Monday, May 31, 2010

No Kings, No Gentlemen, No Joy

Where reality defies aphorisms, clichés about nations survive


Jabeen Bhatti, an American staff member of The Atlantic Times, recently bemoaned in this newspaper the surly service in German restaurants and shops. Our correspondent, a German living in the United States, agrees with her lament while musing about such stereotypes.

Ever since the 14th century, the heraldic badge of the Princes of Wales contained the German words, “Ich dien’” (I serve), which indicates that 700 years ago, the aspiration to be of service was recognized on the British Isles as a Germanic virtue.

When I grew up in Leipzig during World War II, the first aphorism I learned sounded uncanny given the empty shelves in our shops. “Der Kunde ist König” (the customer is king), this axiom went. Being only one generation removed from the monarchy, I knew all about kings. My parents told me that King Frederick Augustus III, Saxony’s mirthful last sovereign, was a whole lot better than Hitler or the Communists who succeeded the Nazis in East Germany, where I spent my first postwar years.

How then did the German civilization, which once prized service, slide from such exalted standards to the level of ill-tempered checkout clerks and blasé waiters? The answers are complex. Suffice it to say that inattention to the needs of customers is not really a nationwide phenomenon, though commitment to service lost some of its glamour in West Germany when the postwar economic miracle spawned the moronic maxim, “Das haben wir alles nicht mehr nötig,” meaning, “There is no need for us to stoop to that kind of stuff anymore.”

That said, surly service seems most glaring in Berlin, in particular in its eastern half and hinterland. This might be due to the German capital’s recent history. The Communists turned the noble tenet that customers were royalty on its head. Communism elevated waiters to the status of kings. They lorded over lines of guests queuing up in rain and snow outside state-owned restaurants where bland stews with red cabbage and soggy dumplings were awaiting them.

No real king would treat his subjects as contemptuously as these viceroys of socialist gastronomy abused their guests. Therefore, I posit that 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 is not enough for the kings of the Communist era to unlearn their habits; in fact, they seem to have infected a whole new generation with their attitude. While this offers no consolation to Ms. Bhatti or me, it does at least provide an explanation.

I know that I am indulging in clichés here. The word cliché is the French term for a stereotype printing plate whose function is to reproduce the likeness of a given object over and over again. True, it never gives an accurate picture of that object but neither does it tell a lie. However, even the best stereotype is never more than a rough approximation of the real thing. As a metaphor for a particular way of thinking, clichés have sociological significance, according to Anton C. Zijderveld, a Dutch authority on these matters. “Clichés function as beacons in vagueness, instability and uncertainty,” he wrote.

Thus supported by scholarship, I shall proceed to the next cliché. It seems that every culture likes to invent self-images reflecting wannabe characteristics. Take France, “everybody’s second motherland,” according to an old chestnut to which I subscribe. France is supposedly the land of the “joie de vivre.” Come to think of it, though, “joy of life” can be an idiosyncratic hypothesis indeed.

Was it “joie de vivre” that rendered the “tricoteuses,” Parisian women knitting under the guillotine, ecstatic with joy over each rolling head during the French Revolution? And what must we think about the “joie de vivre” of France’s sadistic strikers regaling routinely in the pain they inflict on their innocent compatriots and on foreign visitors? Last summer, fishermen expressed their “joie de vivre” by blocking their country’s ports. Every year, railroad workers and truckers get their cheer from making travel hell for the rest of us, especially at Christmastime; this year, travelers thirsted on trains because the service personnel would not sell them mineral water, much less something edible.

Is it a sign of “joie de vivre” that because of lunatic labor laws charming restaurants and bistros die by the thousands? Do I discern “joie de vivre” when I watch Frenchwomen, defying their proverbial commonsense, smoke themselves to an agonizing death in alarming numbers, and grow obese on junk food because home cooking has gone out of fashion? Of course, these clichés, like all others, are partly true and partly false. Some Frenchwomen still disdain McDonalds, cook well and emit delicious scents rather than the stale stench of tobacco fumes. True, a hint of “joie de vivre” has survived in France but I fear the scale is tipping the wrong way.

