This review of Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War by Margaret B. Bodemer was originally published in Volume 39 of The Public Historian, on pages 139-141.
How can anyone support war when they have witnessed it firsthand, listened to survivors’ stories, or even read about its ‘‘human costs’’? This thought echoed in my mind as I read Viet Thanh Nguyen’s impressive monograph, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War. Thirteen years in the making (356), the volume draws from the author’s field research in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Nguyen analyzes a wide variety of cultural forms, including museum exhibits, monuments, cemeteries, films, fiction, memoirs, and art (photography and paintings), and the book includes an extensive and border-crossing literature survey (the bibliography is an excellent guide to the subjects covered). Nguyen offers intriguing insights into the legacies of the Vietnam War and how actors remember the conflict in different ways. Of particular interest to public historians will be his careful and critical analysis of these multiple sites of memory. This discussion can serve as a guide to evaluate our own practices of representing the Vietnam War, its complex legacies, and the often-forgotten perspectives of Southeast Asians in exhibits, websites, and teaching about the conflict. Public historians will also likely enjoy the stunning photographs and reproductions of paintings included in the monograph.
Nguyen calls for an inclusive, ethical remembering of war’s casualties, a process that should include the perspectives of ourselves, our enemies, and the victims of war. Nguyen analyzes the complex ways in which the Vietnam War is commemorated both in the United States and Vietnam through the perspectives of ‘‘the victorious Vietnamese,’’ ‘‘the defeated Vietnamese,’’ and the Americans and in doing so reminds the reader that ‘‘all wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory’’ (4). The author exhorts us to recognize not only our humanity, but also the ways in which we have the capacity for inhumanity; continuing to conceive of ourselves as ‘‘perpetual innocents’’ (51) prevents us from working together toward a future without war. Nguyen’s analysis of multiple cultural forms, in particular American movies about the Vietnam War, forces us to confront the ugly truths about war, including rape, death, and our own part as ‘‘distracted citizenry complicit’’ (citing Martin Luther King Jr., 3) through our consumption of and participation in the industry of memory in service of the war machine (127).
The author, a professor of English and American studies at the University of Southern California and a Pulitzer–prize winner for fiction (The Sympathizer, 2016), incorporates his personal experiences and reflections on his family and community’s experiences. This dimension constitutes an important part of the book. As refugees, Nguyen and his family arrived in America shortly after the fall of Saigon in 1975, denoted as ‘‘Black April’’ (42) among Vietnamese Americans. Illustrating the complexity of remembering the Vietnam War from an American perspective, Nguyen opens by stating, ‘‘I was born in Vietnam but made in America. I count myself among those Vietnamese dismayed by America’s deeds but tempted to believe in its words. I also count myself among those Americans who often do not know what to make of Vietnam and want to know what to make of it’’ (2). He notes that he is too young to recall the war firsthand and instead, like many refugees, absorbed memories ‘‘secondhand’’ from his family and community as well as from war movies and society at large (103).
In particular, I find Nguyen’s notion of ‘‘disremembering’’ compelling and innovative. He defines this term as ‘‘the unethical and paradoxical mode of forgetting at the same time as remembering, or from the perspective of the other who is disremembered, of being simultaneously seen and not seen. Disremembering allows someone to see right through the other, an experience rendered so memorably by Ralph Ellison in the opening pages of Invisible Man’’ (63). When representations of the war include Southeast Asians, they are frequently silenced so Americans can speak for them, as in the brutal film Casualties of War (1989) (77). Instead, he argues, these ‘‘others’’ should be granted full subjectivity. Educators, scholars, and public historians should take this point in order to more carefully and inclusively represent and fully engage with multiple experiences and perspectives.
Produced by Harvard University Press, the volume includes forty-two fascinating illustrations—mostly photographs—taken by the author and his photographic collaborator, Sam Sweezy. Surprisingly, the captions and credits for each illustration are listed at the very end of the book, following the endnotes, works cited, and acknowledgments, which forces the reader to flip to the end of the book for each illustration. It would be much more convenient to have a caption and credit below each illustration. Overall, this well written and insightful book is a significant contribution to memory studies, Asian American studies, Asian studies, Transpacific studies (a field Nguyen has helped to establish), Vietnam studies, and cultural studies. It is recommended for anyone interested in war and its legacies.