Nothing Ever Dies by Viet Thanh Nguyen
“The most succinct explanation I’ve found about the meaning of the war, at least for Americans,” Nguyen writes, “comes from Martin Luther King Jr.: ‘If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read “Vietnam.”’ King then expressed concern that we’d have an endless series of wars unless we looked seriously into the reasons for the last or current one. This is the most important reason for Americans to remember what they call the Vietnam War, the fact that it was one conflict in a long line of horrific wars that came before it and after it.
For King, ‘the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together.’ The Vietnam War took place not only over there but also over here, because a war isn’t just about the shooting, but about the people who make and deliver and pay for the bullets. Though King refers to America, he may as well be gesturing to Vietnam, both revolutionary countries that haven’t lived up to their revolutions. For those of us who consider ourselves to be inheritors of one or both of these revolutions, or who’ve been influenced by them in some way, we have to know how we make memories and how we forget them so that we can beat their hearts back to life. That’s the project, or at least the hope, of this book.”
Nguyen goes on, “This is a book on war, memory, and identity. It proceeds from the idea that all wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory. The pairing of war and memory is commonplace after the disasters of the 20th century, with tens of millions of dead crying out for commemoration, consecration, and even, if one believes in ghosts, consolation. The problem of war and memory is therefore first and foremost about how to remember the dead, who can’t speak for themselves.
How do we remember the nation and the people for whom the dead supposedly died? And how do we remember war itself, both war in general and the particular war that has shaped us? The problem of how to remember war is central to the identity of the nation, itself almost always founded on the violent conquest of territory and the subjugation of people. The battles that shaped the nation are most often remembered by the citizenry as defending the country, usually in the service of peace, justice, freedom, or other noble ideas. Dressed in this way, the wars of the past justify the wars of the present for which the citizen is willing to fight or at least pay taxes, wave flags, cast votes, and carry forth all the duties and rituals that affirm her or his identity as one with the nation.
Wars are as complex as individuals, but are remembered by names that tell us little. The Philippine-American War implies symmetry between two nations, yet it was Americans who seized the Philippines and instigated the carnage. The Korean War implies a conflict between Koreans, when China and the United States did most of the fighting. In the case of the Vietnam War, Americans invented the name – Vietnamese call it the American War, absolving themselves of what they did to one another and how they extended the war westwards into Cambodia and Laos. The North Vietnamese sent troops and materiel through Cambodia and Laos, and the U.S. bombing of these efforts, as well as the civil wars that flared up in both countries, killed approximately 400,000 in Laos and 700,000 in Cambodia. If we count what happened in a bomb-wrecked, politically destabilized Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge regime of 1975–1979, a postscript to the war, the number of dead would be an additional two million, or close to one-third of the population, although some estimates say the count was only 1.7 million, a quarter of the population. The body count in Vietnam for all sides was three million, a tenth of the population, while the American dead amounted to 0.035% of the U.S. population.
A call for war is usually accompanied by a demand that the citizenry remember a limited sense of identity and a narrow sense of the collective that extends only to family, tribe, and nation. Those against war call for a broader human identity, hoping that such expansiveness will reduce the chances of conflict. Those who resist war also call for remembering enemies and victims, the weak and the forgotten, the marginalized and the minor, the women and the children, the environment and the animals, all of whom suffer during war and most of whom are usually forgotten in nationalist memories of war.
Art is the artifact of the imagination, and the imagination is the best manifestation of immortality possessed by the human species, a collective tablet recording both human and inhuman deeds and desires. The powerful fear art’s potentially enduring quality and its influence on memory, and thus they seek to dismiss, co-opt, or suppress it. In this book I examine a spectrum of artistic work on war and memory, from those who endorse the values of the powerful to those who seek to subvert them. Even given how many artists are complicit with power, I remain optimistic that in the centuries yet to come, what people will remember of the Vietnam or any other war will most likely be a handful of outstanding works of art that resist power and war, as well as a history book or two.
Both memory and forgetting are subject not only to the fabrications of art, but also to the commodification of industry, which seeks to capture and domesticate art. An entire memory industry exists, ready to capitalize on history. Thus, memory amateurs fashion souvenirs and memorabilia; nostalgic hobbyists dress up in period costume and reenact battles; tourists visit battlefields, historical sites, and museums; and television channels air documentaries.
The Pentagon’s war of attrition in Vietnam was matched by Hollywood’s ‘Apocalypse Now’’s celluloid campaign to refight the war on global movie screens. The American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have begun to receive the same propagandistic treatment in films like ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ and ‘American Sniper.’ ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ views CIA torture and the killing of Osama Bin Laden through the eyes of a CIA agent, encouraging the viewer to empathize with the CIA, while ‘American Sniper’ is about a soldier who killed 160 Iraqis, an experience seen not only through his eyes but through the scope of his rifle. No matter the horrors that Americans may see on their screens – the beheadings, the suicide bombings, the mass executions, the waves of refugees, the drone’s eye view of war – viewers who aren’t physically present at these events are anesthetized into resignation and watching the news as an awful form of entertainment. This is the ‘society of the spectacle’ of which theorist Guy Debord spoke, a society in which all horror is revealed and nothing is done on the part of the average citizen to resist it. If we look at a spectacular war movie such as ‘American Sniper’ in isolation, it appears to be part of a memory industry, but if we look at it as part of Hollywood, and Hollywood as a component of the military-industrial complex, we see that the ultimate goal of this industry is to reproduce power and inequality, as well as to fulfill the needs of the war machine.
Everyone participates in the production of memory, though not equally. One sign of this inequality is that while the United States lost the real war, it won the memory war on most of the world’s cultural fronts outside of Vietnam, dominating as it does moviemaking, book publishing, fine art, and the production of historical archives.
English-language products are more accessible than Vietnamese ones, or at least much more likely to be translated, while American memories are varnished with a kind of coolness that Vietnamese memories don’t yet possess. Even Korean memories of the war – South Korea having been America’s most important ally – travel more fluidly on the international circuitry of commodification and desirability. Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia are much weaker powers, and as a result, their memories usually have, at best, local and national distribution and impact.
Acts of the imagination, the creation of memory works, and the entire artistic enterprise are crucial to just memory, but it can never be fulfilled solely through them, since art and ethical work without power are never enough to effect change. Just memory will only be possible when the weak, the poor, the marginalized, the different, and the demonized, or their advocates, can influence or even seize the industries of memory.
Whatever may be noble and heroic in war is found in us, and whatever is evil and horrific in war is in us too. A just memory demands that we recognize and see how the inhuman inhabits the human in each of us. Civilizations are built on forgotten barbarism toward others.
Beautiful, quiet war cemeteries mask the certainty, recorded in photographs, that these dead died in heaps, in fragments, in piles, in pieces, their limbs bent at impossible angles and their muddy clothes sometimes ripped from their bodies by the velocity of the manmade force that took their lives. We usually remember our own war dead as noble, virtuous, suffering, and sacrificial. If and when we can acknowledge they committed acts that can’t be reconciled with law and morality, we may excuse those acts and their agents by blaming extenuating circumstances, such as the stress of combat or the enemy acting immorally first. We continue to think of those from our side as human, demanding understanding and empathy as people endowed with complexities of feeling, experience, and perspective. Those of the other side, our enemies, or at least those unfriendly or alien to us, tend to lack those complexities.
Still, some works of art are more critical. Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War was a landmark novel that expressed for the first time how the noble war to liberate the fatherland was oftentimes horrific for the soldiers who fought in it. The novel begins in the months following the end of the war, with a team searching for the missing and the dead. Kien, the soldier at the novel’s center and the sole survivor of his platoon, vividly remembers the men and women he killed as well as his dead comrades. Still, he might have been able to bear these horrors but for the gangrenous disillusionment of the postwar years. ‘This kind of peace?’ says the driver of the truck bearing the dead. ‘People have unmasked themselves and revealed their true, horrible selves. So much blood, so many lives were sacrificed – for what?’ This is the universal question of the disillusioned soldier. In an effort to make sense of death and disillusionment, of being surrounded by the dead, Kien becomes a writer. He’s intent on imposing a plot on the past, ‘but relentlessly, his pen disobeyed him. Each page revived one story of death after another and gradually the stories swirled back deep into the primitive jungles of war, quietly re-stoking his horrible furnace of war memories.’ Gusts of images swirl from this furnace until they settle near the novel’s end, leaving him with two traumatic memories. The first is the fate of Hoa, a female guide who led his men toward the safety of Cambodia. When American troops hunt them, she stays behind as a decoy, killing their tracker dog. After they capture her, the Americans, black and white, take turns raping her. Kien watches from a distance, too afraid to save her. Remembering this horrible scene provokes Kien into recalling another scene that came before it. In the earlier event, a teenage Kien sets off to war, accompanied on the train by his beautiful girlfriend Phuong. He’s so devoted to her that he cannot bring himself to make love to her, despite her repeated invitations. On the train, however, he can’t protect her from fellow soldiers intent on gang-raping her. It was from that moment, when Phuong was violently taken from him, that the bloodshed truly began and his life entered into bloody suffering and failure.’ The novel traces Kien’s journey into the past, where war and love’s paper-thin abstractions are fed into memory’s hot furnace, the ashes revealing how the heady ideals of romance, purity, and patriotism devolve into rape, slaughter, and trauma. The war and the Communist Party may be condemned in the pages of this novel, but not the young people and true patriots who sacrificed themselves. Both an idealist in looking back and a cynic in looking at the present, Kien isn’t fit to live in a postwar society that only speaks about the glorious brightness of war. He, like many of the war’s survivors, men and women both, dwells in the crepuscular margins of melancholy, loss, and sorrow.
