my response to R-C letters
   

Welcome to Tom Riddle's
"Letters
in the Record-Courier"

Introduction: The Kent-Ravenna Record-Courier is the leading newspaper of Portage County in Northeast Ohio. The head office of the Record-Courier is located in Ravenna, the county seat. Downtown Ravenna was once considered for National Register historic district status. Treasures include the Etna House and several buildings built by my great-grandfather, Henry Riddle I.

In March of 2003, just before my father, Hugh Riddle, passed away, I wrote a letter to the Record-Courier that prompted a variety of responses form local and some out-of-state residents. Most of the letters gives insight into mid-American sensibilities toward patriotism and tolerance. Here, beginning with my letter are all of the letters. After the last letter, is my letter of response.

All of the letters are important, however, you can garner the general tone of the letters by reading the first three letters. The last letter, being the most extreme, is one of the most interesting. Two letters (March 27 and March 29) are sympathetic towards my letter.

To jump directly to my letter of response, click here.

March 18
LETTERS
Ashamed American
I thought that readers might be interesting in hearing what it is like to be from Ravenna and a traveler in outside the United States in these prewar days.
For the past few months I've been touring India. On this trip I've met very few of my fellow countrymen. It seems that American tourists are somewhat of an endangered species in India these days. We are afraid — afraid that we'll be caught in crossfire, afraid that we will be the victims of and-American violence, afraid that the war will disrupt international air travel, or perhaps we are ashamed.
I fall into the later group. I'm ashamed to be an American. Sometimes though I don't feel like an American. Sometimes I feel like a German tourist I read about a long time ago. He was a mountain climber who had come to India in 1938. His passion was mountains, still he was aware that his country had been taken over by a madman who was about to begin an insane war. (In case you have forgotten, Hitler was democratically elected.) He wrote that before World War II actually began, many German tourists were in a state of disbelief — it was not possible, they believed for the motherland to invade a sovereign nation who had done them no harm.
On this trip I've met Americans who have similar feelings. They are in deep denial. They simply can't believe that their government, in their name, is about to invade a country that is being actively disarmed by the United Nations. They like to think that it is all a bad dream.
With my shame, whenever I meet a Frenchman, a German, an Israeli, or a Dutch person, I immediately apologize for my government. Sometimes I'll tell one of the George Bush jokes I've read on the Internet other times I'll tell them that I appreciate the work that their government has done to stop the Americans and their British poodle, Mr. Blair.

The Indians I've talked to are baffled by the American government's desire to eliminate, at any cost, the government of Iraq, but no one has shown me any anti-American feelings. But if war comes, and everyone starts to hate all Americans, in the way that some Americans hate all Arabs, will I be able to blame them? Probably not. We will be getting what we deserve.

Tom Riddle via R-C Online

(Tom Riddle graduated from Ravenna High School in 1969. He has spent most of his life overseas since then.)
March 19
Stay overseas
My advice to Tom Riddle is if he is ashamed to be an American (Record-Courier letters, March 18), there are no walls or police at our borders to keep people in. No one is forcing him to remain an American citizen.
Since he has spent most of his life overseas, why not just go back to wherever and spend the rest of his life there?
America may not be perfect but it's the best country there is and we should be proud of it and support, our leaders. May God protect both our military and all the innocent people who live in harm's way.
Charlene Mc Daniel
Windham
Time to immigrate
Concerning Tom Riddle's letter ("Ashamed American," Record-Courier, March 18): To quote Mr. Riddle, "We will be getting what we deserve." This is clearly anti-American, and should be treated as such.
If Mr. Riddle has spent most of his life overseas maybe he should move there, but perhaps he is making too much money in this horrible country to renounce his citizenship. Why live in a place that makes you so miserable? Sounds like sour grapes.
Sounds like it's time for him to immigrate.
Robert Fela
Mogadore
Go to Iraq
In response to the letter written by Tom Riddle ("Ashamed American," Record-Courier, March 18): Sir, you have vehemently and publicly expressed your shame at being an American. I would like to suggest to you that you renounce your American citizenship and consider taking up residence in a country which more closely parallels your political sentiments.
Might I suggest Iraq! I am confident that they will more fully appreciate your "George Bush jokes."

