Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Late Night Live: War and Memory in Vietnam

Viet Nguyen and Phillip Adams from ABC Radio National share a follow up conversation about the Sympathizer and discuss its companion piece, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War.

‘All wars are fought twice,’ writes Viet Thanh Nguyen. ‘The first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory.’

Viet’s first novel, the spy thriller, The Sympathizer recently won the Pulitzer prize. The companion book to the novel is called ‘Nothing Ever Dies; Vietnam and the Memory of War’ is a non-fiction exploration of war and memory in particular in relation to the Vietnam War.

Read the transcript below:

Philip: We’re about to discuss a book on memory and I want to read you a paragraph from it, which includes a quote from Joan Didion. “Memory fades,” she says, “memory adjusts, memory conforms to what we think we remember”, and the author continues, “mutable and malleable memory calls for an ethical sense, a guide on how to remember in fitting ways,” and our guide is Viet Thanh Nguyen, who we last spoke to in August last year, just a few days before we headed off to Vietnam and Cambodia. Viet is a Vietnamese American writer, professor of literature at the University of Southern California. Amongst the many things that have happened since our last interview, his spy thriller, The Sympathizer, certainly he was in Vietnam during the war, has just won a Pulitzer. His new book, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, has just been released. We mentioned it briefly last year. It isn’t a novel, but it’s, yes, it’s a companion piece to The Sympathizer. Viet returns to L.A. now via Skype from his home in Los Angeles. Welcome back and congratulations. Are you now a literary hero in Vietnam because of the Pulitzer?

Viet Nguyen: It’s a little hard to tell and by the way, thanks for having me back. It’s a little hard to tell. I think that a lot of Vietnamese people in Vietnam and abroad have certainly taken a lot of pride in my novel winning the Pulitzer. But there might be a little bit of ambivalence at the level of official media and the government about that because, when the novel won the Pulitzer, the official press did not mention my name.

Philip: Oh dear. Have you been offered the publication there?

Viet Nguyen: Yes, there is a contract with a private publisher in Vietnam and it’s currently being translated. Obviously there are two complications there. One is the quality of the translation itself, and then the second is the fact that the manuscript would still have to pass through censorship, which is a government office, and it’s not clear whether that will happen.

Philip:  So the Pulitzer is a two edged sword to use a totally inappropriate metaphor, under the circumstances. Look, the other night I was chatting to an American writer whose done a decidedly, unofficial biography of the Koch Brothers. I was fascinated by the term she employed, which was weaponized philanthropy. When we last talked, we were really discussing weaponized memory up to, and including Hollywood depictions of war in films. Well from Apocalypse Now, which we both disliked to more recent efforts like American Sniper.

Viet Nguyen: That’s right. I think that for me Hollywood has become a form of weaponized memory, has been one for a long time and that’s because Hollywood functions as the unofficial ministry of propaganda for the Pentagon. Mass culture in the United States, Pop culture from movies to video games really have simplified American memory about past wars and have trained Americans to become sort of anesthetized.

Philip: Let’s walk it back from movies to memorials. Viet, in our last chat, you spoke about the most famous of them, at least in the West of Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. You said that “it is a moving monument to the 58,000 plus Americans who died in the war, but it’s power is made possible by what it forgets”. What has it chosen to forget?

Viet Nguyen: Well, I think it’s not unique among war memorials in that they’re all based upon both remembering and forgetting and war memorials usually ask us to remember our own. In this case it’s the 58,000 dead American soldiers. But in order to sharpen that memory, in order to make it possible that Memorial asks us to forget the 3 million Vietnamese who died and the 3 million Laotians and Cambodians who also died during the long course of the war and its aftermath. Remembering and forgetting are always intertwined.

Philip: So remembering is in itself a form of forgetting.

Viet Nguyen: Well, I think that’s true. There is no active memory that doesn’t happen without some kind of forgetting taking place. When we’re dealing with Nationalism, whether it’s the Nationalism of a country or the Nationalism of subgroups, that’s always happening.

