It was not long ago that Afghanistan was considered the former Soviet Union’s Vietnam. But America has found itself in a conflict that not only is the longest war but eerily parallels the tragedies of Vietnam and Cambodia. Troubling news continues to arrive on the doorsteps—even with the latest vigorous efforts to bring the conflict to an end—through the daily newspaper delivery of reports about Afghanistan and Pakistan—just like it did decades ago about Vietnam and Cambodia
From a historical rearview mirror, it is worth exploring that the war was not really between the people of America and Vietnam. Soldiers of both countries followed the orders of their superiors, even though deep down in their hearts many had questions about the armed conflict.
A book worth reading is “With the Dragon’s Children” (second edition), by David J. Garms, published by Friesen Press “true story of a Minnesota farm boy who was sent to rehabilitate Viet Cong (the Taliban of that era) and instead learned the truth about a way of life and war”. Garms explains why the Vietnamese sometimes call themselves the “Dragon’s Children.”
Through ten chapters, the reader will find out about a brief history of Vietnam, a town in Mekong Delta, about the men who changed sides and about hearts and minds. Not to mention an uncomfortable question: “will you eat dog meat?” Considering the conflicts today, one could just as easily ask “will you eat humble pie?” In less than 200 pages, Garms brought the real story of the armed conflict in the reader’s hands to enjoy.
With remarkable humility he dedicated the first edition of the book to the people of Go Cong, whom he served. “Whatever their destiny, may it be their own,” he added echoing the real sincerity of his fellow Americans. In the second edition, Garms notes that during “the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, the Chinese provided the munitions and technical support to North Vietnam. Today the roles are reversed. A unified Vietnam is aligning itself with the U.S. against China. The U.S. is expected to provide technical assistance and training to Vietnam while Vietnam may provide U.S. naval access to the port at Cam Ranh Bay.”
The real goodness in American public servants—soldiers, diplomats and Peace Corps volunteers—is exemplified by a former Minnesota farm boy called David J. Garms. Through a long dedicated professional service, people like Garms put themselves in harm’s way to make life better for fellow human beings in far flung villages and the rugged terrains. They adapted themselves to unfamiliar cultures and learn different languages to solve human problems.
Serving in a different capacity with the “Dragon’s Children” Jerome Barry—founder of the Embassy Series—then first lieutenant in the Signal Corps in the United States Army, served with the First Cavalry Division in Vietnam in 1965 and was called up to serve when President Johnson brought in 565,000 U.S. soldiers. Lieutenant Barry recalls his first impressions: “After a trip of 28 days on a Merchant Marine Ship, we landed in Vietnam and immediately were sent to the Central Highlands. Disorganization reigned and most of us had no idea how to handle the situation.”
“Governments have struggled and caused their people to suffer in the name of these people, but who knows their names?” Garms wrote more than forty years ago. In this interesting book, the author provides the names of many he worked with—for example in Chapter VII he talks about the challenges in dealing with “Mr. Cat,” who actually turned up with very good ideas about dealing with perplexing problems they faced jointly.
Judging U.S.-Vietnam relations only from the narrow lens of the ill-fated Vietnam War is tantamount to leave after the first act of a historical play where the real interesting and meaningful stuff comes onto the stage in the most important acts to follow. We are now in an era when the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson made a port call in Danang, Vietnam. But warships are not the only dimension in U.S.-Vietnam relations revival. Take for example, the Humphrey Fellowship program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State.
This important program has had 38 Humphrey Fellows from Vietnam. In 2008, an alumnus was given an award for “a project aimed to build a network of key people throughout the Mekong River region (Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, China, and Vietnam) in order to establish national and regional leadership networks for sustainable water resources management.” Moreover, another alumnus received an award during 2010-11 “for a project on farming diversification for enhanced food security of poor household in the Mekong Delta, Vietnam.“
The work done by the Humphrey Fellows is really not only meaningful but also quite vast. This list will perhaps give the naysayers some food for thought and a profound reason to not look at international relation as a zero-sum game. For example, the fields studied by these mid-careers professionals from Vietnam under the Humphrey Fellowship program are listed below:
- Public Policy Analysis and Public Administration
- Natural Resources, Environmental Policy, and Climate Change
- Economic Development/Finance and Banking
- Educational Administration, Planning and Policy
- Agricultural and Rural Development
- Human Resource Management
- Trafficking in Persons, Policy and Prevention
- Law and Human Rights
- Substance Abuse Education, Treatment and Prevention
- Higher Education Administration
- HIV/AIDS Policy and Prevention
- Public Health Policy and Management
The wisdom behind supporting valuable programs like the Humphrey Fellowship is that mid-career professionals will play an important role not only as citizen ambassadors but also have the wherewithal to initiate good things and to turn dreams and ideas into reality. For example, they could help implement the workable solutions for preventing HIV/AIDS—a menace with deadly consequences not unlike the war visited upon the Vietnamese people a few decades earlier. Likewise, with the appropriate policies and timely intervention, these mid-career professionals can help stem the scourge of modern slavery through human trafficking. Not to mention, helping their fellow citizens—through professional education while in the Humphrey Fellowship program—from falling victims to substance abuse. The potential is enormous and the opportunities to succeed are only limited by their imagination.
In a world where many are voicing a militaristic approach to solving international problems, it is important to listen to people who have volunteered to serve in Vietnam when the nation needed them. Take for example, former U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel—while speaking in Washington on July 11, 2017at an event organized by the World Affairs Council DC and the Confucius Institute U.S. Center—who said “better know your history.”
In answering a question from Chancellor Ronnie Greene, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Secretary Hagel said the “capacity to listen and to learn” are necessary for success. Through his words and his leadership, the U.S. can succeed with a healthy relationship with China while retaining a genuine love for the Dragon’s Children, as beautifully described by David Garms.
The Confucius Institute programs across the United States and the Humphrey Fellowship programs show us that international relations in today’s turbulent world need not be a zero-sum game.
Photo courtesy of the author.