Just Words

Recently, I participated in a discussion of cuss words, the profane and vulgar terms we use to express anger and frustration. The discussants found the usage reprehensible. They saw it as a coarsening of our culture.

I pointed out to the group that we Americans are among the few nationalities that concern ourselves with vulgarity and profanity. Other cultures I’ve lived in use such words frequently without worrying about it. Put differently, people in other nationalities refer to bodily functions and call upon the deity to condemn commonly and think nothing of it.

To me, words are just words. We use them to think, convey facts, and express emotion. They have no physical reality—they exist only in the mind. I don’t use off-color terminology and swear words in my speaking and writing only because they get in the way of others I’m trying to communicate with. These words are, in and of themselves, emotionally neutral. The passion they excite resides within people, not within the words.

As a writer, I love words. They are the tools I use to convey meaning. And I understand that most of us use words to think most of the time. I have in my head a little voice that is constantly verbalizing, most often in English, but sometimes in other languages I know. The trick, for me, is to think without words. That realm of thought produces insights and understandings not available through verbalization. Once I have pondered in the wordless mode, I can then look for the words to express the product of my thinking.

For me, thinking without words comes in two forms. The first is using systems other than language. I can think in music. I can think in numbers. I can think in visual images. The systems available for thinking are many.

The other way to think without words is to think without any system. We are so dependent on thinking in systems that we find it difficult to banish all of them from our thoughts. The way I learned to do it was through Sufi meditation. It’s not easy. It demands freeing the consciousness of all systems and symbols and letting the mind rove free.

I have learned—and recommend to others—that thinking without words offers a wealth of insight and beauty. I urge all to learn to do it.

The Son Tay Raid (2)

The passage that moved the most in John Gargus’ The Son Tay Raid was the author’s description of his own involvement and his intentions:

“As all this went through my mind, I always returned to my own personal concerns with getting captured. My whole immediate family lived in Czechoslovakia. My parents, brother, and sister had experienced years of persecution because they stood accused by that country’s communist regime for their ‘collaboration in my traitorous escape to the USA.’ My captivity in another communist country would provide a tremendous new opportunity for further exploitation of their lives. During my prior tour in Vietnam, I had resolved that I would never be taken alive. I would provoke my potential captors into shooting it out with me. That made me a poor team member when I flew with an eleven-man crew. My personal reservation about captivity would put anyone else with me in jeopardy. My only rationalization for this scenario was that such an event would never come about. Now I was back in Southeast Asia, this time with a twelve-man crew [as part of the Son Tay raid], and the same daydreaming nightmare kept me awake. No one knew of my concern, and I resolved not to let anyone in on it. Along with this secret, I had a wish to die with a U.S. flag in my possession. During my prior Vietnam tour I carried a nine-by-fifteen-inch flag in my navigator’s bag. I would put it in my left breast pocket on our nighttime missions over North Vietnam. In November 1970, though, this flag was at home in Fayetteville, North Carolina, with my unsuspecting wife and four children. (When my American-born mother died in Slovakia in May 2000 I placed this flag in her funeral casket.) Before our departure from Eglin [Airbase where the team trained] I bought a three-by-five-foot flag that I planned to wrap around my chest under the flight fatigues. Then, if the worst scenario materialized, an American flag would cover at least a part of my body.”

Gargus’ courage and devotion are reminiscent of the valor I encountered with soldiers and Marines on the battlefields of Vietnam. I continue to have the utmost respect for these men.

The Son Tay Raid

I have just finished reading John Gargus’ The Son Tay Raid: American POWs in Vietnam Were Not Forgotten (Texas A&M University Military History Series, 2010). The Special Forces Association gave me the book after my fall of Saigon presentation to them in November. Thirteen of them autographed the book to thank me. Their gift moved me deeply.

The Son Tay Raid was a difficult but rewarding read. The author, John Gargus, was a pilot who participated in the raid. He is not a professional writer, so not all the text is as smooth as one might wish. Nevertheless, the story is gripping and well worth the time and effort required to digest it.

The Son Tay raid to free POWs in North Vietnam took place in November 1970. I was in Vietnam at the time providing signals intelligence support to troops on the battlefield. I knew nothing of the raid until I read about it in the press. It was a spectacular success—all the participants got into and out of North Vietnam alive. But when they arrived at the prison camp, they found no prisoners. All had been moved to other locations.

