Saturday, October 4, 2008

The Picture That Changed the World

Below is a short story I wrote based on this graphic picture of the execution of Vietnamese soldier Nguyen Van Lam during the Vietnamese Tet Offensive in 1968. The Pulitzer Prize-winning photo was taken by Eddie Adams of The Associated Press. This powerful image shocked the world and played a key role in turning American public opinion against the continuing US involvement in the war. So Nguyen Van Lam was thrust into the pages of history. His death contributed to the defeat of America in Vietnam, a defeat that cast a dark cloud over US foreign policy for the rest of the 20th Century. It always intrigued me why we never knew who this person was until only recently. And even today very little is known about him. We do know he has a wife who mourns him to this day. To her he remains MIA as she has never managed to find his body. His death marked a violent start to the Chinese New Year – the Year of the Earth Monkey. It was a year that changed the world. It was marked by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy and Soviet tanks rolling into Czechoslovakia crushing the freedom movement born in the Prague Spring. Time Magazine says 1968 was Like a knife blade, the year severed past from future. To Newsweek Magazine it was The Year That Changed Everything.

Leonard McDonnell

Tet 1968: A Love Story

Nguyen Van Lam knows things. His name means knowledge, understanding, and his friends call him Bay Lop -- the seventh child, born in the seventh month. He doesn't believe in fortune tellers and he's not deeply superstitious, unlike his wife Mai
He just gets a feel for things.
He knew this was not going to be a good year. So far all the signs were proving him right. The first person through his door for the New Year was a policeman. He burst in gun-barrel first, after smashing the door in, three hours after midnight. He held Mai against the wall while his fellow soldiers ransacked the house. But Lam wasn’t there.
It was the third raid in as many weeks. Lam isn’t home much these days. He knows events are coming to a head and he has to lay low.
Sitting alone in a darkened room listening to the distant crack, crack, crack of fireworks, he felt a deep sense of dread. The firecrackers that used to so lift his spirit in the New Years of his youth, this year had a more sinister sound.
He reached for the red parcel, illuminated by a dusty shard of sunlight streaking down from a gap in the shutters. It was the New Year present Mai gave him the last time he saw her. He’ll never forget the image of her wiping tears off her cheek with the back of her hand as she passed him the present. It was only hours after the raiders had left their home. He made a brief visit to wish her a happy New Year, even though he knew there was little to be happy about.
Mai was standing amid the ruins of the kitchen. She was determined to do everything she could this year to ward off bad luck. She cooked for weeks and brought food to the temples. She adorned her kitchen altar with everything she could think of – sweetened fruits, watermelon seeds, papaya, sugar-apples, mango and coconuts. She even cooked nián gao pudding to sweeten the kitchen gods and fa gao Prosperity Cake. Now the food lay scattered across the floor. She couldn’t clean-up, because to clean during New Year celebrations would bring bad luck.
She had worked so hard for months to ward off what she felt was an impending doom.
Her brother and her best friend had both been killed by the invaders – the invaders that were hunting for Lam. She knew this was the Year of the Earth Monkey and the leader of the invaders was an Earth Monkey, this was a very bad omen. The fortune teller at the temple told her that her man would be a great warrior who would send the invaders away and bring peace to the city. But “great warrior” was how they described her brother, and he was dead. Mai didn’t want a great warrior, she just wanted her husband home.
As he slowly tore open the red paper parcel, Lam remembered that today was the second day of the New Year, the day they would traditionally visit Mai's family. The basket of food she had prepared for the occasion was one of the few items to survive the raid. He recalled it sitting on the kitchen sink with a bunch of flowers as he left Mai crying. He wanted to reassure her that everything would be OK, but he knew it wouldn’t, so he just kissed her on the cheek and left saying nothing.
