Peacemaking Adventures Abroad

May 6th, 2009

There are two very different sorts of Americans who venture abroad, as more than tourists or journalists, to so-called trouble spots. There are military people and “gold-mining” adventurers. And there are diplomats and teachers. In Vietnam, for instance, the US sent waves upon waves of troops and contractors to wage war for more than a decade in a military adventure that ended badly. A comparative trickle of Americans has gone to Vietnam since the war, often on their own initiative, to try to help undo the damage.

Among the first peacemaking missions were small groups of US war veterans who returned to build medical clinics and land mine-clearing operations. One of the most recent civilian missions is operated by Teachers for Vietnam. A New York-based nonprofit group, it was founded in 2006 by veterans and friends with a peaceable agenda “to help meet the growing need for Vietnamese students to attain proficiency in the English language,” its web site notes. With a handful of volunteer teachers, most just out of college, the group is venturing into a region where US military operations bogged down in brutal battles and the Peace Corps is conspicuously absent.

Nearly 35 years after the war, the Vietnamese are more interested in global trade than in refighting old battles. Americans, by all accounts, are welcomed by the communist government and its roughly 80 million citizens—as long as visitors bring useful peacetime skills. In this war-churned nation, whose hardy, rice-paddy culture rebuffed Chinese, Japanese and French invasions, not to mention fought off the US military, a surprisingly popular new skill is speaking American lingo and mastering the British mother tongue.

“Currently, there are few native speakers of English teaching in Vietnamese universities,” the Teachers for Vietnam web site states. “Students aspiring to careers in business, trade, communications, government service, tourism, and other fields require a command of oral and written English. … By sending American teachers to Vietnam, Teachers for Vietnam is also increasing understanding and strengthening ties between the United States and Vietnam.”

Not only Americans have taken up this cultural challenge. Australians, Canadians and Brits, many recruited by the British Council, a citizen diplomacy agency, also provide English classes in Vietnamese schools.

I admire people who travel into potentially dangerous places armed only with a smile. Given the horrendous killing that took place during the war, you’d think Americans would be targets of revenge in this part of the world, which an Air Force general once threatened to bomb “back into the Stone Age.” But what a damper on war fever is dropped when we offer the best in our society—such as young people willing to live in a very different land and share languages and culture.

In contrast to bitter memories of many American war veterans, consider some recent comments by a young woman from Boston on her tour of teaching in Vietnam.

“I am a very different person than I was six months ago. I’m a lot of the same person, but I am a stronger, more interesting version of myself. I feel completely comfortable and at home in a foreign country, and I’m incredibly happy these days. Moving to Vietnam was the best (so far) decision I have ever made, and if you are wondering if you should go abroad for a year, or any period of time, and do something similar (and a lot of you have mentioned this to me) my advice is yes, absolutely, go,” Samantha Thornley, a 2008 graduate of Northeastern University, wrote on her blog in February.

“I have been very busy spending extra time with my students outside of class,” she wrote in another entry. “This semester I am teaching a lot more first year students, where as last semester I was with mostly last year students. They have even more of an innocence to them, and are so eager to learn. My students have the ability to make me feel really great about myself, with daily comments like ‘You look so lovely today!’ but they also make me feel so insignificant sometimes. Not on purpose, but I just admire them so much. A question I often get asked is ‘What do you think of Vietnamese students compared to American students?’ My answer is usually that Vietnamese students are much more dedicated, are such hard workers, and I admire them very much. That is the simplest way to put it so they understand me, but it is so true. They had to work really, really hard to get into University, and they work so hard while they are there. Not to mention that they are having a full conversation with an American – which just embarrasses me. I’ve LIVED in their country to six months and I can’t hold a conversation (although, I have been having great exchanges in Vietnamese, which always makes me proud…) but I still feel inadequate that I don’t speak another language.”

By April, as the school term began to wind down, she was homesick for her friends and family back home. Yet despite the tropic heat, hordes of mosquitoes and being stuffed with strange food when visiting students’ homes in the Mekong Delta (sometimes an arduous trip to places far from the University of Can Tho), Samantha wrote that she enjoyed living in Vietnam.

“All of the hardest days in the world can’t compare to how amazing Vietnam is,” she noted. “Last weekend I had a small vacation, and Kristen and I went to Da Lat. Da Lat is in Central Vietnam (about 11 hours north of Can Tho) and we went to represent Teachers for Vietnam and meet with the University there and see if we could open a post for next year. I had an amazing time. I wasn’t expecting anything, I didn’t know anything about the city or the school, and as usual, I was blown away. The city is beautiful. It’s in the mountains, there is cool, fresh air, and everyone we met was incredibly nice, spoke English really, really well and spoke highly of the University. The campus was beautiful, the people we met with were incredibly nice guys and I had no trouble at all picturing myself there.”

During the war, a division of troops with gunships and artillery could not have traveled the routes she writes about without battling through hostile places and taking severe casualties, while destroying villages and towns along the way. Now Americans are being invited back, as guest teachers in Vietnamese classrooms.

For more information:

Teachers for Vietnam
We’re all right where we’re suppose to be.
The British Council in Vietnam

(This article was also posted at EarthAirWater.)

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10 Responses to “Peacemaking Adventures Abroad”

  1. Kevin |

    It’s interesting how hard many cultures will fight to resist being occupied by outsiders. I’ve sometimes wondered whether Vietnam would even be communist today but for the past attempts by outsiders to impose their will on the unwilling. I certainly can’t imagine any foreign culture coming to deeply regret trying to occupy and force their will upon the American people.

    For places which were past battlefields I suspect that ex-soldiers returning to pursue a fundamentally different path than their government had are uniquely situated to effect change where few others could.

