Respecting the Vietnamese

by Mark Chmiel

On John Balaban’s Remembering Heaven’s Face: A Moral Witness in Vietnam

For Chris, Carol, and Cristina

John Balaban declared himself a Conscientious Objector during the VietnamWar; he ended up going to Vietnam, but as a member of the International Voluntary Services (IVS).  Wounded during the Tet Offensive, he returned home before going back to South Vietnam to work for the  U.S.-based Committee of Responsibility To Save War-Burned and War-Injured Children (do you know of any comparable organizations for the children of Iraq and Afghanistan?).  The group brought  children damaged by the war to receive operations and care that was unavailable in their homeland.  Balaban accompanied them back and forth.  He experienced the pangs of his exile from Vietnam as he found work as a professor (in Berkeley, “I was stunned by a realization: not everyone was preoccupied with the war.”)   He did find a way to return, through support by the National Endowment of Humanities, as an agent of peace.  Balaban was intent on interviewing Vietnamese about ca dao, their folk poetry, which is typically sung.  He later became settled in the U.S.,  and taught and worked as a poet.  When he traveled to Hanoi, it was to teach American literature.

Within this story as sketched above, there are many passages worth meditating on.  When speaking of his time with IVS, Balaban spoke highly of Dave Gitelson, who “had really entered their world, maybe the only one of us who had.”  How does one enter another’s world during a time of chaos and violence?  Evidently, Gitelson learned Vietnamese and respected their culture, something unimaginable to the hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops there.   Gitelson was also capable of self-criticism, too, when he said about the IVS workers, “We’re nothing more than sugar-coating for the genocide that’s going on here.”

What was the war like for a humanitarian volunteer like Balaban? Here’s one scene: “When planes swooped low and dropped from formation, it was like a gang mower snipping off everything in its path. Whole families, reunited at Tet the night before, now lay about us shredded and bleeding to death in the dirt.”  And here’s another: “The little toddler couldn’t help it and shrieked ‘May bay’ (“airplane”) again and again until I was ashamed to be alive, to be human, let alone to be an American, to be one of those who had brought the planes to this sad little country ten thousand miles away.”

People we know often ask two questions about terrible things that are happening: “What should be done? What can I do?”  Balaban did as well, and he chose a path that I know others have chosen in  a comparable way to humanize the Nicaraguans, the Palestinians, the Iranians,  the Iraqis and the Salvadorans: “From my point of view, the best thing that I could do now to help stop the war was gather the poetry made by ordinary folk in Vietnam and bring it before Americans. However insignificant this effort might be, the more human Vietnamese seemed to Americans, the harder it might be to slaughter them.” Balaban evidently had a lot of faith in the Americans’ humanity that they could be moved to involve themselves with others to protest the government’s continuing the war.*

Like Gitelson, Balaban developed deep respect for Vietnamese culture.  From his field work there, he saw that the people’s poetry “was nothing less than a record of Vietnamese humanistic belief, a record that I could trace back at least one thousand years…”   Amidst the mayhem and brutality in South Vietnam,  Balaban performed an cultural act of both resistance and affirmation  and in this book he gives us, unwittingly, a portrait of a U.S. citizen whose humanity is intact.

In one of his later visits to Vietnam, Balaban met up with a Vietnamese veteran who served in the National Liberation Front and survived the Tet Offensive. Hugging Balaban, he said, “We never saw an American who was our friend.”

*U.S. Journalist Gloria Emerson had covered the war for years and when back home, she had such faith in American farmers: “In Texas, in Iowa, in New Jersey and in New Mexico I went to them, pushed on by the sentimental persuasion that these men, above all others, would see the cruelty of driving the Vietnamese from their land and water and rice into the towns and cities where they were degraded and lost. I was quite persuaded that American farmers would not approve of the forests and farms and rice fields of Vietnam being put to death.” See her book, Winners and Losers:  Battles, Retreats, Gains, Losses and Ruins from a Long War.

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