Soaring Spirit with Tears


Parallels between Vietnam and Afghanistan

by Ingrid Naiman

A friend asked me to compare Vietnam and Afghanistan. I would like to do this in a highly personal way because I am not an historian or war correspondent.

I majored in Asian Studies and then got a master's degree in development economics in 1964. In the summer of 1964, my Japanese roommate and I came home after a night out in New York City. We turned on the radio and I spit out some involuntary words, "That 'blinkity blank' Johnson just got us into a war." Michiko thought I was overreacting (and disagreed with me.) I spoke to a friend in Communist Studies at Columbia University, another Japanese lady. She thought I had not put the pieces together properly. All was strangely silent in the press, and life continued as normal. I felt no one understood what I thought I knew.

Michiko married and one of her friends asked if she and I could be roommates. Fusako worked for the Japanese delegation to the U.N. and we used to play Mah Jong all night Saturday night with a bunch of Japanese diplomats. One night, instead of playing until dawn, which was our custom, they apologized saying they had a lot of work and had to leave early. I said, "Working on the balance of payments to see how an expanded war in Vietnam would affect the Japanese economy?"

Though I was working on Wall Street where no one seemed the slightest bit interested or aware of what was happening in Vietnam, the Japanese not only knew but thought this was highly confidential so their only reaction to my rhetorical question was, "How did you know?" It's not because I spoke Japanese and had overheard anything but because I know geography and realized immediately that if the event described as the Gulf of Tonkin incident even happened, it was because we were provoking attack so as to have an excuse to start a war.

Time dragged on. Then, one day a man named Paul Langer bumped into my father at a party in Los Angeles.  I had met Dr. Langer at the airport in Honolulu when I was an exchange student on my way to Japan for a year.  He was traveling with someone from my father's office (at Hughes Aircraft), a man named Bernie Jaeger whom I had known for years.  Bernie and I had recognized each other and stopped to chat.  He then introduced me to the famous Asian scholar, an awesome event for a 19-year old.  Dr. Langer asked a few questions and then whipped out an airline ticket and asked me to read it in Japanese. He corrected my pronunciation on one word, a memorable incident but hardly one that portended an impact on my destiny.

Naiman is not a common name so Dr. Langer asked my father if he was related to the Ingrid Naiman he had met on her way to Japan in 1962.  He then asked my father if I were still interested in Asia. My father, never the meddler, said, "Ask Ingrid" and gave him my phone number.

He called on a quiet weekend when I was creating masterpieces in the kitchen. He asked if I would meet him for breakfast on Monday in NYC. I said, "Certainly." Then, he called back and proposed meeting for lunch in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday. This took more effort to arrange, but I met him. He was working for Rand Corporation and Rand was ostensibly analyzing the psyche of the North Vietnamese to find the Achilles heel, basically what motivates a soldier to surrender or defect.

As I gradually came to understand, there are theories of war in which a certain number of losses or a certain lowering of morale results in surrender. I.e., a war cannot be won if morale is low, if the war is unpopular, or if the enemy cannot find the recruits to carry on its defense (or offense.)  Beyond this imaginary line in the psyche, there is a highly unpredictable terrain in which furor at the enemy galvanizes the will so even losing armies will fight to the last man, woman, and child. No one wants to cross that line. Rand was trying to define the line so the U.S. could build its policy around this occult knowledge, and it was trying to determine what motivated a Viet Cong to surrender.

Rand tried to recruit me but after shaking hands in one office building after another in DC, I suddenly had a lot of job offers. Awed and confused, I returned to my apartment in New York, to my kitchen, and when my hands were completely messy, the phone rang. It was the White House. I said, "You must have the wrong number." The person placing the call said, "If you are Miss Naiman, there is a call from Robert Komer for you." Komer had the title of "Special Assistant to the President for Non-Military Aspects of the Vietnam Conflict."

Now, this is where the parallels are interesting because if you speak French and you listened to Jacques Chirac and the President make their joint statements to the press shortly after September 11th, you will have heard the American President refer to the "War" and the French President say, "C'est ne pas la guerre, seulement un conflit." One of the journalists, I think Helen Thomas, immediately asked the French President a question in what sounded to me like very good French. Pres. Bush interrupted saying, "Helen, I didn't know you spoke French." He obviously planned to stay in control of the press.

