Posted by Pattie on 11/11/2002 10:18:00 AM

A friend of mine sent me an e-mail this morning regarding Jane Fonda's visit to Viet Nam and the kinds of torture that were meted out during her visit when the POWs refused to pretend that they were being treated well. I've always had mixed feelings about her visit. On the one hand, it seemed like an important thing to do at a time when this country needed to talk about ending the war. What better use of celebrity than to stand up for what you think is right. On the other hand, I never quite understood the purpose of the visit. It seemed to me that the better approach would have been to visit the villages and innocents who were being slaughtered and to show that both sides were killing indiscrimately and with no real purpose than to frantinize with the other side's military. She may not have meant this, and I think she was used in her naivity by both sides, but she came across as not so much anti-war, but pro-North Viet Nam. I can understand the bitter taste that must have left in the mouths of military personnel and their families. Especially POWs. My friend noted in the e-mail she forwarded that her brother suffered tortures duriing Fonda's visit. It hurts her still today.

I bring this up because two things struck me about the e-mail. First, it was sent to me from a particular point-of-view, one born of real pain. I would never debate my friend. I respect her point-of-view on this and can see no purpose in telling her that her feelings were not justified. It just doesn't seem right for me to engage in intellectual debate with her about this. She obviously loves her brother and hates that he was tortured and that someone from her country may have contributed to that torture.

The second thing that struck me however was the way the article she forwarded rewrote history and, especially, rewrote it in light of the current climate in the States. In 1968, a number of people were upset with the U.S. government's involvement in Viet Nam. The torture the POWs received was matched by the slaughtering of women and children in villages by American soldiers. Hanoi Jane did not come to Viet Nam in a social vacuum with no history or context to her visit. But the forward suggests otherwise. It suggests that at the time of her visit she did not represent a significant part of the American mind-set regarding Viet Nam. She is presented as a single traitor, not as a representative of protesters who regarded their government's policies as not only wrong but illegal. Don't forget, this was not a declared war. This was a "police action" that expanded the powers of the presidency in ways that had never been done before in U.S. history.

The word "patriot" was used a half dozen times in the forward. I am old enough to remember when that word incited a great deal of anger among Americans. Many believe that there was nothing patriotic about going to Viet Nam. Patriotism was regarded as a form of fascism -- my country right or wrong. It was thought of as a kind of blindness. I must admit I'm still uncomfortable with the word. It implies something that I think might hurt more people than help them. A lot of killing has been done in the name of patriotism. Patriotism seems to me to be a way of dividing "us" from "them." It accomplishes very little other than to mesmerize the masses into doing what governments want them to do. Thus patriotism can be good if government is worthy and horrible if government is corrupt.

Let me set some things straight here. I am not a pacifist in the general case. I believe that there are extreme situations in which people have to fight, physically fight. There are people in the world who do not give you much choice but to engage in violence. To pretend otherwise is to have never experience oppression. Anger is a useful defence. Fighting back is a necessary part of dealing with the enemy. There have been people in my life who wanted to see me suffer and die young. I have fought back to not indulge them in this desire. Sometimes that fight has turned violent. But in most specific cases, I have been a pacifist.

War has been used by governments to control their own people ever since war and government was invented, I'm sure. War is a form of oppression.

The current tension with Iraq (read the text -- note that the word "invasion" or "war" have not been mentioned directly) and the nebulous war on terrorism are great examples of this. I believe there are/were peaceful alternatives to responding to what happened on September 11, 2001 and what has been going on in Iraq ad naseum. But these alternatives require a kind of maturity I just have seen demonstrated in United States government in recent years. In fact, thinking back over the governments of my lifetime, the only president that I believe could have responded with thoughtfulness and reason was Jimmy Carter. But he was scorned for his intelligence and peacemaking.

Fractals come to mind at this point. Fractals are a kind of geometry that relies upon patterns that repeat themselves at different magnifications. If you take a picture of a shoreline from 10,000 feet above the ground and a picture of a shoreline from 1 foot above the ground and show nothing but the shoreline (no objects to help you gain perspective of distance), they look the same: water and sand draw a similar line between them. In order to know what you are looking at, you need context. You need something that frames the picture in order to understand it fully.

That's why I can't make a general statement about hawks and doves. My friend's perspective is framed by her brother's suffering. That suffering was real and while I think the reaction lacks a certain context, I understand it and respect it. But consider how the U.S. government's involvement in a war that was none of their business contributed to that suffering. Consider how the government was not listening or responding to concerns that people had about that war. Consider the war crimes committed by the Nixon administration and Kissinger during that war. Consider the corruption in that government. All these things contributed to the suffering of soldiers, POWs, their families and the people in Viet Nam. This is not to say that the other side didn't contribute to the suffering as well. There is plenty of blame to go around. But each layer of context changes the perspective and meanings of the suffering. History is incomplete without this context. To simply point to the pattern is to mark the fractal without context. You don't know if you look at one inch or one mile.