Lauren A. Weaver
Mantua

March 20

'Despicable' remark
This letter is in response to Tom Riddle's letter to the editor ("Ashamed American," Record-Courier, March 18.)
I want to preface my comments by saying that I have known Tom most of my life. We grew up in the same neighborhood and both graduated from Ravenna High School in 1969. Tom's father, Hugh Riddle, just recently died and I extend my condolence to Tom and his family. The Riddle family has made a valuable and lasting contribution to the Ravenna community.
Over the past 34 years, Tom has kept in touch with me and my family by visiting (when in town) or writing via the Internet. He has spent most of his adult working life in foreign countries, mainly in Southeast Asia.
Needless to say, I was quite disturbed by Tom's remark that he is "ashamed to be an American." It is one thing to express a grievance toward our government's political or military policies; every American has that right of free speech. However, it is a despicable thing for Tom to say that he is ashamed to be an American. I believe that Tom has treaded on foreign soil far too long. He has forgotten his heritage and now forsakes his country. This is truly shameful.
I thank God Almighty for allowing me to be born a citizen of the United States of America ... a land that I love. I will stand up and bravely proclaim that "I am an American." I support the brave men and women of the military for their service to our country. These brave Americans and their families have my gratitude and prayers.
Don Kainrad
Ravenna

Stay in India
Dear "Ashamed to be American": You should apply for citizenship in India and stay there. I am ashamed to live in the same country as you.
The United Nations and our own government agreed this needed to be done. How many years does someone like yourself give Iraq to comply? Like it or not, this war is going to happen, so you can either back our men and women of the military or go stand guard at Saddam's side in Iraq.
To our military and allies overseas, stay safe. Most of us are proud of you. To the veterans of all the wars before this, who have made it possible to speak freely, we thank you.
To Mr. Riddle, I salute your ignorance and hope your life is complete as an anti-American.

Scott Weaver
Mantua

March 21
Proud to be American
I'm writing this in response to Tom Riddle's letter ("Ashamed American," Record-Courier, March 18).
I feel sorry for him being ashamed to be American. Why does he feel compelled to apologize to France or Germany, I wonder? My father and two uncles sacrificed three years of their youth fighting World War II to defend France from Germany. They are all old men now in their 80s. Thankfully, they survived to return home to their families. Many other Americans never made it home.
Rather than being ashamed of his own country and apologizing for the United States, Mr. Riddle should say thanks to the generation of men who gave their lives so that he would be free to travel abroad.
Also in his globe-trotting — if he can find time between his apologizing- he should visit France to see the graves of all of the American boys who did not come home.
Yes, Mr. Riddle should be ashamed, but not of being from America. He should be ashamed of the ingratitude he shows to the men who fought to make America and France free.
Americans getting what we deserve, being hated? I don't think so.
Perhaps Mr. Riddle should give up his American citizenship and just stay overseas. I'm proud to be American and grateful to the patriots to whom I owe a debt I can never repay.

Michael Bregant
Ravenna

ALTHOUGH THE NEXT LETTER WASN’T WRITTEN IN DIRECT RESPONSE TO MINE, IT REFLECTS THE SENTIMENTS OF MANY OF THE WRITERS AND IT APPEARED IMMEDIATELY BELOW THE ABOVE LETTER.

Dig out Old Glory

While driving around Ravenna lately, I have noticed there aren't many U.S. flags waving, as there should be. After 9/11, it was awesome to go down almost every street and see so many flags blowing in the breeze. Somehow they have disappeared or just been put away.
Now that our great country is in a crisis, how wonderful it would be to see them flying again.
Let's all pull together and stand behind this great country, our president and our men and women who are away from their loved ones. Dig out Old Glory. Hang it high and proud. And tie yellow ribbons around the trees to let our troops know we have them in our prayers. God bless America!
Dick and Fran Cugini
Ravenna
March 22

No better country
I wrote a lengthy letter in rebuttal to the individual who is "ashamed to be an American" (Record-Courier, March 18). I discarded it. The history of this country stands in its own defense. It doesn't need help from me.
I had a visitor from Europe this past summer. He sat on my porch overlooking a peaceful scene. A neighbor walked past. He waved and I waved back. My friend looked up at me and in a most solemn way said, "You have heaven here. I wake up in the morning, sometimes during the night, and I wonder if my family will make it through the day."
Another friend, a brilliant medical student studying in Hungary, has been trying to obtain a green card that would accord him residency in this country. He has spent two years in this seemingly fruitless effort. His comment to me .was, "You should give thanks to your Mom and Dad for having the foresight many years ago to emigrate to the United States.”
A man who contributed far more than I to the growth and development of our country reflects my view. Many years ago, Stephen Decatur said, "Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong."
I challenge anyone to find something better.

