A tale of two conferences

Black Lives Matter, Chicago, guns, News, peace, police, violence
A young protester at the march on Saturday. (Photo by Nissa Rhee).

A young protester at the march on Saturday. (Photo by Nissa Rhee).

For my latest article for The Christian Science Monitor, I went to a Black Lives Matter rally and march on Saturday and then a giant conference of police chiefs on Monday. You can read about the competing events here.

“Healing is Prevention”

Articles, Chicago, News
At Story Squad programs, students from the South Side share their experiences. (Photo courtesy Youth Safety and Violence Prevention program)

At Story Squad programs, students from the South Side share their experiences. (Photo courtesy Youth Safety and Violence Prevention program)

My latest article in The University of Chicago Magazine is outIt’s a profile of Ryan Lugalia-Hollon and Eddie Bocanegra, the heads of the Chicago YMCA’s Youth Safety and Violence Prevention Program. They’re doing some incredible work with young people on the South and West sides, including getting war veterans to mentor kids involved with gangs. You can read the article here.

Univ. of Chicago Magazine updates

Articles, Chicago, Vietnam
In central Vietnam, US veteran Chuck Searcy (left) discusses bomb disposal with members of Project Renew. (Photo courtesy Project Renew)

In central Vietnam, US veteran Chuck Searcy (left) discusses bomb disposal with members of Project Renew. (Photo courtesy Project Renew)

My recent story on veterans in Vietnam is now the most shared article on The University of Chicago Magazine‘s website. If you haven’t had a chance to read it yet, you can do so here.

You can also learn more about the organizations I mentioned in the article at their websites:

Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation

Project Renew

Essay in the University of Chicago Magazine

Articles, Chicago, Veterans, Vietnam

Alumni Essay in UofC Magazine

My essay about American and Vietnamese veterans working together on unexploded ordinance in Vietnam was published this week in The University of Chicago Magazine. You can read the article online here or in its magazine form here on page 60.

Speaking at Quest Academy on Veteran’s Day

Chicago, Talks, USA, Veterans, Vietnam

Photo taken by Sharon Rockhill (Quest Academy)

On Veteran’s Day, I spoke to the middle schoolers at Quest Academy in Palatine, Illinois about my research on veterans and peace. It was great to be back at my alma mater and spend time with the 80 or so students. Despite the snowstorm happening outside, the students were really engaged and had some interesting questions about the work being done in Vietnam, particularly with the remediation of the Da Nang Airport.

I was pleased to find out that the students already knew a little about the Vietnam War, since it’s so rarely taught in schools these days. Young people’s lack of knowledge about the war and its consequences is one of the reasons I decided to write this book. As the philosopher George Santayana wrote, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Already, we are seeing the effects of this amnesia. Gallup has found that young people are the only group of Americans today that think fighting in Vietnam was not a mistake. I am hopeful, however, that young people like myself can help teach the past to those to young to have lived it.

Beautiful Souls: Talk by Eyal Press

Book, Chicago, FIlm, Veterans, Vietnam
Eyal Press speaking in Chicago

Eyal Press speaking in Chicago

This week I saw journalist Eyal Press speak at the Chicago Humanities Festival. Press discussed his recent book, “Beautiful Souls,” about why some courageous individuals decide to stand up to powerful governments, militaries and companies. A lot of research has been done on why people do evil things, particularly in groups (see the Milgram and Stanford prison experiments). Yet, there haven’t been many studies on why individuals stand up to evil or wrongdoing. Press argues that the choice between obedience and disobedience is often more proactive than we think.

In his lecture, Press gave the example of Nazi SS Lt. Col. Adolf Eichmann, who was one of the major organizers of the Holocaust. Eichmann claimed that he was not guilty of any crime, because he was simply doing his job and following the law in Nazi Germany. Press reveals, however, that Eichmann made a series of choices in which he actively endorsed the Nazi regime. Eichmann chose to join the Nazi Party, when it wasn’t required. He chose to climb the ranks of the Nazi party, while others didn’t. And most damning of all, he made every effort to get the maximum amount of people into the Nazi death camps, even when fewer people would have satisfied the regime’s orders. Press argues that instead of illustrating the “banality of evil,” Eichmann demonstrates that everyone has a choice when it comes to immoral actions.

Press’ lecture reminded me of some of the conversations I’ve had with veterans in Vietnam about their decision to follow orders once they arrived in country. Some men told me about underground newspapers they wrote which protested the war and were distributed under the cover of darkness. One man told me about a small rally he participated in where he and some other soldiers shouted anti-war slogans inside a base. The soldiers who openly protested the war faced imprisonment in Vietnam and dishonorable discharge.

