A friend of mine who works a teacher and mentor for teenagers often tells the following story about one of his students to illustrate the power education has overcoming conflict:
With a few exemptions, all Israeli citizens aged over 18 are obligated to serve in the nation’s defence forces.
So you can imagine the trouble when Rebecca (name altered) refused to fire her rifle at a target during basic training. Her urge to refuse a direct order was so strong that the weapon felt as though it weighed a hundred kilos and was scalding hot. She placed it on the ground and backed away.
Her trainers yelled at her. They pleaded, ordered, cajoled, threatened and placated. But she would not be moved.
The reason for Rebecca’s resistance was that for several years prior to entering her term of military service, she had attended an international school focussed on bringing people from all over the world together to learn and promote peace.
Some of her classmates were Palestinians – and they became good, close friends. So when she picked up the rifle and aimed at a paper target, she saw flesh and blood. She saw her friends, and nothing could make her pull the trigger.
To me, this story illustrates the power of education, as well as another avenue – travel – in overcoming so many of the ills that plague us worldwide. It may seem naive, but I think travel changes the world, because it promotes empathy – the ability to understand the feelings of another.
As long as you open your eyes and your heart, a plane ticket can transform the look and feel of far more than just your Facebook feed. Travel changes everything.
The essential truth of human existence is that we are social creatures. Despite the many prejudices that exist, for the most part, people tend to get along if given a chance.
It’s essential to our survival as a species that we work together – that we recognise that we are all humans and want the same things. Yet we always forget this, especially when conflicts arise.
How travel in Vietnam opened my eyes
Growing up in Australia in the 1980s, I was obsessed with the Vietnam War. The groundskeeper at my school was a veteran. So was the star of my favourite TV show – The Bush Tucker Man.
Every ANZAC Day I would go to the Dawn Service and see the still relatively young blokes who fought there, and I’d snatch up the essence of any war story they’d tell.
Then came my discovery of war movies – Platoon, Born On The Fourth Of July, Hamburger Hill, The Odd Angry Shot, The Green Berets, Apocalypse Now, Casualties of War, ’84 Charlie Mopic, We Were Soldiers. I read every book I could lay my hands on about the Vietnam War, knew the battles, the tactics, the heroes and villains and even dug into the politics of the time period.
As I grew older, my fascination with this violent, chaotic period of history deepened, and I resolved to visit the country itself to see the place first hand.
At the age of 25 I backpacked through Vietnam and Cambodia and at every opportunity I explored historic sites and saw the places that had formed so much of my youthful obsession. I explored tunnel complexes, saw old bunkers and fortifications, picked my way through an old mine field, even craned my neck out of a plane window to see craters laid in a neat row from all the carpet bombing; now cleverly filled with water by farmers to raise fish.
This whirlwind tour of Vietnam ticked all of the imaginary boxes created over the years through a steady diet of stories told from our side, the Western side, the Australian and American side. The right side. The only side. Or so it seemed…
I’ve stood on Omaha Beach in Normandy where some of the D-Day landings took place. I’ve paid my respects at the Menin Gate in Belgium and the Australian War Memorial in France, seen the memorials at Singapore and Hong Kong, been to the WW2 Museum in New Orleans and the Korean conflict monument in Washington DC.
But until I went to the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Mihn City, Vietnam, I had ever been to a museum or memorial for a war in which my side has lost.
Visiting the other side
It’s a sobering place.
Filled with rusting wreckage, pictures of children deformed by Agent Orange and portraits of dead and wounded Vietnamese. The war in Vietnam was a catastrophic thing that killed millions and ravaged many nations. The museum presents it all in unflinching detail – and for that it is very controversial, eliciting complaints that it’s biased or loose with the truth.
Mostly I think that it’s a shock for Western tourists to be told that from the other side’s point of view they were the bad guys, that they inflicted misery, that the movies and books and stories they know to be true are really just one side of the story.
The debate over the rights and wrongs of the Vietnam War will likely rage forever.
For me though, my visit to the War Remnants Museum made visible the prism I was looking at Vietnam through – a narrow telescope, a gun sight, formed by war stories and Hollywood movies. In a way, I saw them as the enemy, or at least as a backdrop for the suffering and heroism of people from my side. I didn’t see their humanity.
It was only on my second trip to Vietnam that the beginning of the truth of the place and my relationship to it became apparent, and like Rebecca dropping the rifle, I too let my guard down.
Travel changes my view of Vietnam
Meet Nhi and her mother:
Nhi runs a place called Charming Homestay in the city of Hoi An on Vietnam’s long, sun baked coast. Her mother helps with the cooking and her dedicated staff of local ladies take care of the guests. It’s more than just a place to stay – it’s a home, and it changed everything I thought I knew about Vietnam.
Carmen and I stayed with Nhi for two weeks and we got to know her and her Mum very well. They helped us get around the city and see the sights. They told us local legends, cracked jokes, took us to local restaurants and street food stalls, showed us the beauty of the countryside and impressed us with how proud they are to be Vietnamese.
Perhaps the best thing they did was to cook a huge feast for us and all the other guests to celebrate Vietnam’s National Day which celebrates the declaration of independence from French colonisation.
I thought maybe it would be a day of jingoism or great patriotism – and though there are ceremonies and parades the day was really all about having fun, celebrating life and enjoying yourself.
Now instead of tanks and helicopters and Marines with thousand yard stares I think about the huge smiles and cackling laughter of Nhi’s mother, of the wonderful flavours of the soups and noodles we were served, of Nhi’s generosity and kindness, of the silver moon rising above the rice paddies and the sounds of gongs from the Women’s Temple across the street buzzing with scooters.
The soldiers from Australia and the US who came to Vietnam did not know anyone there. They knew only their orders and their friends and their duty. They did what was asked of them by politicians who themselves had likely never been to Vietnam or even met a Vietnamese person. To them it was maps on a wall, letters on a typewriter, an idea that was to be fought and shaped far over the horizon.
Travelling to Vietnam and meeting Nhi – just one person among millions – caused me to drop everything I had ever assumed about her country and her people.
I am under no illusions that travel alone can be some sort of force for world peace. The causes of conflicts are far more complex and deep-rooted for a mere passport stamp to overcome by itself.
But from my study of the Vietnam war and may other conflicts, a common thread is that to get men and women to fight each other, you have to dehumanise your opponent; take away their humanity and make them blank targets for you to aim your rifle at.
That process can be made so much harder if more people know each other – if we sit in each other’s homes and share a meal. That is the power of travel, that it allows us to see the lives of others, to empathise with them, and to know that they are no different from us as human beings. Travel changes our perspective completely.
And maybe, just maybe, that could be enough to get us to drop the gun next time.