The greatest work of collective memory the defeated South Vietnamese have created isn’t a museum, memorial, or a work of fiction, but their archipelago of overseas communities, the largest and most famous of which is Little Saigon in Orange County, California. Little Saigon’s residents see it as the embodiment of the ‘American Dream in Vietnamese,’ where capitalism and free choice reign, a much belated strategic hamlet. On April 30th, the date of Saigon’s fall, which they call Black April, hundreds of veterans of the Republic of Vietnam’s military forces gather at the Vietnam War Monument in Freedom Park in Garden Grove, Orange County. A portable memorial showcases photographs of communist atrocities and ragged boat people. Commemorative wreaths decorate a shrine honoring dead soldiers. Speeches are given by local politicians and former generals and admirals, one of whom, during the memorial’s dedication in 2003, proclaimed the invasion of Iraq to be an extension of the Vietnam War. Once again, America was defending freedom, a claim with which no one disagreed. The national anthems of both the United States and the Republic of Vietnam play as honor guards march forth with the flags of both countries, parading before veterans displaying themselves in recreations of their old uniforms. The veterans are senior citizens, their supporters numbering in the several thousands at this dedication and in the several hundreds in subsequent years.
Vietnamese American culture, for better and for worse, foregrounds the adaptability of the Vietnamese and the promise of the American dream, albeit with some degree of ambivalence. American veterans have rebuffed the request of Vietnamese veterans to be included in their war memorials in places such as Kansas City, and no mention of Vietnamese veterans exists in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial of Washington, DC. Arlington National Cemetery would also presumably turn these veterans away if they asked to be buried there. This happened to another American ally, General Vang Pao, leader of the Hmong soldiers who fought for the CIA in Laos during the so-called Secret War. Good enough to die for American interests in vast numbers, good enough to lose their home to America’s enemies, these Hmong soldiers aren’t good enough to be buried alongside American soldiers.
Many things are seen at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, with the three most important being the names of the dead, the presence of others, and the reflection of oneself in the wall’s dark mirror. The names call forth to visitors, who themselves, as pilgrims and mourners, call on the names. This site, these names, and these visitors create a visible and sometimes audible communal experience of memory. Present in the black wall are redeemed American soldiers. Absent are the casualties who are easier to forget: the veterans who suffer from trauma, are homeless, or have committed suicide. Collectively, these postwar dead and wounded far outnumber the wartime deaths, but this nation, like other nations, has difficulty acknowledging them and their ills. Nations prefer that wars finish quickly, the wounds cauterized in memory through the conventionally understood ‘war story’ rather than remaining open and infected.
The wall’s power doesn’t come from its commitment to war and soldiers, but from its ambivalence about them. The black wall is a mirror, showing the figures and faces of visitors over the names of the dead, and a barrier separating the living from the dead. It foregrounds feelings of recognition, alienation, intimacy, and distance in its depiction of the relationship between the living and the dead. The dead belong to the living but are also irrevocably other. And yet that otherness – the mystery and terror of death – is one that will inevitably be shared by the living, who sense the otherness of their own inevitable mortality calling to them from behind the wall. What makes the wall powerful is its embodiment of remembering oneself as well as its evocation of otherness. Maya Lin’s reflections on the wall’s design suggest that the world around her and the memory of being both oneself and other shaped her aesthetic. ‘To some, I’m not really an American,’ she writes, reflecting on her childhood in the American Midwest and the controversy around her selection. Lin was a college student when she won the competition for the design of the memorial, and some viewed her selection as an affront. They couldn’t understand how a woman, a youth, and a Chinese American could design a memorial for men, soldiers, and Americans. The ‘feeling of being other has profoundly shaped my way of looking at the world as if from a distance, a third-person observer,’ Lin writes.” Nguyen reminds us that this “double consciousness” is a common, perhaps universal experience for racial minorities in America, first noted in W. E. B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk (1903).
“While minorities may experience double consciousness regularly, even daily, the power of the black wall is that it conveys that sense to individuals who aren’t used to experiencing it. Visitors experience the double consciousness of seeing themselves and being seen by the dead, a moment of double consciousness reconciled for many by the commemorative, nationalist calls delivered by presidents, soldiers, and veterans around the wall.”
Nguyen goes on to the subject of “remembering others,” those on the other side, or somehow bucking the official version of events, as Vietnamese author Duong Thu Huong, “war veteran and one time member of the Communist Party,” did in her fiction. In The Paradise of the Blind, “she examined the land reforms of the 1950s, when the party sought to redistribute land from landowners to peasants and encouraged peasants to denounce landowners. The excesses led to the execution of even minor landowners and innocent peasants, targeted by their fellow peasants and zealous cadres. Thousands died and Ho Chi Minh apologized. Duong’s denunciation of the party grew more strident and more contemporary in Novel without a Name, in which she calls the party cadres of the postwar years ‘little yellow despots.’ The novel is also notable for its evocation of Vietnam’s imperialist history, its long march south to escape Chinese influence and to occupy the lands of numerous tribes and nations, including Cambodians and Cham. The hero of the novel visits the land of the Cham and dreams of his ancestor who fled from the barbarians from the north and bore arms against those who lived in the south. It was an unending circle of crimes…history is enmired in crime.’ The party denounced Duong, censored her, and placed her under house arrest for committing the crime of remembering those whom the party considered to be others and exposing the crimes committed by people of her own side. But while the party considered her a traitor, Western publishers and readers considered her to be a dissident who spoke for justice, a heroic author who couldn’t be contained by communism’s provincial ideology. Banned at home, her novels were published abroad, for the West likes to translate the enemies of its enemies.
We are never without identity and never without ideology, whether we like it or not, whether we acknowledge it or not.
My realization of my racialization arrived early in my adolescence, through jarring encounters with fictions, other people’s memories. At much too young an age, my preteen self read Larry Heinemann’s Close Quarters (1977) and watched Apocalypse Now (1979). I have never forgotten the scene in Close Quarters where American soldiers gang rape a toothless Vietnamese prostitute, holding a gun to her head and giving her the choice of either blowing them all or being blown away. Or the moment in Apocalypse Now when American sailors massacre a sampan full of civilians, the coup de grace delivered by Captain Willard when he executes the sole survivor – also a woman, since the Vietnamese woman is the ultimate gook, different from the American soldier through 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. These accounts of rape and murder were only stories by an author and artist intent on showing, without compromise, the horror of war, but fictional stories are experiences as valid as historical ones, and they can obliterate as much as weapons can.
To be forgotten or to be disremembered – these are the choices left to the southeast Asians of the former Indochina in the discourse of the gook, as well as any other Asians unfortunate enough to be mistaken for such a creature. If Maya Lin’s body is invisible in the war memorial she created, so are all the bodies like it, those of southeast Asians whose names are nowhere to be found in it. The Vietnamese are conspicuously absent in their roles as collaborators, victims, enemies, or simply the people on whose land and over whom 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. The memorial shows that remembering can be a form of forgetting, a mnemonic sleight of hand that in this case substitutes 58,000 American soldiers for three million Vietnamese. As the photographer Philip Jones Griffiths observes, ‘Everyone should know one simple statistic: the Washington, D.C., memorial to the American war dead is 150 yards long; if a similar monument were built with the same density of names of the Vietnamese who died, it would be nine miles long.’ But it isn’t only the Vietnamese who are invisible, forgettable, and unrecognized.
Southeast Asians from Cambodia and Laos haven’t forgotten their living and their dead, as the poet Mai Neng Moua shows in her poem ‘D.C.’ Moua asks for recognition and acknowledgment of the Hmong soldier as a Vietnam veteran, just as South Vietnamese soldiers in the United States have done. How can we recall the past in a way that does justice to the forgotten, the excluded, the oppressed, the dead, the ghosts? In his monumental Memory, History, Forgetting, Paul Ricoeur argues that justice is a virtue always ‘turned toward others…The duty of memory is the duty to do justice, through memories, to an other than the self.’ And: ‘moral priority belongs to the victims…The victim at issue here is the other victim, other than ourselves.’ In short, justice always resides with remembering the other. Ricoeur’s approach to memory is powerful and persuasive, at least for anyone invested in resistance against forgetting or the demands of subordinated people for justice. In a similar vein, critic Paul Gilroy calls for a ‘principled exposure to the claims of otherness.’ Gilroy, like Ricoeur and myself, advocates for the idea that victims shouldn’t be the only ones responsible for remembering and telling their stories, if only because that would encourage them to see themselves only in terms of victimization.
An ethics of recalling others is defined, paradoxically, by acknowledging that those we consider to be others are neither other nor ideal. As something is always being forgotten and strangers are always appearing, this mode of remembering others is a perpetual motion machine, oriented toward inclusion and reconciliation.
Recognition is intimately tied to memory. We remember those we recognize, and we recognize those we remember. Calls for remembering one’s own and remembering others are based on the urge to think of one’s own as human, and then, ultimately, to think of others as human, too. But even as tolerant, humanistic societies have called for equality and human rights, they’ve never found a shortage of inhuman others to justify war and violence. Identifying with the human and denying one’s inhumanity, and the inhumanity of one’s own, circulates through nationalism, capitalism, and racism, as well as through the humanities. Reminding ourselves that being human also means being inhuman is important because it’s so easy to forget our inhumanity or to displace it onto other humans. If we don’t recognize our capacity to victimize, then it would be difficult for us to prevent the victimization carried out on our behalf, or which we do ourselves. Likewise, the slogans to always remember and never forget, while seemingly inarguable on the surface, are sometimes, even often, tainted by piousness, sentimentality, or hypocrisy. When we say always remember and never forget, we usually mean to always remember and never forget what was done to us or to our friends and allies. Of the terrible things that we’ve done or condoned, the less said and the less remembered the better.
