On December 11, 1964, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke these words: "Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time. Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression, and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love." These words were spoken almost 40 years ago. So what do they mean to us today? They mean stopping the cycle of violence at its core.
I experienced the truth of these words this summer when I had the opportunity to see what war really does to a people. Our family traveled to Vietnam. In 1994, 20 years after the Vietnam War ended, we adopted a brother and a sister, Hien and Tien (now my siblings Noelle and Peter) from Hanoi. This trip was a visit to their homeland.
The first week of the trip was an incredible lesson in history. We saw the Vietnam War from an entirely different perspective. In Vietnam the war is called the American War. On our second day in Saigon we toured a museum previously called the American War Crimes Museum. The name has been strategically changed to the War Remnants Museum to attract tourists. Inside the museum were displays and photos of mutilated and dead Vietnamese men, women, and children. It described various methods of aggression the United States had used, from bombs to poison to massacres. The pictures were horrifying.
A few days later we traveled to the Cu Chi Tunnels. They were extremely elaborate underground tunnels used by the Vietcong for surprise attacks on American soldiers. At Cu Chi there was an exhibit of at least 10 horrifyingly painful booby traps used by the Vietnamese. As you can imagine, the effects of the traps on American soldiers were devastating.
We thought we were fighting in the name of democracy: to keep the world safe from communism. Vietnam still calls itself communist, but what that means is difficult to tell, judging from a walk through a crowded street where venders tried to sell us their own goods. Regardless of ideology, the Vietnamese, like everyone else, are humans first.
On the second week of the trip we had the privilege of meeting Noelle and Peter’s biological family. Arriving in their village was an amazing experience. We stepped out of the van and were immediately engulfed by family and villagers. They hugged all of us. Relatives grabbed our arms and led us in a long procession to their house. The community stopped all other activities as they all came out to greet us. Almost everyone was crying. In their home they had prepared for us a traditional meal with all its delicacies. We sat for hours there, sharing the joy of the family.
They live several miles outside of Hanoi, which had been the capital of communist North Vietnam. Members of their family might well have fought with the Vietcong. By the way we were treated by their family and other Vietnamese people, you would never have guessed that years before, the U.S. had destroyed much of their land and communities. People that were our "enemies" were now helping us translate. A bellhop at our hotel helped Noelle and Peter communicate to a family they had not seen in seven years. Through him our two families spoke words of gratitude and love. Everywhere we went, people were kind and generous to us. All this is not to say, however, that pain does not persist.
Years ago, my family encountered firsthand the deep division felt among the Vietnamese. We were at a restaurant here in Des Moines, and a waitress, a refugee from South Vietnam, recognized Noelle and Peter’s northern accent. She was unfriendly during the entire meal and finally turned to my parents and said, "Weren’t there any South Vietnamese children to adopt?" She said she hated all North Viet-namese people, directing this comment to Noelle and Peter, who weren’t even alive during the war. For many, the hatred is still there.
So it was extraordinary that after a week of seeing how Vietnam had suffered (almost 2 million dead), and years of seeing how the United States had suffered (58,000 dead)—to us, standing in a small village called Nam Ding, the hatred and history of our two countries didn’t matter. We were experiencing something more important, a method for overcoming conflict: love.
So here we are today and it is happening again. This time it is different. We have been attacked, and danger still exists. We know what it’s like to suffer the devastating loss of thousands of innocent lives. We can still feel the pain. So it has been easy for us to react with aggression. But before things escalate, could we stop for one moment just to ask if there isn’t a better way, one that doesn’t trade pain for pain? If we kill the terrorists in Afghanistan, then go to Iraq, and perhaps then to North Korea, and then maybe elsewhere, will we spend billions of dollars chasing an elusive enemy, one that will keep rising out of the ashes of our bombs? Will there be more widows, more orphans, and more innocent blood spilled? Does this have to happen? Is war our only option? Isn’t there another way?
We can start with ourselves. In these times we cannot just care about our own lives and our own country. We are, after all, citizens of this world. Dr. King said, "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."
We must educate ourselves. We should be knowledgable of what our own country is doing inside other nations. Too often we are sending ammunition to warring countries. Instead, let’s spread education. That’s one tool for peace; listening is another. Perhaps we should stop every now and again as we rush through our own busy lives and try to understand why much of the rest of the world is suffering. Are all terrorists insane killers or are some simply people driven by poverty to extreme measures? If we do not listen now, the entire world may someday be silent.
We must also see the world on a personal level and ask questions. When you read of mothers in Afghanistan with their starved children, think of your own children. Do you have different aspirations than these mothers do? When you see young men turned to terror, ask what drives them to this decision. They cannot all be insane. And then ask when. When does it stop in Palestine and Israel, in Northern Ireland, parts of Africa, and Afghanistan? Can we make it stop, if we begin on a person-to-person basis?
Can the United States become a model for peace? Can we show the Hatfields and McCoys of this world that people can live together without killing one another? Has the United States recovered from its own bloody Civil War? We can teach love to our enemies, provided we teach ourselves first. But we must start now, for peace can only be so patient. We can only fight each other so long before there’s nothing left to rebuild.
I fear that most will stay resolute behind the war cause, just like the majority of people in the United States at the beginning of the Vietnam War. We may persuade ourselves that it’s all right because we believe we are fighting for democracy. But from my visit, I can assure you that both sides lost in Vietnam, and we will all keep losing until war is no longer considered an option.
Instead, in this new crisis and future ones, let’s start by sending food, books, and medicine, and let’s listen. It’s certainly better than sending bombs.