Perspectives on War and Conflict – Which Side is Right?

As children of the 50s and 60s, growing up in the US, we had the constant fear of nuclear annihilation riding on our backs. The “Red Threat” resulted in the construction of nuclear fallout shelters, attack drills, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the “Domino Theory” warning of the advance of communism. Every American child was taught to fear, and hate, those who lived in foreign countries considered hostile to the US because of their ideologies and forms of government.

During my first visit to China in the early 1990s, I was genuinely afraid I’d be arrested at immigration due to my past US military experience. Even though I was in my late 30s, the fear of China was so deeply embedded into my psyche that I could not shake the impending feeling of doom as my airplane touched down at the Beijing airport. Even while deplaning I could not help but notice nearly EVERYONE in the airport was wearing some kind of uniform, and they were all looking at me as a spy or person who had entered their country to do them harm.

At immigration the inspector looked at my passport, and said “welcome to the People’s Republic of China.” And that was it.

Conflict of war and perspectiveExiting the airport also meant exiting the community of uniforms, and I entered a world that fascinated me then, given the warmth and openness of the people in Beijing, and continues to fascinate me today. Occasionally a Chinese person engaged me in a debate about the differences of democracy vs. communism, but in the post Tianamen period most Chinese were concentrating on making money, working hard, and getting on with their lives.

Ditto for Mongolia. While I have to admit it was a bit uncomfortable for me to see HIND helicopters flying around, and soldiers walking around with AK-47s, I started to warm up to the idea they were defending their country, their way of life, and trying to keep enemies away from their borders. Kind of like what Americans do within our country.

In Hanoi, a name that still brings a bit of anxiety to many Americans of my generation, walking through the city and museums produced concerns that I might not be well liked, as an American, in a country we fought in a horrible conflict through much of my youth. I had the feeling everybody looking at me was wondering if I flew B52s, or had wounded or killed one of their family.

In fact, many of them do have that question. But much like other humans around the world, life is for the living, and the living get on with their lives. In fact, Hanoi is one of the friendliest cities I have been in, and continues to bring pleasant surprises every time I venture out of the hotel into the community.

The 1000 Pound Reminder

I have started rationalizing my emotions towards war. As a professional soldier I know the meaning of conflict, have been in conflict, and don’t like it very much. The enemy has no face, no soul, no name, no family, and is a slab of meat that needs to be captured or killed. Soldiers, regardless of the soft news that surrounds winning the hearts and minds, are trained to take the lives of their enemies either while advancing on their position, or defending their own position. Pretty simple.

Walking through Hanoi there are still signs of conflict. A large crater that formed when 1000 pound bombs were dropped into neighborhoods. The “Hanoi Hilton” of John McCain fame. The “Hanoi Jane” memorial anti-aircraft gun. All memories of a time many years ago when people in Hanoi were killing or being killed.

As an American I grew up hating the Vietnamese for torturing US airmen. I grew up hating Muslims for the terrible things they did to Jews. I hated Cubans for just about everything. All a result of the media telling me I should hate them. A media that continue s to drive the same message for other conflicts and cultures – broadcast by people with a lot of experience in war, such as Sean Hannity, Glen Beck, and Rush Limbaugh. They do have a lot of military experience to draw their conclusions from, right?

Now, after many years of walking through countries we have at some point in our generation been at war (Japan, Korea, China, Russia, Mongolia, Viet Nam, Palestine, Israel, Germany, etc., etc., etc…), my perspective is changing. I wonder how I, as an American, would react if the war was fought, for example, in Long Beach (California). If bombers from Manitoba were dropping 1000 pound bombs on Belmont Shore, what would my reaction be?

If I caught a Manitoban flyer who had his plane shot down while dropping bombs on my neighborhood, what would I do to him?

The answer is pretty easy. I would rip him limb from limb and feed the parts to coyotes – while I watched and laughed.

When I think of the indignities a young school girl encounters while passing from Ramallah into East Jerusalem, what can I expect her to think or feel as she passes Jewish people or Israelis each day? What if I was her father? How would I react to bulldozers wiping out my neighborhood to accommodate settlement expansions? If foreigners were occupying my homeland, would I welcome them with open arms, or find a way to fight?

How do you win the hearts and minds when a bomber accidently drops its payload on a civilian community and calls it “collateral damage?” At the end of the day, it really makes no difference if it is a mistake or not – people die.

It is all about your perspective. As history has shown, the winner ultimately writes the history. It is both enlightening, and confusing to look at the perspectives of each side. We can now look at the wars of the Romans, Mongols, British Empire, and Zulus with a detached, neutral, and academic view. Recent wars are still being written, and may not be understood for another 500 years or so. And when they are written, there is not going to be a right or wrong, only a winner and body count of the dead.

My perspective is now that war is not a good thing for the living. And as Clausewitz eloquently said, “war results when diplomats are incompetent or screw up.” Or something like that. And 16 year old children implement their failed policy with guns or explosives strapped to their belts.

All about perspective, and understanding there are two distinct sides to every argument or conflict.

Citizen Journalism in Hanoi

For many Americans, the idea of traveling to Hanoi brings a certain level of mystique. Our media exposure to Hanoi has been primarily press corps following politicians such as John McCain, or via the occasional human interest story that pops through via an international cable channel such as Current TV. But for most Americans our memories and images of Hanoi are from the war, whether it is a photo of Jane Fonda gracing an anti-aircraft weapon, or the prisoners of war being released from custody.

