Saturday, December 25, 2004

Where Are You Now, My Son?

They say that the war is done,
Where are you now, my son?
-- "Where Are You Now, My Son?" words and music by Joan Baez

Liang e-mailed asking if we could note another Christmas. December 1972. Liang wasn't born yet and her parents hadn't yet moved to the United States. Press clippings and the song by Joan Baez ("Where Are You Now, My Son?") round out the stories she's heard from her family about that Christmas.

It rained when I was in Hanoi. It rained into the bomb craters and made brown swimming pools. The people were carrying their bicycles over the ruins, packing up with nowhere to go.
After the first few nights of bombing, most of the city was evacuated. During the seventh and eighth days of bombing, the city began to fill up again. The B-52's were hitting the countryside at the edges of the city, and I suppose people felt they'd rather die at home. I didn't want to die anywhere.
This is the story of my thirteen day stay in Hanoi, eleven of them the days of the Christmas bombing, the result of the "most difficult decision" President Nixon had to make during his term in office. The Christmas bombing was, as it turned out, the heaviest bomging in the history of the world.
In December of 1972 I was on the road in the eastern United States when I received a telephone call from Cora Weiss. The group The Liaison Committee, which Cora headed, had been sending a steady flow of American visitors to North Vietnam to try to keep up some kind of friendly relations with the Vietnamese people even as our country continued to bomb the hell out of them, burn their villages, and napalm their children. Before Watergate, anyone who talked or wrote about the atrocities the U.S. military was performing in Vietnam was looked upon skeptically, or with great annoyance and anger, by a high percentage of the American population.
I would be the guest of a North Vietnamese group called the Committee for Solidarity with the American People. No serious fighting had taken place in the north for many months, and four Americans were being invited, among other things to deliver Christmas mail to the POW's in Hanoi. Gabriel would be with his dad at the time. I could return by Christmas day.
-- Baez, Joan. And A Voice to Sing With. Plume Trademark: New York. 1987. pp. 193-194

It's walking to the battleground that always makes me cry
I've met so few folks in my time who weren't afraid to die
But dawn bleeds with the people here and the morning skies are red
As young girls load up bicycles with flowers for the dead.

An aging woman picks along the craters and the rubble
A piece of cloth, a bit of shoe, a whole lifetime of trouble
A sobbing chant comes from her throat and splits the morning air
The single son she had last night was buried under her
They say that the war is done,
Where are you now, my son?

And A Voice to Sing With offers a harrowing 30-page account of Joan's thirteen days in Hanoi entitled "Where Are You Now My Son?," the longest chapter in the book. Those words, translated from the French, were being sung in "the depths of sadness" by a lone Vietnamese woman hobbling over a crater made by carpet bombing the night before in Kan Thiem. Joan came home with fifteen hours of cassette recordings, "including the sirens, the bombs, Phantoms, B-52's, anti-aircraft, children laughing, Veitnamese singing, myself singing in the shelter." She composed a long poem in rememberance of what she witnessed and did a rough edit of the tapes, intending to release it as soon as possible.
-- from the booklet to Joan Baez: The Complete A&M Recordings. 2003. Essay by Arthur Levy, pp. 6-7.