Paul Lozanoff
Garrettsville

Grateful American
When I read the March 18 letter from Tom Riddle on his "shame" for being an American, I was first very angry, then thankful and finally sorrowful.
I was angry that he would say such a thing, thankful that we live in a country that permits him to say what he feels and finally sorrowful that he doesn't appreciate being born in our great country.
I agree with the many who have written that he should give up his American citizenship. We can all disagree on policy, positions and even actions, but I thank God every day that I was born here.
I went to Haiti in February with my church and when I returned home, I wanted to get down on my knees and kiss the ground of our U.S.A. That trip gave me a whole new perspective of how fortunate we are to live in such a great country.
No, I do not agree with everything we have done in the past, present and I'm sure there will be things in the future that I do not agree with, but I would not live anywhere else. I will pray for you, Tom. God bless America.

Vicki Kline
Suffield
March 23
This time, finish job
I am writing this letter in answer to a couple of letters that appeared in the Record-Courier on March 18. One was entitled, "Ashamed American." The other, "Alternative ignored," called attention to the ICC International Tribunal and asked why President Bush didn't let the court decide if Saddam was an international criminal, and then bring him to trial. Well, I'm sure the tribunal would find him guilty. The only problem I see is who is going to go in and get him out to stand trial? I think the suggestion is just a bit naive.
The "Ashamed American" is perfectly free to renounce his citizenship, and leave the country whenever he wants, because he has the freedom to make that decision.
He made the point that Hitler was also democratically elected, which sounds like he is computing President Bush to Hitler. Really? In many countries that kind of comment would be called treasonous, and have dire personal results.
Like the Ashamed American, I, too, have traveled the international road in Europe and South America, and have run into anti-Americanism. I have made comparisons between our lifestyle and theirs, and with all of our faults, I still like ours a lot better.
When was the last time you heard about an illegal alien problem in Iraq, North Korea or Iran? Yes, we have our detractors, but don't offer a group of them a chance to relocate to America, or you might trampled in the stampede.
For the first time in our short history, mainland America was attacked without warning, with devastating consequences. Of the three intended targets, two were successfully hit, and the third was spared due to some resourceful heroes on an airplane.
The twin towers were both non-military and non-governmental, so don't talk to me about collateral damage or the suffering of innocent people. We've been there, done that.
Unprovoked war? The Ashamed American must have a short memory. The first shoe has dropped. I don't blame the president for not waiting for the second.
The inspection teams' efforts are a joke at the world's expense. Saddam has been laughing at the United Nations and all of its diplomatic efforts for a long time. I don't think he is in a laughing mood right now, though, because we're about to call his bluff again. This time, finish the job. I can only hope the Ashamed American is holding his hand at the end.

Ron Newhouse
Streetsboro
March 24
Comments 'ignorant'
I am both shocked and ashamed of the thoughtless, ignorant remarks made by Tom Riddle last week ("Ashamed American," Record-Courier letters, March 18.)
Have you been on foreign soil so long that you have forgotten where you came from? As a man who is so privileged to travel the world and see the beauty of our world (as we can see in your web site), I would think you would be thankful to have been born in America, a land of freedom and opportunity.
You took advantage of the opportunities that America has to offer, such as education. People from around the world come to America to be educated, just as you returned to America a few years ago to further your education.
I am thankful that I am an American. I thank soldiers from past and present for our freedom. God bless them all. Support our troops and pray.

Cindy Mishler
Ravenna
March 25
No apologies needed
And then we have poor Mr. Tom Riddle who finds after years of playing the role of the "Flying Dutchman," globe hopping from one port of call to another, that he is suddenly ashamed of being an American (Record-Courier letters, March 18).
We wonder what his family patriarch, H.W. Riddle, an early entrepreneur might say of this embarrassment, for America unquestionably has bestowed her blessings on the Riddle family for many years; a fact not lost, one hopes, on most of Mr. Riddle's family, if lost on Tom himself. In which case, it might well be a matter of who's ashamed of whom.
As one who has lived in Israel, I can confidently say that Mr. Riddle need not apologize for his country to those good folk who have learned so well since their Six Day of 1967 that the best defense is a good offense; a lesson that America, it seems, has been forced to re-learn.
Peace Corps experience in India has also taught me that despite what may be said about the world's most progressive democracy by the world's most populous democracy there would be precious few in that country who would not gladly trade passports with any American, even an American in the most humble of circumstance:,. But then, perhaps Mr. Riddle hobnobs with those precious few; in which case, he still has a lot to learn about India and perhaps about the real world as well.

