In this country, where a US military attack echoes more loudly perhaps than anywhere else in the world, protesters against the war are expressing themselves from Hanoi in the north to central Vietnam to Ho Chi Minh City to the Mekong Delta in the south. At Nha Trang, a resonant place-name in our old war, 7,000 people demonstrated against our new one. The chief sentiment is not support for Saddam Hussein but, in light of the Vietnamese experience with the American military, sympathy for the Iraqi people.
In Hanoi the government condemned the war as “a gross violation of fundamental principles of international law, including the United Nations charter.” Such language is unexceptional in prosperous countries that look at the United States on an almost equal footing economically. In Vietnam, which desperately needs American trade and is urgently trying to attract US investment, the condemnation is an act of courage. Since the normalization of diplomatic relations less than ten years ago, the Vietnamese have worked hard to be friendly to an often indifferent America, and any criticism of the United States is generally muted. The war against Iraq threatens to unravel the meticulously rebuilt relationship.
I was at a meeting with Vietnamese officials of an NGO when the first American bombs were hitting Baghdad. It was a dark moment. The NGO administrators, all of whom are friendly with Americans in a variety of fields, shook their heads. “I can’t believe the American people are going along with this war,” one said, still generously wanting to absolve us of responsibility for our leaders. Another official, just old enough to remember the last part of the American war here, said with resignation, “It makes me very sad to see the United States allowing itself to behave in the way of tyranny. It is never right to close off the possibilities of peaceful resolution when you yourself have not been threatened by the people you have chosen to attack. The danger, of course, is not only for Iraqis but for the world in the future, because when Bush ignores the UN and all the protests against his policy, he turns back the clock to the law of the jungle.”
If there is an American expat in Hanoi–outside the diplomatic community itself–who actually agrees with the new American war, I have not found this person in meetings and occasions that have brought me into close contact with dozens of US citizens. Lady Borton, an author and well-known international affairs representative for the American Friends Service Committee, has lived here since the late 1960s and speaks fluent Vietnamese. She opposes the war herself, as she opposed the Vietnam War. “One consistent strain runs through the words of all the Vietnamese I see,” she told me. “It is pain and horror for the people of Iraq. The middle-aged and elders know. They’ve been there themselves. The young just say they can’t believe we’d do what we’re doing. A report today says we’ re starting to plant mines in Iraq. Every week Vietnamese children are still being maimed by landmines buried thirty years ago. It never ends when you go down this path.”
Gerald Herman, an American businessman and entrepreneur who has lived in Vietnam for ten years, says that what is especially poignant about the Vietnamese is not their reaction to the war in Iraq but their sympathy for Americans after 9/11. “Every single Vietnamese I know, including two young men I had to fire from my company, got in touch then to offer condolences,” Herman said. “I expected at least one person to tell me, ‘Now you know what it feels like,’ but no one did. Knowing I was from New York, people were asking me if I had friends or relatives in the twin towers. It was remarkable, profound compassion. Now we’ve totally squandered that.”
Meanwhile, the US Embassy has sent out an advisory warning us all to “avoid crowds and demonstrations, keep a low profile”–which at least partly means, don’t let your voice be heard if you happen to think this war is wrong. One feels safer here, less a target for random violence–not to mention a terrorist–than in most cities in America. For the first time in my life I’m sorry to be on my way home.
At the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, where a small selection of brutalities from the Vietnam War are displayed, a Nebraskan wrote in the visitors’ book, “Please do not confuse the Bush Administration with the American people.” I wish I agreed. I’m not sure we should be let off that hook so easily, either by the overwhelmingly friendly Vietnamese people I have met here in the last three weeks or by ourselves, as each one of us considers our participatory role in what is happening while we descend, in the fashion of ancient Rome, from a republic to an empire.