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Dispatches from a Small Planet: Election 2004

THAILAND- August 3, 2004

Quick FactsA nominee for prime minister once had to step down because U. S. officials suspected he was a drug trafficker.
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Moderator Comment: Does it matter that John Kerry served in the Vietnam war and George W. Bush did not?
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Untitled Document

Dispatches From a Small Planet: Election 2004

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By the People - Election 2004 PBS

THAILAND: The Vet Who Didn't Come Home
Correspondent Carrie Ching

FRONTLINE/World correspondent Carrie Ching travels by boat down the Chao Phraya river, one of Bangkok's main transportation routes.
By Carrie Ching
August 10, 2004

Vietnam veteran Ralph Gage, 62, relaxed on a white leather couch in a flowered silk shirt and slacks, bare feet cooling on the air-conditioned tile. A dozen floors below, the town of Pattaya, a resort on the southeast coast of Thailand, was in the heat of celebrating Songkran, the Thai New Year. On the main street, young Thai men and women danced frantically to techno music blaring from every corner. In keeping with the Songkran tradition, white paste covered their arms and faces and was tangled in their hair, a mixture of powder and water that is supposed to ward off evil spirits. Every few minutes a young American GI with a crew cut wandered by, raising his beer and cheering. The Thai teenagers would spray him down with a water hose, another Songkran tradition that is said to represent cleansing and renewal, but also provides some relief from the humid summer heat.

Ralph Gage

Vietnam veteran Ralph Gage offers his views of the presidential race and the war in Iraq.
Gage is one of about a thousand Vietnam War veterans now living in Southeast Asia. At least 500 live in Thailand, settling in soldier-friendly towns -- like Pattaya -- near former U.S. bases. Pattaya, a once sleepy fishing village, grew into one of Thailand's flashiest resort towns during the 1960s, when American soldiers and sailors serving in the Vietnam War flooded the town in search of "rest and recreation." Although the nearby U-Tapao airbase is now closed, Pattaya continues to be a favorite destination for vacationing U.S. navy sailors during Fleet Week. Prostitution is known to be Pattaya's biggest draw for male tourists from around the world.

In the midst of this year's U.S. presidential campaign -- in which the Vietnam War and veterans have resurfaced so prominently -- I decided to track down some of the American veterans who stayed behind in Southeast Asia to gauge their views on an election in which Kerry woos veterans, conservatives question Kerry's medals, and liberals mock Bush for his short stint in the Texas National Guard. I also wondered what they thought of the war in Iraq and whether it was becoming a Vietnam 'quagmire.'

Like many other veterans living in Southeast Asia, Ralph Gage gravitated to Thailand after his retirement from the military and civil service because he said life was simpler here, and cheap. Government retirement benefits stretch a lot further in a place like Pattaya, where a one-bedroom condo costs as little as $300 a month. Gage's wife is Vietnamese, but many of the veterans who have settled in Thailand have Thai wives and children, another incentive for them to stay.

A bar in Thailand

Thailand is a haven for hundreds of American expats who say they prefer the low cost of living, friendly people, and laid-back lifestyle. In cities like Bangkok and Pattaya, hostess bars lure in male tourists and vacationing GIs on almost every corner.

"I just like being around people that are nice," Gage said with a shrug.

The friendly relationship between the U.S. and Thailand allows many American expatriates to live comfortably in the "land of smiles." To many expats, including Gage, Thailand is a haven from the complications of everyday life in the U.S. and the complications of American politics.

Yet this Songkran marked a turbulent year for laid-back Thailand, a country whose fate is closely allied to the U.S. During the April festival, Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra ordered a heightened security alert in Bangkok and southern Thailand, a region recently shaken by a wave of violence blamed on the Muslim minority that lives there. Thailand's contribution of more than 400 troops to the U.S.-led effort in Iraq last September has been one of the main complaints of Thai protesters in the southern provinces. Despite U.S. pressure to extend their stay, the Thai government began withdrawing troops July 1 and is aiming to have all deployed troops home by September 20.

Every week, Gage meets with other retired vets at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Club in Pattaya, which has more than 100 members. Their conversations range from retirement benefits to international terrorism and the upcoming U.S. presidential election.

Thai man sitting in front of a store

For expat Americans living in Southeast Asia, the cost of living is relatively cheap. Yet almost one-third of the Thai population lives in poverty, making less than $2 a day.
Gage considers himself an independent and said he subscribes only to the political platform of "common sense." Although not a gung-ho supporter of the Bush Administration, he and several other expat vets I contacted were wary of fellow veteran, John Kerry.

Unlike most veterans who blended back into American society after their tours of duty, Gage decided to remain overseas. Born in Canton, Ohio, he joined the Army at age 20 and has spent most of his adult life in foreign countries ? including Vietnam, Korea and Thailand. He vacations in the Philippines. He sometimes returns to the States to visit his three daughters.