Mike "Tyke" Friend
Pocatello, Idaho

March 27
Meaning of freedom?
I am horrified by the letters of my Portage County neighbors in response to Tom Riddle's anguished message.
Mr. Riddle wrote (March 18, 2003), "I thought that readers might be interesting in hearing what it is like to be from Ravenna and a traveler outside the US in these pre-war days." He wrote that he and other American travelers feel ashamed that the U.S. government, in their name - and yours and mine - was "about to invade a country that is being actively disarmed by the United Nations."
Apparently, Record-Courier readers are not interested in hearing these concerns. Readers responded that Mr. Riddle should renounce his U.S. citizenship if he insists upon such dissent.
I ask, what is the meaning of the "freedom" for which Mr. Bush claims he has sent our soldiers into battle?

Nancy Grim
Brady Lake

Living in freedom
As I see it, Tom Riddle's father and grandfathers before him lived the American dream. Just look around Ravenna — Riddle St., Riddle Block and on and on. With their help I'm sure he received some of the best education in America. As he ventures to come home for his father's funeral this week I'd like to ask him how difficult it was to enter the United States of America with his citizenship? It's called freedom.
Do they have that in other countries?

Karen Heisler
Ravenna

March 29
Another viewpoint
Thanks to Don Kainrad for his insights into Thomas Riddle and his family (Record-Courier letters March 29). I have not been friends with Tom as long as Kainrad has; but over the past 20 years I've come to know him pretty well. I'd like to share some facts that Kainrad's letter failed to mention.
Tom's ancestors have been in America since well before the Revolution. Locally, they have been pillars of the community. Two roads and an important building in downtown Ravenna are named for the family. Tom has taken great pride in his family's contributions to the region, and he has devoted countless hours to documenting his ancestral heritage.
Tom could have enjoyed an easy life in the United States. Instead he joined the Peace Corps — and not for the normal two-year tour but for a good half dozen. He sacrificed his comfort, and at times his health, in order to assist impoverished communities in Thailand and the South Pacific. After the collapse of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, he risked his life to organize that country's first democratic election. More recently he has worked as a filmmaker in South and Southeast Asia.
Mr. Riddle is committed to our nation's core ideals: democracy, compassion, self-determination, empathy, and mutual respect. He appreciates the opportunities provided by his privileged position as an American, and he has taken the associated responsibilities seriously.
Tom follows world news in American as well as foreign papers, and he has spoken with hundreds of people in countries that are normally among our allies. As a patriotic American, he felt compelled to share his knowledge of how others perceive us, and to let us know how those perceptions affect him as a U.S. citizen residing overseas. He has become convinced that we are making a terrible mistake, and he felt obliged to call that mistake to our attention before we further damage our position in the world. America's strength is not freedom per se. Free speech is a right enjoyed by people everywhere — even in Saddam's Iraq — as long as they take popular positions and support their governments. What makes our nation special is the willingness of citizens to criticize their government when it gets off track.
Tom's letter ("Ashamed American, March 18) does indeed reflect a tragedy, but not the one to which others have pointed. It is that our foreign policy has made a dedicated American feel apologetic and, as he reported, even ashamed of his national identity.
I began by thanking Mr. Kainrad for his insights. Let me end by thanking Mr. Riddle. It is because of patriots like you that, even in our darkest hours, I remain a proud American.

