“All wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory,” writes Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen. This week on Throughline, we want to pause the news cycle to think about not just how war is experienced or consumed, but how it’s remembered. A refugee from the Vietnam War, Nguyen calls himself a scholar of memory — someone who studies how we remember events of the past, both as people and as nations. As the world watches the war in Ukraine — and with the U.S. departure from Afghanistan still fresh — we speak with Nguyen about national memory, selective forgetting, and the refugee stories that might ultimately help us move forward for NPR Throughline.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Reading) I used to think it was my rememory (ph), you know? Some things you forget. Other things you never do. But it’s not. Places – places are still there. If a house burns down, it’s gone. But the place, the picture of it, stays. And not just in my rememory, but out there in the world. What I remember is a picture floating around out there, outside my head. I mean, even if I don’t think it, even if I die, the picture of what I did or knew or saw is still out there – Toni Morrison, “Beloved.”
VIET THANH NGUYEN: My own memories began very concretely in a refugee camp a few weeks after the fall of Saigon. We were actually boatlifted out of Saigon and then airlifted from Guam to Pennsylvania and ended up, you know, in a military base, Fort Indiantown Gap in Harrisburg. And that’s where my memories begin.
RUND ABDELFATAH, HOST:
Viet Thanh Nguyen was 4 years old when his family escaped from the Vietnam War, boatlifted out of Vietnam then airlifted to a new life in the United States. The war fundamentally defined his life, even though his memories of it are hazy.
NGUYEN: Before the end of the war, all I remember – ’cause I was 4 years old – are just these fragmentary images, which I don’t even know whether they really happened.
NGUYEN: For example, being on a boat and seeing sailors shooting at a smaller boat approaching us.
NGUYEN: My brother, who was seven years older, said, never happened. So I have to trust that his memory is right and my memory is wrong.
RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, HOST:
He has to trust it, even though what his brother says contradicts Viet’s own memories. And that tension has animated his writing.
NGUYEN: I am a professor, a scholar, and a writer of fiction and nonfiction, probably best known for my novel, “The Sympathizer,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2016, as well as its sequel, “The Committed,” collection of short stories called “The Refugees,” and a nonfiction book called “Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War.”
ABDELFATAH: Viet also calls himself a scholar of memory, someone who studies how we remember events of the past, both as people and as nations, and how those memories affect how we face the future. And no narratives are more contested than those of war.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Millions are doing all they can do and heading for the nearest border. And so for several days now, a growing wave of Ukrainian refugees has fanned out across Europe.
ARABLOUEI: Right now, the world is watching the war in Ukraine. In just one month, Russia has destroyed major cities. Many communications are gone, and more than 3 million refugees have fled the country, many of them children.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: As if war in Ukraine, missile attacks, jet fighters screaming overhead and tanks bullying their way through suburban streets wasn’t already terrifying enough, now the world must also accept a sobering truth. This is just the beginning.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: In recent decades, instability and conflict have put droves of people on the move. Often, migrants are met with political pushback and intolerance.
ARABLOUEI: Millions of people have fled Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Palestine, Sudan and, of course, Afghanistan.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: October 7, 2001 – that was the exact date that the first U.S. strikes began against the Taliban in Afghanistan. And that brings us to another date, August 30, 2021, the formal end to this now 20-year war.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: As we watch the images of people trying to flee Afghanistan, they may remind you of another chaotic time in American history…
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: …The effort to get Americans out of Saigon.
ABDELFATAH: Depending on where you are in the world and where you’re getting news about a war, you’re very likely getting a different narrative, sometimes a polar opposite narrative, than someone else somewhere else about the very same conflict. And these differing narratives influence how that war will be perceived now and later on.
ARABLOUEI: And like any moment happening in real time, details are left out. Context is missing, and what you think to be true may not be what’s actually happening. All of this simplifies our memories of what happened. And Viet wants us not only to recognize that, but to challenge those memories because nothing, especially war, is that simple.
ABDELFATAH: I’m Rund Abdelfatah.
ARABLOUEI: I’m Ramtin Arablouei.
ABDELFATAH: And on this episode of THROUGHLINE from NPR, we want to pause the news cycle to talk about not just how war is experienced or consumed, but how it’s remembered and what those memories can mean for the future.
LINDSEY: Hi. My name is Lindsey (ph), and I’m originally from Ogden, Utah. THROUGHLINE kept me company on the road from Ogden to my new home in Greenville, S.C. And I wanted to say thanks. You’re listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Part 1 – In the Absence.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I know that many of our friends around the world have the impression that the United States is being rash and irresponsible and reckless in Vietnam. I say, on the contrary, that what we are trying to do here is to stop aggression in Southeast Asia because only by stopping aggression now will we avoid big war later.
