Pulitzer Prize winner’s new book: Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Stephen Cohen reviews Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War for Vietnam Full Disclosure.

Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, Viet Thanh Nguyen, in his challenging new work of non-fiction, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, reminds us that “all wars are fought twice…the second time in memory” (4) The war involving the US, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia (not to mention South Korea, Australia, etc.) is no exception.  As a refugee from southern Vietnam in the US, he provides a vibrant – and perhaps surprising – perspective, which has been largely ignored in official (American and Vietnamese) memory.  “I count myself among those Vietnamese dismayed by America’s deeds but tempted to believe in its words” (1) As a result, he provides little comfort to any of the participants in this epic conflict.  “Today the Vietnamese and American Revolutions manufacture memories only to absolve the hardening of their arteries.” (3)

Nguyen is particularly concerned with developing a ‘just memory’ alternative to what he dubs the ‘industrialization of memory.’ (13) This industrialization consists not merely of military or state propaganda, or the Call of Duty or Black Ops video games (which “train people to be part of a war machine, turning war into a game and a game into war” (110)), or Hollywood movies, but an entire war machine mobilized to justify ‘forever wars’; to normalize war.  Nguyen quotes director Sam Raimi: “Vietnam war films are all pro-war, no matter what the supposed message…Fight, rape, pillage, burn.  Filmic images of death and carnage are pornography for the military man.” (118)  “Turning horror into entertainment is a signature feature of the American industry of memory.” (179) Nguyen bemoans the reality that “we become accustomed to seeing through the rifle scope, then through the crosshairs of a missile, now through the unblinking gaze of a drone” (111) – ‘seeing the enemy through the eyes of a first person shooter” (110). The intrusive western gaze predominates.  Even antiwar movies almost always operate to promote war.  “They continually place at the center, the soldier…blind us to war’s extensive nature…divide the heroic soldiers who seem to be the primary agent of war from the citizens who actually make war happen and ” suffer its consequences.” (224)

It is fundamental to recognize that “war exercises the entire body politic,” (225) not just soldiers in the field.  The entire society is mobilized.   “Boys and girls…dream of being soldiers” (227)  “Under what can be called compulsory militarism, even those who oppose war end up paying its costs.” (230) For Nguyen, it is crucial to include refugees in the war story.  “We can see the that the immigrant story, staple of American culture, must actually be understood, in many cases, as a war story” (220) with the immigrant as “collateral damage.”  And there is “one crucial difference between a soldier’s war story of his terminal tour of duty and of a refugee’s war story of a possible life sentence,” (244) though of course the usual war sagas also tend to forget “the veterans who suffer from trauma, or are homeless, or have committed suicide” whose deaths “far outnumber the wartime deaths.” (49)

In war, “rape is the hidden trauma, its climactic revelation, destroying the masculine fiction that war is a soldier’s adventure and a man’s experience or that war-over there-can be separated from the world of the family over here.” (32) In this war,

“The Vietnamese woman is the ultimate Gook, different from the American soldier in race, culture, language, and gender.  She is the complete and threatening object of both rapacious desire and murderous fear, the embodiment of the whole mysterious, enticing, forbidding, and dangerous country of Vietnam.” (64)

War is not a white man’s masculine stomping ground or titillating entertainment, but an extreme, violent, and ugly version of our racial, gender, class, cultural, and human dynamics.

The wars never end.  Strangely enough, we have reached the point that “perpetual warfare no longer requires victory…[the war machine] can convert stalemates or losses into lessons for future wars and reasons for further paranoia by the citizenry.” (265) Nations glory in victory and in defeat “see themselves as victims, never victimizers.  Defeat aggravates this sentiment.” (280) The war machine is thereby self-perpetuating.

There are just and unjust ways of remembering.  All those affected by war are to be remembered, including those elided from the official narratives: Laotians, Cambodians, or those who fought with the South Vietnamese on the American side.  Nguyen spends a good deal of time assessing how the Southeast Asian refugee community-his community, including its artists-in America has processed the war.  His description of a community caught between two national identities, lured sometimes into playing the victim and/or touting its devotion to America, simultaneously remembering and forgetting the past is fascinating but beyond this reviewer’s capacity to meaningfully evaluate.