Philip: You make the point that everyone should know this simple statistic, the Washington D.C. Memorial to the American War did is a hundred and fifty yards long. If a similar monument were to be built with the same density of numbers of the Vietnamese who died in it, it would be nine miles long. That is an astonishing thought.

Viet Nguyen: Well, unfortunately it’s not my thought. It’s Phillip Jones Griffith, the wealth washed photographer who became famous during the Vietnam war for his photography. But the point is very true and I think it’s a very powerful image because it makes us realize just how vast the scale of difference is between the number of Americans who died in the number of the Vietnamese.

Philip: Mind you, your book does introduce us, or reintroduce us, to some pretty huge memorials in Vietnam too. Tell me about some of those.

Viet Nguyen: Well, probably the most famous war memorial or memorial to the dead in Vietnam is the Jung Sun Martyr’s Cemetery, which is in the center of the country. It commemorates only really one battle or one campaign, and it has over 50,000 graves of North Vietnamese soldiers, which is almost the same number of American soldiers who died during the entire course of the war. If you drive throughout Vietnam, you’ll see memorials or cemeteries like this all over the country, not as large or not as grand. But the Vietnamese state has made a really concerted effort to put these Martyrs Cemeteries on roadsides throughout the country to commemorate the over one million North Vietnamese soldiers who’ve died during the course of the war.

Philip: So every town and village effectively has its own Acropolis.

Viet Nguyen: That seems to be true from what I saw. They range from these very vast, beautiful cemeteries like the Jim Sung one, to very dusty, small, neglected cemeteries in small villages and towns. Sometimes they’re dusty and neglected because they happen to be in the South and they hold the bodies of soldiers from the North. So the locals aren’t really inclined to commemorate these soldiers and the the relatives can’t make it down there.

Philip: You also of course, confront these cemeteries or memorials with vast statues of party leaders, not only Ho Chi Minh.

Viet Nguyen: Right. It’s one of the ironies that in a communist society, they also have gigantic statues to commemorate their heroes, and Ho Chi Minh has a very big one in the city of Vinh, near his birthplace. But also Le Duan, the party secretary who took over from him, and also in the Martyrs Cemetery outside of Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon, there’s a very gigantic statue of what the Vietnamese call a Heroic Mother. So one of the other figures that are commemorated in this type of landscape are the many women who gave up their sons, sometimes one or two, but oftentimes half a dozen or more.

Philip: But you also point out that in the land of democracy, in the home with the free and equality for all, there broods that massive Lincoln on his throne, eyes fixed on the Washington monuments, white phallic spire.

Viet Nguyen: I think there’s something in humanity that likes these gigantic spectacles and that also admires power. So it’s probably not a surprise that the Vietnamese and the Americans have found some kind of common theme in their worship of heroes. So, Vietnamese communism has obviously privileged to the ideas of democracy, freedom, independence, equality, just like the United States. Yet both countries also have their own structures of inequality as well. They’ve found symbolic manifestation in these gigantic statues towards individual leaders.

Philip: I know on our end, on air, online, or on your pod, and I’m talking once more to Viet Thanh Nguyen about his new book, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War. Both of us have visited a Dachau and both of us had visited the Killing Fields on the outskirts of Naung Pein. In your book you explore how both Cambodians and outsiders experience that kind of memorial.

Viet Nguyen: The memorial in the killing fields in Naung Pein was one of the most moving ones that I’ve ever encountered, and that includes visits to Dachau and other concentration camps in Europe. It’s a very moving one because the memories there are so raw, they haven’t had the benefit of decades of experience that the Germans have had in creating a very polished memorial experience. So it’s, in many ways it’s a very brutal kind of visit

Philip: Well you crunch over human bones, no matter how carefully you walk.