Rick Feinberg
Brady Lake

April 5

Grow a beard, grow up
Tom Riddle is ashamed of me and he does not even know me. He said, "I'm ashamed to be an American. Sometimes though I do not feel like an American. Sometimes I feel like a German tourist... With my shame, whenever I meet a Frenchman, a German, an Israeli or a Dutch person, I immediately apologize for my government." (Record-Courier letters, March 18)
Tom probably has no idea what he has started. Now whenever we people from .Ravenna or Portage County meet another American, we immediately have to apologize for Tom Riddle.
I am proud to be an American. Tom is not. Tom is ashamed of himself, and by extension of all Americans. Therefore, he is ashamed of me and my children and of you and your children. The logic may be false, but the sentiment is not.
American governments come, American governments go. Just because one dislikes or detests the domestic or foreign policy of the current government, that is no reason to renounce one's citizenship, flagellate oneself with the rod of righteousness or beg forgiveness of every foreigner one encounters.
Poor Tom! No matter how much water he carries for the Third World, he is still ashamed of himself and his nationality. When poor Tom looks in the mirror to shave, he sees the ugly American. My advice for Tom is to stop shaving, grow a beard and grow up.
Also, just like many Americans, many Germans do not know their own history. First of all, Germans do not have a motherland, they have a fatherland and that fatherland did "invade a sovereign nation who had done them no harm."
Remember Belgium and World War I?

John Heinl Mantua


MY RESPONSE (intended for publication in the R-C) There is also a shorter version of this letter.)

Around March 10, a few days before I left India and just before I heard about the death of my father, I wrote this newspaper a letter discussing how it felt to be an American traveling overseas “in these pre-war days.” The 15 responses appearing over the past month stimulated me to rethink my initial letter and compose the following reply.

I enjoyed every letter. I was happy to see that many contributors copied my writing style by overstating their case and employing an element of the dramatic. You can find all of the letters at http://letters.thomasriddle.net.

Many commentators were surprised that, “I am ashamed to be an American.” Ashamed means “Feeling inferior, inadequate, or embarrassed.” It is an emotion, similar to other emotions that arise from time to time in everyone. It comes and goes depending on the circumstances. And as American folk wisdom says of emotions, “you hurt the ones you love the most.” A father might feel ashamed and angry because his son was arrested for driving while intoxicated; later he might feel proud when that same son is elected to high public office. Many Americans might feel ashamed when they think of the way we treated our native Americans in the 19th century and proud when they think of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Emotions come and go depending on the circumstances.

Readers who found it hard to imagine what it was like to travel overseas just before the current war might gain an inkling of understanding by reflecting on the early news conferences with Tommy Franks or Donald Rumsfeld. Every foreign reporter that I saw at those conferences opposed the war. I recall one question to General Franks: “Would you consider becoming a suicide bomber if the Iraqis invaded Middletown, Texas?” So, imagine that you are living with those reporters for a few months and imagine that you grow to like and respect them. Those men and women, who would never hesitate to assert their moral superiority to British and American “imperialists and war mongers”, might cause you to re-evaluate your feelings of pride in American foreign policy and, perhaps, in being an American. But again, they might not. As we all know, often people have opposite reactions to the same events.

When the US recently eviscerated the UN and began the attack, I felt like the Pope did after the invasion began: “deeply pained.”

Most of my time in Cambodia was spent in an office, but I was in the first UN helicopter to land in Preah Vehear, a remote province in Northern Cambodia.

The United Nations has a special meaning for me. I spent 18 months in the early 1990s working for the United Nations, helping to bring peace to war-torn Cambodia. (Search my name at Amazon.com, if you want to read my book about it.) Although I have never met Hans Blix or Mohamed ElBaradei, I’ve known people like them. If they are anything like the people I worked with in the UN, their qualifications and integrity are impeccable. When Mr. Blix and Mr. ElBaradei gave their reports to the UN, the BBC broadcast them live and I heard them in India. Their reports were masterpieces of diplomacy, analysis, and investigation. Both men said that disarmament was basically going well; they just needed more time. Mr. ElBaradei said that he could find no evidence that the Iraqis had re-started their nuclear weapons program after the first Gulf War. If you believed those men, then there was no need for war. If you believed them, it was clear that officials in the US government were telling half-truths. And, if you believed them, you were probably aghast, even ashamed, at the actions of the United States government.

When I worked for the UN in Cambodia, UN peacekeepers were occasionally killed. It didn’t have much of an effect on me though--I didn’t know them and, anyway, they worked for the office down the street. Then one night two women who worked with me were murdered by people whom we would now call terrorists. Their attackers shot them as they slept. At that time I did what I saw the American soldiers doing on television a few days ago. I cried. I’ve never completely recovered from their deaths. I believe that the American soldiers I saw on television will never completely recover from the deaths of their fallen comrades either. It is no accident that many of the members of Congress who most vehemently opposed the war are veterans. Everyone says that war should be the last resort; the veterans, however, actually believe it.