England, my wife’s birthplace, has quite rightly always considered “joie de vivre” a loanword. On the other hand, “understatement” was supposed to be very British. So what are we to make of the “understatement” of British beach drunks and soccer louts spreading terror across the Continent? And how “understated” is the bigotry dished out by London’s tabloids?

Then there is this British pride in being “gentlemanlike.” A gentleman is well spoken, trustworthy and doesn’t discuss politics or religion at table. He wears brown shoes during the day and black shoes in the evening, tweeds in the countryside and well-tailored suits in the city. It so happens that I have been at the receiving end of a Ponzi scheme that had been cooked up on behalf of a centuries-old institution by well-spoken “gentlemen” dressed in Savile Row suits. I can assure my readers that compared with these “gents,” the machinations of Bernie Madoff were the handiwork of a novice.

But to depict the accurate side of a cliché, let me tell you about my friend Henry, the Eighth Earl of Something in the Cotswolds. One evening, His Lordship nabbed a reporter from a Down Under tabloid paper attired in an ill-fitting rented dinner jacket dancing inanely with the hired staff at a polo ball in Henry’s mansion. Clearly party crashers cannot be tolerated. But Henry told the intruder: “Help yourself to another orange juice, then find yourself a kangaroo and out you hop to Australia.” Now that was indeed gentlemanly in the best English tradition: Of course, one must kick the sod out but not before offering him something to drink.

Beyond the confines of Europe, clichés clash with reality even more forcefully. When I was younger, I had always imagined that folks in the Far East were more refined than the rest of us. So it was with great anticipation that when I was first assigned to Asia as a foreign correspondent, I walked into Hong Kong’s oldest teahouse, a renowned temple of Chinese culinary culture. I was overwhelmed by the delicacies served there but found the waiters impossible to get used to. While bringing me dish after dish after dish, they aimed their sinusitic emissions with astonishing accuracy over their shoulders into spittoons that were strategically located between the tables.

To refute another cliché, I am here to say that Kipling erred. He wrote that East and West would never meet. But they did meet – in Singapore whose predominantly Chinese rulers were equally disgusted with this ancient habit of their compatriots and imposed huge fines on spitting in public. I love Singapore, which also flogs graffiti artists, a punishment that should definitely be emulated in Berlin.

It would be fascinating to move on to stereotypes in and about America. But as it has become an international sport to spread clichés about the United States, my sense of fairness compels me to refrain from doing so, except to say something nice: Unlike Berliners, Americans have not lost their sense of “ich dien”; waiters in the U.S. might become annoyingly familiar but at least they are pleasant, and this not just because they expect tips, although this is a significant factor.

When Ms. Bhatti next tries to communicate with the surly staff of her Aldi store in Berlin, she could do all of us a favor: Please tell these boors that Aldi has a sister corporation in America. It’s called Trader Joe’s. And in its outlets, you will find charming young salespeople disproving the European fib that Americans know nothing about the good things in life. Instead of snarling at their clients, they will eagerly and expertly talk about every detail of the wonderful array of wines on their shelves.

This article is from the July 2009 issue of The Atlantic Times.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Willing Tools of Divine Mummery


(From the first edition of The Mask, a web-based publication)

Above the fireplace in our apartment in Irvine, California, hangs one of my favorite works of art. It is a drawing by Josep Pla-Narbona depicting dancers hiding under masks. Narbona hails from Barcelona in Spain and is therefore unlikely to have had Lutheran theology in mind when he created this magnificent work. Still, it looks Lutheran to me.

In Luther’s imagery, human beings are themselves masks behind which God hides while carrying out His concealed purposes in this world. Luther called God’s reign in the secular realm Mummenschanz, or mummery. As divine masks, humans are called to serve their neighbors out of love in everyday life.