ARABLOUEI: The U.S. was involved in Vietnam from the 1950s well into the ’70s. The conflict passed through the hands of five U.S. presidents. What began as U.S. fears of communism spreading to South Vietnam and the rest of Asia soon became what many called a quagmire – a long, drawn-out conflict that had no clear objectives.
ABDELFATAH: At the height of the war, over half a million American troops were stationed in Vietnam. In the end, the U.S. would suffer more than 58,000 deaths. Vietnam had over 3 million.
LYNDON B JOHNSON: How many men who listen to me tonight have served their nation in other wars? How very many are not here to listen? The war in Vietnam is not like these other wars. Yet, finally, war is always the same.
ARABLOUEI: The U.S. withdrew combat troops from Vietnam in 1973, and the North Vietnamese captured Saigon in April of 1975. That year, 125,000 South Vietnamese refugees fled to America to begin new lives – among them, 4-year-old Viet Thanh Nguyen.
NGUYEN: I was growing up in the United States in the ’70s and ’80s, and the war was officially over. But it seemed to me that Americans were fighting the war again through, most visibly, Hollywood and the dozens of movies that it made.
ARABLOUEI: Movies like “Apocalypse Now,” “Full Metal Jacket,” “Platoon,” “The Deer Hunter” – all American films that tell the story from an American perspective – American tragedies, American trauma, but exported and consumed around the world.
NGUYEN: Even a bad film or TV series will be seen by millions of people. That’s really about the kind of cultural production that Americans can do versus other countries. So then, again, an American movie like “Apocalypse Now” will be seen all over the world, including in Vietnam, where people have seen “Apocalypse Now.” But a Vietnamese story will most likely not be seen outside of Vietnam. So all of these things became very, very personal for me, these politics of the nation. And I felt like I had to confront my own past in order to try to understand not just myself and my family, but also to try to understand the nations, Vietnam and the United States, whose conflicts shaped us.
ARABLOUEI: For Viet, the political experience of the war was very personal, and his personal experience was always political.
NGUYEN: My memories really began very coherently when I was taken away from my parents.
NGUYEN: What happened was that in order to leave the refugee camp, we had to have Americans sponsor us. But there was no American willing to sponsor my entire family. So one sponsor took my parents.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Speaking Vietnamese).
NGUYEN: One sponsor took my brother.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Speaking Vietnamese).
NGUYEN: One sponsor took 4-year-old me…
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Speaking Vietnamese).
NGUYEN: …Which, when you’re 4 years old, is a traumatic experience. It was only a few months for me. My brother, who was seven years older, didn’t get to come home for two years. So these vast, traumatic historical events like war and refugee experience manifest themselves for individuals and families in their particular individual emotional problems and crises that reverberate for generations.
ABDELFATAH: My parents are Palestinian refugees, and we had, like, a tense relationship with memory. On the one hand, it was, like, obsessively remembering so that we don’t forget, kind of, like, where we came from and things like that and what happened. On the other hand, there were, like, black holes in the discussions we had about their actual personal experiences. And I wonder, you know, as the child of refugees yourself, was that something that you also experienced?
NGUYEN: I think this is a very common experience for lots of people who have fled from some country due to some horrifying war or trauma or anything like that. And I think a lot of it does have to do with trauma, that one of the things that trauma does to us is that it makes us fixate on a particular kind of event. And one definition of trauma is that it’s a memory that we cannot narrate ourselves out of. You circle around the traumatic experience, and you can’t get out of it. For example, the fall of Saigon – the fact that that event terribly disrupted and damaged my parents’ lives and the lives of people of their generation rippled through me. But No. 1, my parents, like yours, didn’t want to tell me everything. And No. 2, I often felt like I didn’t want to ask because maybe they have good reason not to tell me. And what right do I have to try to pry into their own personal shadows and traumas and complications? Maybe they want to forget for good reason, and maybe I should leave them alone.
ABDELFATAH: I think, in talking to, like, my own parents, I know that they did see horrific things also, but it was something that they didn’t talk about for decades. And it makes me wonder if there’s something to the fact that you almost need the distance, you need the physical and the temporal distance from something in order to begin to process it on an individual level and maybe on a, like, you know, collective, societal level.
