Fifty years ago when the American Neil Armstrong first walked on the surface of the moon, I was in South Vietnam. I was actually in a car driving myself from the District of Tam Binh in the Mekong River delta Province of Vinh Long up to Saigon along National Route 1. I had been reassigned from serving as a civilian Deputy District Advisor to the position of Chief, Village Government Branch in the Saigon headquarters of our advisory effort to assist all South Vietnamese nationalists from hamlets and villages to urban centers in fighting back against unwanted conquest.
I had placed a transistor radio on top of the dashboard leaning against the front window of my International Scout to hear news of the moon landing in real time as I drove north. Just as Neil Armstrong spoke – “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” – a U.S. Army truck passed me going south. One young GI sitting in the back of the truck threw his half-eaten ration can to the side of the road. Three young Vietnamese boys, about 10 years old each with delighted smiles on their faces, ran up from the shacks where they lived next to the highway and took the can, a trophy perhaps to them.
I still remember the stunning moral contrast that came to my mind between the two events – one so remarkable and the other so ordinary, even tawdry; one so magnificent as a marker of human achievement, the other so profane for its celebration of the timeless human condition – war and poverty.
As we reflect on humanity’s power over nature, the gaining on our own without help from God or the spirits the ability to reach the moon, what might we learn that would help elevate us away from more wars and move poverty?
I offer only one suggestion: human achievement depends on intangibles. We tend to pridefully rest our self-confidence on things – great buildings, pyramids and walls, cathedrals and bridges, money and machines, houses, cars, jewels and other owned possessions. But is it not our ideas, our ideals, our sense of purpose, our psyches, our cultures, our interpersonal relationships, our courage, our aspirations, our fears and our desirings which lie at the origin of all our achievements – good and bad?
I am reminded of Kipling’s warning to us all, a bit of wisdom from an imperialist who nevertheless worried that we humans too often lose a sense for the transcendental:
For heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard,
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And guarding, calls not Thee to guard,
For frantic boast and foolish word—
Thy mercy on Thy People, Lord!
The then unsurpassed technical achievements which put Neil Armstrong on the moon – science, math, design brilliance, computers, manufacturing perfection and organizational harmony – all rested on social and human capital. The money, metallurgy, guidance mechanisms and flag planted by Armstrong were second order goods derived from human genius which can be neither touched nor boxed and shipped anywhere, much less to the moon.
As we seek to engineer a more optimal economic ecology for our global human family, let us have more respect for the moral factors in our civilizations.