[Excerpt from a political memoir in progress. Last edited 06.01.2005.]
Every night as we watched the news on television my mother would avert her eyes and raise her hand to block the screen when scenes from Vietnam flashed across it. After a few moments the question would invariably come: "Is it over yet?" Not at all given to self-dramatization, she simply couldn't endure the scenes of destruction and death. Whereas most of my friends and their parents eventually came to be against the Vietnam War, the moral urgency of opposition sounded at a different decibel in my home. The war wasn't a subject of intellectual or political argument, even vehement argument. My mother's whole being revolted against it. I wouldn't say she was emotional about the war; she was hysterical. Although knowledgeable about the facts, she detested any intellectualizing of it. Even to engage in debate about Vietnam constituted a moral travesty. It manifested a lack of genuine outrage at, and comprehension of, the unfolding horror: no one who had actually experienced war could or would calmly discuss it. For related reasons she disdained my joining the high school forensics team. The art of debate was to argue with equal passion and skill both sides of a given question. To her mind, it nurtured duplicity, the amoral manipulation of words.
My mother would often exclaim that the United States was "worse than Hitler." Admittedly, in my home many things were alleged to be "worse than Hitler," including on occasion my siblings and me, or "worse than Auschwitz," including my mother's cooking. I'm not sure whether my mother meant literally the comparison between the U.S. and Hitler or she was simply straining to convey the magnitude of the Vietnam War's criminality. Having internalized my mother's indignation I became nearly insufferable whenever the subject of Vietnam would come up. After forcing my high school economics class to listen to passages from a book graphically depicting U.S. atrocities in Vietnam, I remember my shock and disgust that nobody else was physically wrenched. To this day I still cringe at the memory of publicly breaking down at a college teach-in on the war. In retrospect I regret my holier-than-thou posture but, if it's any mitigation, the war did profoundly affect me. I couldn't comprehend how people compartmentalized the carnage and went on with business as usual: at this very moment, I thought, Vietnamese are being murdered. It was only many years later after reading Noam Chomsky that I learned it was possible to unite exacting scholarly rigor with scathing moral outrage; that an intelligent argument didn't have to be an intellectualizing one.
It was no mystery from whence my mother's impassioned response sprang. The devastating firepower of the Americans, on the one hand, and the utter defenselessness of the Vietnamese, on the other; the indifference or, at any rate, scandalously incommensurate response, of the rest of humanity to the ongoing genocide: it was the Nazi holocaust all over again. And such was her exceptional humanity that my mother literally couldn't bear for anyone to suffer as she had. Neither of my parents ever let go of "the war." They couldn't, and were it even possible, wouldn't have wanted to. Never to forget, Never to forgive – this was how they lived, and died. It wasn't just bitterness over what had befallen them, although there was plenty of that; not forgetting or forgiving was the minimum they owed to those who had perished. I once had dinner with two Unitarian friends, both married to German-born women who had been in the Hitler Youth. The subject eventually came around to the Nazi holocaust, and one of the wives whined, "How much longer must we keep hearing about it?" "My parents lived with the Nazi holocaust until the last day of their lives," I coldly thought, "so you can live with it until the last day of yours."
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