Four Lessons for Canada from the Vietnam War

As we recall from school, lessons can be taught but not always learned. Such was the case with Canada’s involvement in the slow-motion tragedy that was the Vietnam War. Canada was taught four lessons.

Our Wallets

The Canadian government claimed neutrality in the war, but we were not. We sold an average of $370 million a year in war material to the United States for use in Vietnam – over $2 billion annually in today’s money. We manufactured and sold ammunition, guidance systems, armoured vehicles, napalm, agent orange, and more. Over 130,000 Canadians complained about the war while watching it on television each night but then went back to jobs the next morning that were linked to supporting it. We learned that we were quite willing to swap principle for profit.

Our Brawn

Canadian soldiers and diplomats were in Vietnam nine years before the Americans came in great numbers and they remained there two years after that iconic helicopter pushed down the ladder and lifted off from the American embassy roof in Saigon. We were traffic cops trying to get sworn enemies to play nice. We were the stereotypical Canadians trying to punch above our weight and persuade those killing each other to see the immorality of their actions and be more like us. We were right and both sides were wrong but it didn’t matter. We learned that we were big enough to be independent but small enough to be ignored.

Our Hearts

Canada welcomed about 30,000 young Americans who opted to run rather than fight and over 60,000 Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian families who saved their lives by suffering the indignity and danger of boats and camps to escape. Polls at the time indicated that the majority of us did not want either. But we changed. When we dusted off the principles and procedures we had invented for the Vietnam War to welcome Syrian War refugees in 2015, the majority of us supported the effort. We also finally acknowledged and helped those 20,000 Canadians who enlisted with the Americans to fight in Vietnam. It took a long while but we learned that despite race, religion, nationality and other ways we artificially divide ourselves that we are all, in the final analysis, human.

Our Soul

Along with assassinations and race riots, the Vietnam War came into Canadian living rooms every night with the evening news. It was ugly. At the same time, stories about us were being offered by a new generation of Canadian authors and songwriters – we didn’t want no war machines and ghetto scenes or tin soldiers and Nixon coming. Universities created more Canadian-based courses taught by Canadians. The growing patriotism was deeper than just celebrating Expo ’67. Pro-Canadianism became about more than anti-Americanism. It was as journalist Peter C. Newman observed: the Vietnamization of the United States brought about the Canadianization of Canada. We learned to be not British, not American, but finally, and proudly, Canadian.

Treaties are signed and memorials are built but wars never truly end. Canada is still being shaped and tested by the lessons offered by the Vietnam War.

(If you enjoyed this article, you might enjoy my eighth book The Devil’s Trick: How Canada Fought the Vietnam War. It’s available at bookstores across Canada, Amazon, or at the Chapters link below.)

Courage and Compassion

It was four o’clock in the morning on December 20, 1978. Cradling her sleepy children in her arms, Rebecca Trinh clambered up to join five others on the hood of an old and overcrowded truck. Her husband Sam stuffed himself into the back, clutching a large backpack that contained all they now owned. The truck joined a convoy that was soon bouncing along in the dark on bumpy dirt side-roads.

            Rebecca, Sam, (their Anglicized names) and their two small daughters had been a middle-class family living as happy a life as possible in Saigon while the Vietnam War had raged in far aways jungles and parts of the city far from their home. Now, however, their Chinese heritage had deemed them enemies of the splintering state. They were among thousands on the run for their lives. Weeks after leaving their home with two backpacks and hope for better, they were on an overcrowded, leaky ship approaching Malaysia.

            Rebecca and Sam clutched each other and held their children tight. There were screams as ten pirates armed with axes, machetes, knives, and handguns yelled that all were to board the pirate ships now lashed to the gunnels. The pirates roughly groped their victims and anything of value was taken. Rebecca and Sam had their wedding rings ripped from their fingers. The boat was ransacked with bags torn apart, secret compartments slit, and gold and personal mementos stolen. Finally, after three harrowing hours, the petrified passengers were shoved back aboard and the pirate ships disappeared over the blue horizon. 

            That night, the captain shouted that another pirate ship was approaching. He tried to outrun it but was soon overtaken. Pirates again came aboard but while stepping on some passengers and striking others they quickly realized that there was nothing left to steal. Shuddering women and girls were relieved when, miraculously, a second crew of pirates left them unmolested.

            At about eight the next morning the ship entered Malaysian territory. Salvation appeared in the form of coconut trees on the far shore. But a Malaysian naval vessel approached and through loud speakers announced that they would not be allowed landfall. A chain was thrown and attached and the boat crammed with pleading people was towed back out to international waters. Like all ships under tow, it listed to and fro with waves and spray drenching all aboard. Twice it nearly capsized. After two hours of perilous hauling, the chain was released and the Malaysian captain shouted over the speaker that they were to sail straight ahead for two or three days where they would find Indonesia.

            Towing was a common occurrence. By the middle of 1978, the Malaysian government had decided that it had accepted enough Vietnamese refugees and could handle no more. Over the next couple of years about 40,000 desperate people were towed away. Thailand’s government had made the same decision and posted its army on the Cambodian border. At one point, a squadron of Thai soldiers aimed their weapons at thousands of starving people who had walked for weeks to escape their country’s madness. They were turned around and forced down a mountain trail. Several hundred were killed and others mutilated as they walked through a minefield that the soldiers must have known was there.