An ethics of recognition says that the other is both human and inhuman, as are we. When we recognize our capacity to do harm, we can reconcile with others who we feel have hurt us. This ethics of recognition might be more of an antidote to war and conflict than remembering others, for if we recognize that we can do damage, then perhaps we would go to war less readily and be more open to reconciliation in its aftermath. Refusing to recognize our capacity to inflict damage doesn’t preclude reconciliation with those who might have injured us, but it does encourage us to seek concessions and confessions from these others, who may want the same from us.
The way the global antiwar movement usually saw the Vietnamese – and often still does – is an archetypal case of treating the other as victim and the victim as other, freezing them in perpetual suffering and noble heroism. Thus the antiwar movement elevated Ho Chi Minh to iconic status, waved the flag of the National Liberation Front, praised the communist Vietnamese as heroic revolutionaries defying American imperialism, accepted communist propaganda that the South Vietnamese were traitors or puppets, and was mostly blind to the Stalinist direction of the Vietnamese Communist Party. Seeing the other only as a victim treats the other as an object of sympathy or pity, to be idealized or patronized. Existing as the object of or excuse for one’s theory or outrage, the other remains, at worst, unworthy of study, and, at best, beyond criticism.
To be a subject, rather than to be an other, means that one can be guilty, and such guilt can be and should be examined as fully as Western guilt. The kind of antiwar sentiment that keeps others in their (innocent) place also manages to keep the (guilty) West’s upper hand above the (pitiful) rest. This maneuver toward continued superiority, through being able to feel guilt, and made the center of attention, is staged through Western dramas of self-flagellation. Thus, much of the American artistic and cultural work about the Vietnam War, even as it engages in anti-American criticism, places Americans firmly and crudely at the story’s center. Exhibit one: Brian de Palma’s film, Casualties of War, which depicts the true story of American soldiers who kidnap, gang rape, and murder a young Vietnamese woman. The result, cinematically, is a horrific rendition of victimization, in which both the soldiers and de Palma brutalize the Vietnamese woman and silence her for good. He would go on to make Redacted, also based on a true story about American soldiers in Iraq who kidnap, gang rape, and kill an Iraqi girl. The movie not only repeats the graphic victimization, but also implies that the war in Iraq repeats the war in Vietnam. In both movies, the victim elicits pity and sympathy, but is silenced. Her lack of a voice allows Americans to talk on her behalf. She and others like her are transformed into perpetual victims interchangeable with their traumas, visible to Americans only when they stimulate American guilt. As victims, or as villains and revolutionary heroes, these others are never granted full subjectivity by the West,
To deal with actual others, we’d have to confront their lives, their cultures, their particularities, their names, and so on. In doing so, we’d see that they are, like ourselves, self-interested and susceptible to the messages of their societies, cultures, industries, states, and war machines. Man is ever and always implicated in power – no one is innocent except the infant and the most abject victim. Power must be used; the only question is whether it will be used ethically. Rather than retreat from our implication in power, we should consider exercising power as a necessary action in need of ethical principles that look beyond the idealizations of heroes and villains, good and bad, and us and them.
The Khmer Rouge regime led to the death, through murder, starvation, and illness, of approximately 1.7 million Cambodians out of a population of about 7 million. During this time, the Khmer Rouge created the faceless Angkar, or Organization, that ruled all of Cambodian society, mandating uniform haircuts and clothing, eliminating family relations and human affections, and transforming the entire population into a compulsory labor force. Khmer Rouge policies were retribution against the ‘new people,’ a population embodying Western influence and class inequality, in contrast to the ‘base people,’ the peasantry. Only the deaf, the dumb, and the mute would survive, becoming faceless parts of a revolutionary society, a utopia that would erase the unequal past and begin anew from Year Zero. This was the drive for totality of which philosopher Emmanuel Levinas speaks, the impulse to subsume everything, all difference, all others, into the same. Colonialism was also an expression of this drive for totality. What the French did to the Khmer foreshadowed the extermination that the Khmer would do to themselves.
The United Nations refuses to use genocide to describe what happened to the Cambodian people, reasoning that it was Khmer killing Khmer in most instances, while a genocide is one ethnic group singling out another. Rithy Panh refuses this bureaucratic interpretation when he, along with cowriter Christophe Bataille, says that ‘the invention of a group within a larger group, of a group of human beings considered different, dangerous, toxic, suitable for destruction – is that not the very definition of genocide?’ Panh calls this culling ‘the elimination,’ the title of his powerful, spare, unsentimental memoir of having survived the genocide as a teenager and ultimately confronting the only Khmer Rouge official convicted at that time of crimes against humanity, the commandant of S-21, Duch. The Elimination is a meditation on the effects of the genocide and the psychology of the perpetrators, represented by Duch, who allows Panh to interview him repeatedly, face to face. Duch tries to impress on Panh that he, too, would have done the same, an implication that Panh refuses. Panh tries to convince Duch that he must take responsibility for his actions.”
According to Wikipedia, “Kang Kek Iew, nom de guerre Comrade Duch, born November 17, 1942, is a prisoner, war criminal and former leader in the Khmer Rouge movement, which ruled Democratic Kampuchea from 1975 to 1979. As the head of the government’s internal security branch, he oversaw the Tuol Sleng (S-21) prison camp where thousands were held for interrogation and torture. (S-21, in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, is now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Tuol Sleng was just one of at least 150 execution centers established by the Khmer Rouge. According to Ben Kiernan, ‘all but seven of the 20,000 Tuol Sleng prisoners’ were executed.) The first Khmer Rouge leader to be tried by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, Duch was convicted of crimes against humanity, murder, and torture and sentenced to 30 years’ imprisonment. On February 2, 2012, his sentence was extended to life imprisonment by the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.”
Nguyen writes: “Duch is both human, and someone outside the human community who can only reclaim his humanity through acknowledging what he’s done. Panh doesn’t urge this recognition only at the level of the individual, reminding us that Duch is also the face of the regime. He’s a unique perpetrator, and perhaps victim, but the catalog of horrors he oversaw, exceeding anything dreamed up by Hollywood, are an outcome of history and the species. Since the crimes committed by Democratic Kampuchea, and the intention behind them, were incontrovertibly human, they involved man in his universality, man in his entirety, man in history and in politics. No one can consider these crimes as a geographical peculiarity or historical oddity; on the contrary, the 20th century reached its fulfillment in that place. Panh hesitates on whether the genocide is the culmination of Western thinking, but not on demanding that we see how ‘the history of Cambodia is in the deepest sense our history, human history.’ The genocide was an expression of inhumanity – and therefore of humanity – like a number of horrific events before and since, as universal, in its abomination, as great art is in its beauty. ‘I believe in the universality of the Khmer Rouge’s crime,’ Panh says, ‘just as the Khmer Rouge believed in the universality of their utopia.’ Confronting this universality of the genocide and the simultaneous inhumanity and humanity of Duch, the Everyman of the Khmer Rouge, Panh doesn’t allow himself either retribution or resignation.
He creates art, his feature film The Missing Picture, to address Duch, the genocide, and his personal experience of survival and witnessing most of his family die from starvation and illness. In an unexpected gesture, Panh recreates the world of the Khmer Rouge era through the use of hand-carved figurines that stand in for himself and the people of whom he talks. The aesthetic decision is as persuasive and satisfying as Art Spiegelman’s turn to comics in Maus for addressing the Holocaust. He drew Nazis as cats and Jews as mice, and Panh, facing an equally incomprehensible death world, turned to inhuman figurines as a way to approach inhumanity. The immobilized faces of these figurines, carved by the artist Mang Satire, achieve an expressive, emotional transfiguration when fused with the film’s music, narration, and miniature mise-en-scènes, diorama-like recreations of the labor camps, fields, huts, and hospital where Panh’s family worked and died from starvation and illness. Artistic efforts such as Panh’s and Mang’s are the opposite of resignation, and they are not retributions. Instead, these artists seek to return to the scene of the crime in an effort to understand it. The Elimination and The Missing Picture are two of the finest works of art and memory to deal with the genocide, powerful partly because they abolish the sentimentality, the aesthetic weaknesses, and the fear of assigning responsibility to Western countries that limit so many works from other Cambodians. Panh confronts the difficult possibility that after thirty years, the Khmer Rouge remain victorious: the dead are dead; they’ve been erased from the face of the earth. His work doesn’t raise the dead, bring us rest, or mellow us. But it gives us back our humanity, our intelligence, our history. Sometime it even ennobles us. It makes us alive.
As he works to remember, Panh is concerned with ‘the faces of the torturers. Obviously I’ve met a number of them. Sometimes they laugh. Sometimes they’re arrogant. Sometimes they’re agitated. Often they seem insensible. Stubborn. Yes, torturers can be sad too.’ In his documentary S-21, Panh meets several of the prison’s guards and torturers and persuades them to recreate and repeat their daily actions, their acts of interrogation and torture, grown men recalling their lives as teenagers. From Panh’s point of view, these men are others, living embodiments of a mystery he seeks to understand – how did this genocide happen? How did people do this? Why is no one held responsible? These questions also interest filmmaker Socheata Poeuv. In her documentary New Year Baby, she brings her father from America back to Cambodia and surprises him by arranging a meeting with a former Khmer Rouge cadre. Her father, a survivor of the era, hates the Khmer Rouge and doesn’t want to meet the cadre, but Poeuv says, ‘I want to see his face.’ Like many others, ‘I didn’t understand how a whole country could suffer through this and not demand justice.’ But in a country divided into new people and base people, in which many were the active agents of death but many more were silent witnesses and complicit spectators who did nothing in order to survive, is it a surprise how difficult it is to achieve justice? Who’s responsible? While the United Nations and the Cambodian government are jointly involved in prosecuting the five highest-ranking Khmer Rouge leaders (of whom Duch, the lowest-ranking, was the first convicted), the legal effort to bring justice is at best symbolic, since thousands of real murderers won’t be prosecuted, and hundreds of thousands of complicit Khmer won’t be touched or named. Like some of the Khmer Rouge who have, more or less, confessed, Duch admits to certain actions, but deflects his responsibility by pointing to a force beyond him: Angkar, the Organization, whose faceless presence so terrified the victims of the Khmer Rouge. The Organization spoke through its cadres, but it was unclear to almost everyone, including most of the cadres, who the Organization was. To Cambodians, it seemed to be power itself, separated from any individual man?