As we ponder our self-centered civilization, trying to remain faithful to our divine vocations is indeed a countercultural endeavor. Let it therefore be known that League of Faithful Masks (LFM) has subversive goals. LFM has the lethal narcissism of our era in its crosshairs, and LFM’s web-based publication, The Mask, is meant to be on of its weapons in this combat.

LFM is not a sect. We don’t want our fellow human beings to renounce the God-given joys of life. With the writer of the Book of Ecclesiastes we cheerfully proclaim: “Go eat your bread with joy and drink your wine with a merry heart for God has already approved what you do” (Eccl. 9:7). LFM promotes neither a redistribution of wealth, nor does it try to tell anybody, as a famous statesman recently did, that he or she has made enough money.

Instead, the League of Faithful Masks has set itself the simple goal of championing the Judeo-Christian worldview of vocation as an effective antidote to narcissism and its destructive consequences; our foe is the “Me” culture that has wreaked havoc in the Western world. It has devastated individuals, businesses and communities financially. It is threatening to unravel this country’s social structure.

The “Me” culture is killing millions of unborn children every year. It is imperiling the ethical standards in the economy, industry, education, jurisprudence, medicine, the sciences, the arts and the media. It has utterly abandoned natural law, the universal moral code of which Christians believe that God has written it upon every human being’s heart, but which has also been fundamental to any healthy civilization since time immemorial.

In a way, the “Me” culture is more problematical to fight than murderous ideologies of the past. Nazism and Communism were the creations of relatively small groups of totalitarians supported by either mindless or, more likely, terrified masses. Totalitarians could be defeated by military, political and economic means.

You cannot fight the “Me” culture with M-16 rifles, mortars, bombs, economic or political schemes, however well crafted. Like Nazism and Communism, the “Me” culture has its roots in a Zeitgeist, or spirit of time that over the last two centuries has performed an ethical lobotomy on Europeans and North Americans alike. One of its authors was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the leading philosopher of the French Revolution, who “freed” legal thinking from internal constraints that limit vice.

In other words, redirected man’s focus away from the neighbor to himself or herself, either in a singular or a plural sense. As Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote before being martyred by the Nazis, the French Revolution was the “laying bare of the emancipated man in his tremendous power and his most terrible perversity.” Bonhoeffer was convinced that “the liberation of man as an absolute ideal leads only to man’s self-destruction.”

This is today’s reality. The finest army in the world is powerless against it. You can’t fight moral lobotomy with helicopters and drones. To mention just one example, the best soldiers in the world can’t turn around the minds of parents who don’t discipline their kids, who threaten teachers with lawsuits if they dare to discipline their students. Even if you sent a million soldiers to the Mexican border, they won’t he able to stop unsupervised American or European kids from becoming drug addicts. This is a market-driven economy, and as long as there is a huge market for narcotics, drug dealers will find ways to supply it.

I do not mean to single out parents but am using the pervasive disregard of divine calling by so many mothers and fathers as a paradigm for the causes of generalized narcissism plaguing our society. Motherhood and fatherhood are vocations likes thousands of others, including the vocations of voters and politicians, of journalists and readers, of lawyers, nurses, physicians, scientists, civil servants, bakers, engineers, business executives and their subordinates. If their sense of vocation is absent, then the “Me” culture’s lethal trajectory will progress with ever-increasing speed.

This is why our group of Christian professionals founded the League of Faithful Masks. The only powerful weapon we possess is our determination to mentor those who have lost the yardstick by which to lead a Christian life in their own secular vocations, and this determination is of courses rooted in our faith. Our weapons are non-lethal. We counsel. We lecture. We write. We teach. We don’t intend to kick off a revolution with banners carried by marching masses. But we do hope that our message will spread, and that regional LFM chapters will spring up around in the United States and other countries. This Web-based publication will be one of our voices.

