Soaring Spirit with Tears


Photo Opportunities

My parents separated in the summer of 1958 and during the Christmas holidays of that year, my mother announced that we would be moving to Hawaii. She arrived on her 45th birthday and went straight to the Governor's Palace and happened to be there when the news from Washington arrived that Hawaii would become the 50th State. It seemed an auspicious beginning for the new life of an adventurous divorcee who seemed obsessed with some sort of Gaugainesque idealism of Pacific Islanders.

My mother canceled my acceptance at Occidental College where I had planned, since my early teens, to study International Relations. I ended up in Hawaii during the East-West Philosopher's Conference and began a course of study that I had not exactly contemplated. At the time, I very much felt like the victim of a broken family, but I did not oppose the divorce, merely the terms set for my care by courts and parents. I actually felt I had less jurisdiction over my life than other teenagers embarking on their college careers.

Today, my perspective is perhaps a bit different as I fully believe that by the time we are mature, and perhaps nearing the completion of life, the pieces begin to fit together and no experience is as capricious or random as it might seem to a rebellious teen.

Asian Studies

My mind has always been one to hone in on anything of interest and to pursue that until it is no longer interesting. I settled on a major in Asian Studies and took both Indonesian and Japanese (as well as the French and German that would eventually be required for graduate work.)

When Pres. Sukarno was visiting Hawaii, I was asked to be part of the welcoming party at the airport. I was warned that he was predator and to be careful of advances; however, I was asked not to create an international incident by my behavior and to keep it cool no matter what.

In writing these reminiscences, I am becoming aware of my naïveté and also of how unusual my life has been. I should have realized back then that the pictures we see in newspapers and on television are all choreographed so as to make certain impressions. I'm a bit of a blur about what all transpired between Pres. Sukarno and myself. I remember repeating my pattern of conjuring up a question important enough to ask a visiting dignitary. Again, I don't recall the question, but his answer was, "Ninety percent of rumors are true."

At my age, I probably wrestled with taking that as straight fact or as a challenge to my idealism.

The photo op syndrome did not click until the Clinton debacle. We saw the picture of the president shaking hands and then hugging an apparent stranger, made to look like this man is so warm and friendly that he hugs ordinary people. Of course, he denied knowing "that woman" but the media rolled the tapes, and we again and again saw the footage of this telltale hug.

In this case, the rumor was true and we realize that what we see is designed to create an effect, and it is carefully engineered by pollsters and advisors and others with a vested interest in the presidency and their relationship to the president.

What I Saw

So, what was it like to be working for the Government in Vietnam during the war? Who were the others in my office?

I have to say that most people were just doing their jobs and like any other workplace, there were people with varying work ethics and competency as well as differing political opinions. In terms of the work, the mechanics of how to do the job expected were not really any different than what might have been the case if the desk had been in Washington, D.C. instead of Saigon. In fact, there were those at desks in the capital who acted both as counterparts and "bosses." What was different about Vietnam and my next post with the State Department was the intensity and by extension the priority given to matters. In a curious way, the speed appealed to me. Though my mother never ceased worrying while I was in Vietnam, I was thriving in a way I had never before experienced. I was involved in a critical situation that required immediate attention and my own focus and concentration was therefore nearly perfect.

Of course, I fretted that I would see or hear something that would damage me for life, that my psyche would be rocked and I would never be able to sleep through a hailstorm without imagining machine gun fire, but the fact that an assignment culminated with a cable to Washington and a response the next morning suited my temperament. It also worked for me that I had chosen to be on the inside seeking a solution rather than marching up and down streets with placards. I felt like I was doing something, not engaging in wishful thinking. Sure, there is a risk of illusion even in "action," but my metabolism wasn't throttled the way it is now.

This said, I don't recommend my course of action to others. When my boss finally wrote an evaluation of my work, I recall that he wrote that I exhibited an initiative such as he had never seen before but that he was quite certain that if I were asked to do something I didn't wish to do that I wouldn't have done it. He was right, and this is the crux of the matter.

Work Ethics

Thanks to my native mysticism, I always had deep beliefs that transcended any practical considerations. Moreover, I did not have a family and was not responsible for putting food on the table nor even for keeping myself alive. Though there is some loneliness in this life style, there is also a lot of freedom.

