I was born in 1965, the year the first U.S. combat troops went to Vietnam. Growing up in middle-class America in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I distinctly remember that “Vietnam” — the place name stood in for a great many things left unsaid — was not discussed, almost taboo, among my parents’ generation. I didn’t realize this at the time, of course. I could only smell it, like the residue of something the dog left on the carpet, through the layers of deodorant and disinfectant.
Americans who had lived through “Vietnam” were emotionally and politically exhausted and had declared a tacit truce among themselves. That suited them — all of them, on all sides — but it left my generation poorly served. How can young people learn the lessons of history, if no one is willing to teach them? I had to assemble the puzzle for myself later, through self-directed reading and actually going to live in Southeast Asia. My first clue that I would need to do this came when I asked an older friend what “the ’60s” had been all about, and he blurted out in bitter exasperation: “It was about how the blood of the war got on everyone’s hands, and we couldn’t wash it off. It’s still all over the place.”
And it still is. And now, even to get back to Vietnam to deal with it honestly, we would have to wade neck-deep through several more recent wars’ worth of moral and historical muck. I wonder what the chances are of that. We do have the excuse that we have immediate and pressing compulsions and distractions, as well as both genuine and bogus causes for optimism. But we always have those. We had them, for example, during “Vietnam” itself. “You would hear constantly, ‘Napalm will win the war for us,'” Clyde Edwin Pettit told me when I knew him in Bangkok in the mid-1990s, when he was returning annually to Vietnam. “F–king napalm was the greatest thing ever to come down the pike, you woulda thought. It was always something was winning the war.”
Pettit was the author of a prescient 1966 letter to J. William Fulbright that compelled that powerful senator to reverse his position on the war, and of the 1975 book The Experts: 100 Years of Blunder in Indo-China (alternate subtitle: The Book That Proves There Are None), which consists of 439 pages of nothing but direct quotations from politicians, professors, and pundits, all purporting to understand what was happening or to know what was going to happen in Vietnam, arranged chronologically. Read from cover to cover, as Ed insisted it should be, The Experts amounts to a narrative of mounting horror and increasingly tortuous self-delusion. If this sounds familiar, it should. If any document demonstrates the staying power of human self-delusion, it’s Pettit’s masterpiece.
It occurred to me recently that, if he were alive today, Ed Pettit might say that drones are the napalm of our time. The common element is death rained down from the sky, and drones take this a step further by leaving the inflictors of it safe back in the States. Anyone who understood as Pettit did that, far from being “the greatest thing ever to come down the pike,” napalm was both immensely destructive to civilians on the ground in Vietnam and counterproductive to American goals, would endorse the argument made by the Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid in the May 23 issue of The New York Review of Books, that any hope of building a reliable partnership with the governments of countries like Pakistan depends on:
support for the complicated and unique internal political processes that can build in each a domestic consensus to combat extremists — who, after all, typically kill more locals than they do anyone else. International pressure and encouragement can help secure such a consensus. But it cannot be dispatched on the back of a Hellfire missile fired by a robot aircraft piloted by an operator sitting halfway around the world in Nevada.
I’m troubled by the fact that devices called drones feature prominently in Vietnam veteran Joe Haldeman’s ominously titled classic science-fiction novel The Forever War. I’m bothered by eyewitness accounts like that of William Dalrymple, author of Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan 1839-42, who recently told a Seattle audience: “In movies there’s usually one drone, and these guys in their shirt sleeves in Virginia directing them. But in Jalalabad it’s sort of like a New York taxi rank: all these drones taking off, one after the other.”
Above all, I’m haunted by my friend Uong Leap’s childhood memory of seeing Khmer Rouge fighters in the tops of palm trees, shooting AK-47s at U.S. helicopters in southeastern Cambodia in the early 1970s. “Oh, crazy time!” Leap told me, with a jarringly cheerful grin. Leap knows what came after that crazy time in Cambodia, because he survived it.
What will come after the current crazy time in Afghanistan and Pakistan?
ETHAN CASEY is the author of Alive and Well in Pakistan: A Human Journey in a Dangerous Time (2004), called “intelligent and compelling” by Mohsin Hamid and “wonderful” by Edwidge Danticat. He is also the author of Bearing the Bruise: A Life Graced by Haiti (2012) . His next book, Home Free: An American Road Trip, will be published in fall 2013 and is available for pre-purchase. Web: www.ethancasey.com. Facebook: www.facebook.com/ethancasey.author. Join his email list here.
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