He laughed when he saw what was in the parcel. It was his favourite plaid shirt. Mai bought it for him six months earlier at a street market. It reminded her of the shirt worn by a bronco rider she had seen in a magazine picture from the Calgary Rodeo. “It’s a cowboy shirt,” she said as she held it up in front of him to check the size. “The Earth Monkey comes from Texas, he’s a cowboy. Texas is where the cowboys come from.”
Mai believed that aligning Lam’s destiny to the future of the Earth Monkey – the leader of the world, the leader of the invaders – would help bring good luck in the year of the Earth Monkey.
Lam took off his dirty, green uniform and pulled on the cowboy shirt. The feel of the flannel, freshly washed and ironed, immediately brought him back to that sunny morning when he and Mai, got up early and went to the market.
As he did up the last button the door burst open and soldiers pushed him to the ground. They punched him repeatedly in the face as the crackers continued in the distance. His arms were tied behind his back and then two of the soldiers frog-marched him out into the bright sunlight and down the Saigon street.
Press cameras were flashing in his face as he recognised the enraged Police Chief stepping forward. The two soldiers left him and Lam felt deep fear, not so much for himself but for Mai. As the cameras stared, hungry for action, he knew he would never see her again.
The barrel of the Police Chief’s pistol was cool against his temple and he winced as he felt the loud crack against the back of his hand. “No!” said Mai feigning fury and threatening to hit him again with the bamboo spoon. “You know it’s bad luck to eat from the altar Lam.”
“Lollies don’t make luck Mai. We make our own luck.”
“It won’t kill you to wait until after Tet. You’re not a child. You could show some respect to your ancestors – for my sake, Lam, even if you don’t believe.”
As Mai stood there pleading with him, Lam was struck by how beautiful she was. Her hair was up in a ragged bun, pierced with a chop stick. This was just how she looked the first time they encountered each other. She was making rice-paper rolls at a back table in her family’s restaurant. As he walked past he took one and she gave him the same disapproving frown she was giving him now. But it wasn’t totally disapproving – it contained a whisper of affection. It was that whisper that drew him back to her restaurant with his friends many times. He would position himself so that he could glance up and see her working at the same table, while his friends joked, gossiped and rummaged through the events of the day.
It wasn’t long before they worked out what was going on. “Bay Lop’s in love,” they taunted whenever they realised his attention was not on their conversation. “Or maybe it’s the food she’s making that he’s lusting after.”
Lam knew that lust didn’t have anything to do with the spell he was under. He was consumed by desire – an overwhelming desire just to hold one of those delicate hands.
He will never forget the first time it happened. As a soldier he had often found himself in situations that tested his courage, but none compared to the courage he needed to muster in order to reach out and take Mai’s hand.
The occasion was their third date. As usual, her mother accompanied them everywhere they went. However, this time her need for a new mortar and pestle overcame her need to keep the youngsters apart.
She went into a rambling kitchen shop, leaving Mai and Lam waiting alone out in the street.
Lam still wasn’t convinced that Mai liked him. He didn’t know whether or not she was only coming out with him at the urging of her mother, who seemed very keen on him as a potential husband for her daughter.
Mai rarely spoke on their previous outing. All the talking was done by her mother.
But nevertheless he summoned up the nerve to seize the moment and reach out for her hand. He was terrified that she might pull away, leaving him devastated.
He closed his fingers around hers, scraping his fingernails on part of the rope binding his wrists, as blood gushed from his head on to the Saigon street, and the world stared through the camera lenses.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