Eventually the soldiers who are crying today will, like the Vietnam veterans of my generation, come to a wider understanding of the circumstances that caused so much unnecessary death. Some of them will write poignant and bitter memoirs. Some will be bitter their entire lives.

In India, and later in Thailand, I asked every person I met if they had met anyone who was in favor of the war. No one had. Finally, on the plane home I met a man who wasn’t opposed to the war. He said he didn’t know enough to have an opinion. Significantly, he had recently retired from a senior position in the Veterans Administration. I told him that I thought the Vietnam Veterans and Gulf War One veterans (some of whom were my students when I taught in Hawaii) were never given the support they deserved from the American government. He strongly agreed. In the end, I’d like to see our returning veterans left with more than bitterness.

The British kept some unexploded American ordnance outside the office I worked in.

Ten years ago I worked with American veterans in Cambodia who built prosthetics for war casualties and landmine victims; four years ago I worked with British veterans in Laos who ran de-mining programs. They were good men and no doubt some of our soldiers will stay in Iraq after the war to pursue similar humanitarian projects. We are, on a deep and profound level, a decent people. It is a pity our foreign policy makes some of us feel so ashamed.

One of my Cambodian classes had me pose with them on their graduation day. I'm in the back, third from the left. Behind me is Anchor Wat, the Cambodian equivalent of Mount Rushmore, Statue of Liberty, and Washington Monument, all rolled into one.

A few people who wrote letters wondered what I do in Asia. I went to Asia in 1982 to work for the UN in the refugee camps that were set up after the Vietnam War. Two years later, I started working in programs that were funded by the US Department of State in the same camps. As the camps closed, I went to work for the UN again, this time in Cambodia.

These days I make movies and home pages. I’ve made home pages for artists in Cambodia, http://reyum.org, the Church World Service in Laos, http://www.cwslaos.org, and Islamic scholars in Thailand, http://fellowship.arf-asia.org. Last year I made a movie about a health care project in Laos and took lots of pictures of school kids. You can find the introduction that was on the CD at http://www.thomasriddle.net/saya/welcome.htm.

Last year I took lots of pictures of school kids in Laos.

In a few weeks, just before the rains close the roads, I’ll be in northern Laos making a movie about a small project sponsored by Save the Children. For my work I’ll be paid about a third of what a plumber in Ravenna makes. But the money doesn’t matter; it’s the lifestyle that I love. At 52, I’m a bit like my father who at 80 said that if he could re-enlist in the Navy he would. He enjoyed tinkering with the engines aboard ship and loved the camaraderie and adventure.

My anti-war activity was limited to writing letters. Readers are reminded that some senior British and American government workers resigned rather than have their names associated with the governments that caused this war. Clearly it is our most divisive war since the Vietnam War. Like the Vietnam War, it is taking an immense toll in our cohesiveness as a nation. Let us all pray for peace.

See the pictures at a larger resolution (210K).

PS

A few readers made comments about my family and how they would react to my mid-March letter to the Kent-Ravenna R-C.

My late father, in the end, hated the Vietnam war. During the war at least once he wore a black armband to work, as a form of protest. Later he never wanted to see any of the movies about the war or even hear about it. It pained him to think that his government sent men to die in vain.

A day or so after my letter was published I receive the first e-mail I've ever received from a leading businessman in downtown Ravenna. He wrote, "Please keep your letters coming to the RC and respond to the Ravenna natives who do not understand or even conceive there could be another side "

I think he summed it up well. Many people do not imagine that there could be another side. That is strange when you consider that the rest of the world saw that there could be another way. It is unbelievable to me that people in my generation, who lived through the Vietnam War, could listen to our government leaders speaking in double-speak and not know that they were not telling the truth. I felt saddened when, in his last address to the UN before the war, Colin Powell sounded like he didn't believe what he was saying.

When my plane landed in Cleveland on March 27, a neighbor picked me up at the airport. He asked me if I had any rope--rope that would make it easier for certain people in Ravenna to hang me. I immediately wondered if the R-C had printed my letter correctly or if I had made an unintentioned ethnic slur. How relieved I was to see that the Record printed my letter exactly as I had written it.

