Fearful in polished marble

 

I just finished another book written by someone I’m proud to call a friend – Bing West.  He wrote “The Village” about his experiences in Vietnam.  He was in charge of 12 US Marines tasked with protecting a village of 6,000 people from the Viet Cong, and preventing the VC from using the surrounding area to transport supplies and equipment.  His Marines patrolled every night, taking fire nearly every night, for 435 days.  Half of the Marines died.

Bing’s book describes the relationships between his Marines, the local villagers, the Viet Cong, the local law enforcement, and the US military at large.  The 12 Marines did a masterful job building relationships with the locals, figuring out local politics, and introducing sufficient stability and relative safety so the locals could continue to work their farms during the days so they didn’t starve.  Today, “The Village” is required reading in The Marine Corps Officer Candidate School.

Bing returned to the village in 2002 – thirty years after the Marines had left.  He was welcomed as a celebrity.  He found the remains of the fort they had used – just traces of a foundation now.  The floods had mostly filled in the moat he and his friends had dug in the late 1960’s.  When they left the fort in the 1970’s, there was a small stone monument in the ground, with a small bronze plaque, honoring the Marines who had died there.  When he returned in 2002, it was gone.  A local woman told him that someone had beat the bronze into the shape of a trowel and used it for farming.  She regretted that she could not return it to Bing, but the farmer had thrown it away some years ago.

The village has a small shrine, where farmers go to pray for no floods and good crops.  Behind the shrine is a simple cement wall next to the rice paddy, with a Vietnamese inscription roughly scratched into the concrete, honoring the fallen Marines from the 1960’s.

Coincidentally, Bing’s village is only a few miles from My Lai, where American soldiers famously massacred over 100 villagers, fearing that every villager was a Viet Cong.  Some probably were, of course.  But most were not.

Nothing like that happened in Bing’s village, obviously.  The Marines ate dinner in the homes of the villagers, befriended the kids, and knew who was who.  They wouldn’t kill their own friends and neighbors.  Of course.

On his return trip in 2002, Bing travelled the few miles to My Lai, and was amazed by the carefully tended remembrance gardens, with dramatic marble statues and gruesome pictures – the entire area felt like a cemetery – enshrined in eternal grief.

In comparing the marble statues in My Lai to the rough inscription in concrete in his village, Bing compared how WWII heroes were treated in America, versus how we treated our heroes returning from Vietnam.  Based on his experiences, I can certainly see how that analogy would occur to him.  But I think it’s clear that that’s not why the locals have different sorts of shrines up for their victims versus their selfless protectors.

First of all, losing friends and neighbors in your own village is certainly different than losing soldiers from overseas.  Even if those particular soldiers were giving their lives to protect you.  And we should remember that although the 12 Marines in Bing’s unit fought valiantly and selflessly, and were loved by the villagers they adopted, many Vietnamese did not have universally positive interactions with the Americans they encountered during the course of the war.  It was a complicated time, in a complicated place.

But I really don’t think that’s it, either.

For most of human history, people have been prone to worship those who don’t deserve it, and ignore those who do.  In fact, we often persecute our saviors, as described in the story of Jesus Christ 2,000 years ago.  That’s just human nature.  I have some thoughts as to why we do that, but that’s another post.

My point is that I think it’s hopeless to try to teach people to admire and support the right people.  It’s not always entirely clear at the time who “the right people” are, anyway.  Sometimes these things become clear only in retrospect.  That’s just the way it is.  Life is complicated.  People are simple.

So rather than teaching people who to admire, I think we should instead focus on teaching men to be admirable.  Building men who are worthy of admiration.  Men who do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, not because they hope for the admiration or support of others.  Men who know that people often persecute their saviors, but sometimes they need saving anyway.  So there you go.  And that’s it.  Might as well get started, right?

We need men like Bing West and his Marines.  And if we ever stop producing men like that, society collapses.  Fast.

As CS Lewis wrote in The Abolition of Man:  “We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.

Bing touches on this in his conclusion of “The Village”.  As he stands at the cement wall at the edge of the rice paddy, running his hand over the Vietnamese inscription, he observes:  “A few miles distant, there is the memorial to the Vietnamese dead at My Lai.  These two memorials symbolize the contradictory faces of America in that tragic war, the one fearful in polished marble, the other resolute in rough cement.

He understands that courage and sacrifice are not always appreciated.  He understands that we are often more in touch with our fears than with our resolute defiance, and we sometimes build our memorials accordingly.

Despite that, he remains on the side of courage and virtue.  He did the right thing, whether Americans are appreciative or not.

The villagers are appreciative.  That’s enough for him.

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There are 8 comments.

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  1. Saint Augustine Member
    Saint Augustine
    @SaintAugustine

    Dr. Bastiat: So rather than teaching people who to admire, I think we should instead focus on teaching men to be admirable.  Building men who are worthy of admiration.

    Well, yeah, but we teach that in part by teaching whom to admire. The young’uns imitate their heroes. That’s how it works.

    • #1
  2. cdor Member
    cdor
    @cdor

    Another great post Doc. I hope Mr. West gets to read it. He probably should put it on the inside jacket of the book. Thank you, and thank him from an unknown person that appreciates everything he has done.

    • #2
  3. Jimmy Carter Member
    Jimmy Carter
    @JimmyCarter

     

    Dr. Bastiat: So rather than teaching people who to admire, I think we should instead focus on teaching men to be admirable. Building men who are worthy of admiration.

    A-freaking-men.

    A fantastic line. Gorgeous.

    • #3
  4. Headedwest Coolidge
    Headedwest
    @Headedwest

    We have so many people who did hard military jobs in support of the country over so many years, it makes me even sadder to see how far we have fallen. Tell Mr. West thanks from me.

    • #4
  5. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    The ones stomping around demanding respect won’t have it because they don’t merit it.

    • #5
  6. Henry Castaigne Member
    Henry Castaigne
    @HenryCastaigne

    Headedwest (View Comment):

    We have so many people who did hard military jobs in support of the country over so many years, it makes me even sadder to see how far we have fallen. Tell Mr. West thanks from me.

    Me too. When Communism falls in Vietnam there will be some pretty good books and documentaries written about Americans like Mr. Bing.

    He will have a second consideration in Vietnam. I wish it would happen quicker but the Truth will win out against Communism.

    Vietnamese will learn English to read Bing West’s book.

    • #6
  7. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    We had dinner with Bing West and his wife on an NR cruise.  The man radiates awesomeness . . .

    • #7
  8. Red Herring Coolidge
    Red Herring
    @EHerring

    Stad (View Comment):

    We had dinner with Bing West and his wife on an NR cruise. The man radiates awesomeness . . .

    Yes, he does..

    • #8
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