The rest of the world looks with horror at Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge and wonders how the genocide happened, when the reality is that it could have happened anywhere with the right inhuman conditions. To speak of Cambodians in this way isn’t to deny history or power: the responsibility of the French in colonizing Cambodia, the Americans in bombing the country, the North Vietnamese in extending their war through the country, or the Chinese in supporting the Khmer Rouge even with knowledge of their atrocities. To speak of Cambodians as bearing widespread responsibility for the genocide doesn’t mean that they’re culturally unique in their ability to commit murder or allow it to happen. Panh points out that the Cambodian peasants invoked by the Khmer Rouge as the reason for their cause – peasants exploited by French colonization and Cambodian hierarchy, then bombed by American planes – are still poor. If they weren’t on the side of justice during the Khmer Rouge era, they’re also people for whom justice has not been done in the years afterward. Their situation is absurd, horrible, a low-level and continuous crime that’s lasted centuries.
The crimes recorded by these memorials weren’t committed by monsters and enemies of the state. They were committed by humans whose deeds would have been lionized if their state and side had triumphed. The Khmer Rouge believed they were on the side of justice, just as radical Islamists and Western states do today.
In the ethics of remembering one’s own, the simplest and most explicitly conservative mode, we remember our humanity and the inhumanity of others, while forgetting our inhumanity and the humanity of others. This is the ethical mode most conducive to war, patriotism, and jingoism, as it reduces our others to the flattest of enemies. The more complex ethics of remembering others operates in two registers – the liberal one where we remember our humanity and the radical one where we remember our inhumanity. In both registers, we remember the humanity of others and forget their inhumanity. The liberal register where we remember our humanity is also conducive to war, thoug usually carried out in humanitarian guises, as rescue operations for the good other (which may require us killing, with great regret, the bad other). The more radical version, where we remember our inhumanity, is the driving force behind antiwar feeling, as we worry about the terrible things we can do. And yet there is a level of deception in this radical register, too, for if we also see only the humanity of others, and not their inhumanity, we’re not seeing them in the same way we see ourselves.
To avoid simplifying the other, the ethics of recognition demands that we remember our humanity and inhumanity, and that we remember the humanity and inhumanity of others as well. As for what this ethics of recognition asks us to forget, it’s the idea that anyone or any nation or people has a unique claim to humanity, to suffering, to pain, to being the exceptional victim, a claim that almost certainly will lead us down a road to further vengeance enacted in the name of that victim. The fact of the matter is that however many millions may have died during our particular tragedy, millions more have died in other no less tragic events. Rithy Panh’s memoir and films foreground this ethics of recognition and make a daring claim: Cambodia belongs in the center of world history because of the humanity and the inhumanity of the Khmer. This is an important claim for two reasons. The first and most obvious reason is simply that it moves Cambodia and the Khmer people from margin to center. The more important reason is the assertion of inhumanity, for the other’s move from margin to center in Western discourse is most often premised on asserting the other’s humanity. By rejecting this sentimental, heartwarming reasoning, Panh’s work affirms the importance, and the difficulty, of grappling with inhumanity, both the inhumanity of the West and the inhumanity of its others (which is to say, from the perspectives of those others, us).
For artists, looking, remembering, and creating art are ways of recognizing the ambiguities of the human and inhuman. As Panh says toward the end of The Missing Picture, ‘There are many things that man shouldn’t see or know. Should he see them, he’d be better off dying. But should any of us see or know these things, we must live to tell of them…I make this picture. I look at it. I cherish it. I hold it in my hand like a beloved face. This is the picture I now hand over to you, so that it never ceases to seek us out.’
Sometimes there are intimate legacies bequeathed to us by families and friends who saw the war firsthand; other times, these memories are Hollywood fantasies, the archetype being Apocalypse Now, a modern-day Grimm’s fairy tale where napalm lights the dark forest. Many Americans, and people the world over, assume they know something of Vietnam from watching movies like this. For having paid the price of a movie ticket, they, too, can say, as Michael Herr did, ‘Vietnam, we’ve all been there.’ I think this is true even for those with only the faintest of secondhand memories. They’ve been to Vietnam in the sense that they’ve seen it burn on screen and in photos, since the war is the most chronicled, documented, reported, filmed, taped, and in all likelihood narrated war in history. People like my students are accustomed to seeing a burning monk on an album cover or an iconic photo from the war on a rock star’s wall. The camera of the show MTV Cribs dwells on the photo, blown up to cover the entire wall, as the rock star describes the scene. ‘This is a famous image from Life magazine. It’s a guy getting shot in the head. I put this here as a reminder of human suffering. I think when I see this every day, I kind of gain some gratitude for where my life is at.’
Our most vivid screen memories from Vietnam are: Phan Thi Kim Phuc, the naked, napalmed girl running down a road in Nick Ut’s 1972 photograph; Thich Quang Duc, the Buddhist monk immolating himself on a Saigon street corner in 1963 to protest President Ngo Dinh Diem’s treatment of Buddhists; and the picture on the rock star’s wall of Colonel Nguyen Ngoc Loan shooting Viet Cong suspect Nguyen Van Lem in the head during the Tet Offensive of 1968. These images are evidence not only of Vietnamese suffering, but of the power of the entire apparatus that delivers the images to us: the photographer, his equipment, the bureau that pays him, the machines that airlift his film from outside the war zone, etc. The suffering of these individuals is forever fixed, overshadowing or eradicating memories of other victims of this war. North Vietnamese photographers lived in the jungles, hoarded handfuls of film rolls, and dispatched their negatives over treacherous land routes to Hanoi via messengers who were often killed by bombardment. These circumstances limited what North Vietnamese eyes saw and limited the kinds of Vietnamese that the world recognized.
At best, a memory industry calls forth the professionalization of memory through the creation of museums, archives, festivals, documentaries, history channels, interviews, and so on. But the work that memory industries do is only part of an industry of memory. To mistake memory as just a commodity for sale, or information to be transmitted by experts, would be like considering a gun and its manufacturer, or a surveillance system and its designers, to be simply products of an arms industry. Arms industries are only the most visible parts of a war machine. In war machines, the bristling armaments are on display, but more important are the ideas, ideologies, fantasies, and words that justify war, the sacrifices of our side, and the death of others. Likewise, an industry of memory includes the material and ideological forces that determine how and why memories are produced and circulated, and who has access to, and control of, the memory industries.
The world pays attention to the feelings of the wealthy and the powerful, because the wealthy and the powerful make decisions that powerfully affect others. The feelings of the poor and the weak are much less visible. So it is with memory and an industry of memory, where the memories of the wealthy and the powerful exert more influence because they own the means of production. The blast radius of memory, like the blast radius of weaponry, is determined by industrial power, even if individual will shapes the act of memory itself. So while Thich Quang Duc showed indomitable belief and discipline while fire and smoke consumed his body, the global fallout of his act occurred because Western media seized on it. People have immolated themselves since then, during the war and after, in the country and outside of it, even in America, but those self-sacrifices didn’t achieve the same visibility. Those who speak up for themselves and others don’t determine the volume of their voice. Those who control the industry of memory, who allow them to speak, set that volume. Struggles for memory are thus inextricable from other struggles for voice, control, power, self-determination, and meanings.
Countries with massive war machines can not only inflict more damage on weaker countries, they can also justify that damage to the world. How America remembers this war and memory is to some extent how the world remembers it. By far the most powerful of its kind, the American industry of memory is on par with the American arms industry, just as Hollywood is the equal of the American armed forces.
In Michael Cimino’s 1978 film The Deer Hunter, Viet Cong torturers force American prisoners of war to play Russian roulette. Although no historical basis existed for the scene in which actor Christopher Walken presses the barrel of a .38 against his head, evoking one of the pictures mentioned above, there might have been an historical inspiration. Evokes and yet erases, for instead of Vietnamese shooting Vietnamese, the movie centers on an American about to shoot himself. Americans love to imagine the war as a conflict not between Americans and Vietnamese, but between Americans fighting a war for their nation’s soul. Russian roulette makes the solipsistic revision of the war a literal one, substituting American pain for Vietnamese pain.
The American tourist visiting the War Remnants Museum in Saigon is greeted by an exhibit titled ‘Aggression War Crimes.’ Most Americans believe it to be categorically impossible for an American to commit a war crime. But the museum primarily features the war crimes of Americans: massacres, torture, desecration of corpses, and the human effects of Agent Orange, captured in black-and-white photos by Western photographers during the war. Suddenly the American tourist becomes a semiotician, aware of how photographs don’t simply capture the truth, but are framed by their framers. When forced to look at these atrocities, a fairly typical American response is say we didn’t do this, or they did this too. This is the shock of misrecognition, seeing one’s reflection in a cracked mirror and confronting one’s disordered self. Recognition is more likely for American tourists who visit Son My, remembered by Americans as My Lai. The village is located many hundreds of miles north from Saigon and is so distant from the easiest tourist route on Highway 1A, that only the particularly knowledgeable and curious American tourists will visit. A museum is built on the remnants of the village, where trails of footprints in the cement pathways evoke the ghosts of absent villagers. American troops killed more than five hundred of them. Americans who make this pilgrimage to Son My already know of the massacre, and rather than being average tourists are more likely mourners come to pay respect. In these and other postwar American encounters with Vietnamese memories in Vietnam, Americans no longer have the comfort of sitting inside their war machine, protected from the recoil of its weaponry by a suspension system of ideology and fantasy. In the Vietnamese landscape, as tourists, they are disremembered others: murderers, invaders, villains, and ‘air pirates.’