            The captain knew that no one had enough food or water for another three days at sea. People were falling ill and more children had died. He wanted to save his passengers and crew as well as his own family members who were on board. He conjured a plan, moved further up the coast to avoid naval vessels, and then tacked back along the Malaysian coast.

            The captain picked his spot and under the cover of a moonless sky maneuvered the boat as close to shore as possible. Shouts rang out and everyone scrambled to their feet. They were told to grab their possessions and yank boards from decks or walls and anything else that could float. They were abandoning and scuttling the boat.

            Rebecca  stood at the rail holding her two crying girls and watched others leaping into the dark waves. Sam yelled that he would go first and that she should then throw Judy to him. She watched him jump and for a terrifying moment he was gone until, sputtering and waving, he resurfaced and yelled up to her. Rebecca sat Helen on the deck and held her with one foot while she picked Judy up with both hands and with all her might threw the screaming child into the darkness. Judy plunged into the water just in front of Sam and in seconds he had her. Rebecca then picked up Helen and planned her move. She tossed her crying baby high into the air and at the same moment jumped, smacking into the water and then frantically scrambling back to the surface where she threw her hands into a splash beside her and astonishingly caught her howling daughter. Treading water with one arm and pulling Helen close with the other, she thanked God for having saved them all.

            Sam was quickly beside them and they turned toward the shore, several hundred yards away. Screams for help pierced the night but they had to keep swimming. Rebecca praised God again as she crawled, exhausted, onto the sand. The children had become too cold and wet and scared to cry. But now, safe and on the huge, desolate beach, their mother did.

            Rebecca’s family eventually made it to Canada. The majority of Canadians did not want them or the others escaping the madness of post-war Vietnam. But enough Canadians listened to their hearts. Enough Canadians saw that the Vietnam War, in which Canada had been involved from the beginning, was asking just what a Canadian was and should be.

(Rebecca Trinh’s story is one of many in my 8th book, “The Devil’s Trick: How Canada Fought the Vietnam War.” It was published in Canada and the USA by Knopf Penguin Random House on April 13, and is available now through Chapters, Amazon, or, as Stuart McLean used to say, sensible bookstores everywhere.)

Your Circle of Loyalty and Responsibility

We are the enlightenment’s willing slaves. It began when a number of 17th century European philosophers upset mankind’s apple cart. They independently and with variations on a theme argued that progress is not determined by God but by us. Progress, they said, is natural, relentless, and linear. We need to think of life, they contended, in terms of straight lines.

The notion was perfectly fine until the trenches of the First World War, extermination camps of the Second, and then, more recently, climate change’s dreadful reality suggested that perhaps positive progress is not so inevitable after all. Maybe progress does not follow a straight line. Perhaps Aboriginal philosophy, the spiritualism that existed long before religions demanded they were right and Locke, Hobbes, and his cohorts insisted they were wrong, were on to a more fundamental and enduring truth. Maybe it’s all about circles.

Consider the talking circle. It is a traditional way for Native North Americans to solve problems. In a traditional talking circle, men sit at the north and the women south. A conductor, who is nearly always silent, sits to the east. A token of some sort – a feather in Native circles – is passed and, like the old camp game, only those with the token can speak. It removes barriers and allows people to freely express themselves as equals with equally valuable experiences and views.

The talking circle is appearing more regularly in corporate boardrooms and team dressing rooms around the world for the simple reason it works remarkably well. Teachers call it a Harkness Table.

The healing circle is the talking circle’s most powerful iteration. Participants speak of whatever is bothering them with others listening without interruption. As parents and psychologists know, the act of speaking allows the first steps toward healing. The act of listening encourages empathy and support and invites not judgement, punishment, or revenge but justice and redemption. Alcoholics Anonymous employs this ancient technique.

It's All About Circles

(Photo: http://www.dreamstime.com)

The spiritual among us get it. Hermes Trismegistus once said, “God is a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” The poet T. S. Eliot wrote:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Americans and Canadians are now embroiled in political decision-making. The air is smudged with attacks and promises and the media is focused on tiny, distracting issues while portraying the elections as horse races. The options being presented by the various candidates and parties are really asking voters to consider circles of loyalty and responsibility.

Some are saying we should be loyal only to our immediate families and ourselves. Everyone of a different class, race, region, or nationality be damned. Others are arguing that we should feel loyal to and responsible for those of our own country with those outside its borders on their own. We’ve made it into the tree house, they say, and should happily kicked down the ladder. Still others go further. They argue that we are human beings who share the planet and so should feel loyalty to and responsibility for all, including Earth itself.

When boiled to its essence, the American and Canadian elections are proving that the enlightenment philosophers were wrong and that aboriginal spirituality is right because it is really all about circles. It is about the size, the volume if you will, of our personal circles. So where do you draw your circle of loyalty and responsibility?

Consider that question when you hear a candidate speak of building a fence or helping to save Syrian refugees, supporting those who deny gay or women’s rights or those trying to extend them, propose we all pay a little so we can all be healthier or pay for only ourselves. Think of those using dog whistle code words such as “True Americans” or “Old Stock Canadians.” Where is their circle? Where is yours?

If you enjoyed this column, please share it with others and consider checking out my other columns at http://www.johnboyko.com