September 15, 2001
To The Editors—
In July of this year Dinitia Smith asked my publisher if she might
interview me for the New York Times on my forthcoming book, Fugitive
Days. From the start she questioned me sharply about bombings, and
each time I referred her to my memoir where I discussed the culture of
violence we all live with in America, my growing anger in the 1960’s
about the structures of racism and the escalating war, and the
complex, sometimes extreme and despairing choices I made in those
Smith’s angle is captured in the Times headline: “No regrets for a
love of explosives” (September 11, 2001). She and I spoke a lot about
regrets, about loss, about attempts to account for one’s life. I
never said I had any love for explosives, and anyone who knows me
found that headline sensationalistic nonsense. I said I had a
thousand regrets, but no regrets for opposing the war with every ounce
of my strength. I told her that in light of the indiscriminate murder
of millions of Vietnamese, we showed remarkable restraint, and that
while we tried to sound a piercing alarm in those years, in fact we
didn’t do enough to stop the war.
Smith writes of me: “Even today, he ‘finds a certain eloquence to
bombs, a poetry and a pattern from a safe distance,’ he writes.” This
fragment seems to support her “love affair with bombs” thesis, but it
is the opposite of what I wrote:
We’ll bomb them into the Stone Age, an unhinged American politician
had intoned, echoing a gung-ho, shoot-from-the-hip general… each
describing an American policy rarely spoken so plainly. Boom. Boom.
Boom. Poor Viet Nam.
Almost four times the destructive power Florida… How could we
understand it? How could we take it in? Most important, what should
we do about it? Bombs away.
There is a certain eloquence to bombs, a poetry and a pattern from a
safe distance. The rhythm of B-52s dropping bombs over Viet Nam, a
deceptive calm at 40,000 feet as the doors ease open and millennial
eggs are delivered on the green canopy below, the relentless thud of
indiscriminate destruction and death without pause on the ground.
Nothing subtle or syncopated. Not a happy rhythm.
Three million Vietnamese lives were extinguished. Dig up Florida and
throw it into the ocean. Annihilate Chicago or London or Bonn. Three
million—each with a mother and a father, a distinct name, a mind and a
body and a spirit, someone who knew him well or cared for her or
counted on her for something or was annoyed or burdened or irritated
by him; each knew something of joy or sadness or beauty or pain. Each
was ripped out of this world, a little red dampness staining the
earth, drying up, fading, and gone. Bodies torn apart, blown away,
smudged out, lost forever.
I wrote about Vietnamese lives as a personal American responsibility,
then, and the hypocrisy of claiming an American innocence as we
constructed and stoked an intricate and hideous chamber of death in
Clearly I wrote and spoke about he export of violence and the
government’s love affair with bombs. Just as clearly Dinitia Smith
was interested in her journalistic angle and not the truth. This is
not a question of being misunderstood or “taken out of context,” but
of deliberate distortion.
Some readers apparently responded to her piece, published on the same
day as the vicious terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, by
associating my book with them. This is absurd. My memoir is from
start to finish a condemnation of terrorism, of the indiscriminate
murder of human beings, whether driven by fanaticism or official
policy. It begins literally in the shadow of Hiroshima and comes of
age in the killing fields of Southeast Asia. My book criticizes the
American obsession with a clean and distanced violence, and the
culture of thoughtlessness and carelessness that results form it.
We are now witnessing crimes against humanity in our own land on an
unthinkable scale, and I fear that we might soon see innocent people
in other parts of the world as well as in the U.S. dying and suffering
All that we witnessed September 11—the awful carnage and pain, the
heroism of ordinary people—may drive us mad with grief and anger, or
it may open us to hope in new ways. Perhaps precisely because we have
suffered we can embrace the suffering of others and gather the
necessary wisdom to resist the impulse to lash out randomly. The
lessons of the anti-war movements of the 1960s and 70s may be more
urgent now than ever.