TIME

War to Peace

chuck Searcy portrait
Searcy poses with now harmless U.S. bombs outside a museum in Quang Tri Aaron Joel Santos for TIME

An American 
veteran returns to Vietnam to help make it safer for 
his former enemy

Nearly 40 years on, Chuck Searcy is still fighting the Vietnam War—but now for the other side. It’s a September morning and Searcy, a 69-year-old veteran, is overseeing a team of Vietnamese about to blow up a bomb discovered in a village in the central coastal province of Quang Tri. Because of its proximity to the old DMZ between what was once North and South Vietnam, Quang Tri was subject to relentless bombing by U.S. warships and planes. As a result, the area is infested with unexploded ordnance (UXOs).

Now, after a torrential downpour, a UXO—in this case a baseball-size cluster bomblet—has surfaced in a villager’s garden. Team members use sirens and megaphones to evacuate residents. Sandbags are placed around the explosive. Moments later a concussive detonation rumbles through the hamlet as the deadly weapon is destroyed. “It’s safe now,” Searcy, a co-founder of the ordnance-removal organization Project Renew, says in Vietnamese.

Long after the Vietnam War ended in 1975, Washington and Hanoi remained foes. Besides being ideological opponents, the U.S. imposed an embargo that hindered large investments in Vietnam. But their relationship improved rapidly after they normalized diplomatic ties in 1995. Today the U.S. is Vietnam’s third biggest trading partner and its biggest export market. The two have also been brought closer by their mutual concern over China’s rise. Hanoi is now a frequent stop for top American officials visiting Southeast Asia, and Washington is even thinking of easing an arms embargo on Vietnam.

Searcy underwent a similar journey of alienation and re-engagement. He wasn’t in Vietnam long—just about a year in the late 1960s, working as an intelligence analyst in Saigon (now called Ho Chi Minh City). That’s all it took to disillusion him. The North Vietnamese engaged in propaganda, but so did the Americans. Searcy says he massaged information to fit U.S. policy: “We were lying.” After the war was over, Searcy felt a sense of relief—and release. “I sort of put Vietnam behind me,” he says in his Southern drawl.

In the next 25 years, Searcy had successful careers in media, politics and public service. He started a weekly paper in Athens, Georgia (his home state), and helped run political campaigns. He also served six years as director of the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association. Yet, try as he did, he could not forget Vietnam. “For me and most American veterans, [it] was the most profound experience of our lives.” Searcy went back for the first time in 1992 with an army buddy. Over a month, the two traveled the length of the now unified communist country. Searcy says the trip was life-changing: “I was astonished at the complete lack of anger or bitterness or hostility from the Vietnamese toward us returning GIs. It was amazing.”

Searcy was struck, too, by the determination of the Vietnamese to rebuild their battle-scarred nation. “I began to think that I’d like to contribute because I felt some responsibility as an American for what happened there.” A few years after his visit to Vietnam, Searcy turned down a good job with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington. His new mission: help make Vietnam a safer place for its people.

During the Vietnam War, U.S. forces dropped anywhere between 8 million and 15 million tons of ordnance across Indochina—several times that used by Allied forces on the Axis powers in World War II. The U.S. Department of Defense estimates that at least 10% of the munitions failed to detonate on impact. Since the war’s end, some 100,000 people have been killed or maimed by the residual explosives. Vietnamese officials say 83% of Quang Tri province is contaminated by UXOs.

Searcy decided that they needed to be tackled in a systematic way. In 2001 he founded Project Renew with support from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund and the Quang Tri People’s Committee. Key to the operations has been the use of Vietnamese teams and resources. The 100-strong outfit is staffed primarily by locals. The province’s Youth Union teaches adults and children to identify ordnance and then call a hotline run by Project Renew when bombs are discovered. Through Vietnam’s Department of Health and local hospitals, amputees are fitted with prosthetics, while the Women’s Union helps manage microcredit loans for victims. “I’m very grateful to international organizations and friends who come back and help clean up the deadly remnants of war,” says retired Vietnamese colonel Bui Trong Hong, Project Renew’s national technical officer. “People like them understand how badly our country was devastated.”

Just in the past 24 months, Project Renew has eliminated about 27,000 pieces of ordnance, with only one accident reported in the past year in the districts where the teams operate. “[The system] results in a lot more ordnance destroyed on a daily basis,” says Searcy. Project Renew wants to scale up the Quang Tri model nationwide with the help of additional funding from the U.S. government. “It could happen in the next five to 10 years, at which point we Americans step back and can say we finally did what we should have done 40 years ago,” says Searcy. Perhaps then, for him, the war will be truly over.

TIME energy

The Case for Staying Connected

We don't need to ditch the grid. We need to fix the power business

The solar-rooftop revolution has inspired a lot of talk about grid defection, about electricity independence, about firing your utility and freeing yourself from its wires. And this power-to-the-people rhetoric isn’t just coming from hippie-dippy environmentalists. The banking giant UBS recently predicted that as more homeowners produce and store their own electricity, big utilities and their centralized power plants will gradually become irrelevant. The energy company NRG is already shifting its focus from massive fossil-fuel plants to home-energy solutions. “The future of energy isn’t 120 million butt-ugly wooden poles,” says NRG Energy CEO David Crane. Even the Edison Electric Institute, which is run by utilities, has warned that the rise of rooftop solar could disrupt the utility business model.

It’s an exciting concept, with the potential to empower homeowners and save them money while slashing carbon emissions. As solar costs have plummeted and the number of installations has exploded–over half a million Americans became at-home solar-electricity producers over the past five years–I’ve talked big too. I’ve compared the rise of do-it-yourself power generation to the shift from landlines to mobile phones.

