Friday, February 13, 2009

Twisted History

As interesting as our trip to Vietnam was (see post below), there was an aspect of it that left a bitter taste in my mouth. The Vietnamese have gone out of their way to tell the history of the Vietnam War from their point of view, as is their right. The victors get to determine how events are remembered, and let's face it, they were the victors and we were the losers. But their telling of the story was so blatantly one-sided that it was almost laughable. Following is a tale of a propaganda machine that went overboard.

Hoa Lo Prison
This is the old prison in downtown Hanoi built by the French and later inhabited by captured American fliers during the Vietnam War. The Americans gave it the nickname of the Hanoi Hilton. The part of the prison where they were incarcerated no longer exists; it was torn down to make way for an apartment building. The older part of the prison remains and has been turned into a museum.

During the first part of the last century the prison was used by the French primarily for political prisoners, most notably the early leaders of the Vietnamese Communist Party. After the French were defeated in 1954, the Vietnamese kept their own political prisoners there. The treatment of prisoners by the French, and later by the Vietnamese, was barbaric. Torture was routine. The prison even had its own guillotine. Even without torture, the day-to-day conditions of incarceration can barely be imagined by most in the West. It was not uncommon for prisoners to be shackled to their beds by one foot or two most of the day. The Vietnamese have dramatically shown how the French did this by the use of life-sized wax-type figures in the old single-person or group cells. Untold numbers of "heroic revolutionaries" were imprisoned in this way, and many perished under this harsh treatment.

There are two small rooms devoted to the American prisoners of war. Pictures on the wall show the POWs playing basketball, playing board games, and receiving presents at Christmas time. One glass-cased display shows John McCain's flight suit and helmet, the ones he was wearing when he was shot down over downtown Hanoi. The intent of the displays is to show that the treatment of the POWs was benign, almost a holiday. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact, American POWs were housed and treated in the same manner as the French treated the Vietnamese before 1954 and the Vietnamese treated their own after 1954. After the POWs were repatriated in 1973, some of them drew pictures of how they were treated. As shown here, they were shackled in the same manner as in the days of the French.

But that is not all. The treatment was even more barbaric. The Vietnamese were keen on extracting confessions and political statements from the POWs largely to feed the growing anti-war movement in the United States. To do this they used a torture method called the "ropes." The procedure was to tie the wrists together (often cutting off circulation) and then bind the forearms and later the upper arms together until the elbows touched. This often had the effect of pulling the shoulder joints out of their sockets. The pain, as described by those who underwent this torture, was excruciating. But to apply even more pain, the arms were pulled upward bit by bit until the torturers got what they wanted or the prisoner blacked out. No POWs escaped the ropes without telling the Vietnamese anything they wanted to know. The diabolical part of this torture is that it left no marks, no visible signs of torture.

There is no display showing this.

At the tail end of 1972 when peace negotiations were underway in Paris and it appeared the POWs would eventually be released, the Vietnamese let up on the torture and started to prepare them to be turned over to the U.S. Food rations increased to fatten them up, the shackling was abandoned, and the prisoners did indeed play basketball and board games. But this was only in the last few months of the war. Unfortunately, this latter, small piece of the POW experience is the only thing the Vietnamese chose to display.

The War Museum
But the Hanoi Hilton version of twisted history is mild compared to the displays in the War Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. The lead display in the first room shows Robert McNamara's sentence from his book, "In Retrospect," that the war was a mistake. The following displays try to make the point that the main aim of the American bombing campaign in North Vietnam was to kill civilians. They have cherry-picked their quotations and pictures from sources I've never seen before.

In the rest of the museum there is a wall devoted to every bad thing the Americans ever did during the war. There's a wall for My Lai. A wall for napalm. A wall for Agent Orange, as if they were the only victim of this chemical--I also am an Agent Orange survivor. Every famous photograph ever taken showing the horrors of the war are displayed. The one of the naked young girl fleeing a napalm attack. Pictures showing soldiers burning villages that had housed Viet Cong guerrillas. The effects of very errant bomb that may have landed on a village are shown. But there are no pictures of their counter tactics: tiger pits, punji sticks, Viet Cong beheadings, you name it.