NGUYEN: I think that is absolutely true that whether we’re individuals or whether we’re part of a collective, when something terrible happens, we need time to recover, to process, to gain perspective on things. And that could be a very, very long time. And so the fact that your parents and mine did not talk about certain things, I think, was – at least for me, I knew what the absence was. I didn’t know what was in the absence, but I knew there was an absence.
ARABLOUEI: The narrative wasn’t complete.
NGUYEN: The same thing was true for the Vietnamese refugee community. This was a community that was dominated by its veterans, that had veterans in military uniforms present during its community celebrations where we had to sing the South Vietnamese National Anthem.
ARABLOUEI: The way nations remember their wars also affects how their veterans are treated. In the U.S., World War II veterans were seen as heroes in our collective memory, those who fought and won the good war. But on the other hand, Vietnam veterans were seen as damaged goods. And that loss in war not only followed them around, but was also seared into our collective psyche.
NGUYEN: This brought home to me this idea that just because the shooting has ended, it doesn’t mean that the war is over – and that the people who survive a war, whether they’re the winners or the losers, will want to keep refighting the war again in order to prove their own narrative that the war was justified or that their defeat was not justified.
ARABLOUEI: Viet’s personal narrative also wasn’t complete because he had never been back to Vietnam.
NGUYEN: So the first time I went back, actually, was 27 years later in 2002. I was an adult. And I decided that I was going to go back and just see Vietnam for the first time, but not my family, because it was just going to be so hard to see the family. And so I went for two weeks as a tourist. And it’s great.
NGUYEN: I encourage everybody to go to Vietnam as a tourist (laughter) because it’s a lot of fun. There’s great beaches and bars and nightclubs. The American dollar goes a long way, et cetera. And, you know, seeing the country that way in 2002 was really helpful because, No. 1, it allowed me to partly get past the hang up that a lot of Americans have about Vietnam, which is that it’s a war and not a country. And in fact, going back as a tourist really helped me to see that most of the people in Vietnam don’t want to think about the war. They want to move forward with their lives like everybody else does, make money, have families and all that kind of thing. Americans as a whole talked constantly about the war in Vietnam, lots of movies, lots of books, all these kinds of things. And so I took that contrast between so much talk, on the one hand, about American experience and so little talk about the Vietnamese experience very personally. And so that was partly the genesis for becoming a writer, the sense of resentment and anger and the sense of mission and purpose to tell our stories.
ARABLOUEI: To do this, he realized he had to go back again to try to figure out what was real and what wasn’t, how the war stories were being told in Vietnam and what that might mean for how people in both countries move forward.
ABDELFATAH: When we come back, Viet returns to Vietnam – this time not as a tourist, but as a writer.
AKIL AL-MAKURA: This is Akil al-Makura (ph) from Denver, Colo. You’re listening to the THROUGHLINE from NPR. Thank you.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Part 2 – Split Brain.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Reading) I used to think it was my rememory – you know, some things you forget, other things you never do – but it’s not.
NGUYEN: “Nothing Ever Dies” is special to me because the title actually comes from Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.”
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: (Reading) If a house burns down, it’s gone. But the place, the picture of it stays. And it’s not just in my rememory, but out there in the world.
NGUYEN: She has an idea called rememory, this idea that memory is out there, that we can actually run into it.
ABDELFATAH: When he first returned to Vietnam, Viet Thanh Nguyen set out to run into memories. But understanding them took much longer than he anticipated.
NGUYEN: “Nothing Ever Dies” actually took 14 years from start to finish. And I think the reason it took 14 years is because what started off as a very simple project became a very complicated one.
ABDELFATAH: Viet thought he would be plugging holes in the dominant American narrative of the Vietnam War, what Vietnam calls the American War.
NGUYEN: I saw that the American way of thinking about the Vietnam War was deeply limited. And I wanted to compensate for that. I wanted to fill in a gap and talk about the Vietnamese American and Vietnamese refugee experiences.
ABDELFATAH: When you say deeply limited, what did you feel was limiting about it?
NGUYEN: The way that Americans deliberately or accidentally forget the people in the countries that they get involved in I think has a direct correlation to the fact that Americans keep going to war, that Americans refuse to consider that other people are human beings with their own histories, cultures, experiences and predilections. And then Americans get themselves into other people’s countries one way or another, either through actual occupation or through drone strikes and what have you – proxy wars and all of that. And then Americans get surprised that they can’t get themselves out of these kinds of situations. And then Americans forget, and then they do it all over again.
ABDELFATAH: If Vietnamese people were missing from America’s memory, the best way to remedy that was to bring Vietnam’s memory of the war to an American audience.