The message of the Faithful Masks is simply this: In every phase of our lives we have divine callings to serve our neighbors in love; even on our deathbeds we have vocations, for example the vocation to allow our caretakers to serve us lovingly. Again: No insurrection is planned, but we are committed to partaking in God’s masquerade by trying to be of service to others. Everybody sharing our concern is very welcome to join us.

© The League of Faithful Masks, May 2010

Munich on the Monongahela

There is a new Hofbräuhaus in Pittsburgh upholding traditional standards of German food and drink

By Uwe Siemon-Netto

Authentic German restaurants have become rare in the United States. But our correspondent has found one such place in Pittsburgh. It is huge. It is brand new. It has taken the place of a steel mill. It’s a Hofbräuhaus.

When John F. Kennedy tried to smuggle a beer mug out of the Hofbräuhaus in Munich in 1937, he wouldn’t have imagined that more than seven decades later, delightful coeds from Pittsburgh’s huge student population would lug such vessels past the swaying and singing crowds of revelers in a Hofbräuhaus on the banks of the Monongahela River.

Kennedy’s attempt to be light-fingered under the stern glare of sturdy Bavarian waitresses was of course foolhardy. Who in his right mind would want to mess with muscular ladies carrying eight beer-filled mugs, each measuring 2.259 pints?

In Pittsburgh, the smiling and youthful servers are less daunting. I did not see one with more than four steins in her two hands, but, though lacking biceps, they were watchful, which is a good thing if you are a thirsty man. But try to do a “Kennedy” on the Monongahela, and you’ll probably be asked at the exit whether you would like to buy the thing or leave it behind to be rinsed.

My friend, Rev. Eric Andrae, a Lutheran campus pastor, suggested this place for a tipple. To look a little less conspicuous, he took off his clerical collar, called “Friar Tuck” in ecclesial circles, as he guided me down to the beer garden where we had soft-dough pretzels and a liter of brew while watching the traffic on the Monongahela, which west of Pittsburgh merges with the Allegheny into the Ohio River.

This scene seemed unreal because it was so unexpected. When I visited Pittsburgh for the first time more than 40 years ago, this city was just about the sootiest place in America; on the spot where the Hofbräuhaus now quenches thirst of nurses and doctors from neighboring hospitals, of business executives, scholars and undergraduates, stood the Jones and Laughlin Steel Mill, belching its fumes into the Western Pennsylvanian skies.

Steel was Pittsburgh’s business. The name of Pittsburgh’s football club, The Steelers, attests to this historical fact. The Steelers are still there and faithful patrons of the Hofbräuhaus, according to Nick Ellison. The Cincinnati entrepreneur along with two partners spent $8 million to build this enormous pub whose beer is brewed and whose food is prepared under the strict supervision of the 400-year-old Munich Hofbräuhaus.

Now that the steel mills are gone, Pittsburgh ranks among the 10 US municipalities with the least polluted air and for a second time has been voted America’s most livable city. Now electronics and education are among its most significant industries, with 145,000 students enrolled in 33 colleges and universities in the greater Pittsburgh area. Today, it is also home to a host of American subsidiaries of German corporations with sterling names such as Bayer and Bosch, DHL and Siemens.

In short, Pittsburgh is a good place to have a Hofbräuhaus.

There are other “Hofbräuhäuser” in the United States, of course. One is just downriver on the banks of the Ohio in Newport, Kentucky, outside Cincinnati. It too belongs to Ellison and his friends, and it has the same brew master as its namesake in Pittsburgh. His name is Eckhard Kurbjuhn and he is a silent partner of BrauKon GmbH, a Bavarian company that had built the brewing plants of both establishments.

“Our guests love him, he is a lot of fun,” said Ellison of Kurbjuhn who had previously worked in Japan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Nigeria and who in the past 12 months has produced 160,000 gallons of beer in Pittsburgh alone – strictly according to the recipes of the Munich “mother house,” and according to the 1516 Bavaria purity law that only permit water, hops and barley in the beer production.