Not used to being disremembered, many Americans feel that the entire war and their identities can’t be reduced to the atrocities commemorated all over the Vietnamese landscape. They regard the War Remnants Museum and the violent diorama at Son My as propaganda, which they certainly are. But these Americans are wrong in denying the truths found in propaganda, specifically that American soldiers committed atrocities in Vietnam and that the rest of America never fully grappled with its complicity in them. The war wasn’t one in which ‘the destruction was mutual,’ as President Jimmy Carter claimed and as many Americans of all political backgrounds want to believe. It’s ethical and just to confront the numbers, and the following realities: no massacres committed on American soil, no bombs dropped on American cities, no Americans forced to become sex workers, no Americans turned into refugees, and so on. It’s unethical and unjust to refuse to acknowledge these inequalities in the matters of death and damage, but it’s difficult to confront or acknowledge inequalities when the memories of these events are themselves unequal. Exposed only to their own memories, Americans who come across the memories of others often react with fury, denial, and countercharge. In this, they are not unique. Every nation’s people are accustomed to their own memories and will react the same way when confronted with other people’s memories.
Apocalypse Now depicts the conflation of sex and violence and conveys the lust for it to its viewer, the emblematic scene being the helicopter assault on a Viet Cong village, set to the soundtrack of ‘The Ride of the Valkyries.’ Director D. W. Griffiths also used this Wagnerian music in his Civil War and Reconstruction era epic ‘The Birth of a Nation,’ the score accompanying the Ku Klux Klan as they ride to rescue whites besieged by lascivious blacks. Perhaps Coppola was criticizing American culture by comparing American soldiers riding on helicopters to the Ku Klux Klan on their steeds, but the seductive power of his cinematic, airborne assault makes that critique hard to see. Vietnam war films are all pro-war, no matter what the supposed message, or what Kubrick or Coppola or Stone intended…Fight, rape, war, pillage, burn. Filmic images of death and carnage are pornography for the military man. It doesn’t matter how many Mr. and Mrs. Johnsons are antiwar – the actual killers who know to use the weapons are not. The supposedly anti-war films have failed. Now is my time to step into the newest combat zone. And as a young man raised on the films of the Vietnam War, I want ammunition and alcohol and dope. I want to screw some whores and kill some Iraqi motherfuckers. Politicians, generals, journalists, think tank wise men (and women) don’t deploy this language, but writers, artists, and filmmakers do. They recognize what can’t be said in polite company: war is pure sex, in addition to being politics by other means.
War movies are part of the war machinery, with the helicopter at the center of my war’s iconography. Material object and (sex) symbol, war machine and a star in the war machinery, bristling with machine guns and rocket pods, the helicopter gunship personifies America, both terrifying and seductive. The Vietnamese certainly recognized the helicopter’s symbolic star power and tried to counter it, most directly in the movie The Abandoned Field: Free Fire Zone, released in 1979, one year after Apocalypse Now. The screenwriter, Nguyen Quang Sang, survived American helicopter attacks and says they were ‘scarier than B-52 attacks because the bombers flew so high they couldn’t see you.’ Helicopter attacks were terrifying because they were so intimate, flying low enough that ‘I saw the face of the door gunner.’ The writer and former helicopter pilot Wayne Karlin imagined the situation in reverse after he met the Vietnamese writer Le Minh Khue, who had fought for the other side: ‘I pictured myself flying above the jungle canopy, transfixed with fear and hate and searching for her in order to shoot her, while she looked up, in hatred and fear also, searching for me.’
While the thought of such intimate violence sickens Karlin, Apocalypse Now revels in this proximity. The camera looks over the shoulder of a helicopter gunner through his gun sight, lined up on the back of a Vietnamese woman twenty or thirty feet below. ‘Look at those savages!’ says the pilot. Going into battle was venturing into ‘Indian country,’ an oft-repeated phrase among American soldiers that brought with it all the attendant sense of racial and technological superiority, as well as the mortal fear of being killed by savages. In Apocalypse Now, the Vietnamese woman targeted for death has just tossed a hand grenade into a helicopter. In The Abandoned Field, the Viet Cong heroine whose husband has been killed by an American helicopter shoots it down with an antique rifle, then walks away from the wreckage with gun in one hand and baby in the other. In these two films, it’s intentional that the most dangerous savage and the most heroic hero is a native woman. For a war machine exuding pure sex, she is the collective object of masculine desire, hatred and fear, especially for white men. People worldwide have watched Apocalypse Now and many accept its worldview, which isn’t merely that the other is a savage. The worldview is also that the self seeing the movie, as well as the self seeing the native in the crosshairs, is savage, and there isn’t much to be done about it, aside from giving in to the brutality or accepting that others do. So it is that the narrator of Apocalypse Now continues his fateful cruise up the river to confront his father figure, Kurtz, the white man who’s become king of the savages and who must be killed because he’s shown that the white man is no different than the savages. Of course, Apocalypse Now intends for the images of savages and Indians to be ironic, a knowing commentary on how the white man is also a brute. Such is the white man’s burden, turned into a monster himself as he attempts to save the savage from her savagery or kill her in the process. This ethical recognition of the white man’s inhumanity gives Apocalypse Now its kick as well as its controversy. Enduring works of memory like this movie force audiences to confront the simultaneity of inhumanity and humanity, rather than just one or the other.
Apocalypse Now deploys a limited ethical vision that offers insight into the white man’s heart of darkness, where he is both human and inhuman, but at the expense of keeping the other simply inhuman, as either savage threat or faceless victim. The
other remains other, despite acknowledging one’s own savagery. In Apocalypse Now the American knows he is a savage, but takes comfort in being at the center of his story, while the savage is only subject to the American story. The Vietnamese woman isn’t even a noble victim. This is the crucial difference between looking through the crosshairs or being caught in the crosshairs, being the first person shooter or being the person shot. The white man perfects the technology that depicts his imperfections and the technology that kills the savage in a spectacle to be enjoyed and regretted simultaneously. In the end, both the movie and the helicopter are more memorable to most of the world than the savages lined up in their sights.
Cinema has long collaborated with the war machine. Modern war depends on cinematic technology, and cinematic technology thrives on depicting war. The camera allows mobile vision, especially remotely and on high, which is better for artillery, missiles, smart bombs, surveillance planes, and now drones to see the enemy before killing them. Conversely, the camera records war, depicts war, and documents war’s damage. Whether as documentation or entertainment, cinema is critical in disremembering the enemy and remembering war.
Vietnam became a spectacle for Western audiences. Air America, released in 1990, is about two wild and crazy pilots for the CIA’s drug- and gun-smuggling airline, used to supply the Hmong army in Laos. Playing the loveable rogues are a handsome Mel Gibson and a young Robert Downey Jr. The airplane and the airline are the industrial symbols of America, and in the end, Air America – both airline and film – saves the Hmong rather than exploits them. The airplane is used not to smuggle guns and make illicit profits but to rescue Hmong refugees from Pathet Lao forces attacking their mountaintop base. As explosions and gunfire abound, Gibson and Downey argue over whether to abandon their cargo of contraband weaponry in order to make room for the Hmong. The Hmong say nothing, a crowd in the backdrop standing silent as bullets whiz by and their would-be saviors wrestle with their moral dilemma. In reality, the CIA air-rescued a few hundred of their Hmong allies from their Long Chieng mountain base in the waning days of the war and left thousands more behind. The gap between history and Hollywood is so vast it’s hardly necessary to belabor the point that Air America is naked propaganda clothed as entertainment, a silly atrocity about how Americans are neither quiet nor ugly, but decent and good, as well as good-looking.
Now the smart example: Gran Torino, a movie about the Hmong that expertly retouches history. This movie also adapts the mechanical motif of Air America, named as it is after an American muscle car and set in Detroit, aka Motor City, heart and soul of a waning industrial-era America. Clint Eastwood plays Walt, a gruff, terminally ill Korean War veteran unloved by his own family whose life changes after a Hmong family moves in next door. When the Hmong son tries to steal Walt’s Gran Torino with his gangster friends, Walt catches him and whips him into manly shape, in the process befriending the Hmong family. The boy forsakes his Hmong gang, the gangsters rape his sister as punishment, and Walt takes revenge by going to their lair and provoking them into shooting him dead. The movie enacts the basic ur-myth of European (and American) colonialism, as well as the foundational story of Hollywood: the legend of the white male savior. As the critic Gayatri Spivak put it, this is the tried-and-true epic of the white man saving the brown woman from the brown man (although red, black, or yellow can be substitute colors). But Gran Torino twists this epic, for the savior becomes a sacrificial figure. The old white man gives up his own life, but his fate is an example of what Yen Le Espiritu calls the ‘we win even when we lose’ syndrome that characterizes American memory of the war. Walt was already going to die, but now he dies quickly and heroically, bullet-riddled, on his back, his arms spread in crucifixion pose. When a Hmong American policeman arrives to restore order and arrest the gangsters, the moral and geopolitical allegories are clear: America has sacrificed itself to the bad Asians so that good Asians can live and prosper. More artful than Air America, more sympathetic to the Hmong by granting them speaking roles, Gran Torino is also the more dangerous film. A low-budget movie that became Eastwood’s biggest box-office success before his mega-hit American Sniper, it’s a small-tonnage smart bomb that hits its target.