NGUYEN: But the more I investigated this war, the more I realized that simply trying to fill in the Vietnamese perspective, or at least the Vietnamese refugee or Vietnamese American or Southern Vietnamese perspective, was not enough.
ABDELFATAH: So he traveled through Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. And he started to change the way he saw his whole project. Because when Viet went to Vietnam to visit museums and monuments and memorials and to talk to people at all those sites dedicated to remembering, he found that the Vietnamese perspectives were also selective.
NGUYEN: And in fact, that what I was doing was, in many ways, a mirror image of what Americans did, which is that Americans, when they’re attacked or they – or when they go to war, they feel themselves to be victims. And then they focus on their own experiences at the exclusion of everybody else. And the Vietnamese of all sides do exactly the same thing.
ABDELFATAH: If Viet brought that perspective back to the U.S., he would just be pairing one victim narrative with another, and that’s not what he wanted to do. He wanted to point out that that’s what all sides of a conflict are still doing, that they’re missing the larger point – that no one is just a victim and no one is just a hero.
NGUYEN: Fourteen years is a long time for an individual – it’s not a long time for a nation. And I think for me, the larger lesson from this is that as difficult as it is for an individual to see past their own predilections, their own desire to identify with their own people, nations are doing the same thing. And that’s why it’s really, really hard for the United States or Vietnam to recognize their own ethnocentric and nationalist preoccupations and their blind spots to other nations and other cultures.
ABDELFATAH: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in the U.S. is in Washington, D.C. I’ve been there many times. It’s down by the National Mall, and it’s this beautiful, massively long, black granite wall designed by the architect Maya Lin.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: She conceived of two joined walls of dark, reflective stone set into the ground…
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: …And engraved with the names of the more than 58,000 Americans who died in that war.
NGUYEN: And so when you visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, what you see there is a beautiful commemoration of 50,000-plus American dead and a total erasure or refusal to remember that millions of Southeast Asians of all sides, including hundreds of thousands of America’s allies, also died during the war. So by not remembering those people, it allows Americans to think of their own soldiers and through their soldiers themselves – Americans themselves – as victims of this terrible war.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: And with all those names carved so permanently into stone, there is no way any of us can ever forget the sacrifice of those who served.
NGUYEN: Now, if you go to Vietnam, it’s exactly the same thing. If you go to the major historical museums, war memorials in Vietnam, what you’ll discover is a very consistent narrative, which is that the Vietnamese were the victims of foreign aggression – whether that was the French or whether it’s the Americans – and that this narrative of victimization is what allows and justifies the communist revolution and the current Communist government by implication.
ARABLOUEI: The War Remnants Museum is in Ho Chi Minh City, the city formerly known as Saigon. It was originally called the Exhibition House for U.S. and Public Crimes back when it was founded in 1975. But the name was eventually changed as relations improved with the U.S. Over half a million people visit the museum each year, most of them tourists. Still, it’s criticized for lacking balance in its focus on atrocities committed by the U.S. compared to the North Vietnamese.
ABDELFATAH: This bias is also seen in some memorials in other parts of Vietnam, like the Con Son Island Prison Complex. There, you walk through the prison and see statues of Vietnamese people being tortured by Americans. Whether it’s a depiction of someone locked in a small cell or being beaten with sticks and fists, the message is clear that the Vietnamese were victims of American cruelty.
NGUYEN: So when Americans go visit these museums, oftentimes they’re totally shocked because Americans have existed in their own ecosystem of propaganda that they never realized was propaganda, which is that when Americans think about the war in Vietnam, they think of themselves as the victims. And they go to Vietnam and see these memorials and museums where they’re being depicted as the people who committed atrocities. And for a lot of Americans, it’s a complete short-circuiting. They just don’t know how to deal with this.
ARABLOUEI: You can see this in the museum guest books, where visitors write down reflections of their visits.
NGUYEN: Half of the Americans who write things down say, this is just communist propaganda. What about all the atrocities that the communists committed? And it’s true. The communists did commit atrocities, but so did the Americans. Both of these things can exist at the same time.
ABDELFATAH: Yes, yes.
NGUYEN: But in an either/or universe, they don’t. And it was painful for me to realize that because I wanted, I think, when I started writing the book, to see the world in a more simple fashion of Americans doing the wrong thing and Vietnamese doing the right thing, and Americans doing the forgetting and the Vietnamese needing to remember. And then understanding that the Vietnamese of all sides have done very much exactly the same processes of exclusion, forgetting, erasure, self-privileging – that took a while for me to understand.
ARABLOUEI: It’s a challenging concept, one with huge implications for national identity, both Vietnamese and American.
