By Joanna Mason
ANZAC day pulls on the heart strings of millions of people across Australia, New Zealand, and through old and new battlefields. It's a time for remembering lost loved ones. A time to pause, listen to the stories and reflect on the atrocities of the past and present, and to have hope for the future.
For me, it's a moving time where, like many others, I wonder why? What is in human nature that makes one person, or group of people, decide to fight against another? The question takes me back to a time when I was deeply exploring human nature (and the meaning of life) and I went to see where my father was based during the Vietnam war.
I remember the feelings going through my body as I walked across the bridge from Cambodia and into Vietnam. Trepidation with every step. A feeling like I was about to be shot in the back that my mind constantly negated as I wondered if these were really my own thoughts or those triggered by some kind of cellular memory. It felt like I was crossing the bridge into something really big and unknown, and large parts of my body wanted to run back the other way. Step by step, breath by breath, I made it across the bridge, past those intimidating flags and then onto a bus to Saigon.
From my hotel room on the 14th floor, I had a great view of the roundabout below where motorbikes, sometimes carrying families of 6 or 7 people, would move steadily around with the handle bars of each bike coming dangerously close to the legs of the next riders. The traffic would merge freely and constantly and if you’re a westerner who has ever tried to cross the road in an Asian country, you’ll know exactly, what I mean.
I went to the Peace Museum and the Cu Chi Tunnels, and saw for my first time what propaganda looks like from the other side of the fence. Despite that, I felt welcome in South Vietnam. The tour guide out to the tunnels gently warned me, that I would be seeing a lot of propaganda and not to worry too much but just understand that they have to say it that way in public and call Saigon, Ho Chi Min City, even though they didn’t like it. Some people were really friendly to foreigners, some indifferent and some, like this tour guide, simply politically correct depending on his audience.
I took a catamaran down river to the coastal town of Vung Tau where my trusty Shoestring guide book helped me find friendly accomodation. It turned out the owner had been a marine during the war. He told me about hunger and men jumping ship in desperation to get out of the country. He said “Tell your father thank you for his service” And he decided to let me hire a moto, gave me a note in Vietnamese that said “Please show me the shortest and quickest way to where the Australians were based at Nui Dat”
After about an hours ride, I showed the note to a thin bony man. He waved his arm, that way, did a half turn and waved that way. Well is it that way, or that way, I wondered? Later I found out that the photo I took of him has the brick entry gate to the base. And that the base was indeed, both that way and that way. I rode around for a while. People in the surrounding fields would look up, wave and smile. The rubber trees had returned but there were tell tale signs of concrete slabs that had grown over with moss. Healing in some ways until you looked more closely. It was a quiet and peaceful place. Then I putted out to Long Tan. There is a little memorial there. One of the few that the Vietnamese Government allows. No one was around, but the lit Joss sticks told me the place was often visited by locals. I recognised the mortar holes in the ground from the tour of the Cu Chi tunnels. It was easy to hear the memories of the sounds from that night in August 1966 where 17 Australians and 245 Vietnamese lost their lives. Maybe I thought I’d find answers by going there, but really the question of Why? Just got bigger. When it comes to the Vietnam War, the question of why has a strongly sour flavour, because the foreign troops were pulled out suddenly, with little explanation from governments, and for many, without closure. It seemed someone just changed their mind and ended the relationship which left the South Vietnamese government and army personnel, and their families in mortal and imminent danger. There are stories that the troops were pulled out when the option of getting fossil fuel (oil) from the south became unviable. What is certain, is that Vietnam was and is a beautiful country, like any other. And the war did a lot of damage to the lives of all involved. I wonder if the land and people will ever truely recover from the effects - physically, mentally and emotionally, as one generations stress, anxiety and poisoning is handed down to the next in so many subtle and not so subtle ways. I wonder if you see the "shell shock" from WW1 passed down through your family and appearing as 'innate stress' and the untold health issues that come along with that. Definitely a topic for another time when we can present some accompanying scientific data about the many ways stress effects the DNA.
