While serving in Da Nang, South Vietnam, in 1968, I was approached by a Vietnamese woman with the “Free World Forces,” tears streaming, saying she’d lost her mother, her, husband, grandfather, and two of her siblings as a result of a mortar attack. She asked me to help her find plywood to repair her hutch. She woman had two small children.
As a junior leader, I decided to break the rules.
There was a supply depot near our tent city where piles of plywood were stacked rotting in the 120-degree heat. I knew I wouldn’t get permission yet I wanted to help her. I waited until she got the plywood and repairs were under way before saying anything to my boss, a major. I believe in post-hoc forgiveness.
Before I finished telling him what I had done, he was in my face, shaking his finger up at me, screaming, threatening me with court martial, non-judicial punishment, letter of reprimand and more. He let me know in very clear, expletive laden, xenophobic language what he thought about the Vietnamese. I tried explaining that she had two small children and that the plywood had not moved since my arrival six months earlier.
He yelled. “Captain, I don’t give a (expletive) if it’s been there since the French left Dien Bien Phu …!” he said. His shouting was interrupted by the counter mortar siren, followed by the thumping sound of mortar rounds landing at a distance. “I’m not finished with you!” he said, as we ran in different directions to the bunkers.
Now you’re wondering what this 1968 story has to do with xenophobia in 2017.
First, we fear and dislike “strangers” from other places in the world because they are different and unfamiliar to us like the Vietnamese woman and my boss. He and Columbus would have been great friends.
Second, xenophobia has become pervasive in this country and throughout much of the world. Xenophobia, racism, and antisemitism have become so pervasive that the Asia Europe Foundation commissioned a study on xenophobia for a conference. It has 39 members and the United States is not represented. Why is that?
Third, those who express xenophobia need a target. My boss’ target was the Vietnamese woman—a member of friendly forces. Today, unfortunately, immigrants are the target, legal or illegal. They differ and we don’t deal with difference very well. How come, leaders?
Fourth, it is never OK to deprive, abuse, or mistreat others just because they look different or originate from a different country.
If xenophobia is about fear of strangers here to work, make a living, and feed their families, then something sinister lurks among us. Who are we? What are we afraid of? And what if the more than 100 countries where we have troops stationed treated us the same way?
Mind you, “over there” we are the stranger, foreigner. Yet we often view ourselves as the paragon of human rights and democracy. Our history tells us otherwise; that what we have for the most part was taken by force, deprivation, bloodshed, atrocities, extermination.
In Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, he discusses Columbus and “The cruel policy initiated by him and pursued by his successors resulted in complete genocide.”
An example, among many, is the peaceful Arawak Indians who are no longer with us because Columbus viewed them as different, strangers, less than; thus, he exterminated them. And each year, we celebrate his genocidal, xenophobic crimes. How do we reconcile such behavior in the 21st century in our so-called Christian nation?
Why do we continue celebrating Columbus, leaders?