“The basic dialectic of memory and amnesia is…fundamentally about remembering our humanity and forgetting our inhumanity, while conversely remembering the inhumanity of others and fighting their inhumanity.” (19) Even memorials like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington DC, for which Nguyen has respect, ultimately prove the point. Nguyen agrees with Marita Sturken that:

“The Vietnamese become unmentionable; they are conspicuously absent in their roles as collaborators, victims, enemies or simply the people on whose land and over whom (supposedly) this war was fought…within the nationalist context of the Washington Mall, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial must necessarily “forget” the Vietnamese and cast the Vietnam veterans as the primary victims of the war…Remembering is in itself a form of forgetting.” (66)

The Memorial is 150 yards long; if it also commemorated all the Southeast Asian victims, as the great photographer Philip Jones Griffith pointed out, it would be 9 miles long.  “Americans like to imagine the war not as a conflict between Americans and Vietnamese, but Americans fighting a war for their nation’s soul.” (110) As I have spoken about the war to different audiences over the years, I have felt compelled to remind Americans that the war took place not in America, but in Southeast Asia.

Nguyen redefines the ‘Vietnam syndrome’, which American rulers have sought to overcome by pursuing new wars, as “the selective memory of a country that imagines itself as a perpetual innocent.” (51) For him, “American official memory is unjust… for it learns no lessons from my war except the lesson to fight the Forever War more efficiently.” (285) Instead of realizing the injustice and futility of imperial adventure, the goal has been to develop “culturally sensitive warfare,” to carry out these wars more effectively as in General Petraeus’s field manual for soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. (83)

Nguyen is also critical of slogans of some war opponents such as “Oppose the War But Support the Troops”(such slogans became popular during the second Gulf War).   He points out, logically enough, that

“If one opposed a war because it killed innocent people, then how could one support the troops who inflicted the damage?  Do they not bear moral responsibility for the killing? Might they not bear some political responsibility for a war they implicitly supported by their votes, their attitudes, and their actions? … The slogan’s refusal to judge soldiers also implies a refusal to judge the civilians.  What lies behind the slogan is not only support for the troops but the absolution of the same civilians who utter the slogan.  If the hands of the troops are clean, so are the hands of these civilians.  As for the American dead, they have not died for nothing after all.” (50)

Nguyen does not let the current government of Vietnam off the hook.  Official Vietnamese memory has its own distorted way of remembering the war.  It neglects and hides the national cemetery of the South Vietnamese army in Bien Hoa and is “unable to confront the failure of the revolution in bringing freedom and independence to all of the people” or to honor the horrors of war.  Regarding Vietnamese museums, he chastises: “these symbols of the victorious revolution are not human, even though they depict human beings.  They are hardened industrial products wearing the guise and shape of softer human beings.  As forms of weaponized memory, they condense the heroic and the human, excising any sign of the subhuman, nonhuman, or inhuman.” (160) In light of this, I was surprised that Nguyen does not reference Heonik Kwon’s Ghosts of War in Vietnam, an illuminating study of how local villages in southern and central Vietnam countered “the politics of heroic national memory”[1] by honoring the deaths and spirits of all sides to the conflict.

Nevertheless, there remains an asymmetry in how the memory of the war is propagated.  “Unlike the industries of memory for superpowers or aspiring powers the industry of memory for a small country does not export its memories on any great scale.  This industry’s memories appear unpolished on a global market.” (157) “A super-powerful industry of memory makes it easy for people to access its products delivered to its doors, their televisions, their screens, their shelves, their newspapers, even when they do not want these memories or seek them out.” (167)

Remembering the Vietnamese (or Laotians or Cambodians) does not mean romanticizing the ‘other’.  Nguyen laments that “the way the global antiwar movement saw the Vietnamese-and often still does-is an archetypical case of treating the other as victim and the victim as other, freezing them in perpetual suffering and noble heroism.” (74) Or “in the recent past, the Western left so keen on the cry for resistance and liberation has had the luxury of not actually accomplishing revolution and therefore suspending the confrontation for what it means for the wretched of the earth to have power…resistance and liberation have unforeseen consequences.  Those who have been damaged can, when they come to power, damage others.” (197) Victims can become victimizers, sometimes in the name of their own victimhood.

