Dozens of bodies lay strewn on the ground in this small rice-farming village located between the city of Sa Dec and the Bassac River a few miles to its south in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. Many appeared dead; others moved ever so slowly while making moaning sounds. A water buffalo with a huge gaping hole in its belly lay about 20 feet to the right, emitting shrill groans. My eyes, however, were intensely focused on the open eyes of the woman at my feet.
I bent over to get a closer look, my eyes glued to hers, wondering whether she was alive. Seeing no evidence of life, no blinking, no apparent breathing, I began to gag, then whimper. I was aghast to discover that napalm had incinerated her eyelids and much of the skin on her face and neck. Her children had suffered a similar fate. My crying exploded into chest heaves. As I slowly stood erect I noticed that many, if not all of the villagers had been hit by a combination of machine-gun fire, shrapnel from bombs, and napalm. Though this scene was fairly typical after bombing missions on villages, I had never before been a witness to such horror. And I saw no evidence of weapons of any kind among the rubble and debris.
Almost immediately after I began gagging and crying, Lt. Bao, with a strange grin, asked me what was wrong. In shock, I responded with words incomprehensible to him and amazingly startling to myself. I said something to the effect that these people were like part of my family. The words simply came out my mouth, without any forethought.
Our mission had been to double-check on the ground whether South Vietnamese pilots were in fact deliberately missing their targets as had been rumored. We learned that, at least in this case, the pilots had accurately hit their target–a seemingly defenseless village suspected of being sympathetic to the VC.
As we returned in my jeep to our airbase less than 10 miles further southeast at Binh Thuy on the other side of the Bassac River, which we crossed by ferry, Bao and I rode in silence. My cheeks felt hotter than the roasting heat of the midday sun. Racing through my mind was a notion that the horror we had just observed, and then abandoned as quickly as we had arrived, represented something terribly wrong about the war. Even if this particular bombing had been a mistake, what about those dozens that appeared egregiously wounded? Who was to look after their medical condition? Somehow it was none of our business; no one really cared.
Could a mature, rational, intelligent society dedicated to justice and democracy be doing such a thing–deliberately bombing civilian villages thousands of miles from home–in order to help people? Another question that kept popping up in my mind on that ride was, "Who is really authentic in this war?" Here I was, standing a tall 6′ 3" with European ancestry, a God-fearing American educated and trained to stop the spread of evil communism. I had traveled thousands of miles ostensibly to save these yellow-skinned villagers, who stood barely 5′ tall, from this evil ideology. Was I not the epitome of the world’s heroes? Then there was this mangled woman and the three children she was clutching, none of whom likely ever traveled more than a few dozen miles away from their home village, and all the other villagers left strewn on the ground like scum. These people had been living a simple, subsistence lifestyle in their village. Who was more authentic? This provocative question increasingly found its way into my consciousness as I endured the rest of my time in Vietnam. It followed me home. The more I pondered the question, the more I came to believe that I was not an authentic person at all, at least not as long as I was saddled with this rigid ideology about being the good guy. The Vietnamese villagers, on the other hand, who sought to live at peace in their own country, represented a kind of humble authenticity that I had never known existed. I had never experienced anything like this before.
It wasn’t long before I understood these bombing missions to be routine and deliberate, not aberrations or the result of mistakes. Virtually all Vietnamese in the post-1968 Tet period of the war, in the area in which I found myself (Phong Dinh, Vinh Long, An Giang, Ba Xuyen, and Vinh Binh Provinces around Can Tho City north and south of the Bassac River) nearly 100 miles south of Saigon, were considered VC enemy.
The question led to others, like, "How could I have so easily followed orders to travel across the Pacific Ocean to participate in destroying a culture I knew absolutely nothing about?" What a feat it was that the U.S. government, as most other governments, so easily convinced young, mostly men, to travel to other countries to kill, maim, or be killed and maimed? And from where did my crazy idea originate that these foreign people were part of my family? They were strangers to me. Why should seeing their demise elicit such intense vomiting and sobbing? I began to understand that I had experienced what the Bible refers to as an epiphany, a manifest appearance of a new set of eyes, a whole new perspective I never knew existed. I wondered if other people had had experiences like this.