On the bus north, I was reading a book by Juddah Krishnamurti, a highly intellectual man whom some considered enlightened. His book helped me explore this “why”. He talks about all war starting from the issue of separateness. If humans did not call themselves separate to one another, then there would be no need for war. If we didn't divide ourselves up, by labelling people with a religion, a skin type, a country, a footy team etc.
Looking out the window, I saw two story brick homes with security fencing and sometimes even razor wire around them. These people were making themselves seperate from others. Perhaps they had more wealth than others? But who started it? I’d seen a lot of this through Cambodia where corrupt government officials had the fancy houses with razor wire fences and many others lived in bamboo shacks, no walls, no power, no running water and no money to buy razor wire!
The bus stopped in a costal town for the day so I took a tour with a motorbike rider waiting at the bus stop. I chose him from the group because his face seemed to have a kindness to it. I could tell he was a father and from the honest eye contact he gave me I felt he had a daughter, maybe even a gran daughter. Pointing to his brochure, he showed me the sights he’d take me to see and we agreed to a price. The first stop was a walk up to a big Buddah statue. There were various people pushing their wears and I often got the feeling that the family sent a young child to gain the sympathetic tourist dollar, and watched over them from the surrounding trees. Perhaps you think me cynical, but the place had a certain vibe. It was intense. Next an orphanage - or so he told me. And then on return he decided to charge me more than agreed. Unimpressed, I told him exactly what I thought until he blushed and the other drivers smirked. Feeling seperate, picked on and isolated, I took a walk on the beach. Sure, I wanted to learn about war, why it starts and about separateness and the lesson was feeling real, not just theoretical.
There weren't many people around and I sat on one of the many beach chairs for a while til a girl in a staff uniform told me to pay or go. I wandered along til a guy ran up behind me and swiped my bag right off my shoulder. Realising it had my passport, credit card, and other necessities in it I chased him, yelling and throwing my shoes til he dropped the bag and kept running. Unperturbed, he sat on a railing like nothing had happened. I thought “Why would he steal from me?” I don’t have much. Then I thought about my little digital camera, phone and the US dollars I had. Adding it up, and knowing that many wages were just $2 a day, he would have been comfortable for a long time.
We live on one planet, we look the same with our 2 eyes, 2 arms, 2 legs and yet we are all so different. So how do we celebrate that without being seperate? There, just because I was a westerner, I had a target on my back. I felt the labels, the separateness and the way I was being treated was like I wasn’t human. Like I was not the same, or worth the same amount of respect. I’m grateful that I don't have to learn to live with this as my 'normal' and take my hat off to all those who do.
Back on the bus, headed to the high-lands, and across the isle a 6 foot 3 Dutch girl with bright red hair is having trouble fitting in the seat. Then crunch, the guy in front leans his chair back with out warning into her trapped knees. She fires up instantly and he retaliates with equal venom and begrudgingly sits his chair up and sulks. Then a few hours later, he sneaks it back and she just rolls her eyes. Something about everyone on the planet - except her - being rife with selfishness. Her thoughts had her seperate, and causing war with everyone she met.
Krishnamurti was right. When we label people as rich or poor, darker or lighter, selfish or greedy, a certain religion, nationality, education level, supported of another footy team, etc we begin to open the gates for separation, and therefore, the gates to war, even if it doesn't lead there every time.
So I invite you, as you drive out this Anzac Day, to be aware of your thoughts around separateness, to be aware of how you meet and greet people. I encourage you to smile at people who are different to you, and close a gap of separateness by remembering our similarities. Notice those stories of the Allies and Germans laying down their weapons to bury their dead, enjoying their cigarettes, letters and photos of home, and the other little glimpses we get of the sameness and compassion for one another that they experienced across those wretched trenches.
Be inspired by the tenacity of their human spirit to do more than run along on the tread mill of life. Be inspired to make choices and changes to live with greater peace in your life - even if it is a little uncomfortable sometimes.
Here is a quote from Krishnamurti
“... and only then, when the mind is silent and tranquil, is there a possibility of loving without the "me" and the "mine." Without this love, collective action is merely compulsion, breeding antagonism and fear, from which arise private and social conflicts.
See whole article here: https://jkrishnamurti.org/content/series-i-chapter-32-separateness