I accept the fact that the victors get to tell the story their way, and I never went to the museum expecting a balanced portrayal. But the presentations were so blatantly one-sided it was beyond belief. What I felt bad about was that the museum was mobbed that day with people from about every nationality, most of whom were too young to know much about the war. So for most young Australians, Germans, Americans, Vietnamese, Chinese, etc, the only thing they will know about the war is what they saw in this museum. There is no place they can go for a balanced presentation. In American museums, we are so much into political correctness that who can tell how our curators will tell the story.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


There are two themes in this post. The first is about Angkor Wat and the second is the floating villages on the Tonle Sap Lake. In actuality Angkor Wat is only one of the temples in the area around the town of Siem Reap. There are many temples hidden in the jungle over hundreds of square kilometers, each with the name of its own. Angkor Wat (wat means temple) is just the most famous and kind of serves as a general term for the whole area. Following is a photo essay of the three we liked best. There will be few words; the temples speak for themselves.

The Bayon

This temple comes at you suddenly. You go down a small path and are all of a sudden confronted by one of the ancient guard gates with four faces of Buddha, one on each side. All the imagery carved on the walls features both Buddhist and Hindu gods. This temple was built around 1200 AD when Hinduism was the dominant religion but was slowly being replaced by Buddhism. Inside there are doorways and staircases everywhere.

Ta Prohm

This temple is still in the jungle. While most temples are being restored, a decision was made to leave this one much like it was found. Its key features are the trees that are growing out of the walls and foundations. Giant roots from these trees snake across the stones and then plunge into the earth. Most of the temples were like this once, but the jungle has been hacked back and the stones restacked. The temple is where the movie "Laura Croft and the Tomb Raiders" was filmed. Elva is standing at one of the spots where a scene was filmed.

Angkor Wat
And now for the most famous temple. It is the largest in area covered. It has a majestic causeway over a 200 meter-wide moat leading into the outer enclosure and then another from there into the main temple complex. It was thronged the day we were there. There are corridors in every direction. It would be easy to get lost. It was big and grand, but truthfully I liked Ta Prohm better.

Floating Village
The Tonle Sap lake is the most peculiar thing. It is actually an "overflow basin" for the Mekong River. In the spring when the Mekong is in flood, the excess water flows into the Tonle Sap, and during the dry season the water flows back out again. All along the banks of the lake live a large colony of boat people. Either they are too poor to afford land or they are immigrants (mostly Vietnamese) with no legal standing in Cambodia, so they live as landless people on their boats and depend on the lake for their livelihood. They fish the lake (or have fish pens beneath their floating homes) and take the fish to market in trade for vegetables.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


It was very surreal for me to visit a country I have flown over several times but never set foot in, and which I spent some portions of two years of my life targeting during the war. As we drove around the country I recognized names of places because I had seen them previously on target maps.

It did not appear to me that much had changed since the war. Hanoi was a shock because it appeared frozen in time. It was dirty and congested with motorbikes. At night it was dark with little street lighting or illumination from neon signs in shops or billboards.

Few buildings in the downtown area were over two or three stories, and electrical wiring was a spider web of hundreds of wires tacked haphazardly to poles or store fronts. In fact, there was no downtown. No area with tall buildings, banks, government buildings, or grassy parks. The downtown consisted of crude shops surrounding the lake in the center of town and looked no different than it had decades ago.

The one thing that did give Hanoi some life was that the beginning of the lunar New Year was only hours way and people were busy preparing, one feature of which was to get an orange tree to decorate their homes. Hundreds were for sale or rent along side the road, and it seemed that every motorcycle had a tree of some size lashed to the back on the way home for the celebration.

Ho Chi Minh City was better. It was cleaner although the treatment of utility wires was no different. There were some high rises, many with hugh neon signs on top. There were some really upscale hotels down near the water front. It appears that Hanoi is a government town and HCMC is the commercial center.

The one bright spot in Hanoi was the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. All the streets leading to it were clean and transit upscale neighborhoods (actually the embassy housing area). I understand that Ho Chi Minh's embalmed body is inside and available for viewing on some days, but not on the day we were there. But the grounds and surroundings are well groomed and decked out with flowers.

The Ho Chi Minh museum is nearby, and for its size it is really quite remarkable. Of course, all that is in it are tributes to all the martyrs and historical figures of the communist revolution in Vietnam from Ho's time in Paris all the way through the war with America. There are displays of American weaponry from the war and commentary about the heroic efforts of the Vietnamese people in defeating a superior power. No surprise there; they were the victors and victors can usually determine how history is told.

