The words above are the title of a Washington Post editorial dated 18 November 2019. It recounts that while Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) was pleading for more strict gun control laws on the U.S. Senate floor earlier this month, a mass shooting was underway at a school in Santa Clarita, California. Two more have occurred since.
The editorial goes on: “Thursday’s shooting was the fifth mass shooting at a U.S. school or school event so far this year and, overall, there have been 369 mass shootings catalogued by the Gun Violence Archive in 2019 as of Sunday.” The House last February passed and sent to the Senate a bill to require universal background checks. The Senate has not acted.
The editorial ends: “How many more [mass shootings] will there be before Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) decides it is time to stop sitting on his hands and do something about the problem?”
In the U.S., we have 120.5 firearms for every 100 residents. Every day, 310 people are shot in the U.S. Every day. What will it take to get us Americans to reinterpret—or better yet rewrite—the Second Amendment to the Constitution to restrict the number of firearms available for killing each other? How many children must die?
When Saigon fell on 29 April 1975, we left behind to the harsh mercies of the North Vietnamese tens of thousands of South Vietnamese who had labored by our side to fight the enemy. Among them were 2700 Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) soldiers who worked with the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), my employer.
I knew these men. I had tramped through the jungles with them, shared meals with them in their homes, celebrated the birth of their children, mourned when one of them died. They addressed me as anh, older brother. I had with them the same kind of bond I had with American fighting men on the battlefield: we were brothers in arms.
I did everything I was capable of to get these men and their families safely out of the country when it became obvious that Saigon was going to fall. But no U.S. government funds had been allotted to the evacuation of non-Americans. The U.S. ambassador, Graham Martin, was confident that the North Vietnamese would want to establish a coalition government with the South Vietnamese. He rejected my warnings, based on intercept of North Vietnamese radio communications, that the enemy was preparing to attack Saigon. And he never called for evacuations. By the time he was countermanded from Washington in the pre-dawn hours of 29 April, it was too late. The North Vietnamese were already in the streets of Saigon, and we couldn’t reach any of the 2700.
All of them were killed or captured by the North Vietnamese. Those who survived were sent to so-called reeducation camps, really concentration camps, where the death rate was high.
In sum, we betrayed our loyal friends and abandoned them. I have never stopped grieving over their loss.
Yesterday, I talked about the difficulties that aging introduces into one’s life. The body slows down, the senses grow weaker, the brain is less adept. But the mind, that incorporeal essence, grows as the physical organs wither.
I find that as I age, my thinking reaches new depths. I am able as never before to tackle what it in past times I found most difficult, concepts like what spirituality means (especially to a agnostic like me), the quality of serenity, the expanse of creativity. My artistic bent strengthens as my intellect, dependent on the functioning of the brain, weakens. I am better able to understand and articulate the non-physical world.
And I am better able to write than I have ever been. While the brain struggles to remember vocabulary, the spirit finds new and better ways to convey ideas and experience.
I see that as the mind strengthens, my understanding of life and its meaning deepens. I see why it is generally accepted that wisdom grows as the years of age increase. I now comprehend ideas, concepts, beliefs that eluded me when I was younger. My grasp of the world of the spirit, that is, all that is beyond the concrete world, is firmer and deeper.
So I accept aging with joy. I am more than willing to accept the physical debilities in exchange for the expansion of wisdom. Aging ain’t for sissies. It’s for the wise.
I’ve lost touch with a good friend. For years, once a month, this man and I got together for lunch. When I was getting ready to move late last Spring, I told him I’d have to forego the lunches for a while until I got settled in my new house. A month ago or so, I emailed him that I was ready to resume our lunch dates. When I got no response, I emailed him again, then twice telephoned him. No answer.
My friend was close to ninety. It was obvious to me he was failing in several different ways. He was having more and more trouble getting around, walking, sitting, getting into the car. But my guess had been that he’d be with us a while longer. He had moved just before I did, and I don’t have his new address. I have no way of locating him.
My best guess is that he is sick or perhaps has died. That fits the pattern I see with growing regularity. Barely a week goes by that I don’t hear about another of my contemporaries who has died.
I accept that losing friends is a part of getting older. So is dealing with a failing body and the inability to perform tasks we’ve always done as a matter of routine. My hearing and eyesight aren’t what they used to be. I have a bad right leg, a bad left arm, lungs that don’t work right.
I see the effects of aging on friends and acquaintances. I see them in myself. The worst, from my point of view, is that the brain doesn’t work as well as it once did. I have trouble remembering names. I reach for words when I’m writing, and they’re not there. I have more trouble that I have ever had thinking in modes that I’m not skilled at.