A Clash of Two Ministers

The Federal Government’s green paper on emission trading highlights the dichotomies that plague many of our public policy decisions. It’s the differences between facts and beliefs, between those who promise and those who have to deliver, perceptions and reality, leadership and politics, what we would like to achieve and what we can achieve.
Australia faces two major challenges that are certainly not complementary. One is how are we going to attract the massive long-term investments we will need, particularly in the energy industry, to maintain our economy in face of rapidly growing international competition? The other is how are we going to reduce our carbon footprint?
The green paper shows that, for the time being at least, the Rudd Government wants to remain in “Opposition” mode and keep these issues away from each other.
While Energy Minister Martin Ferguson's report, Energy in Australia 2008, outlines the energy challenge and pays little attention to the emissions challenge, Climate Change Minister Penny Wong’s paper deals with the emissions by dancing around the energy challenge.
The language of the green paper reeks of the tired old assumptions that we will have to jettison if we are going to make any attempt to seriously tackle global climate change.
Number one is this concept that society is divided between big (bad) corporations on the one hand and the community, the battlers, working families on the other.
The green paper encourages the deluded view that significant emissions cuts can be achieved without major costs to the community. It’s a dream where our way of life will be saved by propellers and mirrors and petrol we can practically grow in our gardens. Emissions trading will force the “big polluters” – the carbon mafia, the bastards in the boardrooms – to switch over to the alternative, clean energy sources that up until now they have been conspiring to suppress.
In reality is there is no conspiracy. As Fergusons’s report makes clear, there are no quick-fix clean energy alternatives to switch to.
Furthermore we do not live in a divided society. We are all in this together.
You see, maintaining our standard of living requires major long-term investments. Business leaders make their investment decisions in the interests of their shareholders. To a rapidly increasing extent, those shareholders are "working families". Workers' super funds account for almost a quarter of the wealth on the Australian stock market. But these funds are not restricted to Australia. We have about $450 billion in funds under management invested here and around the world.
When business leaders make their investment decisions, it is helpful to remember they are investing to maximise our retirement income. Major corporations invest for long-term sustainable returns, rather than trying to make a quick buck.
This green paper seems to miss this point entirely. It is a document built around election-cycle timelines rather than investment outlooks. It has short-term provisions to assist some companies that have already made investments in energy and manufacturing, but it has very little to encourage the new, long-term capital investments we are going to rely on for our future economic growth.
The energy we are using today is provided as a result of major capital investments five, 10, even 20 years ago.
According to Ferguson's report we are going to need almost 40 per cent more energy than we currently use by 2030, despite dramatic improvements in efficiency, and fossil fuels are projected to account “for around 94 per cent of primary energy consumption in 2029-30".
Meeting this demand is going to require billions of dollars in investments in fossil fuels starting from now. There is no recognition of this in the green paper.
The green paper makes several references to the need for investments in "clean energy". But it does not say what this clean energy is. It comes close on page 72 where it says: "Carbon capture and storage, solar and geothermal technologies have been identified as strategic priorities for Australia." But none of these even rate a mention in Ferguson’s forecast to 2030.
The fact is that right now "alternative" energies are about as prepared to take over the role of fossil fuels as alternative medicines are to take over the emergency rooms in our major hospitals.
You see, when it comes to understanding the energy industry you really only need to know two things – how much, and how much? How much can you reliably provide, and how much will it cost?
With so-called clean energy alternatives the answer to the former is inevitably "very little" and the answer to the latter is "heaps".
For example, the fastest growing alternative source of power generation is wind. Yet, providing the energy needs of our aluminum industry alone would require a one kilometer-wide windfarm stretching from Melbourne to Brisbane.
It’s all about scale and cost. Minister Ferguson's report says our electricity demand will increase by more than 60 percent by 2030. Wind, it says, will be providing just 1.3 per cent of electricity 20 years from now. Coal, on the other hand will have to provide 70 per cent. In the absence of carbon capture and storage in that timeframe this is going to dramatically increase our carbon dioxide emissions from energy.
It will be interesting to see Ferguson and Wong united when the Government finally releases its projections for emissions. Projections have to be based on facts, whereas targets can be whatever you want them to be. That fact is the politicians setting the targets won’t be around to answer for the fact they will not be achieved.
So the question for us is, should business leaders be investing our super funds to get the best return, or should they forgo our profits and invest in Australia for the good of the nation? Those in favor of investing for the best returns say aye, those against nay – I think the ayes have it.

