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I spotted this photo in the Ho Chi Minh City Museum a couple of weeks ago. It is the type of photo that immediately arrests your attention.
The young woman engages you directly with her warm smile and slightly tilted head. We sense her joie de vivre, see the carefree wisp of hair hanging over her forehead, and notice her hands placed on her hips in serene and breezy defiance.
What gives an ominous impact to the image is the awareness of this delightful person’s apparent situation. She is wearing a thin prison shirt and is accompanied by two implacable military guards.
You can try piecing together a story from the negligible amount you can tell about her and her circumstances, and the larger amount you know about the brutality of the Vietnam War and the raw hatred of the South Vietnamese government toward prisoners from the North.
Indeed, the photo next to hers in the museum is that of a bold, young, male North Vietnamese soldier being led off for execution by the same types of military guards.
I realized I was looking at something remarkable and astonishing. I was looking at a photo of a kind, young, vital and idealistic person in alarming circumstances who was not acting with the fear and anxiety one would expect.
On the contrary, despite everything, she seemed to be experiencing joy.
It was almost as if the current confrontation between injustice and herself had generated that joy; in the very process of standing opposed to what was obviously wrong, joy blossomed in her.
Here, outside a courtroom where she was not going to get justice, where little mercy was going to be shown to her by a corrupt and inhumane military tribunal, stood a young woman meeting our gaze with a carefree sense of love, humanity, commitment and compassion.
I did not know whether I was ever going to discover this incredible person’s identity or even find out what had ultimately happened to her, but I found myself silently whispering to myself in the museum, “Please God, please don’t tell me they had to torture and kill this woman.”
I whispered this little prayer knowing full well of the horrors that so many Vietnamese endured through foreign military occupations.
Her smile was so compelling, that I also prayed I would learn who she had been.
A truly great photo can have this type of timeless grip, especially when the subject is so vivacious and dynamic and when the meaning resonates with such courageous significance and clarity.
If it had not been a photo of one of my country’s “enemies” from that time, this might have become quite a famous photo in the USA. It should be an immensely famous photo. But it was an act of coolness and dissension directed at the evil in my country and so this image was not going to get around America during that
As it is, it is well-known in Vietnam, and an inspiration to young people to this day.
As an inadvertent discoverer of something awe-inspiring that my current society may find of value, I share it with anyone who also might be moved by its human spirit.
This is a long-neglected “iconic” photo. This is part of the legacy of the best that humanity offers in its struggle for peace, justice and fairness.
This is an important photo which should be seen, like the best photos ever, because reflection on this image can only benefit you with greater and greater insight and mercy. That mercy and humanity radiated from Vo Thi Thang.
Later, when I showed the picture on my phone to a Vietnamese friend, she casually said,
Oh, that’s Ms. Vo. Oh yes, she was quite famous. She used to be the Minister of Tourism for Vietnam for a while. She died a few years ago.
So she had survived that ordeal depicted in the photo. She had survived, she had become a national hero and she was given a meaningful job by the government through which she could help her people.
She died of natural causes in 2014 at the age of 68. The president of Vietnam posthumously awarded her the title of Hero of the People’s Armed Forces.
Indeed, on the day of the photo, Vo had been sentenced to 20 years of hard labour by a military court in South Vietnam for attempting to assassinate a spy in Saigon during the Tet Offensive of 1968.
Every Vietnamese child to this day knows what she said in court. After she was sentenced to 20 years, she said to the court officers: “So you really think your government will last another 20 years?”
So you really think your government will last another 20 years?
The American-backed South Vietnamese government fell within 6 years of Vo’s sentencing. She had been released a year earlier than that due to agreements made in regard to prisoner releases between the US and North Vietnam.
There is a touching obituary on the Voice of Vietnam website: Forever remains the triumphant smile. In it, a comrade stated that Vo had been tortured and imprisoned numerous times during the war but that she had never lost her spirit.
Indeed, she told her companions that prisons were a great type of school for the training of the will and spirit of a revolutionary soldier.
She was often considered a heroine by her peers, and she was always loved and respected by those who served alongside her, until final victory.
What is most remarkable is that Vo experienced and demonstrated such joy through such adversity and this is something that we may try to master. Not only for our own sakes but for the sake of the outcome of our own personal and public struggles, we need to believe that even the most extreme adversity does not have to engender a grim and corrosive response in us.
If we succumb to bitterness, self-pity, hostility or malice from our struggle, how can the joyous outcome we hope for spring from this?
It would be ideal if one’s struggle were always or predominantly joyous. Recall that after Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated at the age of 39, they performed an autopsy on him and were shocked to see that his heart looked like that of a 60-year-old.
How heartbreaking it is that he must have suffered so much stress and anxiety during his campaign for Civil Rights and social justice. He probably suffered every day for years as the government was in opposition to him, the FBI Director had tried to blackmail him, and (few people now recall) the mainstream press regularly attacked him.
He lived under emotional, psychological and physical attacks sometimes all at once.
We should, therefore, examine this issue more closely. To what extent can we accept joy in our struggles? Perhaps we should teach this more strongly, more boldly, and hold it as an expectation.
Perhaps we can encourage each other to aspire to more joy in our difficulties – see how far it is possible to go.
And we are not talking about just social activism.
In our inner struggles, in our desire to become better people, to overcome any aspects of ourselves that might hurt others or ourselves, as we search for and wait for ways to rise to a higher level of goodness, our overriding emotion must be joy.
After all, it works. Faced with frustration you can virtually dissolve and replace that feeling with joy so easily. Every revolutionary, everyone working toward the betterment of him/herself and the world must choose joy early and often.
Malice, hatred, irritation…there is no reason to succumb to that.
Think of what creates the joyous and optimistic and allows the negative to be dissolved and replaced by rejoicing. Bitterness is the deceiver, joy is the truth about our struggles and journeys.
Victor Frankl wrote, “Everything can be taken from a human but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way.”
Joy becomes the big, emotional flushing device – it just forces the negative emotions to swirl in a vortex, chemically cycle out and disappear, to be replaced by something much better for everyone.
There is also a very real tendency for us to become embittered and malicious through negative experiences, especially experiences of dishonesty, hypocrisy, injustice and unfairness.
This attitude is also counterproductive to our most humane desires. Unless the work for justice derives from joy and compassion, we risk creating more harm than good.
A conscious decision to feel joy in place of a destructive emotion is a choice to do the right thing the right way. It is not self-deception, it is the raw impact of the truth of your growth and development, the beauty of your journey, hitting you.
Joy can bust up the rotten things: anger for example.
Vo showed that joy is the revolutionary’s most potent emotion buster. It is the emotion which keeps one’s human spirit alive and also brings people together, which encourages others to grow and allows change to happen.
In our ethical or humane development, we have a responsibility to others and a responsibility to ourselves. Goodness and joy walk hand in hand.
It would be a tragedy to expect suffering from those who undertake an effort toward moral change. Perhaps it is time to try this out more thoroughly.
Emotions are readily manipulatable. They can be rejected. They can be chosen. Positive, ebullient emotions help one conquer obstacles. It is time to celebrate the daring and heroism of joy.
Vo Thi Thang: Although you bore it with courage, compassion and spirit, I am so sorry for your suffering. It was senseless and cruel as was most of that war. Thank you for keeping the human spirit alive.
Thank you for not falling into pity or bitterness or malice. Thank you for your good life and public service. I wish I had known you, I wish I could have met you. I pray I rise to the level of joy you did so that I can be of real service in the world.
All images were supplied by Daniel Gauss. The copyright of this essay belongs to Daniel Gauss.