Monday, June 4, 2007

Vang Pao and the Madison Hmong

"In interviews, (Hmong in Madison) said they feel the designation (of Vang Pao Elementary) not only honors their leader, but recognizes the sacrifices the Hmong made as staunch allies of the United States during the Vietnam War."
--Capital Times

Susan Troller outlined many valid points in the controversy over Vang Pao elementary.

Initially, I was against the naming, based on UW-Madison Historian Al Mcoy's research that Pao is a heroin/opium lord and military despot.

But the Hmong don't see Pao that way...

The Hmong community has felt rejected, faced discrimination, and been misunderstood in recent history; this despite the fact that it helped U.S. Soldiers in Vietnam.

That members are making headway into American life needs to be recognized. Vang Pao is also a symbol of their persistence rather than simply a leader (military or otherwise).

That said, Vang Pao is not a perfect symbol, but who is?

Schools are named after Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and George Washington despite blots on their record. Jefferson and Washington owned slaves. Roosevelt and Wilson both presided during times of questionable military tactics, while most of them took drugs.

The names of these "American Heroes" may offend small groups, but they are usually accepted as symbols of US prosperity, achievement in the world. And relative to their cultural perspective, their "faults" are not surprising, nor greatly questioned. Washington and Jefferson lived during a time when slave-ownership was expected.

We may now criticize, but don't devalue these figures. Why not extend the same cultural relativity to Pao?

He likely dealt in opium and heroin production, but such is the standard practice in the far East. Some economies are built entirely around opium because there is little else to produce.

I am not condoning the opium economy, but we ought to take into consideration the conditions at the time. Simply cutting off opium production may shut down an entire economy if alternative crops are not developed.

Vang Pao was a military leader, allegedly using CIA backing to execute civilians and staff. This is the most pressing issue.

But as Richard Zeitlin of the Wisconsin Veterans Museum says, "In the real history of the 20th century, there are no clear good guys or bad guys."


Truman called the atomic bomb drop "the greatest achievement of organized science in history." Yet what the bomb did was bring the painful death to thousands of Japanese, killing civilian and soldier indiscriminately, as well as U.S. POWs and workers.

Though in many U.S. circles, he's deemed a hero.

As is John F. Kennedy, despite his own drug problem and use of the CIA to train South American miltants like Luis Posada Carriles. Carriles was recently released by U.S. authorities despite his role in a 1976 airline bombing.

All these leaders have their faults, sometimes horrendous.

With Vang Pao, the Hmong overall see him as a symbol of good. The major questions are: Who is offended by the naming of Vang Pao Elementary? Do these people consider the faults of revered symbols in their own communities?

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