Saturday, February 18, 2012

What Lies Beneath

Vietnam. It's such a loaded place- especially for Americas. When I was there so many Dutch or Australian backpackers would lean through their cloud of smoke, over their bottles of beer and ask me if I felt bad about the War or got any hostility from the locals. The answer: not really.

Growing up in as a white kid in the American South, history was papered with pictures of Rosa Parks and Doctor King. Strange fruit swung from every lesson in school. Racially charged violence and discrimination has marked this place forever and more often that not the bad guys looked like me. But at the same time I sat in class next to black kids and first generation Americans and though the stories from that time are harrowing and tragic, I don't think I was any more moved by them than my classmates just because of my race.

I think this upbringing colored my trip to Vietnam. Some Americans told me they felt horribly guilty about the Vietnam War. Reflexively I approached the War with the same 'I didn't do it' shrug and deep reverence for those who were affected by it that I examined the Civil Rights Movement. I was neither part of a lynching nor napalm dump but I do feel sincerely sorry for the victims of these acts and a sense of sorrow for those who did them. It's not an insensitivity but a sense of being removed personally.

What did strike me about Vietnam was far more universal. It was the sense that everyone's inner darkness was just a little closer to the surface. I feel very strongly that there is an unimaginably dark side of every person, a masochistic side, a hurtful side. The Stanford Prison Experiment is the most widely recognized piece evidence that this part of us exists and it is evil but there's also proof in daily life. In traffic or at work sometimes people let it slip and their dark side lurches up to the surface, just a little, just enough to show before it is forced back down to the depths. It happens every day.

In addition to the Stanford Prison Experiment, The Vietnam War was another time when this vicious side of humanity was so unleashed. I'm not pretending to be an expert but from the people I've talked to, books I've read and movies I've seen it seems like so many people there were on the brink. Their decent, reasonable facades about to shatter as a darker impulse bubbled up beneath it and pushed.

This dark side in all of us both terrifies and fascinates me. Dexter is one of my favorite television shows exactly for that reason. Well...that and I will to do unprintable things to Michael C. Hall if I ever get him alone. Dexter lets this side of him reign free and calls it his 'dark passenger.'

In Vietnam it seems that though everyone feels this greater awareness of their dark passenger, there are many different reactions. I ran into a bunch of guys, English 'lads', who were very excited about shooting lots of guns from the Vietnam War. Playing with toys of destruction like that isn't really my bag. It scares me. What if I enjoy it too much? What if I hit someone? But then again answering a very present evil with violence isn't a new thing. Although this time the bad is within ourselves. 

When I went to the infamous Cu Chi Tunnels where the Viet Cong hid and fought, a rifle range was included in the tour. Walking through the jungle at the place where so many people had lost their lives on both sides of the War and hearing machine gun fire split the air made me want to vomit. But at end of those guns were grinning foreigners, happily and therapeutically drilling away into the vacant space; behind them were smiling Vietnamese with growing pockets.

Rather than shooting guns, my reaction to this feeling was to think about this and later to write. I hope confronting this part of myself will not be necessary even though I know it will always be there. Unlike those who were affected by the War, perhaps I won't ever have to.

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