Viet Nguyen: Yeah and the presentation of pictures of the dead and pictures of what the state of these Killing Fields look like when they originally were found are very, very disturbing. So it’s not a surprise that ironically, a lot of Cambodians don’t actually want to go visit these memorials. The memorials are there oftentimes for the benefit of foreigners who come as tourists and the Cambodians, they want to go see something beautiful. So they prefer to go to the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, which is the very wonderful place to experience. And so [inaudible]

Philip: It’s as close to the culture gets to the Donald Trump experience. It’s gilded, glowing, magnificent, breathtaking, and perhaps just a little over the top.

Viet Nguyen: Yeah, I think you can point to that at the United States. You can even point to that in all different kinds of countries that given the option, people when they want to spend their leisure time don’t probably want to be reminded of brutal and bloody history, and ugly facts or ugly memories. So that’s one of the challenges for Cambodia and Vietnam and Laos, is that it’s important to remember the past. How to do that is very, very difficult, especially because many of the people in these countries reasonably want to be able to move on, and think of both a better present and better future too.

Philip: When I first went to Dachau and then onto Auschwitz, the thing that shocked me was that I felt so little, I was sort of emotionally numbed and lighter. I wrote in shame about my lack of response. Do you understand that?

Viet Nguyen: I think so. I think that people respond to these kinds of sites of trauma in very different ways. Some people are moved, some people are numb, some people don’t know what to do with their emotions. That’s why at the S21 Prison and Memorial in Phnom Penh, there’s a sign there with a smiling face and a bar through it, indicating that you shouldn’t laugh or smile, which means that people have laughed or smiled in this horrible place and I’ve seen it happen. I’ve also seen in Berlin, at the Jewish Holocaust Memorial, kids jumping up and down and running, laughing and having to be reprimanded by guards. So it’s not something that’s specific to Cambodians. I think many people when faced with horrible history are left in shock. [crosstalk]

Philip: When you return to your hotel, the first thing you did was shower, quote “then I lay down and the numbness seeped deep down inside into my mind and body”. You made a sharp distinction between what you felt at Dachau and what you just felt on that day.

Viet Nguyen: Well, I was physically moved and disturbed in a very visceral way by the visit to the Killing Fields and to S 21 in a way that I wasn’t at Dachau. I think maybe I’m closer to the history in Cambodia, closer to the culture. But again in Cambodia, there hasn’t been the benefit of wealth and decades of experience to transform history and present it in a way that could be considered beautiful. When you visit these concentration camp museums in Europe and Poland even though they present a horrible history, there’s a great polish aesthetically to them that I think also distances us from the visceral realities of what took place.

Philip: Well, you also talk about the Plain of Jars that used the casings of American bombs and shells for decor and then neglected village cemeteries of martyrs and unknown soldiers throughout Vietnam. In other words, poverty remembers in a quite different way than wealth.

Viet Nguyen: Absolutely. That’s a reality that I think is really visible when you actually travel across countries. When you visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C., and seeing how literally polished it is a wall of black granite engraved with names, versus what you see in Southeast Asia where memories are produced in artisanal ways, in ways that are shaped by poverty. So it’s crucial to visit these sites of memory to experience for yourself how the physical environment, and the legacies of war and poverty, have shaped the possibilities of remembrance for limited the possibilities of remembrance. [crosstalk]

Philip: Let’s go back to this notion of webinars, memory, because it applies even to the names we give wars. I remember you writing very, well beautifully, about the way we misremember the Vietnam War by calling it that.

Viet Nguyen: Right. I think that the name of the Vietnam War has become popular all over the world because that’s what Americans have called it. In Vietnam, the wars called the American War and leftists and liberals who wanted to contradict the American memory have you used that term. But I find both of them equally problematic because they serve as Vietnamese or American national interests. They obscure the fact that the war was also fought in Cambodia and Laos, and Vietnam, both the North and the South, were as responsible as Americans for extending the war into those two countries. [crosstalk]

Philip: The American war also be the American Australian War, couldn’t it?

