Dispatches from the wrong side of history
My parents met in Cu Chi, Vietnam in October of 1969. They were both officers in the US Army. My mom was a nurse, and my dad was a hospital administrator. They fell in love over a period of months while my mom was stitching up bodies and my dad was counting them. The circumstances of their courtship make me and my siblings, quite literally, the products of US imperialism. If it weren’t for the Vietnam War—or The American War, as it is called in Vietnam—we would not exist.
War and colonialism are the twin forces, often aligned, that smash together populations and societies, leaving a jumbled mass of destruction and creation in their wake. The creation part can be tricky to talk about. I am not egotistical enough to believe that my life or the lives of my brother and sister in any way balance out the deaths of 2,000,000 Vietnamese citizens. I am also not so shortsighted to believe that the joy I get from a Dutch-Indonesian rijsttafel in any way justifies the brutal Banda nutmeg massacre of 1621 (look it up). The good stuff that comes from war and colonialism, presuming that my life can be called good, can look pretty paltry beside all the slaughter, exploitation and pillage. In the grim arithmetic of foreign intervention, I am a remainder. So too are many of the people who we have filmed for Empire, from the Dutch-descended Jews of Sulawesi to Sri Lanka’s Burgher ladies. Some might call them villains, but I think they deserve some measure of our understanding. I share a place beside them, as many of us do, on the wrong side of history.
—Kel O’Neill, Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, October 2012
Picture gallery: scenes from my mom and dad’s late adolescence in Southeast Asia