Viet Thanh Nguyen explores how different nations – and different groups within nations – remember war. This article was written by Corydon Ireland and was originally published in the April 23, 2009 edition of the Harvard Gazette.
How do nations remember?
In part, they remember through monuments — public art designed
to capture a national memory and carry it through the ages.
They’re also forced — by artists in every medium — to confront more contrary and dissident memories.
How two nations remember and represent the war in Vietnam is the subject of a book-length study under way by Radcliffe Fellow Viet Thanh Nguyen. He will show how — through art and public art — Americans remember what they call the Vietnam War, and how the Vietnamese remember what they call the American War.
Nguyen, who teaches English and American studies at the University of Southern California, started a Radcliffe Gymnasium talk last week (April 15) with a sentiment that sums up the comparative study: “Wars are fought twice. The first time on the battlefield, and the second time in memory.”
Dissidents aside, there is for each country a “dominant narrative of memory,” he said.
Most Americans remember Vietnam as a bad war, Nguyen averred. But most Vietnamese still in Southeast Asia remember the conflict as a good war — proof of Ho Chi Minh’s popular dictum that “nothing is more precious than independence and freedom.”
Many Americans perceive Vietnam as “a failure of American exceptionalism,” he said — “a fall from innocence for the American Adam.” But the Vietnamese view the American War, Nguyen asserted, as the final stage of a colonial struggle that began against France in the 19th century.
Nguyen’s talk followed those shapes of differing memory: a bad war, a good war, and — for some — “memories against war,” he said, a time to remember “enemies and others.”
In all cases, memories on a national scale are “sites of struggle” in which people grapple with the historical context of war, said Nguyen. “Memory is more than what takes place in our brains.”
In the United States, a bad war is well remembered by what Nguyen called the country’s most powerful example of public art designed for war remembrance, Maya Lin’s minimalist Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the mall in Washington, D.C.
The wing of black granite, engraved with the names of more than 58,000 American war dead, “captures the national mood about the war,” said Nguyen — “a foreign war that was at the same time a civil war in the American soul.”
Then came the supplements — the added public art representing counter-pressures for other forms of national memory-making.
Frederick Hart’s “Three Soldiers” was unveiled at the mall in 1984, a bronze that “celebrates a more masculine vision of heroism,” opined Nguyen, along with “a depiction of American racial solidarity.”
In 1993,nearby,Glenna Goodacre’s Vietnam Women’s Memorial was dedicated. It depicts two nurses and a wounded soldier.
And in 2003, a Vietnam War memorial was unveiled in Garden Grove, Calif. It shows American and South Vietnamese soldiers (of equal height) in front of their national flags (of equal height).
For the Vietnamese of Orange County, said Nguyen, the site is also a “performance space” where in parades and festivals conceptions of gender and nationalism are enacted by older men in old uniforms and women in traditional dress.
“It’s their country they want to seize again,” he said — calling the Vietnamese diaspora in America “a population relentlessly gnawed by longing.”
In Vietnam itself, Ho Chi Minh’s icon is still “omnipresent,” said Nguyen, as are memorials to “martyrs” of the American War modeled on traditions of ancestor worship.
In Vietnam, memorials to the war also explicitly include “a whole new category … incorporated into the narrative of sacrifice,” he said: civilians, of whom millions died.
The 500 noncombatants killed in 1968 at My Lai are depicted in one monument, he said, a gaudy life-size re-creation of the shooting.
The War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, once billed as a “war crimes” museum, is still a popular tourist destination, said Nguyen.
He first visited in 2002 before the facility expanded into what he called an “ever more subtle” and politically subdued collection of artifacts. (These include a guillotine used by the French and jars of deformed fetuses damaged by exposure to dioxin from American defoliation campaigns.)
Many young Vietnamese have little interest in the war, said Nguyen, whose lecture images included posters for cinema blockbusters like “Bar Girls” and “Long-Legged Girls.” But a recent best-seller, “Last Night I Dreamed of Peace” (2005) — the diary of heroic combat doctor Dang Thuy Tram — “fits the Vietnamese collective memory,” he said.
The movie version, “Don’t Burn,” will be released on April 30, the anniversary of the day Americans left Vietnam in 1975.
Contrary memories are alive on both sides of the ocean — attempts by artists to provide “memories against the war,” said Nguyen.
In Vietnam, dissident novelist (and war veteran) Duong Thu Huong was kept under house arrest until her recent exile to France.
In the United States, artist Martha Rosler reprised her ironic “House Beautiful” collage images of Vietnam (1967-72) to express a parallel anger at the war in Iraq — with “Gladiators” in 2004.
And in 1991, Chris Burden installed his “Other Vietnam Memorial” at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. It gave Maya Lin’s idea an anti-war twist, listing 3 million Vietnamese names on copper plates that swing gatelike from a central pole.
The names are not real, said Nguyen, since Asian casualties from the war — upwards of 5 million — “test the limits of actual memory.”