S. Brian Willson, June 1986
While in Nicaragua during January and February of 1986, I was very moved by the attitudes of love and compassion extended to me by the Nicaraguan people. Why are they not angry and bitter toward me, a citizen of the mast powerful nation in the world that is waging a barbaric and diabolical war against their peoples? It reminded me, I realized, of a similar attitude I had discovered in Vietnam while serving there in 1969.
To assist me in acquiring a better understanding of this transcendent love that seems so strange to us North Americans, I thought it would be helpful to examine the manner in which the North Vietnamese responded to those North Americans who committed themselves to the ultimate of self-sacrifice in trying to stop the war. There are nine known Americans who burned themselves to death in protesting our war with Vietnam. One of those, Norman R. Morrison, and I graduated from the same rural Chautauqua, N.Y. Central School a few years apart. Because his life and sacrifice have had a profound impact upon my life’s metamorphosis from U.S. military warrior to world peace warrior, I share here a bit about how the Vietnamese responded to Morrison’s act of self immolation.
The North Vietnamese in fact wept over the example of those Americans who burned themselves to death in protest against the war, not because self-immolation was “correct”, but simply because it goes beyond self-interest, narrowly conceived, and becomes an act of the human spirit. As a profoundly Buddhist act, it suggests the possibility that Americans can understand the suffering of Vietnam as the Vietnamese do. The North Vietnamese study acts of sacrifice to discover lessons for themselves. They search for the significance in everything. They belittle nothing.
Norman R. Morrison became an immediate hero to the Vietnamese after his self-immolation. Within a month of his death, a national postage stamp was issued in Hanoi showing a smiling face of Norman in the heavens overlooking gatherings of U.S. demonstrators. A street was named after him in Hanoi. Trucks moving south along the Ho Chi Minh Trail were seen carrying large photographs of him in their front windows. Posters of Morrison were displayed in factories with the motto, THE FLAMES OF MORRISON WILL NEVER DIE! In May 1967, two American visitors to Hanoi’s Revolutionary Museum saw huge photographs of both Morrison and Alice Herz. Herz, 82, was the first American to immolate herself on a Detroit street corner in March 1965, after the U.S. had initiated its bombing of North Vietnam.
Rennie Davis, active in the anti-war movement in the 1960s, describes his trip to North Vietnam in 1967. He noted the magnitude of the war and the incredible human struggle that other American visitors had seen. He was in wonderment about the widespread Vietnamese attitude toward the American people. In a crowd, after announced as an American, there was spontaneous applause. After awhile he began to understand the sentiment toward Americans was a deep-seated cultural attitude that had no room for anger or bitterness. Besides, the Vietnamese had modeled their political revolution following WW II after our Declaration of Independence. He was astounded to discover upon going into a fourth grade classroom that the Vietnamese students had each written a poem about Norman Morrison and that he was almost on the level with Ho Chi Minh in name recognition.
Howard Zinn, professor of government at Boston University, and active in the anti-war movement, traveled to North Vietnam with Daniel Berrigan in 1968 and described similar reverence for Morrison. Everywhere, people would ask, “Did you know Norman Morrison?”
Sometime in late May 1969, I was enjoying dinner with a Vietnamese family in Can Tho City, the fourth largest city in South Vietnam located on the lowest tributary of the Mekong River. The family was very political, and together we were expressing our outrage at the barbarism being unleashed on the Vietnamese by the United States, especially through the use of unprecedented air power and bombing, including with napalm. I had been drafted out of my second year of law school in 1966 and had enlisted in the Air Force rather than be inducted into the Army. I was a 1st Lt. at the time, commanding a combat security unit at Binh Thuy Air Base a few miles up the river. After dinner they sang some songs, one of which, accompanied by musical instruments, they translated into English specially for me. The song was dedicated to and about a North American hero to the Vietnamese people—Norman R. Morrison. Recently I was reminded of 4 of the lines that have been often sung in English, not just in Vietnam, but elsewhere in the English-speaking world:
The flame which burned you will clear and lighten life,
And many new generations of people will find the horizon,
Then a day will come when the American people
Will rise, one after another, for life.
