These 9 months of travel have been an incredible learning experience. We’ve seen a lot of good bits: spectacular nature, beautiful people and fascinating cultures. Part of the trip though has been seeing first hand the utter devastation that we as humans are capable of. It has been painful, challenging, and thought-provoking.
Days on the road: 274
Number of beds: 16
Countries visited: Vietnam, Thailand (for a hot second), Laos
Postcards sent: 5
Buddha park filled with concrete mythological creatures in Nong Khai, Thailand.
A few weeks ago I took exception with Sergey for placing the blame for everything that went wrong in the later part of 20th century squarely on the US. It’s true, while traveling in Asia we have been learned about quite a few questionable (to put it lightly) actions by Washington.
Display of bombs used by the US military in Vietnam War, or American War as it is known in Vietnam. Cu Chi Tunnels, Vietnam.
Consider the fact that Laos is the most bombed country on earth. Tiny Laos, recognized as officially neutral by the international community. From 1964 to 1973, the US secretly dropped more than 2,000,000 tons of ordnanceon Laos, in an attempt to stop the tide of communism in Indochina. Or, sometimes, just because the US fighter planes needed to “safely” unload the deadly cargo from unsuccessful missions returning from Northern Vietnam. Up to a third of the bombs failed to detonate. Today, those unexploded weapons maim and kill hundreds every year – 40% of victims are children.
Laos countryside is littered with unexploded bombs. Every time villagers tend fields, or build a new house, or just go for a walk they face the possibility of hitting an UXO.
Or Japan – yes, Japanese were the first to attack, but seeing the after effects of the nuclear bomb in Hiroshima it’s hard to think about “who started it.” 60,000-80,000 people vanquished into thin air, tens of thousands suffered and died from injuries and radiation sickness. The blast was so intense that shadows imprinted on surfaces forever. Over two thirds of the city was gone in an instant. Times two – for Nagasaki. Countless families, communities destroyed; survivors living within reachable area of the two atomic blast labeled as damaged by the rest of society.
The lone dome left standing after a nuclear bomb exploded over Hiroshima, Japan.
In Cambodia, most of the damage was of its own doing; a genocidal regime of Pol Pot slaughtered between one fourth to one third of the entire population in just three years. Pol Pot was removed from office in 1979 – before he could finish off the rest of the country – by the Vietnamese, but was recognized as the legitimate representative of Cambodia and it’s people for almost two decades by the US. Why? The struggle against communism of course.
Interrogation room at the S-21 Security Prison used by the Khmer Rouge from August 1975 to January 1979. Now Tuo Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
All of this is pretty rough stuff.
But I countered — sure, but what about the two infamous generalissimos, Hitler and Stalin who between the two of them killed off the best and the brightest and everyone in between in Europe – 11,000,000 dead in concentration camps across Europe and 1,000,000 dead in the Russian gulags, another 5-6,000,000 from state induced famine. Horrific things have been done to Cambodia, but the Khmer Rouge came from someplace dark and terrible in the country. And half of Asia is still not on speaking terms with the Japanese who haven’t apologized for some brutal atrocities committed by the Japanese army as it marched through the continent in first part of 20 century. Bottom line is that there are far more bad guys out there in the world than just those in the US.
Memorial to political prisoners who perished in the Gulag on Sviyazhsk island, Russia.
What now Sergey?
But he had a comeback that I had no good reply for. None of the other countries/leaders/peoples have upheld themselves as a city on a shining hill, righteous beacons of democracy, and protectors of human rights. Moreover, none of these nations – save for the now defunct Soviet Union – have sought to spread their values a world over.
There is some parsing that can be done to offer an example here or there. Particular case can be made of Russia, which has proffered its model of state capitalism and tight control over politics as an alternative to the US model of democracy. Or perhaps Japan, whose leaders refuse to accept responsibility for the wrongs done by its army in the 20th century and claim righteousness and honor. But again, neither these states nor any other ones that I can think aggressively promote – continuously and on repeat basis – their values over seas.
This argument does not take into account whether or not the US foreign policy does enough good to outweigh the bad, or whether the US role as global protector of democracy, free market, and human rights is essential because none of the other states are willing/able to step up to the plate. It is just about the juxtaposition – secret and illegal shelling of another country, or support for a leader of genocide, while at the same time espousal of rights to freedom, happiness, and whatever else for every single individual across the world.
As I said, I have nothing to offer in return – and would most welcome your thoughts on this issue.
Spirit worship at the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto, Japan.