Searching answers for these questions has guided my journey for the 30-plus years since I was in Vietnam. I have just barely scratched the surface of what can be learned from the studies of history, politics, anthropology, archaeology, psychology, spirituality and theology that have accompanied my personal healing journey. I wanted to know how it was that I was so easily brainwashed. More accurately, I wanted to know where was my soul as a young man. I wanted to know about epiphaniesówhat are they, and how often in history, indeed in each person’s history, they occur.
A SOCIETY OF FEAR AND SHAME
One thing I learned fairly quickly in my post-Vietnam quest for truth is the manner in which the U.S. civilization was founded and how it has sustained itself. Considered an "exceptional" civilization, this image has been conveyed so successfully from generation after generation that I thanked God in my nightly prayers in the 1940s and 1950s for having been blessed with birth in "America."
The United States civilization, including the European ancestors who created its basic ideas, values and forms, was born in arrogance and a racism that manifested in behavior nothing short of barbarism and terrorism. It was expressed brutally at gunpoint against the Hemisphere’s original Indigenous inhabitants, enabling early settlers to obtain virtually "free" land upon which to live and work. Multiple millions were killed. Then "free" labor was acquired at gunpoint through participation in the African slave trade. Again, multiple millions were killed. Holocaust number three took place from the late 1890s to the present, what some call "The American Century." During this period the United States, through over 300 overt military actions and an estimated 10,000 covert interventions, acquired its expanding resource base at gunpoint from "Third World" countries, killing and maiming dozens of millions, assuring impoverishment of billions. This helps explain "American" exceptionalism. It has murdered, pillaged, and plundered its way to having what is claimed the highest standard of living in the world. After all, "there is no way like the American Way."
It is not that other nations and their developing empires have not behaved similarly. After all, this basically Western, exploitive model can be traced back to the earliest of the urban civilizations at the end of the Neolithic period some 5,500 years ago. It has consistently prevailed, with some notable exceptions at certain periods of times in certain locales, with its male dominator model, using hierarchical and bureaucratic regimes to control the labor of large numbers of workers, either as chattel or wage slaves, with violence always being the ultimate enforcement technique. However, the United States has surpassed all previous imperial civilizations in the amount of violence, devastation of cultures, and in the global territory controlled.
However, the leaders and many of the inhabitants of the United States still consider that they live in an "exceptional" society. Unfortunately, our society is deeply rooted in the use of terror to get its way. That is the American Way. Over the last several decades, a number of individuals, organizations, and written reports have increasingly exposed this fraudulent, make-believe version of exceptionalism, such that larger numbers of U.S. citizens either know of the lie, or are having to work much harder to remain in denial about it. Indeed, facing the truth–a huge shadow that hangs over us like a dark thundercloud–takes a bit of courage, maybe even an epiphany here and there. The fantasy that Bush II is masterfully attempting to carry out–the final stage in which the Western civilization model is carried to every nook and cranny on the globe–if successful, will likely provoke the cataclysmic collapse of life as we have known it for thousands of years.
The scene in that village near Sa Dec in April 1969 was no aberration. It could not have occurred without a sick imperial mind that deluded itself into thinking that it was good fighting evil. That mind has been developing for a long time, and it has had more than three additional decades of expansion since. Who are the authentic people? Who are the evil ones? It is time to understand that our fears of facing the truth of our civilization, our huge shadow, if not embraced so as to be honestly addressed, will be projected through demonizing people and nations the world over until all life is eliminated. You and I will go down with our deluded plutocrats.
Only withdrawing our support while organizing massive resistance to and non-cooperation with our imperium, while refocusing our energies and resources on creating local, self-reliant communities, gives us a vision of responsibility and feeling of empowerment. We as people can create a sustainable society that the male dominator, western oligarchic model is unable or unwilling to even consider.
For more writing and information from Brian Willson, visit his website: http://brianwillson.com/
Photo from the US Library of Congress