Remember, Chirac was the first foreign dignitary to appear in front of the White House to "show his solidarity" -- I presume this solidarity was with the American people in a time of grieving.

The next press briefing that I recall was with the Indonesian head of state, Megawati Soekarnoputri, a very guarded lady whose words and body language clearly showed that she and the American president had not agreed on much at all. Her statement was not even given the courtesy of a proper translation. I happen to speak Indonesian also so I was miffed at what our President was doing in terms of foreign policy. Basically, despite his fine tailoring, he was exceptionally rude and my long years in Asia suggest to me that rudeness never brings good results. In the days that followed, everyone who visited was referred to as a "friend," this president's hokey way of communicating difficult issues always begins by the reassuring reference to friends, and only later did his speeches contain the terrifying and bitterly resented use of the word evil in reference to the countries "next on the list."

Anyway, back to Vietnam. To make a long story short, I had six job offers that would have resulted in my going to Vietnam and I ended up taking a job with the Department of State. As soon as I accepted the job, I went to a bookstore in Greenwich Village and bought every book in the store on Vietnam. While I had majored in Asian Studies, I had specialized in Japan and Indonesia and did not know nearly as much about Vietnam though my mother and I had visited a former roommate in Saigon at the time the Buddhist monks were immolating themselves on the streets.

Despite the unrest, I remembered Vietnam as exceptionally beautiful, hospitable, Confucian, and precariously poised. My mother felt the cuisine was the best in the world. She had prepared for her trip by studying all the recipes from famous restaurants from Singapore to Hong Kong but concluded that Vietnamese cuisine combined the best of French and Chinese culinary skills.


The first thing that leaped out of my crash course on Vietnam was that in the previous 1000 years, they had had two years of peace. Every statue was to a war hero and with the endless conflicts, they had never developed the richness of culture of some of their neighbors. For instance, they did not develop the architecture of either Cambodia or Thailand, the literature or philosophy or religion so typical of traditional cultures in Asia. Rather, their language was merely a dialect of Chinese, written in an alphabet learned from Christian missionaries and adapted to the tonality of the language. My undergraduate studies had been in anthropology and philosophy and I realized this meant that the sense of identity that comes from culture was feeble.

The second point to emerge in my studies was that the "plan" the US was using in Vietnam had been tried in Laos. . . where it failed, but the people to implement the doomed plan were trained so they would use that "plan" whether it worked or not. There was apparently no effort to determine why it failed in Laos nor any effort to perfect it so that it might work. In other words, from day one, there never was any serious intent to win, just to meddle in the affairs of a country that most people in the States had never heard of before.

This point is in deep contrast to the situation in Afghanistan. While the vast majority of Americans probably hadn't heard of Afghanistan, much less the Taliban Regime, prior to 911, the US does have a purpose in Afghanistan and it does plan to win. It wants a pipeline from Central Asia to the sea. It wants to control natural gas and petroleum for as long as possible and pursuant to this plan, a lot of other diabolical measures are in place.

For instance, there has been ruthless suppression of alternative energy for countless years but more so since this administration came to office. There is also this heinous spraying of the skies with aluminum to forestall global warming and thereby reap the benefits of fossil fuels for another half a century. There is suppression of information on alien visitations because the technology of the space craft would apparently be easy to emulate and render the petroleum industry and its stepchild the pharmaceutical industry obsolete in an instant. It would also shift the paradigm of power from a hierarchical structure with extremely rich and powerful people at the top to a more equitable and egalitarian structure that brings all villages in the world a nearly costless supply of energy. It would change not only the economics of power but also the philosophy of resources for switching to renewable or inexhaustible resources would void all the Malthusian doctrines that have dominated for so long.

So, unlike Vietnam, Afghanistan is for real. Vietnam had very few resources. Its principle export was duck feathers and this company was owned by an Australian who was kidnapped shortly after he married. I was at a party at his home and was greatly relieved to hear from his bride that he had been ransomed and would be safely released.

Of course, Vietnam had natural rubber and this industry was completely ruined by Agent Orange, an extremely nasty chemical now sold as Round Up and soon to found in chemotherapeutic drugs due to a no longer secret agreement between Proctor and Gamble and Monsanto (signed in the Netherlands and somehow leaked to the press.)