ABDELFATAH: It feels like there’s something really powerful about war memory because it has the capacity, on the one hand, to, like – to unite a country – right? – because when you have a common enemy, it’s somewhat – the kind of easiest way to unite people is to say, here is a common enemy. But as we know with the Vietnam War, it was also incredibly divisive, right? It was almost like our country had a split brain around the Vietnam War, which is not all that different from how we felt about the Iraq war and the war in Afghanistan, right? And it makes sense that in its aftermath, we would also sort of have a split brain where on the one hand, we, like valorize it. And there’s also a deep skepticism about, like, what were we doing there? What do we stand for as a country? And what are our responsibilities in the aftermath?
NGUYEN: I think that’s the reason why is because more often than not, nations are founded on violence, on conquest. And what we see in war is oftentimes experiences that are contradictory to a nation’s self-image. The United States, for example, built on notions of democracy, freedom, equality and so on, but only possible through wars of conquest and colonization that are fundamental to the nation’s existence. And so we fight these wars again in memory by narrating them in a way that makes them acceptable to our self-image. So there’s no getting around the fact that the United States would not exist without the fractious wars at the beginning, without genocide committed against Native peoples.
But all of that can be re-narrated again and again in American mythology as a war of independence and of freedom and of liberation. And again, I don’t think the United States is unique. If I think about Vietnam, I see that happening exactly with the war, the Vietnam War, in terms of how the victorious Vietnamese have chosen to narrate that war again in memory by erasing all kinds of contradictions to communist ideals. And that goes even back further in time to the founding of modern Vietnam, as a nation built on conquest and colonization of other peoples, which the Vietnamese don’t want to remember, and instead would prefer to narrate the fact that we were colonized by the Chinese. And we fought them off. And therefore, we became a free and independent people. So wars are fundamental to nation states. And re-narrating wars are fundamental to nation states as well.
ARABLOUEI: Viet calls that re-narration the memory industry. He argues that the way nations remember and re-narrate their pasts isn’t random or coincidental. It’s intentionally curated – memorials, monuments, museums, even the keychains and mugs in a gift shop. But all that pales in comparison to Hollywood.
ABDELFATAH: It must have been an odd experience, I guess, to have absorbed these cultural reference points as an American and then to kind of, all those years later, go and encounter sort of the realities on the ground. And I wonder what you feel about this memory industry, what role it played for you personally, and what kind of role it plays more generally in shaping the narratives we have about these big events that kind of affect us all as a society.
NGUYEN: In the case of something like “Apocalypse Now,” for example, I think it’s a great work of art. I also think it’s racist when it comes to Vietnamese people.
ARABLOUEI: “Apocalypse Now” is a movie about the Vietnam War directed by Francis Ford Coppola. It was released in 1979. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won two. Many consider it one of the greatest films ever made. Viet calls it the archetype of a Hollywood fantasy.
ROBERT DUVALL: (As Bill) I love the smell of napalm in the morning.
ARABLOUEI: The film demonstrates the horrors of war, for sure, and far from celebrates the American military. But at the very least, American soldiers are depicted as fleshed out individual characters in the film. Compare that to the South Vietnamese people, who are barely recognized at all. In fact, there’s only one single line of dialogue spoken by a South Vietnamese person in the entire 2 1/2 hour film.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) This soldier is dirty VC. He wants water? He can drink paddy water.
DUVALL: (As Bill) Get out of here. Give me that canteen.
NGUYEN: So that kind of irony in contrast, these inequities in terms of whose stories get circulated – whether as novels or films, whether as American stories or Vietnamese stories – is very much on my mind.
ARABLOUEI: Especially because Viet benefits from the cultural power that his Vietnamese American identity offers.
NGUYEN: Being an American means that I have a lot of privilege. And I think, for a lot of Americans, oftentimes, we don’t realize how much privilege we have. So for example, one of the basic privileges as an American is the reality that what Americans think and feel and the kinds of stories that we tell are things that get exported all over the world. And I thought about that a lot because I’m an American writer writing in English. I’m not a Vietnamese writer writing in Vietnamese. And it’s made a huge world of difference – literally a world of difference because my book can be read in 25 or something different languages all over the world. And most Vietnamese writers don’t have that kind of opportunity. And it’s very much a function of American privilege that I earned or got given to me as a refugee from a war. And so I bring that privilege with me into Vietnam – that I’m Vietnamese there, but I’m also an American. And the Vietnamese there are very clearly aware of all this.
ABDELFATAH: The first time he returned to Vietnam, Viet chose not to see his extended family.