Gran Torino illustrates the notion of writers Frank Chin and Jeffery Paul Chan that (white) America has ‘racist hate’ for uppity blacks and ‘racist love’ for docile Asians. Racist love is what Walt practices, following in a long tradition that includes Kurtz, the king of the natives, as well as his comic relief descendants in Air America. Flinging insults at people of every ethnicity, Walt exhibits a supposedly endearing and entertaining xenophobia. He may be a racist, but he’s an honest and paternal racist who loves his little friends so much he’ll die for them. Walt embodies white America at home and abroad, or at least the way it sees itself after the civil rights era. In this age, white Americans may or may not admit their racism, but they’ll insist that they defend the little guy, especially the poor and tired one from abroad. So it is that Walt wills his beloved Gran Torino not to his inattentive children and spoiled grandchildren but to the Hmong boy he’s taught to be a man.
This paternalistic American father figure who saves the southeast Asian child is a staple of American industrial memory. An early example is Samuel Fuller’s film China Gate (1957), which opens with a hungry Vietnamese man threatening the puppy of a Vietnamese boy. The boy eventually finds protection with an American serving in the French Foreign Legion, and the film’s final frame shows the American walking off with the boy he’s saved. John Wayne’s The Green Berets (1968) echoes this ending when the Duke puts a green beret on a little Vietnamese boy. When the boy asks what will happen to him, now that the soldier who’s worn the beret, his adoptive father figure, has been killed, the Duke tells him, ‘You let me worry about it, Green Beret. You’re what this is all about.’
While most of the Hmong refugees ended up in rural California and Wisconsin, in Gran Torino they arrive in Detroit, a city nearly dead from a heart attack induced by Japanese competition. This setting allows Gran Torino to sketch an outline of history that covers half a century of American involvement in Asia, beginning with Walt’s war experience in Korea, continuing through the allegory of the automobile to allude to Japan (whose industry was rebuilt from American bombing with American aid), and gesturing to southeast Asia with the Hmong. The movie isn’t really about the Hmong neighbors, for any Asian in need of help would have sufficed.
Shock and awe was born out of the lessons of my war for young American field officers, who ultimately saw the war’s strategy of attrition and its escalation of violence as futile. Immediate, overwhelming force was needed to win wars, a lesson these officers, who became generals, applied against Panama, Grenada, and Iraq. Cinema-like technologies filtered shock and awe for the American public and the world, the vividly detailed and highly censored 24–hour news feed that showed little of what happened to the enemy. As cinema conditioned audiences to see onscreen death and understand it as a simulation, so war now depended on audiences feeling that the death of others was neither real nor to be remembered. The industry of memory thus fulfilled its task of supporting the war machine by being its unofficial ministry of misinformation.
Three million Koreans died during the Korean War. Much of the country was laid waste by American bombing and by the fighting, and the war never officially ended. From the capitalist West’s perspective, contemporary South Korea is the success story of what capitalism can achieve. It may be hard to remember that ity was so devastated by the war that in the 1960s it was poorer than South Vietnam. When the United States offered to pay South Korea to use its army in South Vietnam, the impoverished nation agreed.
Before I learned of the forgotten Korean war in Vietnam, I knew of Korea through its remembered Korean War. As an adolescent, I read Martin Russ’s The Last Parallel and watched Rock Hudson starring in Battle Hymn and William Holden in The Bridges at Toko-Ri. Both actors played heroic Air Force pilots who helped save the country, the Air Force’s mass bombing of all of Korea was conveniently ignored.
The full presence of Korean immigrants in the United States would arrive for the American public in 1991, with the Los Angeles riots. Koreatown, located in the midst of largely black and Latino neighborhoods, was home to the largest Korean population outside of Korea. Unrest was provoked by two incidents: LA police officers beating a black man, their assault captured on video, and a Korean shopkeeper fatally shooting a black girl who’d shoplifted a bottle of juice. Juries had acquitted both the officers and the shopkeeper. For many African Americans and Latinos, these injustices were the culmination of a history of oppression by the police and economic exploitation by ethnic outsiders. Korean and other shopkeepers became scapegoats, and Koreatown burned.
A few years later, the reputation of Korea and Korean Americans began to change as Hyundai, Kia, LG, and Samsung stormed the ramparts of global capitalism. Millions of consumers owned a bit of Korea in their homes or their pockets, and some began driving Korean cars. Korean capital infused Koreatown and Los Angeles, and some immigrants who’d left a poverty-stricken Korea to come to America in the ‘60s found that their relatives in Korea had overtaken them. These immigrants had sacrificed their college degrees to become shopkeepers in ghettoes, all in the name of their American-born children, or so the narrative went in America’s model minority myth. In this myth, Asian immigrants and their American-born children appear as superhuman students and workers, with Koreans being the latest Asian immigrant population willing to discipline themselves and sacrifice their bodies and minds to achieve the American Dream. In doing so, they became the model for the rest of America’s ‘unsuccessful’ minorities and immigrants, at least in the narratives of the media, the politicians, and the pundits who argue that those who fail to achieve the American Dream have only themselves and the welfare state to blame.
Against these legacies of the Cold War and of hot racial relations, a Korean cultural wave rolled over Asia. Korean soap operas and pop music infiltrated Asian countries and diasporas, and Korean culture became the new cool, climaxing with the global video hit and dance craze of 2013, Gangnam Style. Youth all over Asia and Asian youth in America wore Korean fashion and Korean hairstyles. Koreans themselves developed a reputation, fair or not, for reworking themselves with plastic surgery.
From the remembered war to the forgotten war and on to the present, (South) Koreans have reinvented themselves through developing an industry of weaponized memory. They’re no longer the objects of pity or subjects of terror that people saw in the world’s newspapers during the years of obliteration. Instead they’ve become human, unlike those other (North) Koreans. The northerners can’t contest the stories told about them by the West and by the southerners, so for most of the world they remain alien.
The gigantic War Memorial of Korea in Seoul is mostly devoted to the Korean War, with professional-grade videos, dioramas, photos, placards, uniforms, and artifacts curated by a highly competent staff. Their effort shows the war to be a confrontation between a North Korea backed by the communist world and a South Korea backed by the free world of democratic and capitalist societies. The hero of the memorial is the Korean army and what scholar Sheila Miyoshi Jager calls its ‘martial manhood.’ In the words of the memorial’s promotional brochure, the purpose of the memorial is to ‘cherish the memory of deceased patriotic forefathers and war heroes’ who ‘devoted and sacrificed their life for the fatherland.’ A plaque in the courtyard sums up the price of heroism and patriotism that was paid by the army and its men: ‘Freedom Is Not Free.’ Human sacrifice is presumably required. While it may be expensive in terms of human life to guard and celebrate freedom, the memorial implies that freedom also rewards its defenders with material well-being.
The bulk of the War Memorial focuses on the south defending itself against the north, but a room after the main exhibits on the Korean War chronicles Korea’s ‘Expeditionary Forces.’ Vietnam is one of many countries that Korean troops have helped, including Japan, China, Kuwait, Somalia, Western Sahara, Georgia, India, Pakistan, Angola, and East Timor. The memorial’s narrative is clear: after a brutal Korean War in which United Nations forces helped Koreans, the Korean Army learned how to defend the freedom of others in Vietnam. In doing so, contemporary Korea became a full-fledged member of the world’s first-rank nations, enjoying what scholar Seungsook Moon calls ‘militarized modernity.’ Those impressive Korean armaments and vehicles, and the video screens that showed them, were manufactured by the Korean mega-corporations known as chaebol. The cumulative effect is the simultaneous expression of Korean military, capitalist, and fearsome weaponized memorial power.
The Expeditionary Forces room focuses mostly on the Korean war in Vietnam.
One enters through a hallway decorated with jungle foliage, the classic sign of the country and the war. Photographs, dioramas, maps, and mannequins provide a historical account of some of the war’s events, its participants, and Korean and National Liberation Front bases of operation. In the background a soundtrack of rotating helicopter blades hums. Unlike the Korean War exhibits that revel in human sacrifice, from the struggles of refugees to the heroic soldiers who volunteered for suicide attacks, the Vietnam exhibit is remarkably bloodless. The mannequins dressed in enemy uniforms pose stiffly, the illustrations of booby traps are only technical, and the dioramas of guerilla tunnels present the everyday life of the Viet Cong rather than gut-wrenching combat. The exhibits recount how, after participating in a number of skirmishes and battles, all described in dry language, South Korean soldiers ‘returned home in triumph.’
Two of the most notable efforts to counteract Korea’s weaponized memory are found in novels. The first is Hwang Suk-Yong’s The Shadow of Arms, published in two installments in 1985 and 1988. They appeared during two successive and repressive regimes led by presidents who served as army officers in Vietnam: Chun Doo Hwan and Roh Tae Woo. Given the political climate, the novel was daring, indicting the American presence in Vietnam as a source of utter corruption for all involved, including Koreans. The novel leaves no doubt that American-style capitalism and racism was at the heart of this war, waged not for a Pax Americana but for the American PX, the post exchange or military shopping mall. ‘What is a PX?’ the novel asks. ‘A place where they sell the commodities used daily by a nation that possesses the skill to shower more than one million steel fragments over an area one mile wide by a quarter mile long.’ What does the PX do? ‘The PX brings civilization to the filthy Asian slopeheads. It’s America’s most powerful new weapon.’ While the PX is the military-industrial complex’s legitimate face, the black market is its illegitimate face. The black market welcomes everyone, including communists and nationalists, and corrupts them with the benefits of a wartime economy inflated by American imports and dollars. Vietnamese middlemen, called ‘colonized colonizers’ by scholar Jinim Park, help both the Americans and, inadvertently, the Japanese, who supply many of the goods for sale.