The failure to free POWs notwithstanding, the raid is justifiably celebrated as one of the most successful operations during the Vietnam war. Despite the involvement of hundreds, the mission was never compromised and took the North Vietnamese by complete surprise.

More tomorrow.

The Meaning of Masculinity

At a recent meeting of a men’s group I regularly attend, the question of masculinity came up. What does it mean to be masculine?

I didn’t participate in the discussion. Instead, I listened. What became clear to me was the difficulty of nailing down the meaning of a term with such emotional connotations. “Masculinity” is a loaded word.

We can know scientifically the physical differences between men and women. They are scientifically observable and/or measurable—e.g., size, muscular strength, the genitals.

More difficult to define, validate, and cope with are the cultural traits we assign to men. Not very long ago, we accepted without thinking much about it that men were more rational and intelligent than women. We believed that men were less subject to emotional reaction and more apt to seek a physical rather than an intellectual solution to a problem. We saw men as rougher, less gentle, readier to engage in fighting.

I can’t deny that I am a product of my culture and that some of my beliefs about my own masculinity won’t stand up to careful scientific scrutiny. What I’m left with is my moral compass. I know, for example, that as a husband and a father, I must care for, support, and defend my spouse and my children. At a rational level, I can’t see that those duties are any different from what a woman must do.

I end up not being able to see many important differences between masculinity and femininity. At bottom, we are people. We must take care of one another. That is our vocation.

Thinking and Language

In response to my thoughts about the importance of studying other languages to increase the sharpness of our thinking (in my observations on our can-do attitude versus respect for intellectuals in my series of blog posts on thinking), David VanVlack commented:

“I have long observed this too. The way thoughts are expressed in different languages are a window into the culture of those who speak it, and the way they look at the world. That’s why it’s so important to study languages, IMO. I would bet that if more people who were making policy in connection with Vietnam had had some understanding of the language (not necessarily even fluency), things might have been a bit different.”

David’s words bring to mind two thoughts.

First, almost all Americans I encounter find my facility with languages (I have spoken seven) truly remarkable. But speakers of other languages (Chinese, Vietnamese, French, Italian, German) see nothing particularly admirable in speaking multiple languages. They all do it out of necessity. Citizens of Switzerland, for example, are commonly proficient in French, German, and Italian because all three are spoken in their country. For them, competency in multiple languages is ordinary and universal.

But we Americans, in our superiority, have never felt a need to learn other languages. Almost everywhere in the world I have lived or visited, a large proportion of the population speaks American English. It must be the most regularly studied foreign language in the world.

Since we don’t have to speak other languages to get by, we judge that competence in languages other than English is monumentally difficult to achieve. We see it as a special talent. As a result, we overlook a valuable tool in learning to think.

My second thought in response to David is that we went into the war in Vietnam without understanding the enemy we were facing. That was, in the long term, why we lost the war. We didn’t comprehend the North Vietnamese willingness to die to the last man to achieve independence from foreign domination nor their devotion to guerrilla strategies to wear us down and finally deplete our patience.

During the thirteen years I devoted all my waking moments to Vietnam and trundled several times a year to that country, I never once met an American in military command or position of authority who spoke Vietnamese. Had we taken the time to study the language of our foe, we would have achieved an insight into his way of thinking. Instead, we were baffled and defeated, then withdrew.

How We Think (3)

And to my last dichotomy . . .

Can-Do Attitude and the Intellect

Our thinking methodology is shaped by our culture. That fact became very clear to me when I studied Asian languages and realized that their linguistic logic was quite different from that of western languages. The secret of mastering them was learning to think in a way compatible with their underlying culture, their way of seeing life.

I’ve written in this blog before about the American can-do culture. We believe that we’ll find a way to achieve our objectives by keeping at it until we succeed. Oddly inherent in that approach is an unspoken disparaging of thinkers, who are not seen as doers.

The can-do bias affects our thinking. One quote that describes our outlook comes from the scientist and writer Isaac Asimov (1920-1992):

“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’”

Whereas other cultures, particularly Asian cultures, revere the learned, we Americans often denigrate our intellectuals and artists. We want to get things done rather than thinking about them. That approach, frequently personified in our politicians and especially President Trump, leads to national calamities such as the current government shutdown.

We can do better. We all need to improve our thinking skills. But most of all we need to learn to respect thinkers.