spot, but one also hears that subsidies for the poor are appropriated by the well-to-do. I was told that when the government sent fifty dollars to every family in need with which to celebrate the new year, to buy new clothes and the like, enough was skimmed by successive levels of bureaucracy that, in the end, each family was given only a handful of candy.
The present rulers claim to be pursuing officials who use their position to enrich themselves, but they are unapologetic about their turn toward Chinese-style rampant capitalism while maintaining an iron-fisted political control. Both are betrayals of the history of the struggle. The National Liberation Front was a multi-party coalition including the Democratic Party, the Peoples Revolutionary Party, and the Radical Socialist Party, as well as the Workers Party (that became the Communist Party) and a good many other trade union, youth, and religious groups. Yet today only one party is allowed even on the village level. Fruitful criticism and discussion will remain elusive and cronyism and peculation can only continue under one party rule.
Since the collapse of the USSR, this undemocratic political system has retained only the tawdriest pretense of socialist intention and has welcomed foreign investment, openly inviting neo-colonialism. Indeed, Vietnam is now more ruthlessly capitalist than Europe, lacking a national health system, unemployment insurance, and guaranteed pensions, and putting all faith in cash from abroad rendered more attractive by payoffs to cooperative politicians. Even the beaches always used by fishermen and enjoyed by local swimmers are being purchased and walled off one by one by big hotels and resorts owned by American, Korean, and Chinese interests. If Uncle Ho were not embalmed and put on public display (contrary to his wish to be cremated), he would surely be frowning, if not calling for yet another insurrection.
While it is true that the United States has not yet seriously acknowledged its guilt for waging a vicious and losing war against this valiant nation, the Vietnamese victors have themselves betrayed the ideals for which so many people shed blood for so many years. Much of the Hoa Lo Prison, nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton, was razed to make room for a huge and expensive hotel (though not the Hilton which is a short distance away). A few blocks from either hotel are Kentucky Fried Chicken and Burger King.
Across the border in Cambodia the people also rebelled against foreign domination and local tyrants. While the Vietnamese endured systematic bombing of civilian populations and the Pentagon itself has confirmed three hundred and twenty incidents of what even the military calls American war crimes, including the well-known massacre at My Lai, the Cambodians experienced the all-but-unique ordeal of auto-genocide in which over a quarter of the population perished. This almost incredible crime was intensified with perverse torture having nothing to do with politics of any sort, suggesting some inexplicable causal residuum even a rationalist is tempted to call the demonic.
As part of French Indochina, the Cambodians were attacked, subdued, and exploited just as Laotians and Vietnamese were, but their histories diverge with the success of the insurgent forces. In spite of the glories of Angkor, in modern times, Cambodia had played little brother to the Vietnamese who had benefited from their closer relation to the high culture of China and the French choice of Hanoi as the seat of their rule. By the nineteen-twenties, far more Vietnamese were educated and a greater number had embraced a socialist and anti-colonial stance. In the early nineteen-seventies, while Lon Nol, who had earlier served as the willing tool of the French, led a client regime and stole from his people, the Khmer Rouge had a membership of only a few thousand in stark contrast to the national unity of the Vietnamese behind the leadership of Ho Chi Minh.
Then the opportunist Prince Sihanouk, ever-ready to affiliate with any faction that would benefit him personally, threw his support to the small soi-disant communist movement, and many peasants, motivated by archaic awe for royalty as well as the crimes of Lon Nol’s government, swelled the ranks of the insurrectionists.
The ensuing battles were fierce. Lon Nol’s troops were merciless to the peasants and often tore out their dead enemies’ livers to eat and acquire their power. As the rebels gained territory, the US began aiding the government by bombing rural areas held by the Khmer Rouge. Nixon justified his role in the country, calling it “the Nixon doctrine in its purest form.” More and more peasants were driven to take up arms against the foreigners raining bombs on their villages and the Americans’ corrupt Cambodian friends. Unlike the long-term and broad-based movement in Vietnam under an all-but-universally admired leader, in Cambodia it took this combination of the vicious Lon Nol clique, Prince Sihanouk’s self-interested support, and American intervention to bring Pol Pot to power.
The world knows the horrors that followed. Apart from the myriad deaths, they include bizarre and utterly nonfunctional humiliation and torture, hardly explicable by purely historic forces. Nor can the period be explained by abnormal psychology as the perpetrators can hardly have been a pack of sadists. Even the frightening revelation of Hannah Arendt that ordinary people may do horrific deeds does not explain the glee, the twisted sexuality, the enthusiasm of lynch mobs and mass murderers.
Just as we use spiritual rhetoric to approximate the heights of human experience, nothing less will do for the depths. One need not believe in the devil to acknowledge the diabolic. Like the Nazi death camps, the Khmer Rouge regime leaves one at first speechless, then obliged to confess some dynamo of wicked aggression deep in the subconscious. The Christian may call it original sin; to the rationalist it corresponds to what the later Freud called the death-drive. Far from unique to Cambodia, it seems to be part of what makes us human.
For nearly the entire period since Pol Pot’s ouster in 1979, the country has been ruled by Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander who defected only when he feared he would himself be purged. This country, while still behind its neighbor Vietnam, has also submitted entirely to corruption and foreign economic domination. All the principled struggles of the past are forgotten in the pursuit of consumerism which in Cambodia includes large-scale prostitution including the exploitation of children.
In many Vietnamese pagodas the altar is flanked by figures representing benevolence and malevolence. It is between such powers, symbolic yet all too real, that we negotiate our passage through life. Making our way in history’s stream, we are limited not by strong currents and sudden violent storms alone, but also by blindfolds of thick gauze that allow only the most uncertain sight. Hand in hand if we are fortunate, step by step in any case, we do our best to move forward, while at any moment we might find ourselves heading backwards or dropping precipitously to the most dreadful depths.