Certainly many veterans who served in Vietnam would call the men who protested Communist-lovers or worse. Yet, this is to be expected. Individuals who stand up to power make people uncomfortable, Press asserts, and rarely are they seen as anything but traitors. In order to see who is a traitor and who is a hero, we must make a moral decision that does not rely on authority for verification.

For more on the anti-war soldiers who served in Vietnam, I recommend John Pilger’s documentary below.


Native stars and stripes

Art, Chicago, Music, Veterans, Vietnam

I visited the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian in Evanston, Illinois this week and was surprised to discover amidst the cultural artifacts and ethnographic studies a display case decked out in red, white and blue:

Display case at the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian

Display case at the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian

The label read:

The American flag became an important motif in Native American art during the Reservation Period (1880-1910).

Called “the Grandfather’s Flag” by the Sioux, the American flag was considered a protective symbol both because of its association with the powerful US Army and as a means to demonstrate allegiance to the American government. Parallels between the flag and Native religious iconography, like the red and white striped Sun Dance pole, the Morning Star and the blue sky, also encouraged the adoption of the American flag design in Northern plains art.

What the label doesn’t mention is that the Reservation period was a period of great brutality toward Native Americans. Academic Michael Phillips writes that Native Americans were forced in this period to enter reservations that “more closely resembled a concentration camp.” Their minds were “reeling from the loss of their homes, the pain of battling for a lost cause, the pressure of white reformers who wanted to strip away their traditions and faith, and the fear of being under constant surveillance of corrupt and abusive federal agents.

Why would anyone in this disheartening situation chose to associate themselves with the stars and stripes? The key, I think, is in the label’s mention of the powerful US Army. Native Americans have been active allies of the US military since the war of 1812. The Defense Department notes that, “historically, Native Americans have the highest record of service per capita when compared to other ethnic groups.”

The US Census found that more than 82,000 Native American men and women served in the military during the Vietnam era, with the great majority of those being volunteers. Robert Sanderson, a professor of sociology at the University of Arkansas, writes that “For many Native Americans, the Vietnam War presented a way out of the cycle of poverty experienced on government reservations. For others, it was a way of demonstrating patriotic pride, and following the warrior’s path through active military service.”

The warrior’s path for Native Americans in Vietnam and elsewhere involved incorporating indigenous culture with American patriotic symbols like the flag and rally songs. When I was at the Veterans for Peace convention earlier this month, I got to see the product of one of these blends in person.

Three members of the Ho-Chunk Nation from the Four Lakes area came to the opening ceremony and performed Native American service songs for the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force. Unlike the horn-rich marching songs of the US military, these songs incorporated traditional drumming and lyrics in the Siouan language.

I recorded one of the songs, which you can listen to below. Smithsonian Folkways also has a CD available of songs for indigenous veterans which includes all four songs and others written by Native Americans.

Three members of the Ho-Chunk nation singing at the Veterans for Peace convention.

Three members of the Ho-Chunk Nation performing at the Veterans for Peace convention. Madison Mayor Paul Soglin is on the far right.

Shadows of Vietnam in the suburbs

Art, Chicago, PTSD, Rotary, Talks, USA, Vietnam
Fallen soldiers memorial at Palatine Square

Fallen soldiers memorial at Palatine Square

I visited Palatine, Illinois today to speak to the local Rotary club about my research on Vietnam veterans. After the talk, one of the club members told me about a man in his woodworking group who was greatly affected by the US-Vietnam War.

Binh Pho is a Vietnamese artist who was imprisoned in a re-education camp for refusing to accept the Communist government after the fall of Saigon in 1975. He spent a year in the camp, as he writes, “to supposedly get my brain-washed.” After four failed attempts to escape Vietnam, he and 38 other “boat people” made it to Malaysia on September 29, 1978. It wasn’t until another eight months that he was reunited with his family, who had successfully escaped Vietnam and were living in the United States.

Binh Pho now lives in Maple Park, 60 miles west of Chicago, where he creates wooden sculptures and furniture. His artwork is heavily influenced by his experiences in Vietnam and as a refugee. In one piece the Rotarian told me about, Binh Pho recreates the view he saw from his prison cell to the outside world. Four seasons pass; the weather changes, but the landscape stays the same. The artist writes:

There was a period of time that I looked through the window and asked myself the question,”What is it like on the other side of that window?” I then just let my imagination go.

The shadows of the Vietnam War stretch far. They reach well beyond the families suffering from dioxin poisoning in Vietnam to the shores of this country and into its quietest of suburbs.

An investigation conducted by the Orange County Register found that 1 million people were imprisoned without formal trials after the fall of Saigon, with one in three South Vietnamese families having a relative in a re-education camp. The US State Department reports that 34,641 former prisoners found a new home in America after leaving the camps. Others were not so lucky. Studies have estimated that 165,000 people died in the camps.