peteg's blog - noise - books - 2012 06 05 Sachs OperationBabylift

Dana Sachs: The Life We Were Given: Operation Babylift, International Adoption, and the Children of War in Vietnam

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Again I succumbed to the temptation of raiding ANU's extensive collection of books on Asia held in their Menzies Library. (Incidentally the UNSW Library is also named after Sir Pig Iron Bob.) I prevailed on one of the beautiful librarians to find it for me, and in doing so she edified me that their "large" books are separate from the rest, and I had only been looking at the large ones. I am sure it makes sense to use the same numbers for both.

I was trying hard to avoid this book for so many reasons; perhaps particularly because it is a latter-day second-hand account of wartime relations between the U.S. and Việt Nam, unlike (say) Balaban's, which (to my mind) served a clear purpose. Brutally put, this isn't Dana's story to tell. Still, I found her translations and earlier memoir to be super bits of writing, and her motivations certainly impeccable, so I dived in.

In brief, Operation Babylift was a mass evacuation of war "orphans" at the end of the American/Việt Nam war, in the days preceding the much-feared Communist apocalypse of April 30, 1975. The logic of the babylift was as tortured as that for the entire war, and the book touches on some of the issues from a mostly American perspective. This is a bit frustrating as Dana has the background to explain the political, religious and cultural divisions of the Saigon of the day, and to make deeper sense of why the Buddhists and native Catholics were apparently not as fazed by the imminent Communist takeover as the foreign Christian charities, who panicked or were overtly baby-hungry, and generally not scrupulous about the paperwork and adoption critera. (She identifies Holt International as pretty much the singular ethical international operator.)

The children who were evacuated in Balaban's account had severe medical emergencies and benefited from sophisticated care in the U.S. (generally unavailable elsewhere in the world at that time). That they returned to Việt Nam after a few years was a condition of their leaving in the first place, and was made completely clear to the foster families who took care of them while they were in the U.S. His first-hand witness of the events is more valuable than this researched work, which sometimes degenerates to cutting-and-pasting from the historical record, and extended quoting of the memoirs of two of the women central to the babylift: Rosemary Taylor and Cherie Clark. Dana shows no evidence of reading Balaban's account from twenty years earlier.

Structurally this is modern fly-on-the-wall Bob Woodward style reportage. The facts are peppered with the fake first-personism of "She didn't even stop to wipe the mud from her face" and other colour that merely pads the book out. The biggest problem is that the stories — mostly anecdotes and valuable for that — are sliced up over several chapters, which leads to tedious repetition. (Each episode of the story includes a recap of the earlier installments; "Previously on Babylift...", and I lost track of the loose ends I wanted resolved.) Lockhart got it right: say your bit then let the players say theirs.

Dana's motivation for this project was that she saw a photo of a 747 full of babies from 1975, and she got funded to visit various orphanages with some of the children who returned to Vietnam to look for their families circa 2005. There is limited historical perspective here beyond the observation (p162) that there was a moratorium on adoption after World War II as the Red Cross saught to reunite families. The obvious parallel to draw in Australia is with the stolen generations of Aborigines, who were subject to presumably similar motivations. The baby hunger was again in evidence in Haiti after the earthquake, where people were kidnapping children and getting busted for it. The Israeli Operation Moses (etc) is portrayed in Live and Become as something like the babylift, all chaos and separation. I'm sure there are more. What is common to all is the good intentions of the operators, the murky legalities, the cultural divides and moral complexities. While it would be too much to ask for a contextualisation of the experiences of the children and families affected by all these events, the motivations, legality, etc. of the babylift operators could have been more extensively situated against what happened before and since.

This is a topic I'd never try to write about; it's too fraught. It's like the old philosophical chestnuts that we ponder for a while, before we get bored and shrug, which in this case is not really adequate. What is in the best interests of a child? I have a limited idea about what this might be within my culture and outside a warzone, but it becomes so tangled when one considers the Việt Nam of the 1970s and 1980s: an impoverished Confucian culture where the elders are venerated and not the youth, where the extraneous extended family members become domestic servants (etc. etc.), where the bright lights of the West have come and gone. Is "the best interests of the child" even be a criterion that traditional Vietnamese culture would accept?

We are also left wondering how the Vietnamese diaspora viewed the babylift children, and whether the Communist regime allows them a right-of-return. (Their official response to the babylift was to portray it as kidnapping, and someone more adventurous than I would doubtlessly draw parallels with the situation of the American POWs.) Dana wrote a novel about this very topic (If You Lived Here) which I cannot face after reading this.

It turns out that there was already heaps of literature on this event, including many first-hand accounts and films; ask Google or start here.