I am a man on a mission, and I can pinpoint the exact moment when it all began.
On a summer day four years ago, I was a Marine Major who had volunteered for duty as the Naval Attaché in one of the world’s poorest nations—Vietnam. I had already spent 18 years in a Marine Corps uniform largely because I had come to believe very early in my life—in my early teens in fact, that a life not lived in service to something bigger than self is a life wasted.
Yet, despite having spent a good part of my career building bridges, literally as well as metaphorically, in hopes of preventing war and improving the lives of people all over the world, a piece of the puzzle always seemed to be missing for me, preventing me from ever really enjoying the peace that comes from knowing that I was doing what I was made to do—what I had been born to do.
Dogs on the menu
My life changed forever on June 7, 2006, around 9:30 in the morning, while I was on my way to deliver donated U.S. Defense Department medical equipment to a rural medical clinic far up in the northwestern corner of Vietnam, not far from the Lao and Chinese borders.
Near the end of a ten-hour drive to a small township named Lai Chau, a lone motorbike heading in the same direction passed my vehicle on the right-hand side. Instinctively, I turned from my conversation with the driver and glanced out the window. From where I sat in the front passenger seat, I could very clearly see a wicker basket strapped to the back of the motorbike and within it a number of dogs, perhaps as many as four or five in a space that might comfortably contain but one.
I recall even today, at this very moment, the look of dread and fear in the eyes of one of these dogs as our gazes met ever so briefly. The photo below is similar to what I saw that day.
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I had lived in Vietnam long enough at this point to know immediately that these dogs were not bound for a pet store or on their way to the veterinarian. They were not some family’s beloved companions. No, I knew they were headed for the dinner table.
Perhaps among the car’s three passengers, two of whom were local Vietnamese staff, I was the only one who saw the dogs—really saw them—and felt moved by their plight. I knew these animals would be dragged from their cages, poked, prodded, beaten and intentionally tormented and terrified in order to elevate the adrenalin levels in their blood, which Vietnamese culture mistakenly informs us will impart medicinal libido-enhancing qualities to the dogs’ flesh.
My mind raced. A handful of scenarios passed through my head, most of them rationalizations to spare me the uncomfortable realization that these dogs were going to be murdered for thit cho… dog meat.
Historically Vietnam has not been an animal friendly country, nor have the Vietnamese as a people been known for their kindness to animals. In a Confucian society, the notion of kindness to strangers, much less to animals, would be atypical. Caring about the welfare of animals, other than in their capacity as implements of labor, means of transportation or as sources of sustenance, is simply not part of the traditional Vietnamese experience or worldview.
Most animals in Vietnam are invisible, yet those are the lucky ones. Anything that moves is likely to be eaten. Dog is a well-known delicacy, preferably beaten and tortured up to the moment of death due to those horrifically misguided beliefs.
Dogs, however, are not the only animals on the menu in Vietnamese restaurants. If it crawls, creeps, walks, slithers, swims or flies, it is apt to be found on a plate or in a soup bowl, including pangolin, monkeys, civets, endangered turtles, and yes, even “baby tiger” (domestic cats). The few remaining real tigers are on the brink of extinction because of the demand for traditional medicines, and bear bile extraction is still widely practiced at farms throughout the country despite having been made illegal in 2005.
Domesticated companion animals such as dogs and cats have never fared well in Vietnam. The typical lifespan for these species is only a few years, a sad fact that is frequently exacerbated by poor nutrition, lack of veterinary care, and a surfeit of abuse and neglect.
It is still not uncommon for a family to keep a dog and feed it table scraps until its usefulness as a home sentry has reached its end, and then slaughter for a quick, cheap meal. Most cat and dogs in Vietnam are never even afforded the dignity of a name. They live tenuously, anonymous and invisible to the vast majority of Vietnamese.
Man’s best friend betrayed for a bowl of soup
The course of action I eventually settled upon, on that day as I rode through northwest Vietnam, was to order my driver to overtake the motorcycle and beckon its driver to pull to the side of the road, where I would then magnanimously offer to buy the dogs’ freedom, at whatever the cost.