Here is a case in point. The young Vietnamese who had returned to Vietnam after studying in American Universities organized a gathering on the island of Phu Quoc, an absolutely beautiful tropical paradise. The younger members of the American diplomatic corps were invited to participate in the gathering, and the military supplied transport to the island. While we were just settling in, a rain of mortar fire began. We were being shelled from a Naval ship anchored a few miles from shore. I volunteered to swim out to the ship to get them to stop firing on us. I climbed up the anchor chain and was escorted to a squeaky clean lieutenant standing on the bow of the ship. I explained that the cream of the cream, the promise of the future for Vietnam, were gathered on the island along with U.S. diplomats. He said he was just following orders. Stunned, I tried again, "We are not Viet Cong and your guns are aimed at us."

"Just following orders, ma'am. My orders are to fire every day from 2-4 pm." I said, "We are probably the only ones on the island who haven't figured out your orders." He said, "Sorry, ma'am, just following orders." Baffled, I said, "You know this war isn't worth a drop of anyone's blood." He said, "Yes, I know ma'am, but I am following orders."

Getting back into the water was easier than getting out of it. I have to say the officer was courteous and helpful in such matters as how to disembark his ship, but I was all mixed up inside. The water was beautiful. It was so still, I could see the bottom of the sea for miles. All was clean and calm except for the mortar fire. What would I tell others when I got back? "It will stop at 4 pm?" I would have to add, "and it will start again tomorrow at 2 and the next day."

The intelligentsia of Vietnam and the brightest diplomats were meeting for the first time in history but no one could stop the shelling despite the report I had just given to the lieutenant. This issue became one of the items on our agenda. No war could be won under such circumstances, but what exactly was the problem? The problem was that there was no ability to gather information, process it, and apply it in a meaningful way. Therefore, things would continue as planned regardless of attempts to supply feedback. This was a formula for disaster . . . and this is exactly what ensued.


When experts tried to penetrate the minds of the Nazis who were put on trial in Nuremberg, they reported the same thing again and again, "We were just following orders." This would have been true from Himmler and Eichmann all the way down to the guards at Auschwitz. However, it also has to be true of the masses of soldiers who march to their slaughter, people who are willing to kill before being killed. Is there any issue on Earth worth one's life? For the most part, people have argued that there are such issues. I might myself have agreed that if my own life can make a difference, I will risk it, even sacrifice it.

I feel I have earned the right to say this because I have taken risks in my life, but I would not jeopardize another life much less take one to serve my own agenda, and this is the difference between sanity and insanity and probably between civilization and savagery.

It is the difference between mature politicking and opportunistic advantage taking. Gandhi said that nonviolence is the path of those who believe in God, for it will not work for the faithless. He also taught that it is not an option that one uses when expedient and discards when the cost is too high. He believed that shame would ultimately bring victory to those who exhibited the higher ethic. As such, a point comes when the atrocities are of a magnitude that is so abhorrent that even the most cold-hearted and indifferent person refuses to support the offenses against the innocent.

As someone who has tirelessly asked questions since the day I was born, I have also come to believe in karma, the disturbance that precipitates reactions that restore balance, reactions attended by painful lessons that once learned and implemented end the cycle of action and reaction. I am psychological enough to see parallels in what we experience as power or cooperation repeated on a macrocosmic level as predatory intentions that exploit voiceless and weak followers. On one level, we are taught that respect for all life is the key to harmonious relations with others, but we also learn that might makes right. When a large corporation drives a competitor out of business or swallows up smaller companies to enhance its dominance, the business strategies are credited with being clever and effective. We reward this behavior and elevate the perpetrators of such actions to rank and usually inordinate wealth. We fall into a blind concurrence that there are people whose labor is worth $6 an hour and those, such as surgeons, whose time is worth $6000 an hour, and those whose smoozing on the golf course is worth $60,000 an hour.

On the other end of the spectrum, we see disenfranchised people living under bridges and in squalor, and we see battered individuals going into therapy to empower themselves so that they will not be victims. Ideologically, our society is in total chaos . . . the model for harmony is entirely different than the model for achievement. Harmony is an inner state of being that can become outer IF all actions are truly consensual. This model is as applicable to the boardroom as the bedroom, but few demand the same level of respect for economic and social deeds as for courtship and marriage, and they almost never demand this of the military and elected officials. However, if the same ethics applied to all actions and were not as selective as they are now, we would have a different world . . . and my next essays will discuss these possibilities.




Poulsbo, Washington