The Bull in a china shop

July 2018

I have just finished watching “The Vietnam War” on Netflix. Although I knew that a war was going on when I headed out to Australia in 1968, I didn’t really know much about it until years later. At the time it was widely believed that Vietnam was going to be the first domino to fall before communism swept across South East Asia. But the American leadership realised that the war could not be won militarily, and that the red tide was not a clear and present danger, early on in the campaign. Yet, it dragged on for many more years because America would not allow itself to be defeated, least of all by a backward third world country. So, the strategy was to bomb and kill the North Vietnamese into submission. We all know what happened in the end – the chaotic scenes of South Vietnamese people desperately trying to get on board American helicopters that were taking off from the roof of the American embassy as North Vietnamese soldiers entered Saigon in 1975.

More than 50,000 Americans and more than 2,000,000 Vietnamese died in the war, 40 Vietnamese for every American. Vietnam and parts of Cambodia and Laos were devastated by bombs, their forests burned by napalm, their land poisoned by Agent Orange, their homes destroyed and their families torn apart. Deep scars remain to this day. America thought they would save the world from communism, but in the process they inflicted untold pain and suffering on a people they hardly knew, and incurred heavy losses in their own children’s lives and sowed serious doubt in their own minds about the basic goodness of America.

The show was critical of American leadership and its misguided view and prosecution of the war. It was also about its lack of honesty with its own people and the world, and, more poignantly, how the war divided American society. What I also took from it was how everything was centred around America and Americans, as though what the war had done to Vietnam and its people were only collateral damage. But then, what did I expect? It was produced by Americans for Americans. This most militarily and economically powerful country in the world was so dominating that the rest of the world could only dance and adjust themselves around the behemoth. Perhaps it is the American pop culture we are immersed in and the Hollywood movies we watch all the time, but even we ourselves tend to see America as the good guys battling the bad guys (who used to be communists but are now usually terrorists or aliens from a distant galaxy).

Once I was asked by an American I’d just met, “What do you think of Americans?” I didn’t really know him well, so I started thinking of a polite answer. Before I could come up with one, he said, “Like a bull in a china shop?” I thought he hit the bullseye! Even Americans see themselves as well-meaning bumbling idiots sometimes. Mostly they get it right in the end, but not before destroying much of what they were trying to save. “We had to destroy it before we can save it” is an infamous quote that many claimed to have its origin in the Vietnam war.

Then came 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. This time you could say America was responding to a direct attack on itself and not some murky communist plot in some faraway place. However, while it was easy to understand attacking Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, it was harder to understand invading Iraq. The “good guys” convinced themselves to finish off Saddam Hussein and his “WMD,” and got the world to go along with their self-delusion. So, they went in with shock and awe and took out the “bad guys.” Then the hubris set it and they decided to remake Iraq into a democracy that the countries in the rest of the Middle East could model themselves after. When they got bogged down, the doubts returned and the same questions were raised. Today, not only are Iraq and Afghanistan still trying to piece their countries together, the Middle East remains the most unstable region in the world.

America calls itself exceptional, the shining city on the hill, home of the brave, an example to the world of what a society should be like. Most Americans still do, and many people around the world still want to go to America and be American citizens. But they have also just elected as their President a narcissist who interprets events not as  true or false, good or bad, but how he thinks they make him look. Leaders around the world are horrified to realise that the President of the United States does not really understand the intricacies and nuances of world affairs and is incapable of thinking strategically. His seeming recklessness threaten the peace and stability engineered by America itself in the aftermath of WW2. If there is a method in his madness, people are still trying to figure it out. While they may think they could wait him out until the next administration comes along, they should be reminded that he has the support of nearly half the people in the country!

As we witness America elect Donald Trump and continue to tolerate his crassness and ignorance and buffoonery, it feels like this great country is simply venting its pent-up frustrations and revels in showing us its ugly side. We are no longer sure who the good guys are. We fear that when the Bull is done we may not be able to piece the china back together. That this time America may have really changed the world, and not necessarily for the better. We can only hope that the country has many more good and decent Americans than angry and reckless ones. That there are many more brilliant scientists than stupid climate-change deniers. And that the good ones will ultimately win.