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The Value of Understanding

Family Cruise: Paul on Honor

 

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam – I notice her when I turn the corner. She's burned—hideous burns across her neck and face. There may be more, but she's covered in a long blue dress, dirty and tattered.

I pretend I don't see her, because that's how you cope with tragedy you cannot comprehend. You move on to whatever's next. But despite the bustle of Ho Chi Minh City, I can't shake her image.

We walk farther down the street and my father enters a shop, browsing for knock-off polo shirts. I turn around, preferring to observe the street life, and I see her again. She's followed me.

The stain consumes her face, stretching from her left ear to her jaw. It's mottled pink and white, with the texture of crumpled paper. Her skull shows at her remaining teeth and around her left eye socket. Her lips droop in a permanent frown. Her murky eyes catch mine.

She opens a gnarled hand from the folds of her dress. I search my pockets for some Vietnamese dong. I feel her staring and the search seems to take hours. Finally, I pull a mangled bill from my jeans, a 5000 note–about 30 cents. She accepts and shuffles away.

My generation has distanced itself from war. Military-recruitment centers across the nation have struggled to usher us into the service. Anti-Iraq activism on college campuses has never reached the level of demonstrations during the Vietnam era. In the fall of 2006, only 38 percent of college students said they considered themselves "politically active," according to a poll by Harvard University's Institute of Politics.

Instead, we turn inward. We join Facebook groups such as "1,000,000 Students Against the Iraq War" or "Stay in Iraq until the Job is Done." We prefer our news with a comedic twist, opting for the political satire of "South Park" over Katie Couric. We threaten to vote, but many never get around to it.

We're the generation that witnesses atrocity through several screens. We heard the phone calls of dying 9/11 victims via a television broadcast posted on YouTube. We followed the links to the video of Saddam Hussein's hanging, which was recorded by a grainy cell-phone camera. We caught last night's Daily Show on comedycentral.com, where Jon Stewart's news show cracks jokes about how other news shows report the news. Like adding water to alcohol, these screens dilute the potency. Each screen removes us farther from fact. War isn't something that happens to us, it's just something that happens. We've removed ourselves from the world of politics and disassociated ourselves from foreign policy. Honor, therefore, is a term foreign to us.

But to stare war in its face…

She must have been a child when it happened. I wonder if it was a bomb, or if her house was set afire. Did she watch her neighbors die? Her family? Where does she sleep? What does she eat? How does she feel?

For that brief moment, when our eyes meet, I see war, free from filters. Flames flicker. Bullets fly. Grenades tick and then explode. I smell napalm and hear children wailing.

But as she leaves, I see the situation from above, removed from myself. A scarred and ravaged Vietnamese woman standing before a naïve and unscathed American boy, understanding each other without saying a word.

I feel honor, for the first time, not at what war could cause, but what peace could bring.

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