Surprisingly Vietnam has turned into a tourist designation. When we were in Hanoi, there were lots of Caucasians walking around; it turned out most of them were Russians. Compared to the fridgid temperatures of eastern Russia, Vietnam must seem tropical. One of our destinations was Hai Long Bay near the Gulf of Tonkin. It is notable because of the hundreds of karst islands with their small fishing villages. We cruised for hours among them while we ate an on-ship lunch of Vietnamese food. I should note that Vietnamese food is much superior to Chinese food. It was very enjoyable.

While in HCMC we had the most interesting tour of the Mekong delta area. It was a long bus trip, but that was the interesting part. We drove south along the famous Route 1. It was very heavily populated with shops cheek by jowl and vendors along side the road selling everything imaginable.

It was slow going because the road was choked with motorcycles and scooters, the main form of transportation in this part of the world. By boat we cruised around on the Mekong River and ended up on some islands where we sat under a veranda on a 80 degree day and lunched on fish and fruit amid banana palms and breezes. It was hard to believe that 30 years ago the Viet Cong moved clandestinely through these marshy areas and American gunboats cruised these waters looking for them.

In many ways visiting Vietnam was like going back in history. We visited what used to be the Presidential Palace. It was a little haunting right from the first minute our bus drove through the gate. The palace is in prime condition now and a favorite tourist sight, but the minute I looked at it another image flashed through my mind. Compare these two pictures below and you'll see what I mean. If the second one doesn't mean anything to you, then Google it.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Little Emperors of China

Preface: This from an article written for that appeared the last of January, 2009. For many in the West, China’s one-child policy is a hot-button issue. Numerous academic and polemical articles have been written on it, with which I am only partially acquainted. But I see its fruits everyday on the streets and in the homes of the large Chinese city where I live, and I have a “street level” view of it through dozens of conversations with students, fellow teachers, and other acquaintances for whom the policy is a fact of everyday life. Polemics aside, this report may provide readers a small glimpse into this unique social phenomenon.

Chinese history is often defined in terms of dynasties and the various emperors tha
t ruled in each dynasty. Children learn their names in grade school. Probably everyone has heard of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644 AD) from the pottery and antiques that made it famous. Stretching back even further was the Qin (pronounced Chin) dynasty (221-210 BC) and its famous emperor, Shi Huangdi. This was the emperor who was responsible for the beginning of the fortified walls that eventually became the Great Wall of China and for the army of terracotta warriors that guard his tomb. What images that have survived show him to have been an imposing figure. One can only imagine him sitting on his throne issuing edicts, ruling over his generals, and even deciding who lives and who dies.

The One-Child Policy
While the emperors of old are long gone, there is talk these days about a new class of emperors—little emperors. These are the present generation of little children born under the edicts of China’s one-child policy.

This policy, first instituted in 1979 and increasingly enforced in the 1980s, was designed to control a population growth rate that threatened to outstrip China’s capacity to feed itself, and for almost 30 years it has restricted parents to only one child under the threat of heavy penalties. The policy is most strictly applied to urban dwellers where the demand for public services is most acute, but elsewhere over the years there have been many changes and exceptions. For example, in rural areas, two or more children are permitted, especially if the first is a girl. This exception bows to the need for rural families to have enough children to help work the farm. After the earthquake disaster in Sichuan province, parents were permitted to have more children to replace those lost in this tragedy. I am told that even in the city if both the husband and wife are themselves only children, they can have two children. Again this is a nod to practicality to avoid the situation where an only child becomes responsible for two aging parents and two sets of even older grandparents. This is known as the 4.-2-1 problem. There are many other exceptions—twins, for instance—but the norm for three decades have been to have only one child.

In terms of population control, the policy has apparently been very effective. One estimate claims that the policy has resulted in 300 million fewer Chinese being born than would otherwise have been the case—a number equal to that of the present population of the United States.

The Little Emperors

But what of the social consequences? The other day when I was in a taxi waiting for the stop sign to turn green. I saw a three-year-old driving his own small, motorized, toy car across the crosswalk. That a three-year-old should have his own car and be permitted to drive it around in traffic seemed to stretch the bounds of parental liberality. Only on second glance did I see that his grandfather, who followed a few steps behind, was actually controlling the car with a remote device. Still and all, this seemed like a major indulgence.