Leonard McDonnell is a freelance journalist and speech writer. His clients include major oil companies.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008


Throughout National Reconciliation Week a great deal has been said about how we can help turn around the disadvantage experienced by many Aboriginal people.
But we never seem to talk about what Aboriginals can do to heal the malaise permeating our western way of life.
In the interests of this year’s theme: “Reconciliation: it’s all our story”, this is a good time to reflect on what is wrong with our community and how, perhaps, the essence of traditional Aboriginal culture can help us.
The Aboriginals, like many of their native counterparts around the world, have something we seem to lack – a sense of belonging.
We have lots of belongings, but we don’t belong anywhere. In fact our whole world revolves around the insatiable accumulation of belongings – land, a bigger house, a newer car, larger TVs and the perpetual pursuit of fugacious fashions. If we all woke up and decided that “now I have enough, I have everything that I need”, it would be a disaster, our economy would collapse into recession.
And yet we don’t seem to belong here. As English philosopher Alan Watts said: “We have been brought up ... not to feel that we belong in the world. So our popular speech reflects it. You say 'I came into this world.' You didn't. You came out of it.” (
We talk about the environment as if we are aliens on this earth. The environment is something we need to appreciate, respect and protect. We don’t see the environment as something we belong to, as something we are a part of. We’re just passing through on our way to where we really belong – Heaven, Hell, Nirvana, amid a harem of celestial virgins, wherever.
But the Aboriginals belong right here – along with their ancestors.
They never owned land, they belong to the land. They listen to its language, the poetry of place, the songlines of the country – the changing seasons, the changing climate. They changed with it, because they are part of it. Over the past 40,000 years they’ve experienced climate swings from ice age to extreme warming. They have witnessed the oceans rising up over 100 metres and flooding the continental shelf.
They live in the land, not off the land. Terra nullius – the land belongs to no one.
We on the other hand, we claim the land in the name of the Crown, we buy and sell the land. We build borders, and fences, walls and boundaries.
However, treating the land as just another commodity has consequences.
As American columnist and anthropologist Joan King puts it: “Once land becomes ‘mine’ I no longer have much interest in protecting ‘yours’.” (
Borders, by their very nature, lead to conflicts, division and neglect across the globe. They are irritations on Mother Nature’s skin.
Now I know we are not going to pull down all our fences and start communes, or go back to being hunters and gatherers, but we need to change the way we perceive boundaries. They are just artificial lines necessary only for administrative purposes, like time zones or the lines on a writing pad.
They don’t define who we are and they certainly don’t warrant the level of emotional investment we have in them at the moment.
Let’s not forget that right now we have thousands and thousands of sophisticated nuclear weapons – enough to destroy life on earth many times over – with the sole purpose of protecting a few of our precious lines on a map.
Joan King again: “All other problems pale in comparison to a very real and growing danger of a nuclear exchange between nations or non-state entities, yet no one really talks about it.” (
This sense that we don’t really belong leads to all sorts of negative feelings, not least of which is fear and all its destructive associates. “I, a stranger and afraid, in a world I never made.” – Alfred Housman
In the last 45 years worldwide suicide rates have increased by 60 per cent ( In his book Learned Optimism, Dr Martin Seligman says that severe depression is 10 times more prevalent today than it was 50 years ago and, through suicide, claims as many lives as the AIDS epidemic.
On the plus side we have actually achieved a great deal that we can be proud of in our modern world, particularly in the arts and sciences, and we have enormous potential if only we could develop a sense of self awareness – if only we could stop being so afraid and find our way home to where we truly belong.
We said sorry to the Aboriginals and that was a giant leap in the right direction. Now, rather than bickering over whether or not they can be trusted to oversee their own communities, we should be pleading with them to intervene into our way of life.
We desperately need the Aboriginal elders to help us achieve reconciliation – with them, with ourselves and with our environment.

Leonard McDonnell is a freelance journalist and speech writer. His clients include major oil companies (