Viet Nguyen: Yeah, one of the interesting things about writing this book was that I couldn’t remember everybody, because so many different sides were involved. So Australian’s happened to be one of the sides that I passed over except in one sentence. So the American Australian experience is also pretty crucial because the United States was asking other countries like Australia to send troops to fight in this war, and their experiences have been obviously been almost completely forgotten in the United States.

Philip: I have to say that seeing the bottle of deformed fetuses of agent orange victims lingers more powerfully in my memory than giant statues.

Viet Nguyen: That’s probably true. I think most people don’t get to encounter the giant statues. When you see something so intimate as a deformed fetus literally looking you in your face, it’s hard to forget. But it’s important to point out that I think that the Vietnamese state has made efforts to curb those kinds of exhibitions. So for the last few years I haven’t seen bottles of deformed fetuses in the country because, they are too painful to them of a memory. The Vietnamese state is trying to gain some distance from the past.

Philip: Viet, the last time we talked, we did dwell a bit on Apocalypse Now. I’d always objected to the film because I found it, in a sense to manifest that pornography of violence, but more deeply than that it de-humanized the Vietnamese people. They were…it did not admit to the humanity the way a truly great antiwar film in variably does, no matter what war it’s depicting. But the American treatment of war that you also criticized in that film where the characters, the Vietnamese characters are at best extras, has been continued, has it not in films about Iraq and Afghanistan?

Viet Nguyen: Yeah, I think it’s true and I think that’s again, a function of the fact that this is what Hollywood does. It shapes American memory in a particular way and centers American memory on the experiences of Americans at the expense of others, whether it happened to be Vietnamese or Afghans or Iraqis. Certainly in a movie like American Sniper or Gran Torino, we continue to see this American centered narrative propagate.

Philip: Also, Zero Dark Thirty, that’s another interesting case.

Viet Nguyen: In Zero Dark Thirty, the protagonist is a CIA agent. So in its own way these types of films continue to make us see history through the subjectivity of American characters, and especially American agents of war, foreign soldiers, to generals, to CIA officers.

Philip: It’s interesting that in all those films, and indeed as in the memorials, it is the American soldier who is ultimately the victim.

Viet Nguyen: Yeah, I think it’s probably human tendency to see ourselves as victims regardless of whether we happen to be victims or not. So, that’s one of the great ironies of this war that the United States is a global power. It lost 50,000 soldiers versus three million Vietnamese, but it continues to focus on its own experience, its own tragedy, and to experience its own pain, which is what allows Americans to see themselves as the victims of this war.

Philip: How do the Vietnamese people living in America, many of whom of course were and remained passionately anticommunist. How do they feel about the line of argument that you express?

Viet Nguyen: Well, I think that the line of argument that I express is a fairly potentially controversial one because in Nothing Ever Dies, like in The Sympathizer, I attempt to criticize everybody. I mean part of the point of looking at memory is to point out that everybody’s memory is partial. So if you’re saying that about somebody else, it’s perfectly easy to see the prejudices of their own memories. But when somebody points out in your own prejudice, the tendency is to react angrily to that criticism. So when I’ve done arguments about how I think the South Vietnamese in the United States that have themselves had a very particular kind of memory, the response generally has not been an agreeable one from the South Vietnamese.

Philip: I should point out that the book uses the phrase, “the complex ethics of memory” and that’s what you’re on about, isn’t it?

Viet Nguyen: Well, I think that when it comes to war, for example, the most basic urge that we have is to remember our own side and to forget others. And also in particular to remember our own humanity and to remember the inhumanity of others. But a complex ethics of memory would really ask us to recognize that our side is not just human, but inhuman as well, and the other side, it’s not just inhuman but human also. If we forget that this is one of the ways that we prepare ourselves to keep on waging war, if we think that we’re always only going to be human and our enemy is always only going to be inhuman.