Exactly how threatening natural rubber was to synthetic rubber, I personally do not know. Perhaps Michelin can answer this since they were the main consumers of natural rubber and they surely used to make far better tires. Environmentally speaking, what happened in Vietnam is unforgivable. What happened to those who were exposed to Agent Orange is as unpardonable as what happened to those in Desert Storm who now suffer from Gulf War Syndrome. It's clear what happened to Monsanto: it has grown to become one of the most politically powerful companies in the world.  It was a former lawyer from Monsanto, Clarence Thomas, who cast the deciding vote to give the White House to George W. Bush.

Monsanto has evil designs on the world, but why executives engage in evil is another matter. Anyone can understand scientific curiosity and the desire to discover, to understand, and to create, but no one really can fathom the desire to dominate the world with terminator seeds that can be used to trigger crop failures, scarcity, global famine, pestilence, and genocide. This, I fear, is actually the plan. For reasons that make no sense to anyone of sound mind, genetic manipulation is for the purpose of systematic destruction of certain populations. It is a political plan, not an economic plan; for it makes no sense to decimate the world if this destroys markets. On the surface, and I have almost no expertise here, it would appear to be a shortsighted plan designed to maintain the base of power of a few individuals and their families at the expense of the rest of the world, people who do not count for anything . . .

. . . because what is different now than before is the capacity to genetically engineer foods and medicines that are specific to certain genetic traits and presumed to be harmless when such traits do not exist. These genetically modified substances are already "everywhere." They are in your food, on your plate, and in your garden. Nothing can prevent cross-pollination with native species. Worse, these species have been created using terminator seeds. Unlike self-propagating species or species that surrender fertile seeds at the end of their season, crops grown with terminator seeds are self-destructing. Farmers have to go back to Archer Daniel Midlands and Monsanto to buy new seeds, giving these companies virtual monopolies over the global food supply . . . for the first time in Planetary history.

Folks, it's wrong.

We could argue until the end of time about economics and politics, about air quality, pollution, and the rights of governments or agents of governments to engage in activities that impact the entire planetary community, but giving a monopoly over staple foods would be like selling the right to breathe to a corporation that happened to make large campaign contributions to certain candidates.

Imprecise Parallels

The parallels to Vietnam are there and yet not exact. The war in Vietnam was a war fought senselessly and almost without purpose. It conferred promotions on many officers and brought politically fatal shame to others. For instance, one might have thought that Lodge was a viable presidential candidate but not if he sank with the ship in Vietnam. There were dark horse candidates; and positions on the Vietnam "conflict" determined political fates. As the war accelerated, the US became increasingly unpopular abroad, especially in Europe. I personally believe this is already happening due to the war in Afghanistan. In Europe, it is totally understood that the war in Afghanistan has nothing to do with the events of September 11th. The British foreign secretary, Jack Straw, and prime minister, Tony Blair, have (reluctantly) admitted this and addressed the issues Parliament raised. Would they have acknowledged these embarrassing facts if a story hadn't leaked from India to the German press to the Guardian? I don't know, but the cat is out of the bag and has been out for months already.

So, while everyone agrees that there is a need to reduce/eliminate terrorism, there is less consensus as to who did what and why and whether this justifies dislocating millions of people in Afghanistan and the neighboring countries.

Public Awakening

It took many years for Americans to realize there was a war in Vietnam. I arrived in Vietnam on December 3, 1966, and the war hadn't yet reached Wall Street at that time. It became news later and lost front page for a few days when things heated up in the Middle East. Then, it stayed in the papers. Johnny Apple was the chief correspondent for the New York Times; and he perhaps did more than anyone else to make the war unpopular. We used to talk about his stories. His wife was injured in an attack on the US Embassy in Saigon. He said that when he made love to her and his fingers touched her scars, he wrote the articles that would make the war unpopular.

When we think of the convolutions of karma and what it takes to put a person in a particular place at a particular time, we realize how the coincidences can become hugely important if they are taken seriously when they occur.

I stayed in Vietnam until July 1968. I was there during the Tet Offensive and I ran one courier mission to the Paris Peace Talks. I was in my mid-twenties, not important in the scheme of things, but I was a conduit for information and passed a lot of material on to people who could do more with what I saw through my eyes.

