by Jean Stimmell
Because America chose to wage a war in Vietnam, Thich Nhat Hanh was exiled from his country and ended up a renowned spiritual teacher and peacemaker, instrumental in mellowing our macho culture.
It was even more of a turnaround for Ocean Vuong, the acclaimed writer and poet: He tells us he literally wouldn’t exist without the Vietnam War. That’s because his grandfather, an American soldier fighting in Vietnam, met his grandmother, “a girl from the rice paddies,” 1 and married her.
And then, there’s me: a hapless 19-year-old who stumbled into Vietnam after dropping out of college. I enlisted before the big Vietnam protests, yet with major reservations about the war. But I had more pressing concerns about disappointing my father, a combat veteran of WW II, and my Pittsfield peers, if I did not emulate that manly icon of my generation, John Wayne.
In different ways, all our lives were forged by war—and still are.
Sometimes it takes cultural outsiders to expose our societal blindspots—to show us how things really are. As Vuong reminds us in a podcast with the Native American writer, Tommy Orange, “America is literally a product of war, starting with the stolen land we are now standing on.” 2
This became more evident to Vuong after he started writing: he couldn’t help noticing that even the building blocks of his craft, the words he was using, reflected a war mentality: “I owned that workshop. I killed it, right? I smashed him. I went into that novel guns blazing.” He tells Tommy Orange, “Here we are, our one moment to create something on our own terms, and the only tools we have—we are so deprived as a culture—that the only tools we have are the tools of death.” 3
It seems extreme to say that the instruments of death are all we’ve got. Yet, all we have to do is look around.
We’ve lost, to date, one million of our fellow Americans to Covid, yet Congress refuses to approve the money to prepare for the next pandemic—which is sure to come. Climate Catastrophe is descending on us, the ultimate grim reaper, but no one seems to be worried, and Congress seems oblivious. Conversely, our tools of death are ever-ready, always on hair-trigger alert.
We are witnessing a perfect example right now: when Russia invaded Ukraine, our government was able to rush billions of dollars in military equipment immediately, no questions asked. All of us support Ukraine, but shouldn’t equal attention be spent on the tools of life, like massive diplomatic efforts to end the killing?
Sadly, though, war is all we know.
George Lakoff tells us why in his now classic book, Metaphors We Live By. He explains that metaphors are fundamental to how we think: we use metaphors to structure what we perceive, how we think, and what we do. In the case of America, he convincingly shows how “war” has become the dominant metaphor of our times.
“It is important to see that we don’t just talk about arguments in terms of war. We can actually win or lose arguments. We see the person we are arguing with as an opponent. We attack his positions and we defend our own. We gain and lose ground…. It is in this sense that the ‘argument is war’ metaphor is one that we live by in this culture.” 4
When we look into it, as Ocean Vuong has done, it is frightening how much of our language is based on the war metaphor and its evil twin: our free-market economy with its “survival of the fittest” mentality.
Carol Pearson, in The Hero Within, points out the tragic nature of living in an over-ripe warrior society, as we do today: extreme polarization, massive inequality, citizens armed to the teeth, and bodies of mass shootings piling up higher each day. She suggests a more humane approach:
“But what if we simply shift our expectations a bit? What if the goal of life is not to prevail, but simply to learn? Then the end of the story can seem very different; and so can what happens in between birth and death. Heroism is redefined as not only moving mountains but knowing mountains: being fully oneself and seeing without denial, what is, and being open to learning the lessons life offers us.” 5
That’s the life-giving lesson that refugees like Thich Nhat Hanh and Ocean Vuong have brought with them to our shores, and it’s a way of life that I have tried to live up to after my own baptism in war.
4 Lakoff, George & Johnson Mark, Metaphors We Live By. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1980. P. 4
5 The Hero Within, by Carol Pearson, pp. 9-10; “How Vietnam got under America’s callused cowboy skin.”