On the third night I cleaned up and went down to dinner. From that point on, my mind contains only strong flashbacks of what took place. I remember that we were again shown films, but these interested me because they were about children and what the different kinds of poison chemicals used by the United States military had done to unborn infants. I remember a sequence of a cat in a cage dying from a kind of gas, and a monkey dying from the same thing. I remember an American soldier shooting fire from a hose at a small hut and planes spraying miles of jungle with poisonous white clouds. There was a picture of a baby born abnormal because of chemicals. She was lying on her stomach and appeared to have no muscles. A nurse and doctor were standing next to her; they lifted her arm and when they let it go it dropped to her side like a piece of butterfish.
. . .
The electricity in the building failed, leaving us sitting in the dark. Everyone stiffened, the Americans uneasy, the Vietnamese speaking rapidly to each other in quiet tones. Then, as though I'd been whirled back in time, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, I heard a siren coming from a distance, starting at zero bass and rising evenly to a solid, steady high note where it stayed for a second or two and then slid back down through all the notes like a glider. All I could think of was the civil defense drills we'd had in grammar school. I sat still, aware that my heart had doubled in pace, and waited for instructions from the Vietnamese. By the time the siren began its second wail, one of our hosts had lit a candle and broken out of Vietnamese to say to us, calmly and with a smile, "Please excuse me. Alert."
. . .
"What's going on?" I asked a Latin man. He was Cuban.
"They don't know anything. Maybe planes. I don't hear them. We'll just wait. Hasn't been any bombing for a long time."
Bombing? I heard the word, and I surely suspected that's what the sirens were all about, but hearing this man say it as he looked so matter-of-factly at the sky, was something different. . . .
A tall Indian held up his forefinger and said, "Shhh." In the distance I heard them . . . the planes. Everyone went on standing there in the moonlight, but now we were not talking. The sound faded into the distance and the voices came back, only much softer. People let out sighs. My heart was slamming again. I felt alone with my panic. There were a few more jokes, the voices almost back to normal.
And then it hit.
The planes were coming fast, and they were loud. The group jumped as a unit, heading for the door of the shelter down the narrow stairs. A big boom happened somewhere, and it shook the shelter walls and sent a wave of adrenaline through all of us. People hurried down the steps. The Cuban sat me down at the end of a long narrow bench which faced another long narrow bench. I had to go to the bathroom. There was another blast.
-- And A Voice to Sing With, pp. 201-202

There were over sixty bombing raids in eleven days, in what turned out to be the heaviest bombing in the history of the world.
Mike Allen, Episcopal minister travelling with our party of four Americans, also carried a cassette maching, so the male narrative voice is his. Much of the loud bomb and jet sounds, anti-aircraft, etc were taped by him from the balcony of the third floor of our hotel -- the living quarters of Jean Thoroval of Agence France Press, his wife Marie Claud, and their friends. Bless them all for the courage they gave me.
. . .
The war in Indochina is not yet over, and the war against violence has barely begun.
-- from Baez's liner notes on the back of the vinyl copy of Joan Baez's Where Are You Now, My Son? A&M Records, Inc. 1973 [thanks Liang for e-mailing a copy of that]

On the third day the Bach Mai Hospital was bombed. I saw a dead woman laid out by the roadside. There were corpses around her carefully covered with mats. She had not yet been covered up. She was old. I wanted to go and lie next to her and put my arms around her and kiss her. I would have done it if there had been no people around but I was afraid that I would be accused of being theatrical. We walked around what had been the largest hospital in North Vietnam. The head of the hospital was speaking rapidly, pointing to the wreckage of three-sided rooms on second stories where beds hung partially over the floor's edge, bits of sheet dangling in the breeze.
"This was X-ray," he said, waving towards the remnants of a wall, as we labored over slippery debris. . . .
A woman hurried by carrying a bandaged boy on her back, her face set but tears undried on her cheeks. Telford was asking the dates of when certain craters had been made. Was this one fresh or was it from the June bombing? The Vietnamese spoke quietly, explaining everything. Quat was there. He asked me to sit down and go no further while the others went ahead. Barry stayed with me. From around the corner came the smell of burnt flesh. Near the entrance of the grounds we could see a crane and some small equipment struggling to lift concrete and bricks from the mouth of the shelter in which a number of people were still alive. The last I heard, the attempt was not successful, and eighteen people died there.
-- And a Voice to Sing With, pp. 209-210

Oh, people of the shelters what a gift you've given me
To smile at me and quietly let me share your agony
And I can only bow in utter humbleness and ask
Forgiveness and forgiveness for the things we've brought to pass.

The black pajama'd culture that we've tried to kill with pellet holes
And rows of tiny coffins we've paid for with our souls
Have built a spirit seldom seen in women and in men,
And the flower of Bac Mai will surely blossom once again.
I've heard that the war is done,
Then where are you now, my son?