As a ‘60s activist in the movement against the war, I must plead guilty as charged.  American leftists were desperate for a humane alternative to Soviet-style communism and the Vietnamese revolution seemed to offer that.  When antiwar activists, Tom Hayden and Staughton Lynd (along with Herbert Aptheker) visited the DRV (North Vietnam) in 1965, they were charmed and disarmed:

“Staughton asked Oanh what he thought of the proposition that socialism, as an economic arrangement, was inevitable, but whether or not socialism would be humane depended upon personal intent and action.  As Oanh vigorously nodded his agreement, we felt that a genuine common ground had been found…Oanh put it in words quite simply; again and again he said, “We Vietnamese are a very sentimental people.”  Here we began to understand the possibilities for a genuine socialism of the heart.”[2]

Brought up on the mythology that the US had never lost a war and awed by the atomic age and American technology, many war opponents were taken by the image of the brave peasant beating back the biggest superpower on earth.  People power was triumphing over ‘the Man’s technology.’  Instead of casting the resisting Vietnamese as either victims or demons, this felt like a step forward.  Wary of Euro-centrism and sensitive to the wiles of American propaganda and well aware that the Chinese and American governments were colluding in isolating Vietnam (especially in the wake of Vietnam’s role in overthrowing the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime in the 1980s); international solidarity seemed to demand that the antiwar movement not waver in defending the post-revolutionary government.  Who were Americans to judge or critique the people-or its leaders-who the American military had so mercilessly devastated?  How was the ‘left’ to be critical of the Vietnamese revolution without joining the chorus of American imperial self-justification?  Our solidarity perspective view ill-equipped us to understand or critique post-revolutionary Vietnam.

Nguyen does not probe the sources of (some of) the antiwar movement’s infatuation with the Vietnamese revolution.  In fact, most of the American antiwar movement promptly forgot about Vietnam, or Cambodia or Laos, after the war’s conclusion and moved on to other issues.  And there were voices-some Trotskyite and others independent (like Joan Baez)-who were quite critical of postwar Vietnamese policy. Nonetheless, Nguyen’s overall point is well taken.  That US actions during and after the war were oppressive, even genocidal, does not absolve the victors from serious scrutiny nor excuse the war’s opponents from honestly grappling with the reality of the postwar period.

So what constitutes a just, rather than self-serving way to remember the war?  How to stop ‘forever war’? The answer, for Nguyen, begins with an understanding that “memory is a strategic resource in the struggle for power.  Wars cannot be fought without control over memory and its inherent opposite; forgetting.” (10-11) And further “The project of just memory is…a work of the inhumanities rather than the humanities, for if the humanities have a hard time remembering the inhuman at the heart of civilization and culture, the inhumanities must remember the human.” (72)  Understanding inhumanity as part of humanity leads Nguyen to cite Cambodian Rithy Panh:

“’The crimes committed by Democratic Kampuchea [Khmer Rouge], and the intention behind these crimes, were incontrovertibly human; they involved man in his universality, man in his entirety, man in his history and in his politics.  No one can consider those crimes as a geographical peculiarity or a historical oddity; on the contrary the twentieth century reached its fulfillment in that place; the crimes in Cambodia can even be taken to represent the whole twentieth century…The genocide, while extreme was not marginal, provincial, or aberrant, but as fundamental an expression of inhumanity-and therefore of humanity-as a number of horrific events before and since”  (86)

So we must begin by both acknowledging our own inhumanity, as well as recognizing the humanity the ‘other’, the enemy.  By understanding that we (as Americans or other) are not above history or ‘exceptional’ and that the other side has legitimate problems and concerns, we can begin to end the cycle of vengeance. Nguyen, as an artist, cites numerous works of art, which accomplish this Zen-like-quadruple-think (as well as many that don’t).  Important as art is in heightening our awareness, it is not entirely clear how a people, a society, or a world might move in this direction.

