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Fischer, Joan (ed.) / Wisconsin people & ideas
Volume 52, Number 2 (Spring 2006)

Werner, Craig
Diversity and our defense,   pp. 43-46


Page 45

! 
gather to describe the animal. When the 
first says the elephant resembles a fan, the 
rest respond with disbelief, clamoring to 
correct the obvious error. One by one, they 
describe the elephant as a wall, a spear, a 
pillar, a broom, and a rope. Finally the 
prince-the Sufi image for the enlightened 
individual-intervenes and explains that 
the elephant is in fact all of these things. 
For the Sufi, the elephant is a metaphor for 
the truth. Each of us perceives a part; very 
few of us even understand that our view- 
point-the viewpoint of our faction-is 
partial. The story values multiplicity 
without surrendering to relativism. Truth 
does exist. But understanding it requires us 
to transcend our narrow self-interest. 
The oral histories collected in Christian 
G. Appy's Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides 
illustrate the potential uses of a double-conscious, or in this 
case multiple-conscious, approach. As the subtitle indicates, 
Appy considers the Vietnam War from all sides. The voices 
come from the U.S., South Vietnam and North Vietnam, from 
men and women, politicians, officers, and ordinary soldiers. 
Together, these illuminate the extreme difficulty of pinning 
down what patriotism meant in the context of a war that looks 
so different depending on what information you take into 
account. When I teach courses on Vietnam, I begin by offering 
the students three different chronologies and ask them to talk 
about what story each implies. We begin with an "American 
chronology," which begins with the fall of Dien Bien Phu and 
extends through the fall of Saigon. Viewing the war in this 
context, the main story concerns the Cold War. Several of 
Appy's sources, especially those who were in Vietnam during 
the nublic schola 
In essence, Madison is cautioning us against the sort of 
either/or approach manifested in the division between Red 
States and Blue States. The only source of protection for a 
minority in a democracy lies in accepting our multiplicity. 
Each of us belongs to many groups defined by race, gender, 
religion, economic position, intellectual beliefs. Madison envi- 
sions a nation in which "the society itself will be broken into 
so many parts, interests, and classes of citizens, that the 
rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger 
from interested combinations of the majority." 
Recognizing diversity as a fundamental and desirable aspect 
of a democratic society leaves us with the question of how and 
when to take action, obviously a crucial question in times of 
war. This is where the story of the blind men and the elephant 
can be of use. The basic outline of the story is simple. Six blind 
men are living in the court of a prince. A merchant from far 
away brings an elephant to the court, where no one has ever 
seen such a strange and wondrous beast. Wanting to share in 
the excitement, the blind men ask the prince's permission to 
experience the elephant. Each of them is allowed to approach 
the elephant for a brief period of time. 
After they have done so. the blind men 
crucial part in defining the "sides" in the 
war the United States inherited. Ho Chi 
Minh's invocation of the American 
Declaration of Independence when he 
appealed for U.S. support for Vietnam 
against the French recasts the Cold War 
story as a story of nationalist patriots 
following the lead of George Washington 
and Patrick Henry. The "Vietnamese 
chronology" reinforces the nationalist 
story by extending the timeline to 208 B.C., 
when the Vietnamese first established 
independence from China. Viewed in terms 
of millennia rather than decades, the domi- 
nant theme of Vietnamese history is the 
struggle against the Chinese. If American 
policy makers had truly understood the 
significance of this fact-readily available 
to anyone with a commitment to double-conscious analysis- 
we might well have made smarter decisions at several key 
points along the way. 
Closer to ground level, Appy's book includes dozens of 
stories that illuminate the problems created by double 
consciousness within the U.S. military. For a significant 
majority of the ground soldiers after the early years of the war, 
the "common defence" applied not to the United States-and 
definitely not to South Vietnam, which many viewed with 
contempt-but to the members of one's own company, 
platoon, or squad. The connection between an ambush in the 
Central Highlands and the streets of San Francisco seemed 
obscure at best. Again and again, ordinary soldiers express a 
matter-of-fact belief that the military brass and American 
politicians-the very people who had taken control of the 
functional definition of our national interest-had no idea at 
W  ISCONS IN  PEOPLE  &  IDEAS  SPRING  2 006  45 
Rather than deny or repress difference, 
James Madison urges his fellow citizens 
to mold faction into a source of 
democratic virtue.                       A 
the late 1950s and early 1960s, were absolutely convinced they 
were defending the free world from the very real threat of 
Communist domination. 
The problems with the story begin to appear when you shift 
to the "French chronology," which begins in 1627 and charts 
the increasing economic and political domination of Southeast 
Asia by European colonial powers. The French chronology illu- 
minates the internal tensions that make it nearly meaningless 
to talk about a single unified Vietnam with a common interest. 
Ethnic, economic, and religious factions, especially those 
between the Buddhist majority and the 
Catholic minority, played an absolutely 


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