Our visit to the POW camp was even more bizarre than the press conference. It began with the same red tape I'd been through at prisons everywhere, except that I was never before given tea in the warden's office. . . . I had my guitar, Mike had his Bible, Telford had his notepad, and Barry had a stomachache. . . .
We were closely supervised as the pilots showed us around their barracks. Flying shrapnel had severely damaged their bunkhouse the night before, and they were irate about not having any shelters provided for them. . . . They didn't understand what was happening. One of them held up a large piece of shrapnel.
"This thing came right through the ceiling. We was hiding under the beds. We've kinda made our own shelters, but they don't amount to much. I don't understand."
"What don't you understand?" I asked.
"This," he said, holding up the deadly looking piece of steel again. "I mean, I don't understand what's happening." He was absolutely serious.
"Well," I ventured. "There are these planes flying over here every night carrying bombs."
"I know that. But I don't understand what's happening," he repeated for the third time.
"Well, it's really very simple," I explained. "These people drop the bombs out of the planes and the bombs fall to the earth where they explode and cause tremendous damage to people and things. Apparently one or several of these bombs landed close enough to your compound to send that piece of metal flying through your roof."
"But what I mean is," he persisted, "Kissinger said peace was at hand, isn't that what he said?" The sarcasm drained out of me like milk pouring from the tipped cup of a child. I wanted to cry.
"That's what he said," I told the expectant pilot. "Maybe he didn't mean it. They lie a lot."
-- And A Voice to Sing With p.213

In a damaged prison camp where they no longer had command
They shook their heads, what irony we thought peace was at hand
The preacher read a Christmas prayer and the men kneeled on the ground
Then sheepishly asked me to sing "They Drove Old Dixie Down."
Yours was the righteous gun,
Where are you now, my son?

We came to what looked like a large expensive movie set of a piece of the moon. Men were standing atop craters banked with mud and trash, shouting out the number of the dead. Today they wanted us to know. The number was mounting in the hundreds. The white headbands were a part of the moon people's costume. Some of the younger children were laughing excitedly and scrambling from crater to crater like extras. Many people walked in slow motion. Barry guided me around the edges of a crater. We were walking on top of what had been people's homes. Here was a shoe, here was a half-buried little sweater, a piece of broken dish jammed into the earth, a book lying open, its damp pages stuck together. The press were there with their cameras. Barry and I were walking just behind Jean Thoroval and his interpreter. On the other side of a thirty-foot abyss I saw a woman bending low to the ground singing a strange little song as she hobbled back and forth over an area of ten or twelve feet of ground. At first I thought she was singing a song of joy that she was all right and her family had been spared. But as we got closer her song grew strange to my ears. She was alone. Thoroval asked his interpreter what she was singing. The interpreter listened closely for a few seconds and said to him, "Elle dit, 'Mon fils, mon fils, ou êtes vous maintenant, mon fils?' -- My son, my son. Where are you now, my son?"
Oh, heaven and earth. Such depths of sadness cannot exist. I crumpled to the ground and covered my face and sobbed. That woman's boy lay somewhere under her feet packed into an instantaneous grave of mud, and she, like a wounded old cat, could only tread back and forth over the place she'd last seen him, moaning her futile song. Where are you now, my son?
And a Voice to Sing With, p.218

Liang wants us to think about, on this day of peace, the effects our actions are having. "Bombs don't just fall and knock out a building. People live in those areas. Precision bomb is a term that does nothing to describe the effects the bombing has on the people. I grew up hearing about the bombing at Christmas in 1972. To this day, my father can't listen to Baez's song because it brings up too many painful memories but my mother always insisted that all of us [children] heard it and realized that war isn't just some sort of game like chess, it takes people lives and people are dying now, right now. Do we even know why? Do we even press for an explanation? Or are we just going about our lives and dismissing the casualties from our heads? Even while giving lip service to the spirit of Christmas?"

[Baez's book, And A Voice to Sing With, is out of print but you can buy used copies at Amazon -- -- and you can also check for it in your local libraries. "Where Are You Now, My Son?" is a 21 minutes and forty-two seconds song. In the days of vinyl, it took up an entire side of the record. It's available now on CD as part of the boxed set Joan Baez: The Complete A&M Recordings which came out in the fall of 2003. Joan Baez's official web site is Clicking on "lyrics" at that page will allow you to access a variety of her songs including "Where Are You Now, My Son?" I'd also recommend the Criterion Collection DVD edition of Hearts & Minds, the 1974 film by Peter Davis that won an Oscar for best documentary.]

[Note: Quick proofreading done on this has resulted in typos in being corrected. I'm sure there are many I didn't catch.]