We were scurrying to the cement-enclosed "bunker" at the back of the house, in reality an unfinished shower room in one of the corners farthest removed from the street. My house mate and I had come up with this self defense plan after my site visit with the volunteer for the American Friends Service Committee stationed at Dak To some 30 kilometers north of my station, Kontum. The intent of the visit was to share data on growing highland wheat. But, the very night before his body still shaking as he described hiding under his bed with bullets whizzing over his bed. A NVA (North Vietnamese Army) unit and VC squad (Viet Cong) walked through his village in the middle of the night and shot up everything in sight. For good measure, a grenade in the driver's side of his brand-new white Land Rover and such a beautiful machine had become a casualty of war.
My house mate and I would sit side-by-side in our makeshift bunker with our backs to the inner walls and knees under chins, our mattresses forming an outer wall for our triangular safety cage. After the jolt of nausea when first experiencing incoming we had grown accustomed to the sounds that accompanied it, followed by a barrage of outgoing fire of artillery and machine guns as Hueys (armed helicopters) roared into action. Most nights we were back in bed in an hour or two.
January 10, 1968 was different, a preview of the Tet offensive that was yet to come in which I became a civilian version of missing in action (MIA). By night's end we lay sandwiched between the ground and mattresses huddled in terror as the noise and utter chaos of war roiled about us it what seemed mere inches above our heads. When we dared to peek out for breath we could see silhouettes of what looked liked the figures of enemy soldiers moving a few feet away, thrown into relief on the wall behind us by the scant light coming through the bullet holes and ventilation tiles as flares slowly sank to earth. We dared not breath for fear they would hear us. Everything moved eerily slowly. Our arms around one another, we whispered in the moments of terrifying quietness-- the silence is worse than the noise -- she told me what she wanted me to know if I should survive, and made me promise to tell her family and lover her dying words. Before the night was out I had done the same.
At dawn we stood arm-in-arm on the porch in the great silence that follows the raging of war, watching women balance their loads of morning breakfast on long poles over their shoulders, their burdens bouncing along amid the destruction and death. Life goes on even in war.
I can see the scene like it was yesterday and feel the peace I felt, just for being alive. Little would I know that on this January 2005 night I would read those notes taken from my journals written about a hot, hellish and sticky place seemingly so long ago. I read about those memories of war as I sit not fifty miles from New York City, a large scar of war on U.S.A. soil. An open wound that signals the next stage in a war that has been building in intensity for centuries. Since 9/11, 2001 the United States of America counts the number of dead and wounded approaching 20,000, and the losses on the other side are estimated to be more than 100,000.
A much greater number on all sides have suffered the ravages of war.
There is no talk of peace between the warring factions; each side believes it is winning, fanning the growing desire for war.
In my gut I have the same kind of tightness I felt in the Pre-Tet autumn of 1967 in Vietnam and my dreams, once again, are of those terrifying times. I pray I am only projecting my past onto the future, but my fear grows yearly. I see humanity on the path to catastrophic destruction. Most people seem caught in a trance -- not wanting to believe that we live in such treacherous times, and in defense have convinced themselves that they are powerless to change the inevitability of war.
We are part of the birth of a new time in history; the only question is what will be born? Will we return to the ages when religions, states and tribes ruled by edict? Or build on the ages of democratic civilization ruled by just law justly applied, the foundation of peace. The choice is clear.
The fact that this struggle is taking place in context of a globalizing humanity changes nothing about the fundamentals of war and peace, except for the size and magnitude of the issues.
From the terror of those night and days so long ago, a new dream has risen:
The United Nations transformed by 2020, humanity taking the third step from League of Nations to United Nations to World of Nations and first real steps to universal laws.
I can see it in my mind's eye and I know others can as well; it is an old dream whose time may have come.
I know if humanity wants to be ruled by law and not by war, it can happen. And will happen. Though I fear that path is, as justice seems always hard won, through great struggle and much unnecessary suffering. The answers have been given to us. The issue is the question.