I would then set the dogs free in the countryside where they could fend for themselves and I would spend the last few hours of my drive to Lai Chau basking in the warm afterglow of self-satisfaction… and then go back to my life pretty much as it had been before.
But I hesitated. As an educated and experienced specialist in the area of foreign cultures and languages, serving as a military diplomat in Vietnam and Indonesia, I had come to appreciate through trial and effort the notion of cultural relativity and I did not want to come across as a cultural imperialist—the Ugly American.
You may recall that the American military had decades before developed quite a reputation for being insensitive to the cultural realities of Vietnam, a weakness that hampered our ability to “win hearts and minds” among the Vietnamese.
I wondered, “Would my staff think me foolish? Would they perceive my actions as culturally offensive? Would such behavior degrade my influence with them or eventually undercut my ability to accomplish my assigned duties, especially if they came to believe that I did not respect their cultural traditions?”
I turned these thoughts over and over in my head. And when I finished my mental gymnastics and looked up again, the motorcycle was long gone… and so was the last chance for those dogs.
My heart was sick and I felt nothing but shame. Shame because I had always prided myself for being an agile and courageous decision-maker, not afraid to make the difficult choices come what may, whatever the cost. My career had been built on that reputation, yet at the moment when this clear moral question was before me, I failed the test. I had never felt more ashamed or cowardly in my life.
Afterwards my staff and I afterwards drove on to Lai Chau township, where later that morning we successfully delivered nearly $1 million dollars worth of medical equipment to the district clinic. We took group pictures and shook hands. Following the formalities, the local officials took me to lunch to express their gratitude to me for making the trip.
No, we didn’t eat dog, but the menu was nevertheless a sumptuous spread for such a poor community—beef, chicken, fish, shrimp, and pork, all washed down with lots of beer and generous portions of the local traditional moonshine. My hosts bought me lunch and I handed out U.S. Embassy baseball caps to them.
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When the lunch was over we shook hands, resolved to meet again, and then my secretary and I headed for our car to begin the long two-day journey back to Hanoi. That’s when my world changed forever. As we walked towards the exit, I glanced to my right, into the kitchen, where the cooks were cleaning up and preparing for the evening crowd.
Through the doorway I saw a dead dog, skinned and splayed out on the concrete kitchen floor, just seconds away from being butchered to be added to all manner of soups, stews and stir-fries for the next round of customers. And like a light switch, my life flipped, from darkness to light.
I’ll never know if the dog I saw dead on the floor in that ramshackle restaurant was the same dog whose eyes met mine on that lonely road in the middle of nowhere, but it doesn’t really matter. Those eyes were every animal’s eyes. That dog was every animal that had ever been beaten, abused, exploited, injured or killed—every creature that had paid the price for my appetites, my sense of fashion, my selfishness over the previous 36 years of my life.
My choice, my hesitation to act was in effect a choice to simply do nothing, and it cost those dogs their lives. My cowardice had led those dogs to that kitchen floor and to their deaths. Man’s best friend betrayed for a bowl of soup.
Despite the fact that I still find the memory of that experience exceptionally painful and shameful, I view it in every sense of the word as a “gift”—a blessing. It was a moment of awakening of the kind that eludes most people throughout their entire lives. The haunting memory of that event, painfully seared into my consciousness, has become a source of power, inspiration, and motivation for me.
It is a matter of faith to me that animals have souls and that the resurrection at the end of time will include them. I believe also that I will see those dogs again some day. And when I do I will ask their forgiveness. As anyone who has ever known a dog understands very well, they give forgiveness freely and without hesitation.
Until that day comes, however, I will continue to seek my redemption. I can no longer save those dogs, but there are billions of other dogs, cats, pigs, cows, horses, sheep and other non-human animals waiting for relief, for rescue, for salvation. That’s more than enough for a lifetime’s work.
All photos courtesy Robert Lucius/Kairos Coalition
Read Part Two of this story, in which Lt. Col. Lucius describes his new nonprofit, Kairos Coalition, and the groundbreaking “humane edutainment” program it has recently begun in Vietnam.