And the Chinese are not unaware that indulgences like this one have the potential for these children to become little emperors like those of old: issuing orders, making demands, and throwing fits when not obeyed. With four grandparents and two parents all doting on one little child, it is difficult to avoid turning them into little dictators—with their own remote-controlled cars. This phenomenon is studied in academia and appears often in the Chinese popular press. The Chinese themselves are quick to point out that they may be raising a generation of brats. They worry about their children’s sense of entitlement. While the grandparents may have lived through years of poverty

(and even famine), they nevertheless shower affection and gifts on their only grandchild. Grandparents and parents have been known to wait outside grade school all day to provide transportation home. They tie their shoes, carry their packs, and even wipe their bottoms long after they are able to do so themselves. Articles point out that this overindulgence may even have health consequences. The little emperors are becoming fast-food addicts, which may in turn foster a generation of obese kids. I remember seeing a mother with her eight-year-old in a McDonalds sitting patiently while he finished off an after-school treat of a milk shake and French fries. She was not eating. He can only be described as rotund.

Something Had To Be Done

While the idea of a government edict limiting how many children you can have is anathema to many in the West, I was surprised to learn that the average Chinese do not seem that concerned about it. Studies indicate that 75% of Chinese agree with the policy, and my anecdotal evidence would agree with that number. To them it is a practical matter. Something had to be done to control a mushrooming population, they say. One only needs to stand at a crowded bus stop during rush hour to understand their thinking.

Those in their 40s and 50s have seen an unbelievable transformation in China’s economy. While they might have been inclined in their early child-bearing years to have followed the traditional Chinese pattern of having more than one child and would have expected to tough it out as best they could economically, they now find that with only one child life has been better than they could have expected. Both parents have careers, a nice apartment, maybe a car, no concerns about feeding the family, and a child that is now in university. In dozens of my conversations with them it is apparent they feel the one-child policy has been a boon.

Down On the Farm
While one would expect this attitude from the urban elite, the view from the farm does not seem to be much different. One farmer who has two sons and three daughters—more than he could afford to send to high school—observed that without that essential education his children were doomed to “the bottom of society.” Others noted that more children means more mouths to feed. Farm life in China is not what it used to be. As in the West, youth are leaving the farm to seek their fortunes in the cities, so a large family seems to have lost its economic appeal.

One Child or Two?

From my conversations with those in their 20s and 30s, I can only conclude that their attitude toward the one-child policy is ambiguous. There are some who express a vague wish for a second child. If they have a girl, they say it would be nice to have a boy, mostly to carry on the family name. If they have a boy, then they might wish for a girl thinking that having a child of each gender is more desirable.

None that I have spoken with was interested in having a second child of the same gender. Some had more practical considerations. One young mother worried about the 4-2-1 problem and thought a second child might guarantee that her old age would be more comfortable, especially if it were a girl. Some were interested in a playmate for the first child. If a fine were the only barrier to having a second child, some might risk it. But the risk is not spread evenly over Chinese society. For those with government jobs, the penalty has been not only a fine but also possibly being fired, and with the loss of a job goes the apartment, insurance, pension and other benefits. Here the risk has been too great.

What If I Could?

In all my conversations, I have yet to find someone who wanted to have the policy overturned so they could have a large family. Or if they did, they were not ready to admit it to a foreigner, although none seemed guarded in their conversations with me. Most of my acquaintances are young, urban professionals, and they seem reconciled to having only one child. In fact, it almost seems that the policy gives them top cover to pursue their professional careers and move in more affluent circles. Since they can have only one child, most are putting it off until much later in their careers.

China’s Treasure
While all these social issues sort themselves out, there is no denying that the Chinese love their children. They dote on them, they are proud of them, they display them. One sees the beauty of family life everywhere on any given day. I see grandparents or parents lovingly tending to these little ones in the parks, on the streets, in the shopping malls. They push them around in prams or hold their arms to steady them as they take their first wobbly steps. This time of year they are all bundled up so that their bright eyes peering out are the only evidence there is a child under all the padding. I have seen a child or two acting like a miniature Shi Huangdi, but no more so than in any Wal-Mart on any given Saturday in the United States.

For the most part, what I see from my vantage point is pure joy on the faces of young parents as they treasure this one little child. And the children laugh and play under their parents’ watchful eyes just as you would see anywhere in the world. China is now into the second generation of the one-child policy and while it may yet reap bitter social and economic fruit from this bit of social engineering, for now there is no doubt that the little emperors of China are also little treasures.