Or maybe Vietnam has simply fallen off the charts as an area of interest, while the world focuses on other areas considered more important such as Afghanistan and Iraq.

Citizen journalists may serve an important function in locations such as Hanoi. With an estimated population of nearly 6.3 million, Hanoi is far from a small town, and estimates are the city is growing at about 3.5% a year. The potential of Hanoi, and all other areas within Vietnam as an economic factor within the next decade is daunting, as the government aggressively tries to bring Vietnam into the modern global community.

A street scene from old town HanoiNo Visible Restrictions on Recording Life in Hanoi

Having completed a series of meeting in Hanoi, I had a day and a half of free time to look around and experience the city. During this time I probably took 2000 photos, interviewed a handful of Vietnamese and foreign expatriates, and walked freely through city streets. Not once was I questioned, cautioned, or otherwise threatened in either an official capacity, or unofficially by residents of the city.

Along with me were large gaggles of European tourists, mainly of the backpacker and “walk-about” variety. Most were frantically snapping away with their cameras in the Hanoi “Old Town,” and like me appeared to be traveling freely, without any level of distraction.

In short, the government made no attempt at preventing anybody in my limited experience from recording any level of reality within the streets of Hanoi. Hardly the restrictive government some media outlets would lead you to believe. Or maybe that is American media outlets.

Why it is Important to record Life in Hanoi, and Other Emerging Cities

In the 1970s while stationed on Okinawa in the US Air Force I met a former Marine who was returning to Okinawa to renew his karate certifications. The Marine was always carrying a camera, snapping photos of everything. Literally everything. Amused, I asked him why he found it so important to take pictures of everything he encountered, and the answer was simple. “You never know what is important, not important, or just interesting. However you should never let the moment go unrecorded, as the value may only be known long after the event has passed.” (Ihor Rymaruk – 1981)

Thus, while walking around Hanoi, talking with people and indulging in moments of sensory absorption, Hanoi is in a period of rapid reconstruction. The horrifying examples of aerial electrical and telecom cabling currently hanging in the streets are being replaced with buried cable. Superhighways are being constructed, and Internet diffusion into the education system is a very high priority with the government.

In 20 years much of old Hanoi will be replaced with a modern city, much as Beijing has gone from a city of Hutong (old-style brick structures), horses, bicycles, and scooters to a modern city of high-rises, Audis, and Starbucks – Hanoi will go through a similar modernization and conversion. The levels of CO2 spewing from legions of scooters will be replaced with modern transportation, and the city will be unrecognizable from the Hanoi of today.

The history of Hanoi, from the Mongols, to the French, to the Japanese, to the Vietnam of 2009 will also fade with globalization and the facelift of modernization.

Citizen Journalists Have a Story

There is an argument that says “on the Internet nobody knows you are a dog.” This roughly means that in the digital age, deception be3comes even easier than ever before in history. The ease of misrepresenting facts, issues, or history is as easy as typing in your desired format, Photo-shopping a picture, and recording your “facts.”

Thus the world in general has had some misgivings on the value or integrity of citizen journalism, or when amateurs become reporters.

The other argument is that citizen journalists only record facts, and others may interpret those facts based on their in-depth knowledge of the subject matter, or the spin which will further reinforce their objectives.

In reality, experience is beginning to show that for a majority of “amateur” journalists the intrinsic reward of presenting a story or record of events in its purest form is far more fulfilling than using their effort for purposes of propaganda or an intentional misrepresentation of events. Thus the raw footage of riots and emotion in the streets of Tehran following the recent elections – those recording the events did not analyze, they simply transmitted events to the world as quickly as possible to ensure the history was not lost.

Too Close to See Reality

The final factor is that in a city like Hanoi, people concentrate on their daily lives, with little regard to something as small as the power company digging up a sidewalk to bury high voltage power cabling. When you are concerned about your children getting to school on time, you do not concern yourself with mobile phone transmission towers being placed on a nearby building. Highway construction is more of an annoyance than a historical event.

Thus, the outsider brings value to the preservation of history. When we as senior citizens want to remind the youth of our struggles during war, poverty, or explain the days when we actually chopped our own wood for cooking fuel, without a record of that history a child who lives within a future generation of the iPhone will have difficulty understanding how their life evolved into an environment where any child in Hanoi is a full-fledged, card-carrying member of the global community.

Putting the Past Aside

CNN or Fox News cannot provide the bandwidth needed to bring both fact and analysis. Americans should have the opportunity to see the real Hanoi, not the Hanoi brought to us in novels or drama dwelling on the pain and history of war. The Vietnamese know there was a war, Americans know there was a war, and of course we cannot afford to let history slip past.

But we also cannot hold a 12 year old student accountable for the human tragedy experienced in previous 500 years of history – we can only welcome the student into the global community of 12 year old students who will lead the world in a few short years. Without citizen journalists presenting communities like Hanoi to the rest of the world, the youth of Hanoi may carry an unreasonable burden to “prove” themselves.

In Hanoi, the government has offered no restrictions on recording the Hanoi of today, and hopefully a corps of citizen journalists will ensure events are recorded through interviews, impressions, visuals (photos, video, sound), and not lost to the dark age of history. And with luck we will have a similar article in the near future talking about Palestine, Afghanistan, North Korea, and Iraq.

John Savageau, Inchon International Airport, South Korea

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