How War Gets Under Our Skin front page

I wrote this piece on about how war (and the world in general) gets under our skin. It looks at the Hmong example, as well as examples from a few other wars around the world (the Dutch Hunger Winter, the Biafran famine, and the Khmer Rouge period), and how these experiences get into our bodies.


Unbending rigor is the mate of death,
And wielding softness the company of life:
Unbending soldiers get no victories;
The stiffest tree is readiest for the axe.

Tao Te Ching: 76


Early in life, our bodies are like unmolded clay, ready to be shaped by our experiences. For some of us, that matching process can create problems. If circumstances change, we could end up poorly adapted to our adult environment. A child born into harsh conditions, though, may have to take that risk in order to make it to adulthood at all.

5 thoughts on “How War Gets Under Our Skin

  1. Patrick. I had no idea you had visited Father Bertrais’ Hmong. Fascinating article. The French Guiana experience was one of the few early success stories in Hmong resettlement. I am not surprised that the second generation of migrants physically outgrew their parents. I have yet to be visited in Laos by any of this group but have regular Hmong visitors from the USA. Most were born there or born in a refugee camp on the way to resettlement (where the daily diet was probably a lot healthier than in the US today). All are as tall as any westerners of the same age. They have also lost the stockiness of their parents. Not only are their mannerisms and language American, but they physically look so different from the Hmong who remained in Laos. The first generation to migrate were among the shortest people in Laos/Vietnam, shorter than the Lao, who in turn were not tall and also had some of the stockiness one associates with Asian farmer-societies. In Laos itself, there is now an evident difference in height and body between generations (all ethnicities). It is not as obvious as that between US-Hmong generations, but it is there. Now that many young Hmong in Laos live in town and go to school and work alongside ethnic Lao, it is no longer possible to distinguish ethnic identity by looking at someone. In many ways this is a good thing. Dare I say it, young Hmong today (and young Lao) approach the western view of ‘attractive’ — slimmer, taller, less ’round’. They also tend to be fairer of skin than the Lao — which all ethnicities in Laos view as adding to attraction.

    • Robert, yes, it’s been a while since I was there, but I lived with Father Bertrais’ Hmong for a while. A really great experience. By the way, I often heard them refer to Hmong in the U.S. as “Vang Pao Hmong” (your favorite person). But they were very curious to hear more about what Hmong life in the U.S. was like, though they had relatives there that they were in contact with. They were very kind people who fed us, took us around, and treated us well. Though when I asked how happy they were in French Guiana (very) and whether they ever wanted to return to Laos (no), something got lost in rumor that I could be recruiting a clandestine army to back to continue the Vang Pao resistance. I have no idea how widespread that rumor was, but it made me shake my head. Understandable, though, given the history of American involvement in the country. I don’t know that I ever fit the profile of what a CIA agent would act or look like, however.

      • Patrick. I should be able to ask what a CIA agent looks like. Unfortunately they are unmistakable. Fortunately you’re not the image. What does not surprise me is that a rumour could start and before you know it you almost believe it yourself. To that extent the Hmong in French Guiana remained Hmong — although that too is changing everywhere. The ‘mass-hysteria-hallucination’ type rumour is/was something typical among the Hmong. Once an idea caught on, however ridiculous, it is/was believed 100%. That was made use of long ago by missionaries seeking converts, during the war by both Hmong sides, in August 1975 prompting the march on Vientiane of 30,000 Hmong (5 months BEFORE the change) and during the refugee era with the Yellow Rain saga (which was we now know deliberately started by the CIA, but they only had to plant the seeds and Hmong rumour took over). The same aspect was evident in the early movements against the French, where Hmong developed an almost Mahdi-like approach, and were incredibly brave while at the same time incredibly naive — but that did lead to them getting what they wanted (as in 1776) with the French capitulating to their demands to reduce or remove tax on opium and let the Hmong rule themselves in Hmong areas of Laos and Vietnam (substitute tea for opium and you have the American Revolution). Hey, I noted an interesting page from the diary of King George III dated 4 July 1776. It reads just one line: “Nothing of importance happened today”.

  2. Hi Patrick, I really enjoyed your article. As a Hmong scholar, I’m glad to see contemporary studies on the Hmong being done. I’m currently in the South and Southeast Asian studies department at Berkeley. Currently, my interest has shifted to US missionary work with the Hmong of Lao during the McCarthy era. I’m very intrigued by the division of Bertrais’ Hmong and US (Vang Pao) Hmong, more specifically the Catholic Hmong and Protestant Evangelical Hmong. I’d be interested to hear more about current Hmong religious practices in Guyana.

    • For SVang:

      The religious divide is an interesting one, but I wasn’t exactly looking at that specifically so I know I missed a lot. The Catholic Hmong have some subtle privileges. In Cacao, the building for the Catholic Church has one of the two most prominent spots in the village, up on a hill (the other hill is occupied by the town hall). The Protestant Church is down in the valley, among the other houses. Upon meeting a family for the first time, we were often asked if we were Catholic or Protestant, indicating that this was an important identity marker for some people. Not for everyone, but social circles were influenced by religion. There were also a substantial % of traditional, non-Christian Hmong as well.

      In Javouhey, which was named after a Catholic nun, the two churches were roughly the same size, and were very physically close to each other on Rue de l’Église (Church Street). I was told that people liked to sing loudly on Sunday morning service to outcompete the other church. I think there is still a hybrid of religions for some. We went to a hu plig for one family whose mother was sick, but I believe they were technically Catholic (my memory is fuzzy, but I got the sense that there are a range of beliefs and a variety of how devout to one faith a person could be).

      Best of luck with your studies.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.