The American subjugation of the Vietnamese reminds the Koreans of their own past treatment by Americans, one reason why Koreans are both drawn to and repulsed by the Vietnamese. As an American soldier tells Yong Kyu, an enlisted man at the center of the novel, the Vietnamese are ‘gooks. They’re really filthy. But you’re like us. We’re allies.’ When Yong Kyu recalls how Americans first used ‘gook’ in Korea, he understands that ‘it is the Vietnamese that I am like.’ The Koreans in the novel don’t commit atrocities against the Vietnamese, but Hwang implies they’re one step away from doing so, complicit as they are with a racist American military. What they definitely do is prostitute themselves, literally or through the black market. While the Vietnamese characters die or are imprisoned, Yong Kyu is alive and free at novel’s end, helping the prostitute Hae Jong ship illicit goods to her family in Korea, as many Korean soldiers did. With only minor regret, Yong Kyu obeys the hierarchy that men exploit women, whites subjugate Asians, and Koreans mistreat Vietnamese.
Han Kiju, the narrator of the other major Korean novel about this Korean war, Ahn Junghyo’s White Badge, is an intellectual, unlike Yong Kyu and most of the Korean men who volunteered for Vietnam. He is enthralled with Western, white culture, having read Homer, Remarque, Shakespeare, Hemingway, Montaigne, Dryden, and Coleridge. Befitting an intellectual, he’s a man whose masculinity is questioned by himself and others. After the war, he’s an ‘alien’ in Korean society, his literary knowledge useless, his career stalled, his adulterous wife having left him because of their inability to reproduce. A phone call from a former comrade, Pyon Chinsu, forces him to remember the war and to realize the cause of his malaise: the ‘blood money’ paid to soldiers who went to Vietnam. Privates who volunteered for Vietnam earned $40 a month when the average family’s annual income was $98. The United States paid about $1 billion for these Korean soldiers, or around $6.6 billion today. This money ‘fueled the modernization and development of the country. And owing to this contribution, the Republic of Korea, or at least a higher echelon of it, made a gigantic stride into the world market. Lives for sale. National mercenaries.’ In both these novels, the Koreans sell themselves to the United States, a ‘swaggering idol, a boastful giant.’ To Han Kiju’s observant eyes, if Americans are giants, then Koreans are dwarves, wearing American uniforms, eating American food, and using American weapons too large for them.
What Koreans do to the Vietnamese is what others did to Koreans: ‘what did we, or our parents, think when the UN forces, the Americans and the Turks swarmed into our village during the Korean War to liberate us from the Communists and then raped the village women at night?’ As if to avoid committing the same atrocity, Kiju takes a Vietnamese mistress, a virtuous but compromised woman named Hai. Figures like Hai are staples of foreign literature about Vietnam. With her, Kiju can be a man, but the illusion of this masculinity is revealed when she begs him to take her to Korea, which he can’t or won’t do. As the novel later shows, there are Vietnamese refugees living in poverty in postwar Seoul, including women abandoned by Korean lovers. This history continues today, as poor Vietnamese women come to Korea to be matched with Korean men whom no one else will marry, often farmers left behind by the modernization and urbanization of their country.
The real drama of White Badge isn’t between Koreans and Vietnamese, but between Koreans. Han Kiju’s former comrade, Pyon Chinsu, has contacted him in order to ask a final favor: shoot him and put him out of his postwar misery, which occurs against the backdrop of democratic struggles opposed to the military dictatorship of Chun Doo Hwan. The novel closes with the meeting between Pyon Chinsu, peasant, and Han Kiju, intellectual, without letting us know whether Kiju pulls the trigger. Either way is defeat for soldiers who are neither rewarded nor recognized by their fellow citizens, especially the businessmen that benefited most from the war. Unlike the War Memorial of Korea, White Badge shows the costs and myths of ‘martial manhood.’ Whether this manhood succeeds or fails is due in both cases to its submission to the American giant ‘who had never learned how to live outside his own world’ and who has demanded that Koreans live in his, via his capitalism, his literature, and his (white) war.
White Badge’s 1994 movie adaptation, the best-known Korean film about the war, retains the novel’s antiheroic, anti-American qualities, but eliminates most of its Vietnamese perspective. Han Kiju’s mistress vanishes and the Viet Cong woman whom the soldiers sexually humiliate becomes a suicide bomber. Without sympathetic Vietnamese women, the movie, even more than the novel, becomes a drama about and between Korean men. Their struggle isn’t so much about their own moral ambiguity in Vietnam but about their postwar relationship to a Korean society poised between dictatorship and democracy. For all its antiwar qualities, the movie was part of the ‘New Korean Cinema’ that was one more sign of Korea’s global competitiveness.
Koreans have returned to Vietnam as tourists, business owners, and students, and Korean influence is seen everywhere – in hairstyles, pop music, movies, and malls. For most Vietnamese, Korea and Koreans are images of a beckoning modernity, which for both Koreans and Vietnamese requires amnesia about their previous shared past. Thus, while Korean commodities can be seen everywhere, memories of the Korean war in Vietnam are hard to come by. When Vietnamese do recall Koreans, the memories are negative. At the Museum of the Son My (My Lai) Massacre, a plaque in English and Vietnamese remembers the ‘violently atrocious crimes of the American aggressor and the South Korean mercenaries.’ The South Vietnamese who fought alongside Korean soldiers didn’t care much for them either. Nguyen Cao Ky, air marshal and vice premier of the Republic of Vietnam, accused them of corruption and black marketeering, and average soldiers resented that American soldiers favored the Korean.
The Vietnamese civilian view of the Korean soldiers was worse, for some Vietnamese remember how, during World War II, when the country was under Japanese occupation, Korean soldiers were in charge of the prison camps. And, according to Le Ly Hayslip, a peasant girl caught in the ground war in central Vietnam, ‘More dangerous [than the Americans] were the Koreans who now patrolled the American sector. Because a child from our village once walked into their camp and exploded a Viet Cong bomb wired to his body, the Koreans took terrible retribution against the children. After the incident, some Korean soldiers went to a school, snatched up some boys, threw them in a well, and tossed a grenade in as an example to the others. To the villagers, these Koreans were like the Moroccans [who helped the French] – tougher and meaner than the white soldiers they supported. Like the Japanese of World War II, they seemed to have no conscience and went about their duties as ruthless killing machines.’
Killing is the weapon of the strong, and dying is the weapon of the weak. It isn’t that the weak can’t kill; it’s only that their greatest strength lies in their capacity to die in greater numbers than the strong. Thus, it didn’t matter, in terms of victory, that the United States only lost 58,000 or so men, or that Korea only lost 5,000, while the Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians lost approximately four million people during the war’s official years. (Rounding American casualties in this way acknowledges what novelist Karen Tei Yamashita charged when it came to the death statistics for American boys versus everyone else involved in this war, namely that ‘numbers for Vietnam are rounded off to the nearest thousand. Numbers for our boys are exact.’) Americans couldn’t absorb their losses in the same way their enemies had to do. While the American public wouldn’t tolerate a casualty count in the thousands, knowing that the United States could always leave Vietnam, the Vietnamese were fighting for their country and had nowhere else to go.
Director Dang Nhat Minh’s 1984 film When the Tenth Month Comes is probably the best-known Vietnamese movie or work on war and memory. Set in the years after American involvement, when Vietnam fought border clashes with Cambodia, and then invaded it, the movie tells the story of a young woman whose husband dies in one of these conflicts. Living with her father-in-law and young son, she keeps his death a secret, unable to break their hearts as her own has been. The movie is intimate, tender, and focused on the consequences of war for a woman and her family. Many Vietnamese war movies, unlike American ones, foreground women and children, usually to emphasize their heroic, revolutionary spirit, like The Abandoned Field: Free Fire Zone. Unlike that film, in which a husband and wife fight off American helicopter attacks, heroism and noble sacrifice are absent in When the Tenth Month Comes. The prevalent mood is one of sorrow for the widow and her dead husband, who returns to her one night as a ghost. But no matter how pleasing or moving or full of human feeling, this is a black-and-white movie, the best that Vietnamese cinematic technology could do in 1984.
Except for the academic, the movie critic, the art house aficionado, and those with some deep abiding interest in this country, not many outside Vietnam watched When the Tenth Month Comes. In 2009, Dang Nhat Minh made a bid for a larger international audience with the full color Don’t Burn, an epic film based on the diary of a young North Vietnamese woman, an idealistic doctor who volunteered for war and was killed by American troops. Instead of telling only Dang Thuy Tram’s story, Dang Nhat Minh also depicted the story of the American officer who recovered her diary and brought it back to her family more than thirty years later. Don’t Burn met the ethical demand to recognize both one’s own and others, though it was flawed from my inhuman perspective. In standard biopic fashion, the film treated Dang Thuy Tram as a saint and cast amateurish white American actors, a move typical in Asian movies and television. Nevertheless, the movie deserved wider attention for doing what no other film had ever done – give equal screen time to Americans and Vietnamese. Unfortunately, the movie was released in Vietnam on the same weekend that Transformers 2 premiered. As the director noted ruefully, ‘We were crushed like a bicycle.’