NGUYEN: Because I was deeply afraid. Most of my family never left Vietnam, couldn’t leave Vietnam. And they were poor. My family was – my parents were supporting them for decades during times of starvation. And so I was really, really worried about going to Vietnam and encountering all these kinds of emotional complications ’cause I’m not good at emotional complication.
ABDELFATAH: But eventually, he decided it was time.
NGUYEN: I went and I met my adopted sister who had been left behind in 1975, and I met dozens of my relatives who left – who led completely different lives than mine. You know, many of us who come from these traumatized countries, when we go back as Americans, we’re expected to bring suitcases full of stuff and money. My father, in preparation, gave me a whole list of relatives with dollar amounts and said, this is – you’re going to give this person this much money and that person that much money.
ARABLOUEI: Seeing his family was complicated, especially for Viet, who moves through the world as both American and Vietnamese.
NGUYEN: The difficulty that I find, for myself, is that I don’t see the world the way that a Vietnamese person who grew up in Vietnam sees the world. So when I’m there, I have to constantly think about the fact that I’m both Vietnamese and American, that I share some similarities with people there and a lot of things I don’t share with them, and that I come to Vietnam with my own set of hang-ups. I don’t have the same kind of hang-ups another kind of American would have. But as an American myself, I still have this tendency to think of the country through the lens of the war.
ARABLOUEI: Coming up – how Viet changed his lens and how he wants the rest of us to change ours, even as a new war begins.
DERMOT THIES: Hello. This is Dermot Thies (ph) calling from Paris, France, to tell you that you and I are listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Part 3 – No Happy Forgetting.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #7: War in Ukraine overnight – a massive explosion rocking the capital of Kyiv and a new moment of defiance as the deadline for surrender came and went in the city of Mariupol.
NGUYEN: So what we’re seeing when it comes to Ukraine is at least partly a battle of narratives – who gets to control the social media narrative, who gets to control the global moral narrative about what’s going on. And at present, the narrative about the United States and Europe and NATO coming in to help defend this plucky democracy against a foreign bully, an imperial aggressor, is winning as a narrative, as if Europe, NATO and the United States is always on the side of good.
ABDELFATAH: And while the war in Ukraine is unfolding, there’s also a rapid forgetting underway.
NGUYEN: And it’s my role as an author to try to make the stories more nuanced and get us to think about how, you know, we also have been involved in Afghanistan and created lots of refugees and have abandoned a lot of our Afghan allies. And all of that has been swept under the rug in this moral fervor around Ukraine.
ABDELFATAH: It was only last summer that the U.S. withdrew from its longest war ever in Afghanistan. But for Viet, it’s not the forgetting that’s the problem. It’s how we forget.
PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: My fellow Americans, the war in Afghanistan is now over.
NGUYEN: I can’t imagine many traumatic events that end simply because the history books say, well, the war ended on such and such a date. Wars continue in people’s feelings, emotions, politics and so on. We carry our wars with us and their consequences. And the refugee experience and the experiences of displacement and loss are part of the war experience.
NGUYEN: So that leads us to the next question of, how do we achieve what the philosopher Paul Ricoeur calls happy forgetting? And he says it’s possible to have happy forgetting versus unhappy forgetting, which is what we have now in the United States. Happy forgetting, Ricoeur argues, is possible through justice and through working through the past, through all these kinds of things that a lot of people don’t want to do, because then we have to confront the past. Then we have to figure out, you know, what constitutes justice for the past. Is it reparations? Is it memorials? Is it certain kinds of narratives? All these things are on the table. And so a happy forgetting is something that we have to work for, work through, to get to.
ABDELFATAH: You wrote an opinion piece – it was around the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan – and you were actually drawing a parallel between the fall of Saigon and the withdrawal from Kabul. And I found it very striking. And I wonder if you can explain sort of what you were thinking in that moment and since that moment.
NGUYEN: I felt so much rage (laughter) and anger and also deep empathy for Afghan people. And the reason why I felt so much rage and anger is because I felt that as soon as 9/11 happened and we went to war in Afghanistan, that this was exactly the outcome that was going to happen. There was no other outcome that was going to happen. And it just was a tragedy. Not that – not only that it happened, but that it took 20 years for all of this history to unfold in Afghanistan and in other countries.
GEORGE W BUSH: At this hour, American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger.
BIDEN: The developments of the past week reinforced that ending U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan now was the right decision. American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves.