My mother saved all of the letters that were written in response to mine. I was fascinated. The letters echoed the same feelings of nationalism that you find everywhere in the world, and those are the same feelings that dictators use to force the ignorant masses to commit the most horrendous crimes. The Khmer Rouge (who killed about a million Cambodians) initially mobilized Cambodia_"to protect our nation, to defend ourselves from outsiders, to preserve our way of life." Some of the respondents to my letter clearly were sleeping when their university history teachers taught the history of nationalism. Others never bothered to read my letter carefully. Some don’t know the meaning of tolerance.

Significantly, not one respondent said that I was wrong in my description of sentiments overseas just prior to the war. One person said, "I will stand up and bravely proclaim that I am an American." But no one actually said that what I had said was incorrect. Or that they had recently stood up overseas and said that they were proud to be an American.

Before I returned to the US an American who runs a church-funded NGO told me that these days Americans are "brainwashed." But I've been impressed by the sentiments of many of my fellow countrymen. Two women over 75 told me on different occasions that this war "is the stupidest thing the US government has ever done." A local community leader told me in support of my letter that fundamental patriotism is as bad as fundamentalist religion. One day I went to visit an old friend. At 87 he can still vividly recall the day he landed at the beach in Normandy on D-day. When I was a teenager he often expressed his disgust at "hippies." So I was on guard when he stepped out of his house as soon as he saw my car in his driveway. I wondered if he was going to call me some of the same names I've been called in the R-C. Instead he wanted to shake my hand and told me that he agreed with everything I wrote. I asked him if he could write a letter to the paper. He told me that it was too hard to express himself without swearing. One of his World War II buddies recently told him that with the way things are going, he doesn't want to live much longer. They feel that the country they once fought for has lost its direction.

A few people have cautioned me to be careful in Asia. In fact, though, Asians are very good at differentiating between the American people and the policies of the American government. (Recently an Arab spokesman said that not one American had been hurt in the Arab world during the recent anti-war demonstrations.) Plus the streets of most Asian cities are much safer than the streets of American cities. So I have confidence that I'll be okay; but I appreciate your concern.

In fact I'm a little worried about my dear countrymen who are staying here. If the world is angry at us, have we created more terrorists?


After the Record-Courier told me that they would not accept a letter over 500 words, I wrote this 496-word shorter version of the above:

Around March 10, a few days before I left India and just before I heard about the death of my father, I wrote this newspaper a letter discussing how it felt to be an American traveling overseas “in these pre-war days.” The 15 responses appearing over the past month stimulated me to rethink my initial letter and compose the following reply.

I enjoyed every letter. I was happy to see that many contributors copied my writing style by overstating their case and employing an element of the dramatic. You can find all of the letters, including a much longer version of this one, and a few pictures at http://letters.thomasriddle.net.

If you saw any of the early news conferences with Tommy Franks and noticed the hostile reception he received from the foreign press, then you can understand what it was like to travel overseas before the current war. I recall one question to General Franks: “Would you consider becoming a suicide bomber if the Iraqis invaded Middletown, Texas?” If you spent enough time with people like those reporters, who would never hesitate to assert their moral superiority to “imperialists and war mongers”, you too might have done some serious soul-searching.

How you felt about the war partially depended on whether or not you believed the United Nations weapons inspectors. I believed them when they said, in their final report, that disarmament was basically going well; they just needed more time. Clearly they didn’t get more time and clearly some of us felt acutely embarrassed when the United States government ended the work of the inspectors.

Some background: in the early 1990s I spent 18 months in Cambodia working for the UN. One night two women who worked with me were murdered by terrorists. At that time I did what I saw the American soldiers doing on television a few days ago. I cried. Judging from my own experience with war, those American soldiers will never completely recover from the deaths of their fallen comrades any more than I have. It is no accident that many of the members of Congress who opposed the war are veterans. Everyone says that war should be the last resort; the veterans, however, actually believe it.

In Cambodia I also worked with American veterans who made prosthetics for landmine victims; more recently I worked in Laos with British veterans who ran de-mining programs. No doubt some of our soldiers will stay in Iraq after the war to pursue similar humanitarian projects. We are, on a profound level, a decent people. It is a pity our foreign policy makes some of us feel so ashamed. Like the Vietnam War, this war is taking an immense toll on our cohesiveness as a nation. Let us all pray for peace.

End
See the pictures at a larger resolution (210K).