March 2-10, 2018
Luang Prabang, Laos
Siem Reap, Cambodia
Darkness in SE Asia
Reminiscent of union general William Sherman’s “scorched earth” march through Georgia in 1864, the US military’s bombing of SE Asia in the Vietnam War caused immense destruction. Some seven million tons of bombs were dropped in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
These bombs, incredibly, amounted to TWICE the total amount of bombs dropped by the allies during World War II.
Since the Vietnam War ended in 1975, some 40,000 Vietnamese civilians have been killed by unexploded ordnance. Thousands of innocent citizens of Laotians and Cambodian suffered similar fates.
I am nearing the end of a 12 day New York Times tour of SE Asia. The local people have been uniformly lovely, the sights unforgettable, and the food and drink excellent.
Of course, I feel lucky to enjoy these experiences.
But the trip has also elicited feelings of sadness, guilt, and shame about our country’s most heinous war. The lingering effects of the war are as clear as the countries contemporary charms.
Here are a few of the lingering, harmful effects:
All three countries are bursting with young people unable to find work. The adult populations were decimated by the war, with Vietnam losing up to 2 million people, and Laos and Cambodia losing hundreds of thousands. Our bombing campaign also helped elicit the rise of the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, resulting in the infamous killing fields which took the lives of some 3 million Cambodians.
We tend to hear so much about the 50,000 US soldiers lost. Yes, these were wasted lives, terrible tragedies. As usual, however, we learn much less about the lives of those destroyed by our oft-foolish military misadventures.
The political and financial status of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia remains tenuous. The three countries sport communist governments, validating the Vietnam War’s failure to stop the feared domino effect of communism spreading.
Ironically, we Americans found the prospect of SE Asia turning communist terrifying during the 1960s. However, and ironically, the SE Asian version of communism validates the failure of the political ideology.
Communism, a nice utopian idea when Karl Marx proposed it in 1848, never worked well in practice. The human propensity to greed was simply assumed by communist leaders rather than capitalist ones. With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, communism’s shortfall’s became common knowledge.
Citizens of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, still controlled by their quasi-communist leaders, lack access to even basic medical care—unless they are rich. No social security is available for the elderly. In Cambodia, older people without children often join Buddhist monasteries or nunneries where they will receive at least some attention and care.
None of these three countries offers anything like the social protections commonly available in progressive social democracies like Sweden or Norway. About a third of the populations live in abject poverty. In Cambodia, the median income is less than $2500 per year.
The citizens of these countries also lack basic rights like a free press or an ability to gather to protest government policies. The massive corruption in these governments is well known, even by average citizens. No one ever receives a ticket for traffic infractions; instead, everyone knows how to evade law enforcement through the payment of bribes.
It is depressing.
Pankaj Mishra, writing in the February 2018 edition of the London Review of Books, reminds readers that Martin Luther King warned of American society turning into a “burning house” by the “giant American triplets” of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism.
King specifically referred to these flaws as preventing African Americans from being able to integrate into the American culture at large.
True enough, but I cannot help but conclude, having spent time in these war-ravaged countries, that the giant American triplets disrupt our capacity to integrate ourselves into the world of nations.
While we obsess over our clownish president, and watch ever-multiplying talking heads gossip over his tweets, cabinet shakedowns, and mid-term elections, we forget our involvement in multiple military conflicts.
Currently, US troops actively serve in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. Less known are the ways our military intervenes in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, and elsewhere.
Freshly stunned by the lingering damage of the Vietnam War 50 years ago, I cannot help but wonder what negative effects await the peoples now living in areas affected by our presence.
I fully expect us to leave a burning house, to use MLK’s term, with the remnants of these countries suffering the triplets of militarism, materialism, and racism for decades if not centuries to come.
Despite the pathetic shame of our spreading our burning house, many other countries have still less reason for pride.
While I was in SE Asia, for example, China allowed its president to alter the constitution, creating another President for Life in Chinese President Xi Jinping. Wow. He now joins the parade of other autocrats like Vladimir Putin of Russia, Recep Erdogan of Turkey, and Kim Jung Un of North Korea.
We may hate Donald Trump, but at least (so far) his term of office cannot exceed eight years.
We can enjoy consolation, however, that we still have the ability to write and speak freely, and to protest.
These are amazing, easy-to-ignore freedoms.
Someone writing of thoughts like mine in China, Russia, or North Korea would literally be courting death.
What then, is our excuse, for not speaking, shouting, shrieking about the many misdeeds our alleged American freedom imposes upon the multitude of poor nations populating our small planet?
There is no excuse.
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Alan Karbelnig, PhD, ABPP