My former grad school professor, Ruth Mack, was a high level advisor in Washington. In the summer of 1968, she picked my brains for every shred of information I had, constantly reassuring me that every word would be used well. She didn't need to beg me for my time. I remember sitting in her garden by the sea in Connecticut. I told her the war wasn't worth one drop of anyone's blood. I told her it would be difficult to make movies about the war because there were no heroes and no heroic deeds. I told her that no mother should lose a son and no wife should lose a husband over such a stupid war.

The conversation ended the way many such conversations do. Ruth was Jewish and she asked how I would have addressed Hitler if I had been alive then. This question may perhaps never die, and I don't have the answers. Ideally, people would refuse to give such power to anyone. I'm a pacifist, unequivocal pacifist, no exceptions. We do not solve problems through murder. We solve them by refusing to empower those who misuse their power. We do this through boycotting, through voting, through information and perhaps even civil disobedience, but two wrongs do not make a right.

I feel my reminiscing has gone on too long, but those who aren't interested will have hit delete by now anyway.

There are major differences between Vietnam and Afghanistan and some similarities. Legally, Vietnam was a "conflict" not a war; and as Bush made clear from day one, Afghanistan was to be a war, not a "conflict." This confers many powers on the president that neither Johnson nor Nixon had, and it doesn't take much of a wizard to see that this administration is using these powers to the limit and then some.

If Chirac had prevailed—and we have to assume he made the trip so as to prevail, not because he personally wanted to wipe tears off American faces—the events of 911 would have remained a "conflict" and Congress would not have been disemboweled by the White House. If justice and/or truth were even of the slightest interest to the president, the terrorism would have led to a thorough investigation of criminal deeds, the way any other act of violence is dealt with through normal police and FBI channels. However, the president obviously wanted a war. I am not a lawyer, but I personally doubt that an individual or even a gang of individuals or cells of terrorists can declare a war on a country. Wars are between sovereign nations, not dissidents and governments. There are many ways to prevent terrorism—if we seriously intend to prevent it—short of telling terrorists what we are going to do and then bombing empty caves.

There are also ways to build pipelines short of Kosovo and now Afghanistan. What concerns me is that right relationships are really the only key to global survival and this includes relationships between all peoples everywhere and between all kingdoms of Nature as well as crowns and heads of state. While sympathy for America was never higher than on September 11th, we are squandering the goodwill by actions that are considered excessive and perhaps even useless.

My suspicion is that the reason we are no longer interested in either bin Laden or Mulah Mohammed Omar is not that their bases of power have been eroded but the power was never what it was purported to be. I personally seriously doubt the Taliban had anything at all to do with 911, but their fundamentalism stood in the way of US ambitions. We indicted them with human rights violations while ignoring that no matter how many women wore burquas before our troops arrived, many of those women have now lost husbands and children and others have fled to neighboring countries to escape bombing. Again, two wrongs do not a right make and what we are doing is wrong.

Vietnam did not end until our own casualties reached the line our government felt would apply to the Vietnamese. We did not have the stomach for war or for losses. Why anyone does have a stomach for war is another thing. It was not all that many years ago that Gandhi achieved independence for the subcontinent of India without firing a single bullet. The film about his life's work won many Oscars, but there can be no doubt that the Oscars in the next season of awards will go to blow 'em up, shoot 'em up pictures.

This is because at the root of our national conscience, there are no clear ethics. We pray on Sundays and compete on Mondays and kill on Tuesdays. Survival is about cooperation, harmony, and mutual respect. If we do not listen to the views of others, we risk the loss of healthy relationship that stems from our own unilateral behavior and the biases that function as rationalizations for this behavior. I am not suggesting that we do not hunt down the perpetrators of the crimes committed on September 11th, but I suspect this is not even the goal of the administration. The fact that it wants to hold nations accountable for deeds committed using our own aircraft and operating out of our own airports and using our own airspace suggests that the agenda is completely different than is being disclosed.

Copyright by Ingrid Naiman 2001

Written in the Fall of 2001
Originally entitled "Snowing and Reminiscing"



My Photographs of Afghanistan || Continuation of my Vietnam Tales



Poulsbo, Washington