To stay in touch with what's going on in the U.S. and the rest of the world, Gage watches FOX, CNN, and the BBC and reads Thai newspapers like the Bangkok Post and the Nation. He said distance and decades of working in other countries have provided him with a unique perspective through which he can decode what he sees and reads in the media.

"From here, I can stand back from it and see the forest," Gage said, gesturing to the plate glass windows that frame the coast and neon lights of Pattaya.

Magazine rack

Although entertainment rules in the Thai media, several English-language newspapers in Thailand cater to the large American expat community by providing news and commentary on U.S. politics and events.
From his vantage point as an expat in Southeast Asia, Gage has adopted a libertarian perspective. What happens behind closed doors, he told me, is none of the government's business. When it comes to same sex marriage, he said he's not opposed to the gay lifestyle, "Just don't make a legal fight about it." And he accepts a woman's right to have an abortion, "Just don't ask me to pay for it," he said.

As a young man, Gage served in U.S. Army Special Forces in Vietnam for three years, from 1963-65. After he finished his service, he began working as a government contractor doing equipment maintenance on Army bases. It was a job that sent him around the world, from Korea to Zaire.

"My opinion was we approached Iraq the wrong way," Gage told me. "We went in there with the idea of liberating somebody. The problem is the people we are liberating want to be in charge. And you've got three or four factions that want to be in charge. And they don't want you there ... It's like a domestic fight, who's side do you take? A man and a woman are fighting and you're a cop and you go on in the house -- whichever side you take you're going to be wrong."

"Unfortunately I don't believe the military is the one that can resolve the problem," Gage continued. "They can only fight wars, where there's armies. It's pretty hard to fight terrorists," he said. "You can take out an army and you can send in our army to do it, but that doesn't mean you can find these people in other countries with that army. You've got to use your intelligence. It's not something that you can just make a 30-second blip and it's over with and it's done."

"So the Iraqis have got to sort of resolve it themselves," Gage emphasized. "How they resolve it I don't know. Are we going to have another Bosnia when we pull out? Any way you look at it, it's a mess and I don't see it getting straightened out."

Gage discounted comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam, which he sees as two very different conflicts. But he warned: "The sad part about [the Iraq occupation] is this is going to give the terrorists a place to work out of if we don't win it."

Ralph Gage

Vietnam veteran Ralph Gage talks to FRONTLINE/World correspondent Carrie Ching.
As a contractor who worked in war-torn Vietnam for seven years after his service ended, Gage said successfully rebuilding both Afghanistan and Iraq would be the ultimate victory. "My personal opinion is I would have finished up Afghanistan before I would have taken on Iraq," he said, "because if you can make a success of Afghanistan it shows that it can be done."

Looking ahead, Gage is not sure who he'll vote for in the upcoming election. Though critical of the Bush Administration's handling of Iraq, he's still wary of Kerry's untested leadership. "One thing is I know where Bush is going," he said. "I really don't have a foggy idea where Kerry is going. He said he's going to get the United Nations in on it, well, I haven't heard how he's going to do that. How do you do that if nobody wants to go along? What do you do?"

But one thing he does know is that most politicians, and the media, can't be trusted.

"It's all misinformation by everybody," Gage complained. "I would rather see somebody run who was interested in what he could do for our country, rather than what political points they can get by sticking a knife in their opponent."

John Kerry

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., salutes his former military comrades in the audience at George Washington University where he delivered a speech on his proposal for a "Military Families Bill of Rights", in Washington, Wednesday, March 17, 2004. (AP/Wide World Photos)
Like other veterans I contacted in Thailand, Gage isn't impressed with the public image of Senator John Kerry as war hero, including the trumpeting of his three Purple Hearts, Silver Star, and Bronze Star. "When I was in the service, and as a government employee, I watched people get medals and the boys up at headquarters got medals and a lot of guys in the field that did the actual work didn't get medals, so I don't take medals too serious," Gage said.

Honesty, not medals, will win his vote this November, Gage insisted. He doesn't particularly care anymore if a president has a war record.

In the end, his preference for Senator John Edwards of South Carolina, the Democrat's choice as vice-presidential candidate, could sway his vote in their direction. "I thought of all of [the candidates] he was the most stand-up sincere type individual. He didn't throw the rhetoric out and all the spin and sniping. I thought he was a gentleman about it," Gage said. "But of course, being a gentleman isn't the way to be if you're going to run in politics."

It was late now. Time to join his Thai friends to celebrate the New Year in a nearby bar. Gage excused himself and headed out into the neon-lit night.

Carrie Ching is a reporter based at the the U.C. Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.

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