Sunday, November 24, 2013

Turning Thirty

As of today, I am officially thirty years old. Even though I've been practicing for the past few months, it still feels weird to say and write. The best part about turning thirty is that I got one of the most thoughtful gifts from all of you - a collection of stories and pictures from family and friends. Bryn did a great job putting it all together and I look forward to showing it off to everyone when I'm back in Austin over the holidays. By the way, I'll be back in Austin over the holidays and I'd like to see as many of you as possible for the 2-3 weeks that I'm there!

Many of the stories I knew and laughed or cried as I anticipated what came next. Some of the stories I had forgotten about, or was too young to remember and this was the first time I heard about them. Some of the stories weren't totally historically accurate, but you guys did a good job skewing the facts in my favor, so I'm willing to overlook the errors. I read over the book for about an hour this morning but will undoubtedly read over it many more times today and in the coming weeks. Thank you all for contributing and making today special. I hope you all know how much you mean to me and it's great to have friends and family as loving as the ones I've got. I'm a lucky guy, for sure.

The book is quite a good complement to a "life book" that my Aunt Suzy made for me when I graduated from high school. I like that there is now a "Volume II". I remember as a kid, my parents had a shelf of photo albums that documented the people and events that made up our family. Over the past few years, I've reminisced about those albums and suffered some nostalgic regret that now all photos are stored digitally and actual, physical albums are rare. But now I've got two albums of my own that I intend to keep on my shelf forever as physical memories of everyone who's made my life great. I couldn't imagine a better birthday present.

Yesterday, I was at the library checking out some books. A friend came up and joked with me about spending the last day of my twenties reading and working on papers. For a few moments immediately afterwards, I was overtaken by grief and felt this anxious guilt that I wasn't do something more spectacular. But then I remembered the last YEAR of my twenties and all that anxiety and guilt vanished. I spent the last year living in China, gallivanting around south east Asia and getting a masters degree in International Relations in Italy. The last day of my twenties isn't nearly as important as the last year of my twenties, and the last year of my twenties was full to the brim. I welcome the next decade with as much excitement as I celebrate the last.

And finally, just to add some historic significance to this day, Iran, the US and other negotiators reached a deal this morning in Geneva that will see an easing of tensions between Iran and the west: a historic event that indicates an improvement in relations between Iran and the US that has been sour for the duration of my lifetime. As I prepare for a career in international relations, I can't help but wonder what impact today's agreement will have on my future. Maybe we can all celebrate my 40th in Tehran? Who knows.

Have a good week and thank you all again! Bryn has posted pictures so check them out on her facebook page. I'll post pictures from today on flickr once I've done some things worth taking pictures of.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Vietnam War Parable

We're covering the Vietnam War this week in my course on "American Foreign Policy since 1945" - which is essentially a survey of the Cold War. Tonight, I was reading Daniel Ellsberg's "Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers". Ellsberg is the one who leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971 and has recently resurfaced in the news for supporting Bradley Manning. Reading his book has been illuminating. Most of it is actually about his experience as an adviser in Vietnam and his observations there during the US build-up of forces.

Past and recent political controversies aside, it's a good book and I thought this passage that I copied below was a nice parable of the American experience in Vietnam. I'm not sure if it's 100% accurate - the punchline seems too clean for real life - but that doesn't matter as much as the underlying point of putting US involvement in Vietnam within the greater historical context. It was good enough to get me to read it twice. I couldn't help but share it with everyone else.

"Later in the spring of 1966, during the Buddhist uprising, I was driving along a road between Da Nang and Hoi An in I Corps. The road had been blocked or cut every half mile or so - there were trenches across the road that we had to drive around on the shoulder or barbed-wire fences we had to cut through - not by the VC but by the Buddhist ARVN [Army of the Republic of Vietnam] troop units who were opposed to General Ky's regime in Saigon. In effect, both sides in this civil war within the war were being paid out of the US budget.

Along the road was an unusual succession of abandoned fortifications, of varying constructions, that dated from different periods successively further back in time. There were recent Popular Force outposts. We had supplied the wages for the local militia that had built them and the cement, if there was any. But basically, these were mud forts, very primitive little outposts along the road supposedly to protect local hamlets. They had been recently abandoned because of the regional nonviolent uprising against the Saigon regime, which had been paying the troops out of US aid. Posts like these I'd seen all over Vietnam.

But next to one of them was a pillbox of another kind, better constructed and made out of concrete, a cylindrical box with narrow portholes. The interpreter driving with me, a young Vietnamese lieutenant, explained that this had been built by the French. I recognized that it looked like one of the smaller pillboxes I had seen in pictures of the French Maginot Line at the outset of the German invasion of France. We drove by several of these. Most were from the 1946-54 war by France to regain its colony, during which it had run a pacification program very similar to ours. But some of them, the lieutenant pointed out, went back much earlier, to the twenties and thirties (when the Maginot Line had been built) and even much earlier in the French pacification of Vietnam.

In the midst of these, along the road, were some pillboxes of a distinctly different sort, also concrete but rounded, like ovens. I recognized those from pictures of the Pacific island fighting by the marines in World War II. They were Japanese, built when the Japanese had pacified the area of what was now I Corps in their occupation of Vietnam during the war. Finally, we came to a massive knoll, overgrown with grass and studded with very old stones. I was told it was an ancient Chinese fort, constructed when the Chinese had pacified Vietnam, starting with what was now I Corps, over a period of a thousand years. When the interpreter told me that, I was reminded of what Tran Hgoc Chau had once said to me: "You must understand that we are a people who think of ourselves as having defeated the Chinese, though it took us a thousand years."

Driving this road was like time travel or visiting an archaeological dig that had brought strata from many historical epochs to the surface. It was a kind of open-air museum of successive efforts by foreigners to establish their authority and control over Vietnamese or at least to protect their own troops and collaborators from resisting locals. At this moment it was not secure for us, since the militia and ARVN paid by the GVN [Government of South Vietnam] had left the countryside tot he VC to demonstrate against the Saigon regime in Da Nang and other local towns. We drove fast, between the obstacles on the road, with our weapons at the ready. Even so, the children we passed, as always, were friendly to us. They waved and called out the only American words they knew: "Hallo! Number one! OK!," the same words that had so touched my heart when I heard them for the first time after my arrival in Vietnam.

The lieutenant driving with me remarked, when we heard some of these shouts, "When I was a little boy, their age, I used to shout hello at foreign soldiers too."

I said, "How did you say it? Bonjour?"
He said, "Ohayo gozainmasu." Good morning in Japanese.

I knew we were following the French in Vietnam, who for all their colonialism were our allies in two world wars. But as someone who had grown up on movies of the war in the Pacific, and then on war stories in the Marines, I found it eerie to hear I was walking in the footsteps of Japanese invaders."