Well, as the politicians say, I’d like to revise and extend my remarks. I still think rooftop solar is an incredibly disruptive technology and a serious threat to antiquated utilities. But the solar revolution is not the telecommunications revolution, and I doubt it will usher in a new era of grid defection and electricity independence. Nor should it. Why disconnect from the grid when you can get paid for providing it with stuff it needs? It might feel good to fire our utilities and escape their wires. But it’s in everyone’s interest for us to figure out a way to get along–and for the politicians to write rules making that possible.

After all, most of us will still need the grid in the solar age. Just about everyone has a cell phone, but some rooftops aren’t right for solar. And most homes and businesses that do go solar will still need extra power; energy analyst Hugh Wynne says factories, malls and apartment buildings generally produce less than 15% of their electricity on their rooftops, while single-family homes usually produce less than 75%. You can go off the grid without losing reliability if you get a backup form of home-electricity production, like the gas-fired generators NRG is pushing, or some form of storage for when the sun isn’t shining. But while batteries are getting cheaper–as are electric vehicles, which can function as car-shaped batteries when not in use–they’re still not as cheap as the grid.

The grid, after all, is an awesome form of power storage, constantly moving electrons to where they’re needed from where they’re not so that our refrigerators keep running. It provides an amazing service to all of us by balancing power supply and demand every second of every day; it ought to, given the trillions of dollars we’ve invested in it. Sure, you might be able to declare independence from the grid, just as you might be able to grow all your food in your backyard, but it’s hard to see how that would make economic sense. On the other hand, staying connected should improve the economics of going solar; in peak afternoon hours, when the grid needs more supply to power air conditioners, you should be able to sell excess electricity to your utility at an attractive price, so it doesn’t have to build and operate additional plants to keep the lights on. It should be good for you, the grid and other ratepayers.

The key word is should. Some utilities have declared war on rooftop solar, shrieking that it threatens their business model–and in many states, it does.

Utilities usually get paid for selling more power and building more power plants. When you produce your own power, you cut into their profit margins. That’s why so many utilities are fighting to limit net metering, which lets solar customers sell power back to the grid, while pushing to charge customers additional fees for using the grid. They argue that otherwise, nonsolar customers will have to pay more to make up for their shortfalls.

That’s not entirely wrong–anyone who uses the grid ought to pay for the privilege–but it also encourages solar customers to go off-grid. It would be better for everyone if they stay connected, so they can generate energy for the grid when it’s needed and, if they get electric vehicles, store energy for the grid when it’s not. But that’s going to require an entirely new way of regulating utilities so they get paid for the services they provide rather than the power they sell us.

We don’t need to fire our utilities. We need to fix the utility business.

FOR MORE ON NEW ENERGY, GO TO time.com/newenergy

TIME Investing

The Triumph of Index Funds

CalPERS’ move is a vote for passive investing

It would be reasonable to assume that the professionals running CalPERS, the California pension fund with $300 billion in assets, would be good at picking stocks. Or at least reasonably good at picking other smart people to pick stocks for them. But in the past year, CalPERS has made two decisions that are telling for all investors when it comes to trying to outperform the market.

Late last year, the pension fund signaled its intention to move more assets from active management into passively managed index funds. These are funds in which you buy a market, such as the S&P 500 or the Russell 2000, unlike mutual funds that try to select winners within a given class of equities. More recently, CalPERS said it would also pull out the $4 billion it has invested in hedge funds. Although hedge-fund honchos make headlines with their personal wealth, the industry has significantly lagged the market in the past three years. “Call it capitulation or sobriety: it’s saying that we can’t beat the market and we can’t find managers who can beat the market, and even if they can, their fee structures are overwhelming,” says Mitch Tuchman, CEO of Rebalance IRA, an investment adviser focused on index-fund-only portfolios.

The CalPERS move is a nod to University of Chicago economist Eugene Fama, who won a Nobel for his lifelong work on “efficient markets.” That theory says that because stock prices reflect all available information at any moment–they are informationally “efficient”–future prices are unpredictable, so trying to beat the market is useless. According to the SPIVA (S&P Indices Versus Active) Scorecard, the return on the S&P 500 beat 87% of active managers in domestic large-cap equity funds over the past five years.

Why can’t expert money managers succeed? Researchers from the University of Chicago say there are so many smart managers that they offset one another, gaining or losing at others’ expense and winding up near the market average, before expenses. “Unless you have some really special information about a manager, there’s really no good reason to put your money in actively managed mutual funds,” says Juhani Linnainmaa, associate professor of finance at Chicago’s Booth School of Business. He says the median managed fund produces an average –1% alpha–that is, below the expected return. Some funds do beat their index–what’s not clear is why. “What is the luck factor?” he asks. “Given the noise in the market, it’s kind of hopeless to try to figure anything out of this.” Linnainmaa’s colleague, finance professor Lubos Pastor, also found that mutual funds have decreasing returns to scale. Size hurts a manager’s ability to trade.

Yet even if managers match the market, they’ve got expense ratios that then eat into returns. Index-fund proponents like John Bogle at Vanguard have long preached that fees dilute performance. A 1% difference can be huge. “It’s not 1% of all your money,” says Tuchman, “it’s 1% of expected returns: that’s 16% to 20%.” The average balance in Fidelity 401(k) plans was $89,300 in 2013. While 1% of that is $893, if you earned 8% compounded over 10 years, your balance would be $192,792; at 7% it’s $175,667, a difference of $17,125. Real money, in other words.

Investors are getting the message, pouring some $345 billion into passive mutual and exchange-traded funds over the past 12 months vs. $126 billion in active funds, says Morningstar. “At the end of the day,” says Tuchman, “an index fund is run by a computer, a robot. We don’t want to believe that a robot can beat Ivy League M.B.A.s–and I’m one of them.” What CalPERS seems to be saying is that the game is over. The robot wins.

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