The only time in history when Chennai came under a hostile attack by the enemy was during the second world war when a German ship Emden sneaked close to the harbor of the city and fired a volley of shells in the middle of the night. I heard from my father about the ensuing panic and people fleeing the city in droves. He had to stay put as he was working in the Tamilnadu police. Our neighbor, who later became a judge of the Madras High Court, once took us to the high court complex to show us the spot hit by an Emden shell.
With this unsettling incident deeply embedded in the memory of the Madras populace, the city swung into action to prepare for an assault by the Chinese. All the glass windows in the house were covered with black paper overnight and frequent drills were carried out with air raid sirens to prepare us as to what should be our response in the advent of an air attack.
Thankfully, in spite of our worst fears, the Chinese never ventured south…
Looking back, as a child I felt very vulnerable and feared that the worst might happen anytime.
All wars leave a deep imprint . . .
One of the most iconic images of children caught in the midst of war is the picture of a young girl running naked down on a road, screaming in pain after a napalm attack incinerated her clothes and her skin during the Vietnam war.
There were more such unsettling images when Ahalya and myself watched Ken Burn’s searing documentary “The Vietnam War”. It is an encyclopedic account of the war running for 18 hours. Burns and his partner Novick have an amazing skill for making an immensely complex story, comprehensible.
The documentary begins with the sound of helicopter blades whirring. Vietnam War was mostly fought from above. Thirty six million sorties were made by the helicopters during the war! And in the final episode you see the last helicopter leaving the roof of the American embassy in Saigon.
How was this war fought?
Even by the standards of 20th century warfare, America’s war in Vietnam was harsh and brutal. Three times the munitions used in all theatres of World War II were dropped over Vietnam. For a decade, the world’s most powerful air force dropped every explosive and incendiary substance known to man, along with a hefty dose of dioxin-based herbicide, Agent Orange. The My Lai massacre was the most horrific atrocity of the Vietnam War when American soldiers herded and slaughtered scores of terrified unarmed villagers.
More than 58,000 Americans died during the full arc of the war, an estimated quarter-million South Vietnamese soldiers, and anywhere from 1 to 3.2 million Vietnamese in total; many of the latter died from explosives dropped by U.S. bombers.
The mainstream media portrayal of Vietnam War has largely been through Hollywood films like the ‘Apocalypse Now’. In all these films the north and south Vietnamese people were nameless extras playing the enemy. What is distinctive about ‘The Vietnam War’ is its focus on both sides of the war. There are numerous, deeply moving narratives of men and women from both sides who fought the war. An American soldier sums up the nightmare of killing a stranger by saying, “That wasn’t the only casualty. The other casualty was the civilized version of me.” Often the point of view of the Vietnamese witnesses is consistently deeper and more philosophical than that of the Americans.
For a country that never faced major invasions, it is perplexing to understand America’s aggressive postures, which continue till now. It sits uneasily with the country’s constant trumpeting of the importance of individual freedom and its conviction that it is a force for good in the world.
What made the Vietnam War uniquely horrifying was the sheer pointlessness of it all.
The futility of Vietnam War is poignantly recaptured by its most celebrated writer, Bao Ninh in his classic novel, The Sorrow Of War. Kien, the prime narrator in the novel comments “In this war people have unmasked themselves and revealed their true, horrible selves. So much blood, so many lives were sacrificed for what?"
I was also reminded the powerful book on Syrian war, “We crossed the bridge and it trembled” by Wendy Pearlman. It chronicles the messy conflict and the worst humanitarian crisis after World War II through moving narratives. A young man maimed in the war comments, "In this whole thing you don't matter. You as an individual - your aspirations, your ideas about what is right…mean absolutely nothing. All this suffering is for nothing…it is futile”.
As Wilfred Owen poignantly wrote in his poem “Anthem For Doomed Youth”;
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
It is a strange fact that the traumatic debris of war inspires and animates creativity.
Burns and Novick bring us no immediate hope or assurance or comfort in their epic portrayal of the Vietnam War, but they make us question as to what it is to be human.
It is a reminder that the seeds of war perhaps lie buried within all of us …
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