Kurbjuhn sends samples of his brew to Munich in regular intervals, and the state-owned Bavarian “mother house” dispatches inspectors to Pittsburgh four times a year to make sure that its beer and dishes are up to its standards. Unless a beer aficionado’s palate is sophisticated enough to taste the difference between the waters used in the two Hofbräuhaus products, he would not be able to tell which comes from where.

This is actually a superfluous observation because you cannot buy fresh foreign beers anywhere in America where all imported brews must be pasteurized, which renders them less pleasant to German tipplers. But this makes a visit to Pittsburgh all the more exciting: No Pasteur on the Monongahela!

My friend the pastor and I finished our first mug and a basketful of pretzels that had been imported, frozen, from Germany. It was getting chilly in the beer garden, so we went up to the heated terrace where Katrina, a comely waitress of Italian descent served us what might be called a German-American combo. The German part was the sauerkraut; it was imported ready to serve from Bavaria. The American contribution was a pair of sausages from Cincinnati; they were slightly less spicy than their German counterparts. “But then,” said Kurbjuhn, “some concessions must be made to American tastes.”

Katrina, an undergraduate, was quite typical of the young people in Pittsburgh, a handsome and spirited blend of ethnicities from all over Europe – children and grandchildren of Poles and Lithuanians, Germans and Hungarians, Slovaks and assorted Mediterranean types. Here in the 1,200-seat Hofbräuhaus, they combined into a joyful lot.

As the evening progressed, they climbed onto the wooden benches of the main beer hall, inviting my pastor friend and me to join them swinging beer mugs, swaying and singing, “In München steht ein Hofbräuhaus, eins, zwei g’suffa,” the theme song of the Bavarian establishment composed in 1939 by Wiga Gabriel, a Berliner, God forbid!

You have to know the patriotic Bavarians to realize how extraordinary this is; they don’t like the Prussians, or so they say, and in Bavarian eyes, any German from north of their state border is a Prussian. But then, they have either overlooked or forgotten that their celebrated Hofbräuhaus has deep non-Bavarian roots. To be sure, its founder, Duke William V, was a Bavarian. But he imported a North German to start his brew house because he considered the locally made tipple too foul.

And now, the Hofbräuhaus brew master of Pittsburgh and Newport, Kentucky, Kurbjuhn, is also a native of Germany’s north but we won’t tell the Bavarians that, especially as Kurbjuhn had learned his craft in their state; so no bias should be encouraged.

Given that from the Bavarian perspective, “south” is good and “north” not so good, there is good news for Bavarians from Pittsburgh. The Hofbräuhaus is located on the city’s South Side, which in the days of the steel mills was its grimiest part and is now its liveliest and most attractive section. Where does Pittsburgh’s society play these days? No longer on the once-elegant North Side but south of the river. Where did Mayor Luke Ravenstahl celebrate his reelection recently? On the South Side, at the Hofbräuhaus.

Cheers! I have not been to the Hofbräuhaus in Munich for decades but it was good to have a Lutheran pastor drag me into its namesake on the banks of the Monongahela River. I am not an Oktoberfest habitué. But on that Saturday evening, not entirely sober, I found it difficult to refute Kurbjuhn’s slogan: “In Pittsburgh, every day is Oktoberfest.”

Thursday, May 27, 2010

A "Remarkably Free South Vietnam" Wiped Out


This spring, the Vietnamese commemorate the 35th Anniversary of their country’s reunification. In October, the Germans will celebrate 20 years of national unity. These two events are not comparable beyond the fact that arbitrary divisions ended. Indeed, their difference is colossal.

