Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Pacific Affairs Reviews Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War

Nguyễn Thị Điểu reviews Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War. Originally published by Pacific Affairs.

Viet Thanh Nguyen, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, Harvard University Press, 2016. 384 pgs.

Decades ago, at the end of a devastating conflict, a flow of humanity, braving all dangers while paying a deadly price, fled Indochina to asylum countries where they resettled into new lives, their homelands branded into their memories. Their experiences—seldom directly recounted by themselves but more so by their children, a generation further removed from the conflict—became a barely discernible genre within a voluminous stream of works known in the English language as the Vietnam War literature. This genere involves not only the written word but also a filmography churned out by Hollywood, which has been viewed globally and implicitly accepted as expressing the wartime realities, whether rendered coarsely as in the Rambo series or artistically as in Apocalypse Now.

These works tend to be Manichean in their interpretations, predominantly concerned with explaining how the United States, the most powerful nation in the world, lost to an underdeveloped, formerly colonized country, Vietnam. None went beyond this dualistic approach which opposed the (American) Self/perpetrator and the (non-American) Other/victim, ignoring the fact that the victim could also be the perpetrator. None, that is, until Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Nothing Ever Dies.

Nguyen’s work is a multidimensional reflection on conflicts in general and on the Second Indochina War in particular, from the further removed location of memories; it is about how the Vietnam or American War—the names are “false choices” (7)—is remembered, reflected, produced, and disseminated, and by whom. The author explores memories grouped under three headings—“Ethics,” “Industries,” and “Aesthetics”— canvassing a vast literary, artistic, and cinematographic array produced in the English language. Employing Marxist dialectics and influenced by the school of memory and forgetting, from Halbwachs to Ricoeur, Nguyen argues that remembrances, themselves part of a thriving industry of memory, are reflections of a dualistic imbalance of power, the powerful versus the weak, the rich versus the poor, the developed versus the underdeveloped, as “memories are signs and products of power, and in turn, they service power” (15).

Nguyen strives to be as inclusive as possible, including not only the voices of Americans and Vietnamese but also of Cambodians, Laotians, Hmong, and others. He advocates “just memory” to be approached “by recalling the weak, the subjugated, the different” (17). Nothing and no one escapes his scrutiny, from the hallowed Vietnam War Wall in Washington, DC, to the revered Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi, as he examines the underpinnings of consecrated symbols, and shines light on the victims to show that they can be equally perpetrators, “human and inhuman.” The author extends such metaphorical analysis to present-day “others” such as the Muslim, the Arab, or the terrorist, who are supposedly treated in some circles “in the same idealized fashion as the antiwar movement treated the Vietnamese” (74).

Nguyen’s work is a reflection not just on the Vietnam War but also on other conflicts fought by the United States (e.g., Korea, the Philippines, Afghanistan, Iraq), explaining that “historically intractable conflicts continue” because both sides see themselves as victims but refuse to acknowledge that they are also perpetrators (73). It ponders racial relations in America between the predominant English-speaking white majority and the varied ethnicities that have also settled the land, and the problematics of writing from an ethnic point of view—be the perspective that of the Vietnamese American or another ethnicity. Nguyen confronts the paradox of Vietnamese American and, by extension, all ethnically based literature bound to a defining trauma as “minority writers know they are most easily heard in America when they speak about the historical events that defined their populations” (201).

Nothing Ever Dies’ strength lies in the voice its author gives to the disenfranchised via a lyrical, impassioned style, fuelled by a considerable scholarship and coloured by numerous trips to Asia. He demands that we, the readers, always remember “ethically.” While having “Vietnam” in its title and a Vietnamese author’s name may limit its readership to those eternally seeking an answer to the conflict, this work is very much of the moment—and beyond—in its examination of current issues that are at the forefront of American society such as racial relations, identity politics, war, and memories. While the work by itself may read as a philosophical discourse on “just forgetting,” on Asian Americans and their fates in “the land of the free,” it conveys a touch of tenderness and relatable fragile humanity via a filigree of a voice, that of the refugee child that the author used to be before his metamorphosis into a full-fledged, Pulitzer Prize-winning American writer. His trajectory of exodus, resettlement, and return to his roots make him palpably one of “them,” in search of his “self” in his ancestral as well as adopted land.

Throughout the work, the author strives to be inclusive by refusing to accept the dominant memories of the “patronizing, guilt-ridden” majority (196). This drive, while necessary and commendable, is weakened by his attempt to step into cultures and lands with which by ethnic membership and scholarly training, the author is unfamiliar. Thus his examination of the Cambodian Genocide through visits to the killing fields reads as simplistic and reductive in its interpretation of such a complex phenomenon, just like his desire to include the Lao experience is limited by the scarcity of English-language works about such a little-known nation. Equally it is sometimes plagued by facile, jargonistic phrases such as “the American industry of memory is on a par with the American arms industry just as Hollywood is the equal of the American armed forces” (108).

Overall, Nothing Ever Dies affects us all, whether we are students of the Vietnam/American War or simply concerned by questions of “identity politics,” whether we are part of the first or second generation of exiles adapting to a new homeland or whether we are curious about the “other.” It will affect all readers who are musing about present-day conflicts, and above all, those of us who try to remember justly.


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