Donald Trump insists that to preserve our security we must build a wall to keep people out. Pope Francis declares that to achieve peace we must build bridges between peoples. Three weeks ago I did both. I constructed a bridge by building a wall.
From October 2 to October 8 I participated in Habitat for Humanity’s “Big Build” in northern Vietnam. I joined two hundred volunteers from around the world in building twenty houses for poor families near the city of Viet Tri. We constructed bridges by building walls.
I was the team leader for the twelve volunteers who worked on house number two. Each day we rode a bus from our hotel to our construction site. As we passed emerald green rice paddies and cassava fields I reflected on the insanity of war. Like most of the US Habitat volunteers I remember the horrors, conflicts and agonies surrounding the war in Vietnam. Over 58,000 US troop died in this tropical country and an untold number of survivors, including my friends Jim and Frank, continue to be haunted by PTSD and other war related demons. The stated goal of that war was to stop the spread of communism. Yet here I was, in a communist country, building a home for a poor Vietnamese family with the support and approval of the communist government.
For five days we mixed cement and lay bricks to build the walls of house number two. Every day, as we sweat in the heat and humidity of Vietnam, I was compelled to face another side of what the locals called the ‘American war’. The recipient of the house we were building was a war veteran and his family. Mr. Phan Van Dong was sixty-six years old. He suffers from Parkinson’s disease and other maladies as a result of Agent Orange, a defoliant used in that war. His daughter was born with birth defects affecting her mental capacity, most likely a result of genetic damage caused by that same Agent Orange. Mr. Dong’s ability to help with the building of his house was limited but one day he joined our line as we moved bricks one by one from the stack to the interior of the house. His frail weathered body and his trembling hands reminded me that he and his country suffered far more than we did during that war. Well over a million and a half Vietnamese died in that conflict, most of them civilians. Over eighty four thousand children were killed. And yet here he was, smiling and working alongside me. As we built walls we constructed bridges.
During the week of our building project and the week of tourism that followed I was struck by the entire absence of rancor and animosity toward Americans. Everyone was helpful, pleasant and welcoming. Of course, over four decades have passed and time heals many wounds. But I recognized two other factors for this open attitude. First of all, this is a country and a people with a history that is ten times older than our own. Vietnam has dealt with invasions for millennia. I discovered that when the Vietnamese talk about driving out invaders they refer first of all to the Chinese who occupied their land for a thousand years, then the French and lastly to the US. The “American war” was only the latest, but not the most important invasion they have dealt with. The second reason for this lack of animosity, and the most obvious, is that the people have no time or energy to waste on holding grudges. They are busy building, buying, selling, growing and developing. The government may be communist but the economy is capitalist. The signs of this are everywhere. From construction cranes piercing the skyline of every city, to commuters hustling to work on motor scooters that clog every street, to young women in the highland villages peddling their handiwork to every tourist who steps out of a bus—clearly this is a nation on the move. The Vietnamese are too busy moving into the future to fret about the past