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Monthly Letter - November 17



Heart and mind


It’s not often that I get upset over a television programme. I’m pretty resilient. It astonishes me that so many programmes, even news reports, are preceded with the warning, “Contains scenes that some viewers may find upsetting.” When I consider what was on screen during my own childhood and adolescence, it’s a wonder that I grew up to be the straightforward, well-balanced individual that I imagine I am today.


Yet it was precisely a programme—or rather, documentary series—about an event that provided continuous rumbling background noise to my early life, which caused me this unexpected recent angst.


What was it about? Well, I’m a child of the 1960s. What disturbed me was an in-depth survey of the Vietnam War. Not because at the time I was ignorant of what a mess that conflict was. Rather, because I never realised how thoroughly shambolic and disastrous it was from the very outset. And it drove home how British and US governments have failed to learn from mistakes.


Space is too short to tell the story here. But it’s an all-too-familiar tale. Friends who were friends because they shared a common enemy, became enemies because they had incompatible ambitions. The Vietnamese wanted freedom and democracy. The USA, in their role as defenders of freedom and democracy, found it more expedient to support a  succession of undemocratic and corrupt regimes, out of fear that the the Vietnamese might freely vote in favour of communism.


Covert military support for the dictator turns into public intervention. Small scale deployments escalate into huge commitments. Generals who cannot deliver the promised quick success demand more men, more arms, more investment in the cause. Meanwhile, the tactics of troops on the ground and their air support alienate more and more of the population. The battle for hearts and minds among the little people is lost, because the superpower massages the truths of civilian casualties into euphemisms about “collateral damage”.


To compound it all, many in Washington feared from the outset that the war was unwinnable. Yet rather than admit it, they drafted increasing numbers of young men and sent them to their deaths.


As the season of Remembrance draws near, I invite you to ask yourself, “What is it that I remember, and why?” And the further question, “What is it that other people remember, and why might their memories be sharply different from mine?” The second question is just as important as the first, because it’s a way of expressing Jesus’ second great commandment — Love your neighbour as yourself.


Yours, John.