None of this is easy. It puts new demands on my ingenuity and creativity. And I have to plan on taking more time than I used to do simple tasks.
I and others my age, in short, face new challenges that test our ability to overcome difficulties. Aging ain’t for sissies.
We now have testimony that President Trump is a major threat to our security. In Kiev on July 26 2019, Gordon Sondland, in an outdoor café, discussed classified information with Trump using his insecure cellphone. This came a day after Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in which he pressured Zelensky to investigate the Bidens. We know about the Sondland call from the testimony of David Holmes, the political counsel at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, that he was at the restaurant in Kiev—a public place where anyone might have overheard the conversation—on July 26 when Sondland spoke to Trump over the phone.
All of us who, as government employees, have worked with classified information, are trained never to mention anything classified outside secured spaces or on an unsecured telephone. The same applies to email and internet chatter. We already knew that Trump gave Vladimir Putin a highly classified document during a discussion sometime ago. I wonder how many other security violations Trump may have committed.
Those not familiar with the government’s classification system may not understand the seriousness of this issue. Intelligence is the eyes and ears of our government. It allows us to know what our adversaries are doing and sometimes what they plan to do. To the degree that the intelligence we hold, all of it classified, is revealed to our intelligence targets, to that same degree we lose the ability to know what are our adversaries are doing. A major source of information is monitoring telephones and especially cellphones. Those surveilled can easily block the surveillance once they know it is going on. That puts us in great danger.
We already knew that Trump dislikes the U.S. intelligence establishment because it revealed in detail Russia’s effort to get Trump elected in 2016. I have expressed my concerns in this blog about what Trump may have done to intelligence in retaliation for its reporting of the truth. Since all actions by intelligence agencies are classified, we may never know what damage Trump has inflicted. All of us will suffer for the loss.
Featured on the wall of my piano room is a photograph, taken by the artist-photographer Ann Gonzalez, of the jungle combat boots I wore for many years in Vietnam. At the bottom are the words, “Do what you have to do, whatever it takes.” That’s the motto of my novel Last of the Annamese, set during the fall of Saigon. And it is the theme of the book—how those of us in Vietnam knew we had to be prepared to give our all for our country.
The photo of the empty boots suggests, almost subliminally, that their owner did just that and that now all that is left of him is his boots.
Men and women who put their lives on the line for the country are a manifestation of the can-do attitude writ large. We do what we have to do, whatever it takes. And we know that our sacrifice is worthwhile and honorable.
The tragic irony is that those who fought in Vietnam were undercut by the downside of the American can-do attitude, the assumption by our commanders that we superior Americans would easily defeat that “raggedy-ass little fourth-rate country,” as Lyndon Johnson called North Vietnam. We were too blinded by our arrogance to understand how to fight the North Vietnamese. And we lost the war. Some 58,000 of us died.
So we Americans need to rethink our way of seeing the world. Let us make the most of the good side of out can-do attitude and learn the humility to grant equality to others who are not like us. Let us do what we have to do, whatever it takes.
My blog post of yesterday brought a thoughtful response from Rose Kent, a writer of wonderful children’s books: “Some assets can also be liabilities. Our can-do spirit has served us well at times. Surely it brought us independence from the most powerful nation in the world in the 18th century. It saved the world from totalitarianism as well. We Americans need to do a better job of learning from our mistakes. Vietnam became a topic nobody wanted to speak of from early on after the war. But there was a great deal there to unpack.”
As usual, Rose brought balance to my thoughts. Despite my intent, my words came off stressing the negative. What I meant to say is that our can-do attitude is admirable but can mislead us. As colonies and later a young nation, we faced challenges that required us to be stalwart and positive. Our westward push to the coast of the Pacific Ocean succeeded because we held our heads high and carried on. And our performance in the two world wars bespoke our optimistic leadership. Our can-do attitude on the whole is a good thing.
But we as Americans need to learn not to look down on other cultures who have suffered defeats and disasters we have never known. We must learn the humility to see others, who are different from us, as our equals. We especially need to overcome out linguistic arrogance and learn other languages. In the process, we’ll learn deeply about how people in other cultures think.
And Rose is right that we need to look at the Vietnam war and understand why we lost. A good many books have come out in the last half-dozen years examining in detail where we went awry. We can’t afford to lose wars because we don’t understand the culture and strategy of the enemy and can’t figure out how to counter it.
My sense is that younger Americans, those under fifty and especially those in their twenties and thirties, have learned from the mistakes of their parents and grandparents. They will do better than we have done. I pray that they study the languages of those who oppose us. I propose that they start with Chinese, a language that taught me volumes about how to think in general and particularly about how the Chinese think.