● In Vietnam, unity came after a brutal war launched by the Communist North in 1960 against the pro-western South. “Hanoi’s victory resulted in the imposition of Communism on what had been a remarkably free South Vietnam,” wrote William Lloyd Stearman, the former head of the National Security Council’s Indochina Staff from 1973-1976, in a recent article in The Military Review. Between 2 and 3 million people died. Many Americans believe the Communist claim that this was a “War of National Liberation.” In truth, it was the apex of a 50-year scheme by the Communist International to gain a major foothold in Southeast Asia.

● Germany had a reverse outcome. There, a peaceful revolution in the Communist-ruled East led to the bloodless reunification with the democratic West. All of Germany, not just the West, was now a free, prosperous and very decent society after a 40-year cold war conducted by the very same world power that had sent their Vietnamese proxies out to kill and get killed for is ideological causes. In Vietnam, Moscow’s proxies succeeded in 1975; but in Germany the Soviet surrogates were defeated 15 years later.

● In Vietnam, the Communists proved to be vengeful victors. They hauled hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese officers and civil servants off to reeducation camps, starving and in many cases torturing them, never mind the absurd denial of this fact by a Hanoi government spokesman in an email to the Beat (see our lead story); there exists overwhelming evidence that these brutalities have happened. A significant scientific study led by a Harvard scientist testifies to the veracity of this claim.

● In Germany, the East’s National People’s Army, the second most powerful military force in the Warzaw Pact, was bloodlessly dissolved overnight. The united Germany did not persecute East German officers who had been fully prepared to invade the West whenever the order came from Moscow. Their colonels and generals, all high-ranking Communist cadre, were retired and sent home. That was the only “hardship” inflicted upon them.

● South Vietnamese fled their defeated homeland under great risk to their lives; hundreds of thousands drowned when their rickety ships capsized and sank. Vietnamese refugees were dispersed over more than 60 countries, including Germany, where a 37-year-old native of South Vietnam just attained a top cabinet position -- minister of health.

● True, East Germans also left home by the hundreds of thousands, but without having to risk their lives, and without even going abroad. They did what they had always wanted to do – travel freely within their own land and settle where they could find a good job. In other words, they were just exercising their constitutional right, which Communism had prevented them from doing for 40 years.

East German freedom lovers benefited from their own courage, from the iron support of world leaders, especially Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and from churches that provided a roof for their movement. The churches also gave them sound counsel: no violence! The sermon text on which pastors preached on 9 October 1989 before sending nearly 100,000 demonstrators out for their most significant “Monday Peace March” was seminal. The text was taken from the Book of Proverbs 25:15 and read, “With patience a ruler will be persuaded, and a soft tongue will break a bone.”

By contrast, the North Vietnamese Communists profited from a weak American home front, which doubtless included well-meaning pacifist, but to this observer seemed largely hysterical, misinformed, drug-crazed and self-serving. “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh,” their numbers chanted waving the enemy’s flag – the banner of the Vietcong. “Make love, not war!” was the slogan of the 1960s peace movement. The heartless and cruel reception of returning Vietnam Veterans by so many of their countrymen was one of my most unattractive impressions of the United States, a nation that I otherwise love and admire but that sometimes seems woefully wrongheaded.

It is futile to repeat at this place what I have written many times before, and what William Lloyd Stearman is in effect saying in his Military Review article: Major media malpractice has helped create a public mindset that turned its own nation’s military victory into a resounding defeat. I have seen the thousands of murdered civilians in mass graves and in the streets of Hue, victims of Communist butchery. I have seen the mutilated corpses of South Vietnamese village leaders and their families hanging from trees after Vietcong terrorist attacks that in the daily press briefings in Saigon featured only as statistics. These carnages were not mere “accidents of armed conflict” but constituted an integral part of Phase II of stated guerilla warfare strategies; that part is called terror.

