Two writers, one American and one Vietnamese, met at a conference after the war and collaborated on a book, The Other Side of Heaven: Post-War Fiction by Vietnamese and American Writers. Wayne Karlin, who had piloted a helicopter, imagines his co-author, Le Minh Khue, who had worked to clear American bombs from the Ho Chi Minh Trail:
… I pictured myself flying above the jungle canopy, transfixed with fear and hate and searching for her in order to shoot her, while she looked up, in hatred and fear also, searching for me …
And then he wonders “how it would have been if I had found her then.”
He knows – we all know – how it would have been.
But in that moment of reflection
I looked across the table … and saw her face as if, after twenty years, it was at last emerging from the jungle canopy. She looked across at me and saw the same.
In his forthcoming book, Mark Smith describes wondering how it must have been to be beneath the horrific firebombing American helicopters could inflict, or what happened to the kids that used to sell reefers to the soldiers after an ammo dump exploded. He tells about his unit coming into a village in the early morning. It was cold and they smelled cooking, so they walked right in. One of them immediately starts needling the woman of the house, which provokes in Mark an unexpected moment of insight.
“Hey, mama-san, what you cookin’ up?” Kreitz demanded, peering over the woman’s shoulder, wrinkling his nose. “Damn, it sure ain’t for me!”
I was surprised to find myself annoyed with Kreitz for poking fun at the old woman and her meal. There was no reason for it anymore. I wondered, for how many decades had this woman followed this morning routine? And for how many years had her mother done so before her? Are we the first unexpected guests she had received? No, probably not. Probably the French and the Japanese and again the French had been to her kitchen in years past. Who knows? Maybe even the Chinese barged in on one of her more distant ancestors. Christ, if you dug around the place you’d probably turn up some faded, yellowed manuscript explaining just how to deal with uninvited foreign visitors before dawn. So there’s no point in bugging her; she’ll know exactly how to react, what expression to wear, the correct way of standing to exude deference, etc.
“Peewee,” I said, “leave the old bitch alone. All she’s tryin’ to do is fix breakfast for her old man.”
The moment transcends time and space. Not only does Mark see himself and the others in his unit from her point of view, he sees all the others who had come before him, the long timeline of “uninvited foreign visitors.”
Those moments of imagination come about because the mind is able suddenly to enlarge the scope of vision, see oneself as a part of a larger story, compress time, or pull time apart. Without these moments we would get stuck in the hatred and fear. With them we build a little pathway out. Wondering about someone else’s story, even for a moment seeing what is happening with someone else’s eyes, are moments of profound human connection.
Connection, of course, is contrary to war. To think of someone else as “enemy” one must first call them names, dehumanize them. Dehumanization, disconnection serve the forces of war. Letting the face emerge from the jungle, respecting a woman’s right to make breakfast are powerful – and subversive – acts of peace.
To make my point in this post, I wanted to find a view of an American helicopter seen from below through the jungle canopy. A Google search using multiple parameters yielded nothing comparable to what Le Minh Khue would have seen. Perhaps if I had searched in Vietnamese I might have found something, but in English that war, even in the far-seeing eyes of Google, is still all about us.