NGUYEN: And I felt that it’s so utterly predictable what the United States will do to other countries and how the United States will absolve itself of what it has done to other countries, and that my experiences as a Vietnamese person coming out of the Vietnam War, deeply skeptical of American idealism, prepared me to think this way.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Throughout the day, Chinook helicopters ferried United States embassy staff to the international airport. It harked back to the images of the ignominious retreat of the U.S. from Vietnam.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #8: Some Vietnamese veterans see echoes of their experience in this withdrawal in Afghanistan. Do you see any parallels between this withdrawal and what happened in Vietnam, with some people feeling…
BIDEN: None whatsoever – zero.
NGUYEN: And so when the fall of Kabul happened, I felt that the United States is responsible. And so that was why it was important in that piece to say, well, we need to rescue them because we bombed them literally in the first place and made the country the way that it is. And part of the strange experience for me as an American to feel on a very regular basis is this contradiction between being a refugee from an American war in Vietnam and being a citizen of a United States that is at perpetual war. I think for a lot of people, particularly Americans who are insulated from war, they think of war as something that happens somewhere else in a very discrete period of time. But anyone who’s actually survived a war knows that’s not the case.
NGUYEN: I think about how refugee stories remind us of the human consequences of war. I think most nations prefer to remember the stories of their soldiers, which, even if terrible, nevertheless continue to affirm the importance of the nation through the sacrifices of the soldiers.
BUSH: Your fellow citizens are proud of you, and so is your commander in chief.
BARACK OBAMA: Because of your service and sacrifice, we took the fight to al-Qaida, and we brought Osama bin Laden to justice.
DONALD TRUMP: Thank you for keeping America safe, strong, proud, mighty and free.
BIDEN: The extraordinary success of this mission was due to the incredible skill, bravery and selfless courage of the United States military and our diplomats and intelligence professionals.
NGUYEN: I think that we live in countries that privilege and honor soldiers and look down on refugees because refugees remind us of how close we ourselves could be to those circumstances, if for some unfortunate reason we happened to fall victim to war or to climate catastrophe or things like this. I think that if we shifted our perspective from the view of great men and soldiers and battles and so forth to the experience of refugees, what we would realize is that war inevitably kills civilians and that war also inevitably produces refugees. War inevitably affects civilians. War is this horrible, daily, unforgiving grind for millions and millions of people who did not ask for war and who are – whose lives are completely upended by war and who will never receive any kind of glory or recognition for what they have been through.
ARABLOUEI: Refugee stories are war stories as much as soldiers’ stories are – not either-or but both-and.
NGUYEN: And so the solution to this kind of inequity is not simply to say, tell your own story, which is true. That’s why I went and I wrote a novel. The solution is also to say, you actually have to transform society so that more people have the opportunity to tell their stories. These two things are inseparable. Tell your story and transform the society so that more people have the opportunity to tell their stories.
Another way of thinking about this is that when my novel, “The Sympathizer,” got published and became successful, some people said, oh, Viet’s the voice for the voiceless. And I thought, that’s not a compliment because all that really indicates is that people just want to hear from one voice, when, in fact, there’s thousands of voices, and a happy forgetting would be achieved not by having Viet be the voice for the voiceless and having his one novel out there. A happy forgetting would be achieved when we’ve abolished the conditions of voicelessness so that thousands of voices are being heard. But that’s a lot more complicated than the more simplified narrative of let’s have one person speak for Vietnamese people, or let’s have one movie like “Apocalypse Now” speak for the entire American perspective.
ABDELFATAH: I think it’s something that a lot of people would nod along and be like, yeah, that – absolutely, right? It’s like, on a theoretical event, some people would be like – honestly, some people would roll their eyes at that, right? So I guess my question is, how do we actually make it so that this is just the way we talk about history? It’s not like something where we’re like, here’s a – the appendix with all the, like, extra stories that you need to fill in the gaps, but is actually – becomes part of the way we actually think of ourselves and think about our history.
NGUYEN: My view is, look, where we’re at in American society has taken us centuries to get here – centuries of exploitation and inequity, but also centuries of struggles for freedom and liberation. But I do have this optimism that in 100 to 200 years, we will see a substantial transformation if we struggle for it, if we keep imagining what a different world and a different future looks like.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Reading) So they forgot her like an unpleasant dream during a troubling sleep. Occasionally, however, the rustle of a skirt hushes when they wake, and the knuckles brushing a cheek in sleep seem to belong to the sleeper. Sometimes the photograph of a close friend or relative looked at too long shifts, and something more familiar than the dear face itself moves there. They can touch it if they like but don’t because they know things will never be the same if they do. This is not a story to pass on.
