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Why are you destroying Vietnam?

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This was, I would say, a kind of a turning point in my life.  I can’t believe how often I come back to this moment.

Some of my brother’s friends came over.  We’d sometimes do homework together.  I didn’t go to school much because of the language problem.  But we realized that the universal language was math, and so we’d do algebra together.

It was an amazing thing to realize we can talk this language. Again these guys of course were so intrigued. And I was like, you know, a Martian or something.

So one day I remember these teenage boys sitting there asking me: “Why are you…”  I mean, I heard it personally, but I don’t think they were saying it personally — it felt like it was.   “Why are you destroying Vietnam?

Vietnam war memorial

Vietnam War Memorial, Image via Wikipedia

Now they were saying this out of a tremendous respect for America as a kind of utopia, again unrealistic.  They just thought it was paradise.  They wanted me to explain, because it didn’t quite connect with them, that we would be raping and pillaging Vietnam.

Well of course I had no idea then why we were there.  I don’t know thirty years later why we did that.  I mean, at least no good reason that I’ve ever heard.

But I remember just suddenly being horrified.  Subsequently I think part of my horror was, oh my gosh, these guys are completely vulnerable to larger powers, whether it’s the United States or the Soviet Union.  They have no defense.  This was the first time in my life when I began to sense what that might feel like, that there are a lot of folks out there who, you know, are at the whim of these larger powers.

Soviet troops withdrawing from Afghanistan

Soviet troops withdrawing from Afghanistan, Image via Wikipedia

Of course, little did I know that nine years later the Soviets would roll in and

there was nothing they could do.  Then we come in and there’s nothing that they can do.  And I don’t know if any Americans can imagine what that must feel like.  We have Canada, we have Mexico, we have the Atlantic, we have the Pacific — we are so insulated.

But I think these young men, they had an intuition about this strange kind of global reach that some of us have, and it puzzles and frightens them, I think, and rightfully so.

Anyway the faux pas was, and you can see this happens to me from time to time: I started to cry. I thought, “How in the world am I gonna answer this question?”  I have no idea why America is doing this, and it’s horrifying to me.  I think I just sort of reached a breaking point.  I started to cry.

Well, that was like the worst thing that could happen.  When you have a guest in the house in the Middle East, if your guest becomes unhappy, that’s the worst thing possible.

So I’ve been haunted ever since about what must have happened to those boys.  I mean, were they beaten or something at home because they supposedly had made me unhappy.  I just always have been haunted that they may have been punished for that.  I was probably so caught up in my own distress. I just remember it was like, uh-oh, something went really badly wrong here.  And it was like the boys just sort of disappeared.

I think maybe somebody in the family said, you know, this is one of the worst things that can happen, to cause a guest distress.  The guest is supposed to be treated with honor and kept happy.  That was a tough moment.