I was initially stunned, like being in shock. Norman’s act in front of the River entrance to the Pentagon at 5:15 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 1965, had up to that time very little impact upon me. I was in my Wash., D.C. apartment at the time studying my daily law school assignments. It did not register for some time that this was the same Norman Morrison that had been an Eagle Scout in Chautauqua, N.Y. I thought it a foolish act at that time, and felt sorry that Norman had cracked, and shamed himself. Consciousness about Vietnam had not effected me yet. But now I was in a pleasant room with compassionate Vietnamese people sharing my own outrage at the war, especially the absolutely barbaric bombing that was killing and maiming countless civilians and children. “And many new generations of people will find the horizon.” I broke into tears, trembling with emotions in the midst of some kind of metaphysical, spiritual experience, sensing a profound connection for the first time with Norman. This connection, and power, has remained with me ever since. The capacity to adequately express in words this meaning, this connection, however, has remained difficult. Only now am I feebly trying to communicate with others what all of this means to me.
It seems clear that the Vietnamese judge acts by the spirit and the qualities of the heart which are revealed. Nicaraguans, I discovered, respond in very similar ways to our humanity, our lives in action. Like the Vietnamese, the Nicaraguan people are fully prepared to die struggling to preserve the simple truths of their dignified lives. They believe that every sacrificial act in their history has helped to make them what they are, and should be memorialized for their children. In their experience they have seen people change: from slave mentality to a sense of self-determination, from oppressor to comrade of the oppressed. Such attitude accounts for the declaration of the North Vietnamese Women’s Union shortly after Morrison’s death, directed to North Americans: “Morrison’s sacrifice will herald an even greater and irresistible storm among the American people.”
Their world view is an altogether different ethic than that of the majority of those of us in the “advanced” western, more Anglo-oriented nations. They do not understand why we want to colonize, kill, and maim their poor citizens. Their sense of karma stresses not the inevitability of sin, but the duty to endure suffering and seek a better world. That is why they understand Norman Morrison and we hardly remember or note his life and death. A member of the North Vietnamese Peace Committee exclaimed at the time – “the holiness, the nobility of his death!”
I believe the lessons for us are profound. We are increasingly isolated in the world due to our arrogance, our use of force in order to preserve our privilege, a privilege that directly obstructs justice in the world. There can be no peace without justice. I pray that we will seek and receive a transformation that enables us to join the human race and mother earth. We consume 30% to 40% of the world’s resources with but 6% of the earth’s people. We must search deeply in our souls to determine if we want to continue to colonize (neo-colonize), kill and maim to preserve our privilege. We must examine carefully whether we want to remain hostages to our way of life, our arms race, our violent technology.
In conclusion, I want to quote from Sitting Bull, the great Sioux leader who was resisting forced settlement on reservations in the 1870s. In 1877, after he defeated General Custer at Little Bighorn, he decided to migrate to Canada. He had mixed feelings about such migration as he pronounced the following words:
“Behold my brothers, the Spring has come; the earth has received the embraces of the sun and we shall soon see the results of that love!
Every seed is awakened and so has all animal life. It is through this mysterious power that we too have our being, and we therefore yield to our neighbors, even our animal neighbors, the same right as ourselves, to inhabit this land.
Yet, hear me, people, we have now to deal with another race – small and feeble when our fathers first met them but now great and overbearing. Strangely enough they have a mind to till the soil and the love of possession is a disease with them. These people have made many rules that the rich may break but the poor may not. They take their tithes from the poor and weak to support the rich and those who rule.
They claim this mother of ours, the earth, for their own and fence their neighbors away; they deface her with their buildings and their refuse. The nation is like a spring freshet that overruns its banks and destroys all that are in its path.
We cannot dwell side by side. Only seven years ago we made a treaty by which we were assured that the buffalo country should be left to us forever. Now they threaten to take that away from us. My brothers, shall we submit or shall we say to them: “First kill me before you take possession of my Fatherland…”
We can learn much about ourselves if we examine carefully how the Vietnamese responded to the sacrifices of our own citizens in protesting diabolical and barbaric behavior of our government and those of us who obeyed their criminal orders. What is it that makes us kill, maim, and colonize, actions that an honest recollection of history reveals as a long pattern for us? “The love of possession is a disease with them.” The love of possession is a disease with us. I guess that explains why we kill, maim, and colonize.
I pray that we surrender to the human race and mother earth. The way of our own Native Americans provides us an example and inspiration for so doing. The alternative is violent annihilation while clinging desperately to our possessions.
Sources: Nancy Zaroulis and Gerald Sullivan, Who Spoke Up? Holt, Rinehart and Winston (1984); Tom Hayden, The Love of Possession Is A Disease With Them, Holt, Rinehart and Winston (l972).