NGUYEN: I think, again, back to “Beloved” and Toni Morrison and the final refrain in “Beloved” as the novel talks about slavery. And that refrain is that this is not a story to pass on in the sense that this is not something that we want to give to another generation. But also this is not a story that we can avoid or ignore. And so that paradox that she identifies is true here as well. We have to both be able to forget and to remember simultaneously. And how do we do that? For us as individuals, it’s one question, but as a nation, it involves trying to figure out some program of justice to achieve that equilibrium of happy forgetting.
ABDELFATAH: That was also a goal of Viet’s book “Nothing Ever Dies,” to search for what that future might look like. And he found it.
NGUYEN: So what happened is that I was doing research which included going to Laos.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: This is the battlefield in Laos. These are government troops supported and financed by the United States, fighting and losing ground.
NGUYEN: And, of course, the United States fought the so-called secret war in Laos. So I was there to look at some of these battlefields and the remnants of bombs and things like this.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #9: During Vietnam, the U.S. dropped more explosives on Laos than it did on Germany and Japan combined in World War II.
NGUYEN: And I was being driven through the country by a driver. And he said, oh, look, we should stop off here at this cave. So the story is that during the war in Laos, hundreds of people, civilians, took refuge in this deep, deep cave. And then an American rocket was launched, and it went into the cave and killed a whole lot of people.
NGUYEN: So we stopped off, and I was the only person there at this hill except for these four schoolgirls, Laotion schoolgirls. All of us were going hiking up this hill. And I was ahead of them, and they were teenagers and they were doing what teenage girls do…
NGUYEN: …Which is, you know, they were after school. They had their cellphones out. They were giggling and talking and taking photographs and texting. And I was on my very serious mission to get to this cave at the top of the hill.
NGUYEN: So I go into the cave, and I was really struck by what I saw because there was no blood or bones or anything like that. It was just an empty cave. But I walked into the cave to the moment where the sunlight met the darkness, and I stopped and I couldn’t bring myself to go any further. And this is what I’m going to read. (Reading) What had it been like with hundreds of people, the noise and the stench, the dimness and the terror? What was in the void now? I stood on the side of presence, facing an absence where the past lived, populated with ghosts, real and imagined. And in that moment, I was afraid.
NGUYEN: (Reading) Then I heard the laughter. The girls stood at the cave’s mouth, profiles outlined by sunlight, making sure the shadows did not touch even their toes. Turning my back on all that remained unseen behind me, I walked towards their silhouettes.
NGUYEN: I think that moment was very striking for me because in this cave of horrifying history, at the mouth of it, there were these girls who probably did know what happened in that cave. They grew up in that area. But for them, it was the past. And they were more concerned with whatever it is that 13-year-old girls are concerned with, and rightfully so. And I thought that was actually a moment of hope, that these girls would have a different kind of a future, that they would not have to be shadowed by death and by war, and that they could carve out their own lives, hopefully free in some ways from the past.
ARABLOUEI: That’s it for this week’s show. I’m Ramtin Arablouei.
ABDELFATAH: I’m Rund Abdelfatah, and you’ve been listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.
ARABLOUEI: This episode was produced by me.
ABDELFATAH: And me and…
LAWRENCE WU, BYLINE: Lawrence Wu.
LAINE KAPLAN-LEVENSON, BYLINE: Laine Kaplan-Levenson.
JULIE CAINE, BYLINE: Julie Caine.
VICTOR YVELLEZ, BYLINE: Victor Yvellez.
MANSEE KHURANA, BYLINE: Mansee Khurana.
YOLANDA SANGWENI, BYLINE: Yolanda Sangweni.
CASEY MINER, BYLINE: Casey Miner.
KUMARI DEVARAJAN, BYLINE: Kumari Devarajan.
ARABLOUEI: Fact-checking for this episode was done by Kevin Volkl.
ABDELFATAH: Special thanks to Michael Sullivan, Connor Donevan, Michael Levitt, Courtney Dorning, Mary Louise Kelly, Christina Bui, Tamar Charney and Anya Grundmann.
ARABLOUEI: The episode was mixed by Josh Newell.
ABDELFATAH: Music for this episode was composed by Ramtin and his band, Drop Electric, which includes…
ANYA MIZANI: Anya Mizani.
NAVID MARVI: Navid Marvi.
SHO FUJIWARA: Sho Fujiwara.
ARABLOUEI: And finally, if you have an idea or like something you heard on this show, please write us at firstname.lastname@example.org or hit us up on Twitter @throughlineNPR.
ABDELFATAH: Thanks for listening.