What You Understand Depends on Where You Stand/1

by Mark Chmiel

For Brent and Brett

On Daniel Berrigan’s Night Flight to Hanoi

Night Flight to Hanoi is an account of Jesuit Daniel Berrigan’s odyssey in late January and early February 1968, when he and historian Howard Zinn traveled to Hanoi as representatives of the American peace movement. Their aim was to bring home three U.S. pilots whom the North Vietnamese had released. The narrative includes his decision to go, the waiting, the arrival, the tours into the grotesque and destructive displays of US military power, the testimonies of Vietnamese humanity and ingenuity, the meeting with the pilots, and the unelaborated denouement when the men are flown home—contrary to the wishes of the North Vietnamese—on a military plane. He and Zinn went in good faith around the world to promote peace between the two countries; the U.S. government, however, violated the agreement.

What is bracing in this account is Berrigan’s journey of solidarity, risk-taking, and accompaniment (example: sitting in the bomb shelters with the Vietnamese). So, what matters after such exposure and confrontation over the course of several days?

Seeing matters: “I have seen the victims. And this sight of the mutilated dead has exerted such inward change upon me that the words of corrupt diplomacy appear to me more and more in their true light. That is to say—as words spoken in enmity against reality.” [22-23] How  Berrigan’s Jesuit brother Ignacio Ellacuría stressed over and over the imperative to confront realidad.

Modesty matters: “Instructions upon return. Develop for the students the meaning of Ho’s ‘useless years.’ The necessity of escaping once and for all the slavery of ‘being useful.’ On the other hand: prison, contemplation, life in solitude. Do the things that even ‘movement people’ tend to despise and misunderstand.  To be radical is habitually to do things which society at large despises.” [49]  Radical, like being with the ill and dying, which Berrigan later embraced in his work at St. Rose’s Home in New York.

Truth-telling matters: “Numbed and appalled as we were on leaving that room, I think we knew beyond doubt that America would be accountable to history for a genocidal war, in violation of every international convention from The Hague in 1907 to Geneva in 1929 and 1949, on to the hot pursuit of the Nazi ‘war criminals’ in Nuremberg.” [68-69] That was the Sixties; to that infamy can be added ongoing U.S. criminality, from Central America in the Eighties to Iraq spanning the Nineties and the last decade.

Social location matters: “What sort of proximity to actual war is required, if men [and women] are to become thoughtful and critical about their actions?” [94] “It is a bit like Selma—we are safe only among the victims. A law of history? Who was ever safe among executioners?” [112] As Rachel Corrie indicated, nothing can prepare you for an immersion in the Palestinian reality.  There is no substitute for living with families suffering under military occupation.

Knowing what and where the real work is matters: “An adequate peace movement could not satisfy itself with assuaging the sufferings of the victims, by medical help at the point of impact. The radical work consisted rather in staying with conditions at home, trying as best we might to work changes upon a society in which military victims were the logical outcome of a ruinous, power-ridden national ethos in the world at large.” [69]  Then and since, both Berrigan and Zinn did their part to interrogate and delegitimize that “national ethos,” a work that must be our own.

Loss of innocence matters:  Upon departure from North Vietnam, Berrigan realized a rite of passage: “The fact was that, quite simply and unequivocally, we had graduated from innocence. We stood at the airstrip that night, a degree of sorts, at the ceremony of our Vietnam commencement. We looked down, and the ticket of our passage was a handful of flowers. Unseasonal, unexpected, fragrant, they glimmered in the darkness, the unlikely January blooms, celebration and portent. We had made it, the smiles of our teachers assured us.” [134]  There are so many delusions and privileges to cut through, so many innocences that are but blindnesses, mainstream patriotism being a major one.

Berrigan mused about this quest: “Possibly, all these days will mean nothing spectacular—simply the taking up of the work  of peace with more will and courage.” [110]   A few months later, he  would join eight others in the Catonsville Nine action in Maryland.  For that civil disobedience, they would go on trial and be sentenced to years in federal prisons.

From the Vietnamese, Berrigan learned this proverb:  “To one who has traveled four thousand miles, ten miles more are nothing.” [79]