Philip: I’m going to quote you directly, “the writing, photography, film, memorials, and monuments that are included in this book are all forms of memory and of witnessing. Sometimes of the intimate, the domestic, the ephemeral, and the small. Sometimes of the historical, the public, the enduring. I turned to these works of art because after the official memos and speeches have forgotten, the history books ignored, and the powerful are dust, art remains”.

Viet Nguyen: Well, I’m hoping I’m not an optimist. I’m a writer and I’m a critic of, art, so I privilege art in its functions. But I think I’m right. I think that just as we look back in the past, and when we look back upon huge swathes of time and conflicts that had been waged in the past, what we tend to remember are very small handful of stories, and monuments. I think that’s going to be true of the future as well. That’s the crucial role that artists can play regardless of the politics of their present. Artists hold onto their convictions, they hold onto their beliefs, they hold under their ideals, and they privilege the imagination over the nation, and that’s the greatest service that they can do for the rest of us.

Philip: Your new book was written before Obama’s recent trip to Vietnam. Did Obama continue the tradition of memory and forgetting?

Viet Nguyen: I think so. I mean, I admire president Obama in many ways, especially for what he’s done domestically in the United States. But in terms of foreign policy and warfare, even though he’s not as bad as a Republican president, let’s say, he still follows the basic American nationalist line, which is to privilege American power and to encourage Americans to forget the complexities of what they’ve done overseas. So when it comes to the Vietnam war, again, his basic stance is to emphasize the nobility and the sacrifice of American soldiers in a war that’s basically a noble, if failed endeavor, and his rapprochement with Vietnam, while very laudatory is, I think also designed to encourage Vietnam to have an anti-China Alliance with the United States. Which is basically a repetition of the very same history that brought the United States to Vietnam in the first place.

Philip: It’s interesting that you and I are having this discussion following one I had with David Rieff. We’ve done two with David on his anti-remembrance line of argument and he did that philosophical riff on remembering and forgetting, and one of the things he’s underwhelmed by are truth and reconciliation commissions, for example. As I’m sure you know, he thinks we’d be better off to forget as much as we can of agonizing past history and just getting on with it. Much sympathy for that?

Viet Nguyen: I do have sympathy for that. I think obviously the kind of ethical forgetting or remembering that I’m talking about is really difficult to achieve. Sometimes it seems to be necessary to engage in a pragmatic forgetting and obviously we’re going to forget anyway. People die, generations pass on, new generations are not going to have the same memories of the previous generation. In that sense that’s liberating. They can get past supposedly the history that is mired down their forebears. But I’m also of the belief that nothing ever really is forgotten. We haven’t successfully engaged in working through our past, that history is going to return even if we think we’ve forgotten it. In the United States, the most explicit example of that is slavery and its residues in terms of race and class and inequality in the U.S. So, even if we think in the United States that we have moved on past slavery, my belief is that it’s shadows still are cast all over Americans, even until the present.

Philip: The terrible events in Orlando have already been weaponized politically and are being distorted. Whilst now it’s almost beyond baring in belief.

Viet Nguyen: Well, I mean, yeah, it’s disturbing. It’s the confluence of so many factors happening in Orlando from the American obsession with violence and weapons, to the blow back from the wars that the U.S. has waged overseas, to the omnipresence of a certain kind of sexuality. Heterosexuality and masculinity that have always driven people to war, including Americans. So it’s no surprise that given how horrifying this event is, that different sides want to reduce the complexity of it to a sound bite that serves their own cause.

Philip: I’m talking to the author, or have been talking to the author, of The Sympathizer and now Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War. I’m sorry Viet, you’re going to have to write another book as soon as possible so we can continue our discussion. Viet Thanh Nguyen, thank you very much for talking to me from your home in Los Angeles.

Viet Nguyen: My pleasure, Philip.


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