Stearman is right. The betrayed and obliterated Republic of (South) Vietnam was a remarkably free country. It was so free that it allowed itself to be badmouthed to death. It was so democratic that in 1967, at the height of its war for survival, it held free elections; other, more established democracies, might well have suspended the ballot under those circumstances. The New York Times noted an astounding voter turnout of 83 percent, even as the Vietcong threatened to kill people going to polling stations. Eighty-three percent! That puts America to shame.

This “remarkably free state” was replaced a by regime that Human Rights Watch ranks as one of the world’s worst offenders ( And this regime’s press attaché in Washington has the cheek to tell The Beat in an email: “After the reunification in 1975, the state of Vietnam’s consistent policy is to achieve national harmony and reconciliation so as to build a unified and strong country. The remarkable domestic and international achievements Vietnam has recorded so far vividly demonstrate the success of that policy.”

There are ways and ways to build “a unified and strong country,” as Germans found out to their own and the world’s cost. That even under tyranny the ingenuity and industry of the Vietnamese people should produce astonishing results is surely not to the Communists’ credit. Westminster and Garden Grove, California, are filled with elderly people still suffering from the aftereffects of the torment they were put through after the Communist victory in 1975. Peace and harmony have reached them not.

They deserve the compassion, gratitude and admiration of their American-born neighbors – admiration for their refusal to whine and gratitude for what they had accomplished in the last 35 years on U.S. soil.

Which leaves us with one final thought: As people with a pronounced sense of history, the Vietnamese surely know one unshakable verity about history: It does not end with the present but always remains open to the future.

50 Years Ago: Hanoi Began the Vietnam War


The year 2010 presents a milestone for Vietnamese-Americans. Numbering more than 1.6 million, they are set to become the second-largest community of Asian ancestry in the United States this year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. There is also a grim aspect to 2010. It is the 50th anniversary of an event that ultimately brought them to these shores. In 1960, Communist North Vietnam formed the “National Liberation Front of South Vietnam,” the Vietcong. This set the stage for a war whose legacy is still causing agony to tens of thousands of men tormented in Communist camps. A new medical study of a sample group of 200 torture survivors found that 64 percent of these individuals “showed neurologic impairment.”

The findings by Harvard University psychiatrist Richard F. Mollica and his fellow researchers illustrate that, much as Americans would like to forget about the Vietnam War, it is still very much with us. Many U.S. Vietnam Veterans find it hard to forget that when they returned from combat they were defamed as “baby killers.” Feeling abandoned by their compatriots, thousands committed suicide.

The U.S. public gave hardly any thought to the fate of South Vietnamese veterans living in this country. Now it turns out that they too are hurting from invisible wounds inflicted on them after having been abandoned to tyrants. This comes as no surprise. Throughout history combatants have always risked two kinds of wounds – physical wounds caused by weapons and psychological wounds due to the recall of their pain, particularly the pain of rejection at home.

There will be many neurologically injured veterans among the crowds greeting the “Year of the Tiger” with firecrackers and cheers early on Sunday morning. Their wounds might not show openly. But in years of research Dr. Mollica has discovered that they are there nonetheless.

When the Vietnam War was over, many critics of U.S. policies believed the fib disseminated by ideologues and segments of the media that Washington and its “corrupt puppets” in Saigon had caused this conflict. Yet for a long time there has been ample evidence pointing to the real identity of its author: Ho Chi Minh. Under the name of Nguyen Tat Thanh he had been a key player in the Communist International (Comintern) with the specific charge to apply Leninism to Vietnam. He pursued this mission relentlessly, even after the 1954 Geneva ceasefire accords that temporarily divided Vietnam’s Communist North and pro-Western South.

Months before Hanoi’s Third Workers’ Party Congress fashioned the Vietcong in September 1960, it became clear that the Communist leaders had shifted from “agitation and propaganda,” the first phase in guerilla warfare in the guerilla warfare strategy designed by North Vietnam’s defense minister Vo Nguyen Giap to “armed struggle,” the second phase. The third and final “phase three was the type of conventional war the world eventually watched every night on its television screens.