Nguyen is most persuasive in elucidating the problems of alternate modes of memory-claiming victimhood or the uniqueness of one’s victimhood, self-glorification, rehabilitation of a nation’s martial image, the erasure of the “other”, and so on.  “Unchecked, resentment consumes everything and everyone, including its possessor.” (292) As opposed to Kissinger-like realpolitik, we need “a different kind of realism, a realism that believes no matter how impossible it might seem we must imagine peace…a realism of the impossible.”(290-91) He further calls for a ”pure forgiveness [which] arises from the paradox of forgiving the unforgivable”; not “Vietnam will forgive America so long, as America invests in it and offers protection from China [and] America will forgive Vietnam, so long as Vietnam allows itself to be invested in and permits the use of its territory…for America’s fight against China.” (287)

As for seeing the humanity of the ‘other’, he, himself, has some trouble recognizing the humanity of the Vietnamese Communists.  He abhors the Stalinist turn in the party, but seems uninterested in why many idealists and anti-colonialists became Communists.  Surely this is a crucial issue for the American audience he is trying to reach.   His perspective on the role of Ho Chi Minh, for instance, is not entirely resolved. He notes that South Vietnamese refugees think of Ho as Hitler-like, on the one hand, and the current Vietnamese government, on the other, uses “his body, or its facsimile, [as] a stage prop for the Communist Party, its war machine, and its industry of memory.” (158) And he notes “while the historical Ho Chi Minh is round and complex, in life and his biographies” and that the Communist Party’s icon-ization of Ho, “is exactly the opposite of how the human man lived, or performed, his humble life” (160) Was he merely performing humility; was he a moderating force in the party as many Vietnamese and others maintain?  Is it significant that he resisted icon-ization?  If we are asking the American public to recognize the humanity of the ‘other’, is it too much to expect a clear discussion of the roots and motivations of Communists and an overall assessment of Ho Chi Minh’s legacy?  While he lauds Bao Ninh’s evocation of the suffering caused by the war in The Sorrow of War, he quotes  “’they were caring days, when we knew what we were living and fighting for and why we needed to suffer and sacrifice” and comments that “the war and the Communist Party may be condemned in the pages of the novel, but not the young people who and the true patriots who sacrificed themselves.” (33) But what drew these innocents to support a struggle led by the Communists?  Were they merely naïfs?  This is not a question of foregoing a critical perspective; but for a Vietnamese refugee it might illustrate the “forgiving the unforgivable”; the courageous stand that Nguyen so passionately calls for.

Perhaps it is too much for any individual by himself to “give up resentment or a claim to requital” (294).  If an individual proves capable of such transcendence, a group process will still be necessary for significant impact.  Even if the path to just memory remains unclear or is seemingly impossible, the clear articulation of what memory needs to engage is a fundamental spiritual contribution.  He approvingly quotes Barbara Kingsolver’s injunction that “no kind of bomb ever built will extinguish hatred.’” (273) Surely all advocates for peace will share Viet Thanh Nguyen’s echoing of veteran poet W. D. Erhart’s plea: “I didn’t want a monument…What I wanted was an end to monuments.” (295)

[1] Heonik Kwon, Ghosts of War in Vietnam (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), p.161.
[2]Lynd and Hayden, The Other Side, (New York: New American Library — Signet, 1966), 62.

 

Stephen Cohen is a long-time political activist who cut his teeth in the 1960s civil rights and antiwar movements. He is particularly interested in passing on honest view of the war in Southeast Asia and exploring that war’s present-day implications.

Category: Reviews

 

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