Last night in at a gallery in Peekskill, N.Y., I heard the artist Sheilah Rechtschaffer talk about paintings she made that were inspired by several recent visits to Vietnam, where she taught art and her husband Bert did voluntary dentistry. The whole time I thought about the Middle East.
Rechtschaffer showed slides of Vietnamese children and the paintings they made. Innocent pictures of water buffaloes and rivers and people smiling with giant red lips. She showed slides of young Vietnamese men going off to bakery school. She showed slides of a man her husband’s age– in his early 70s. The man had been in the war; and he was grinning from ear to ear.
When she showed the children’s pictures, I could only think of the children’s pictures Susan Johnson has shown from Gaza. Look at them for an instant. They are all about murder and brutality. When Rechtschaffer showed the young men going off to baking school, I thought about the young Iraqis and Palestinians whose lives are purely political, and shadowed by violence.
Of course it was once that way in Vietnam. The North Vietnamese were savage people, inhuman, they hated our way of life. They tortured American soldiers and burned collaborators. They were intensely political people wearing black pyjamas who built a jungle warrior infrastucture, the Ho Chi Minh trail, and worshiped Ho Chi Minh.
And look at the place now.
When Rechtschaffer was helping her husband at the improvised dental clinic and she forgot to change her rubber gloves from one child to the next, someone would drift up with a smile and point out her mistake. “Bert said he would take any one of them home in a flash [as an assistant] because they were so cooperative….”
Yes it’s a Communist country. There are red stars on all the Heineken cans. We were fighting Communism, right?
“Going back there as Americans after 35 years, we never never never had any malice or hostility toward us,” Rechtschaffer said.
“We were in Hue. That was where the Tet offensive happened. I thought, many many many people here don’t have parents, or grandparents. But you wouldn’t go there. I’m sure they had many tragic personal histories. Which they were reluctant to share with you. Because they wanted to honor you. And by getting into that, they would think they would be offending you.”
All this could be true in the Middle East. In less than 35 years. People everywhere hate occupation. We need to get out of the people’s way. We need to respect a great international principle: self-determination. Let us learn from our own mistakes.