In January 1960, the Saigon government registered a daily average of seven terrorist “incidents against its outposts. The term, “Incidents,” was banal term military spokesmen used during in “five o’clock follies,” the daily press briefing in Saigon. In reality, these “incidents” were gruesome outrages whose numbers multiplied quickly into hundreds and eventually thousands every day.

In early 1965, this correspondent witnessed one such “incident” in a village that had been “visited” by a Vietcong team during the previous night. The village mayor, his wife and their eleven children were hanging from trees. All other villagers had been forced to watch this bloodbath, and to listen to a Vietcong cadre telling them: “This will happen to anybody cooperating with the Saigon puppets.” The mayor had been loyal to the South Vietnamese government.

Memories like these do not fade away, nor do memories of the torture South Vietnamese soldiers and public officials were subjected to after their country, abandoned by its Western allies, had fallen to the Communists. On the 50th anniversary of the Vietcong’s creation, it is time to pay homage to America’s former allies, to those who drowned fleeing from Communism, to those who made it to the United States where they have not stopped astounding their neighbors with their industry and their loyalty to this country.

Wanted: A Chief Distributor of Black Bread


Martin Luther called the Gospel Schwarzbrot, meaning black bread, which he considered the most nourishing fare. Luther’s metaphor is magnificent in that it addresses the nutritional value of this spiritual kind of bread. It’s called Heilsgewissheit, or certainty of salvation. It frees the believer to roll up his sleeves and manage the challenges of secular life in the left-hand kingdom, as we Lutherans say.

I cannot think of any period in history when this message has been more pertinent than now. This world is in a frightening state: terror, wars, nuclear threats, the impending bankruptcy of entire nations, the ongoing genocide of unborn life, a spiraling collective ignorance, the breakdown of the family, one natural calamity after another, manmade disasters of unprecedented dimensions. Only a fool can feel safe in this situation where we have become witnesses of an “ecstasy of power and madness... [and] have seen a poisonous atmosphere envelop our globe,” as the late German theologian Helmut Thielicke observed in his powerful sermon on the Lord’s Prayer toward the end of World War II. Thielicke spoke of evil as a very real force “brooding over the world, its continents and seas.”

It takes good, healthy Lutheran theology to address this reality; it takes, more specifically, a confessional theology that has not been reduced to a museum piece. I am talking about “black bread” theology here, not mega church numbers games of the kind I am observing close to my new home in Orange County, California. Nor do we need the lethal theologies of “false clerics and schismatic spirits,” as Luther phrased it, a term I find particularly descriptive of the contemporary worldview that edits one or the other element out of Luther’s definition of the Christian as simul iustus et peccator (at the same time justified and sinner).

Theology without reference to sin amounts to a “Satanic attack upon the Church,” to quote a famous remark by Nigerian archbishop Peter Akinola about the sexualization of parts of Western Anglicanism and related post-Christian heresies. Theology without reference to justification, such as we hear in the sermons devoid of the Gospel preached to auditoriums filled with thousands of hand-waving enthusiasts is equally dangerous, and huge numbers don’t make it right.

We cry out for the “black bread” of the Gospel that never goes stale and provides the certainty we cannot find in “the world,” where we nonetheless dwell. This is the Lutheran moment. This is the moment when the true nutritious Gospel must urgently be posited against the multitude of absurd homemade gospels bombarding us from all directions. This is the moment when we must tell our fellow Christians how to worship once again in a manner based on Scripture as opposed to the trivial gobbledygook springing from the imagination of liturgists holding themselves in higher esteem than God’s word.

This is the moment that calls for a powerfully eloquent theologian-cum-pastor at the helm of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and this is why in my capacities as a simple Lutheran layman and as a writer on religious affairs I am endorsing the candidacy of Rev. Matthew Harrison for LCMS president. May he be elected chief distributor of black bread at this church body’s convention on July 14-19 in Houston.