  2. Tom |

    I’ve often had the same kind of thoughts. If there had been no U.S. war in Vietnam, or if Kennedy had lived and pulled out, as many think he would have, what would be different? Maybe Vietnam would have been better off, maybe not. I think the U.S. would be better off, if only because the war tore the country apart and spawned an anti-war movement that included some pretty extremist elements. That wasn’t all good then and still persists today. Not that those who opposed the Vietnam war were wrong in principle; as I’ve said many times, they weren’t. But had there been no cause to be against, we would be better off for it.

    History is full of room for “what ifs” that can’t be answered. I’ll never forget a field artillery gunnery instructor I had as a green lieutenant. He was a Marine Captain with no tolerance for even the concept of ambiguity in gunnery. His normal response to anyone who dared pose a question with a whif of “what if” in it was, “If a frog had wings, it wouldn’t bump it’s butt every time it jumped.” Meaning that “what if” is useless; what counts is “what is.”

    I guess I didn’t learn the lesson very well because I still tend to “what if” things to death. Ah, well.

  3. Brian |

    Or if Wilson hadn’t rebuffed Ho Chi Minh when the League of Nations was getting started. Or if we had actually backed Ho’s push for ending French Colonial Rule in exchange for his help in fighting Japan during WWII as we promised him we would.

    I don’t doubt that legions of Vietnamese were devoted Marxists, but Ho always seemed to me, reading about him all these years later, a proud nationalist who allied himself with the Marxists out of convenience.

  4. Kevin |

    Yeah, I’m no historian but seems to me that Brian cuts closest to the chase with his examples. And some of the collateral damage turned out to be pretty horrific. I’ve read thought-provoking arguments that our attempts to shut down the Ho Chi Mihn Trail created the conditions for the Khmer Rouge to sieze power and exercise their particular brand of insanity.

    But the examples are nearly as bad in Central America. The Honduran Contras that Reagan was funding were notoriously bloody and indescriminate in who they slaughtered.

    It is bitter-sweet irony that we now know that good old fashioned economic trade has accomplished far more in places like China and Vietnam than all the blood, bombs and squandered taxpayer dollars poured into trying to kill all the communists.

    All of which reminds me of the brewhaha over Obama’s handshake. I just don’t see much in the way of hard evidence that being a$$holes is productive.

  5. Tom |

    I agree that Ho was first and foremost a nationalist. There’s room to discuss the extent of his commitment to communism, if any, but his country came first. We badly misunderstood him and passed up many opportunities to deal with him, at great cost to everyone.

    Kevin, the conflict between Contras and Sandinistas in Nicaragua, which spilled over to other countries also, was pretty nasty, and our support for the Contras was ill-considered. But the Sandinistas were no angels—they pretty much matched the Contras for brutality and murder. It would be easy to say that we should have stayed out of it, but by that time our level of involvement in the left-right conflicts and squabbles of Central and Latin America was so extensive (and often wrong-headed) that it would have been very difficult to completely disengage. It was a foreign affairs tar baby.

  6. Tom |

    To more directly address Jan’s point, sending teachers and other kinds of peacemakers is always a better alternative than conflict. The Peace Corps is a good example. I’ve observed their activities and been directly involved with them in a number of countries. Their material projects don’t always have lasting value, but the impact they make on the people they work with, and the impact of those people on the Peace Corps volunteers themselves, are lasting and valuable beyond measure.

    I don’t have positive memories of Vietnam, and I’m sure Vietnamese old enough to remember have even less positive memories of the presence of the American military. I’ve long thought about going back, if only for a short visit, but I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to work up to that. The feelings are too complex and the memories too difficult. But teaching English and other subjects in a foreign country has been a great personal experience for me, and I can easily see Jan’s point about Americans teaching in Vietnam. It has caused me to begin to re-consider, and who knows—maybe I’ll sign-up someday!

  7. Brian |

    My father worked in the Louisiana Cooperative Extension Service for nearly 40 years. Back in the 60s and 70s, they (and a host of other land grant institutions) had a contract with the Ford Foundation to send agricultural experts to some fairly far-flung places. We ended up in Malaysia, just outside Kuala Lumpur, for a couple years. Dad’s group’s mission was simple: teach them how to grow potatoes. Within just a handful of years, they went from growing potatoes the size of small chicken eggs to the full-sized ones we are accustomed to buying in the grocery store here in the states.

    There are similar projects going on now, though I think that ADM is providing the bulk of the expertise. From what I’m reading, they are being a help, but they are raising a stink because the help they are providing is with their patented GMO seed stock. I’m not opposed to GMO seed stock per se because we’ve been tinkering with plant genetics since the days of Mendeleev, we’ve just not been at the level of splicing genes until recently.

    Philosophically, this agricultural help is a good thing. Agriculture, to my way of thinking, is part of the foundation of freedom and civilization. Long-term, successful agriculture requires recognition of private property rights. If a people cannot consistently feed themselves, they have little hope of achieving advances in any other areas.

    Giving away our excess seems to have accomplished little except to entrench despotic governments (Tom, didn’t you write an article on that a while back???).

    A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives. — James Madison

  8. Tom |

    Brian, I think you’re referring to The Answer for Africa.

  9. Jan |

    Wow, just imagine if Afghan farmers grew potatoes instead of opium-producing poppy fields.

  10. Brian |

    Jan, surely there must be something. It’s kind of dry for potatoes over there, but poppy requires water, too. Most of the Asian interior is on the arid side, so I don’t know what they might be able to grow other than poppy. As I understand it, they are trading poppy for weapons. Maybe there is no answer, and we should just stay out.

    Tom, that was the one.

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