Against the asymmetric warfare of an industrial giant deploying supersonic fighters, napalm, white phosphorous artillery shells, aircraft carriers, strategic bombers, herbicides, and helicopters equipped with guns that could fire 6,000 rounds per minute in a blaze of lightning and thunder, almost none of which the communist Vietnamese had, the Vietnamese deployed the asymmetric warfare of guerilla insurgency. Asymmetry manifests itself mnemonically as well, with the American industry of memory winning globally. People the world over may know the Vietnamese won the war, but they’re exposed to the texture of American memory and loss via projected American memories. The Vietnamese have a fighting chance only on their own landscape, where they control the memorial apparatus of museums, monuments, schools, cinema, and media. Against foreigners, overseas Vietnamese, and its own people, the state’s industry of memory engages in asymmetric war. The state demands that its citizens remember the dead and how they died.
My visit to the Plain of Jars in Laos was marked by the juncture between this memory industry and the war machine’s detritus. I flew into the small airport on a propeller-driven passenger plane carrying a multicultural contingent of U.S. Air Force medical volunteers on a humanitarian mission. Their forebears bombed this country, and the Plain of Jars in particular, with apocalyptic force. The enlisted man I mentioned this to didn’t want to talk about this history, while the clean-cut Air Force Academy graduate knew only some vague details. I wonder if they noticed the poster in the airport terminal advertising bracelets for peace made from the metal of munitions. Is there anything more asymmetrical than air war waged against those without an air force, or a people forced to make a living by selling the fragments of their bombs to those who bombed them?
The war machine seeks to banish ghosts or tame them, but unruly specters abound, if one looks carefully, if one recognizes that spirits exist to be seen by some and not by others. I encountered them in Laos, a country whose mere mention brought light to the eyes of many Vietnamese, who spoke of it as a paradise, so peaceful and calm. In some ways Laos appears to be a satellite of Vietnam, at least in the official Laotian industry of memory, which commemorates Vietnam as the country’s greatest ally. Prominent place is given to the Vietnamese flag and Ho Chi Minh in Vientiane’s museums, which follow much the same narrative as Vietnamese ones. Under the bright lights of industrial memory found in museums such as the Lao People’s Army History Museum, all white walls and chrome handrails, the presence of ghosts is weak. Their presence was likewise vague in the far caves of Vieng Xai in northwest Laos, at least in the daytime hours when I visited. The Pathet Lao took shelter here in a vast and impressive cave complex, greater than anything found in Vietnam, a subterranean metropolis replete with a massive amphitheater carved from rock. Under American bombardment, with the dust and earth falling on one’s head and electricity faltering, the caves must have been much less tranquil than they are now for the tourist, whose greatest challenge is adjusting his camera for dim lighting. Hewn from rock and fashioned into a tourist site, the Vieng Xai caves are industrial memory on a grand scale, a successful attempt to conquer the past, to banish the ghosts.
Many of us, wanting to forget the complexities and horrors of the past, prefer a clean, well-lit place that features the orderly kinds of memory offered in the temples of the state, where the line between good and evil is clear, where stories have discernible morals, and where we stand on humanity’s side, the caves within us brightly lit. But even as we memorialize the dead, perhaps what we want to forget most of all is death. We want to forget the ghosts we’ll become, we want to forget that the hosts of the dead outnumber the ranks of the living, and we want to forget that it was the living, just like us, who killed the dead. Against this asymmetry of the dead and the living, the industries of memory of countries large and small, of powers great and weak, strive against ghosts. These industries render them meaningful and understandable when possible through stories, eliminating them when necessary. In most cases, though, the industries of memory avoid them. The number of places where the living remember the dead must surely be outnumbered by the places where the dead are forgotten, where not even a stone marks history’s horrors, where there are, Ricoeur says, ‘witnesses who never encounter an audience capable of listening to them or hearing what they have to say.’ What draws our attention are those memorials and monuments, those obelisks and stelae, those parade grounds and battlefields, those movies and fictions, those anniversary days and moments of silence, those spaces where the living can command the dead.
Sometimes the ghosts assert their authority, in consecrated spaces of memory yet to be fully industrialized. I didn’t feel ghosts at Vieng Xai, but I did on my way to those caves, on the journey from Phonsavan, when my driver told me I should stop at Tham Phiu. Here, in another mountain cave, an American rocket strike had killed dozens of civilians. There was an exhibition hall, but fortunately I didn’t see it on my way to the cave. Missing the exhibit meant that I missed the official narrative that would try to tell me what to feel, and what it told me wasn’t surprising, about the innocent civilians and the heartless Americans. The stairs and the handrail were signs that the cave had been prepared for tourists, though I was the only one at the moment. The four schoolgirls I encountered on the way up the mountain weren’t tourists but locals, making their way leisurely, giggling and snapping pictures of themselves with their phones. I made it to the cave before them, a black mouth through which a truck could be driven. Daylight threw itself a few dozen feet into the recesses, where there was no artificial lighting. There were no steps, no rails, no ropes to guide me over the rough ground, unlike the killing caves of Battambang, in Cambodia. Nor, as in Battambang, was there a memorial or a shrine; nor pictures, photographs, placards, or memorials; nor a hungry boy asking to be a tour guide. At Tham Phiu, I was alone in a cave where the local industry of memory, already fragile, stopped at the threshold. I made my way to where light met its opposite and looked into the darkness. 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 or imagined, and in that moment I was afraid. Then I heard the laughter. The girls stood at the cave’s mouth, profiles outlined by sunlight, making sure the shadows didn’t touch even their toes. Turning my back on all that remained unseen behind me, I walked toward their silhouettes.
Remembering becomes imbued with the dead, freighted with their weight, a risky and burdened act. As Nguyen-Vo Thu-Huong says, ‘how shall we remember rather than just appropriate the dead for our own agendas, precluding what the dead can tell us?’ Memoirist Le Ly Hayslip recounts: ‘We found ourselves praying more often, trying to calm the outraged spirits of all the slain people around us. At night, my family would sit around the fire and tell stories about the dead. Consequently, I began to think of the supernatural – of the spirit world and the habits of ghosts – the way others might think of life in distant cities or in exotic lands across the sea. In this discovery, I would later find I was not alone.’ The appearance of ghosts like these becomes a matter of justice, according to the sociologist Avery Gordon. Their haunting demands that ‘we be accountable to people who seemingly have not counted in the historical and public record.’ But speaking of ghosts is a dangerous act, for the storyteller must confront these ghosts, or exploit them, or return to the fatal circumstances that made them.
The ethical considerations for storytellers who speak of the dead and ghosts are particularly burdensome for minorities, those smaller in numbers or power. Thinking of themselves as weak or weaker, minorities may be tempted to see themselves as victims. The majority may view the minority or the other as a victim, too, for that keeps the minority and the other in their places, their role to suffer and then to be saved by the powerful majority. Being a victim is a masked power that compels guilt on the part of the rescuer or the one who feels pity, but it’s also a trick played on the victim for the victim’s supposed benefit. To see oneself only as a victim simplifies power and excuses the victim from the obligations of ethical behavior in politics, warfare, love, and art. Being a victim also forecloses the chance to wield real power, which the majority isn’t inclined to grant the minority and the other, offering them instead victimization and voice, two doors into the same trap.
Ethics forces us to examine the power that we wield and the harm we can do, the dilemma being that when one acts or speaks, even in the service of ghosts, one can be victimizer and victim, guilty and innocent. Writers, artists, and critics can inflict various kinds of harm with the symbolic power they wield; so can minorities and their advocates. Harm is a consequence of holding power, and even minorities and artists have some measure of power. Raising the issue of how a minority can inflict harm acknowledges that a minority is a human and inhuman agent, not merely a powerless victim, a passive subject in history, or a romanticized hero. Thinking of minorities as being human and inhuman complicates the usual stances of a patronizing, guilt-ridden majority as well as many advocates for minorities, both of which prefer to see the minority just as human. So it is that when advocates for minorities speak of them taking up power, they often mean power being used as resistance against abusive power, an act with greatly reduced moral and ethical complication. The possibility of the minority possessing power with all of its confusing and contradictory implications, including the negative and the damaging, may be forgotten or overlooked. While a minority’s power isn’t equal to the majority’s power, the minority must claim responsibility for the power it does possess, the power it must have if it can resist and, ultimately, liberate itself. 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 with what it means for the wretched of the Earth to have power. If there is one thing the revolutions in Indochina can teach the West, it’s that resistance and liberation have unforeseen consequences. Those who’ve been damaged can, when they come into power, damage others and make ghosts.
Vietnamese Americans offer a paradigmatic example of the problems of telling on and about ghosts. Of all the southeast Asians in America, they’ve written the most literature and have the longest literary tradition. French colonial policies encouraged this tradition, with the French favoring the Vietnamese over Cambodians and Laotians for the colonial bureaucracy, a practice that cultivated a literary class. The Vietnamese also benefitted from a more intense extraction of their frightened population at the end of the war, vastly outnumbering Cambodian and Laotian refugees. Both in terms of the superiority of numbers and literary education, the Vietnamese in America are a politically engineered demographic who possess much greater cultural capital than Cambodian and Laotian refugees. Their literary output can and should be judged, then, by the highest standards of ethics, politics, and aesthetics, for they’ve had some advantages to balance their war-born disadvantages.
In the realm of ethnic storytelling, the ethical and aesthetic reluctance to confront one’s power is manifested through not telling on one’s own side while reporting on the crimes of others and the crimes done to one’s own people. But only through telling how one’s own side has made ghosts can one stop being a victim and assume the full weight of humanity, which includes the burden of inhumanity. Telling on others and ourselves is perilous, not least for the artists who confront the victimization that would silence them and the lure of having a voice that promises to liberate them. Claiming a voice – that is to say, speaking up and speaking out – are fundamental to the American character, or so Americans like to believe. The immigrant, the refugee, the exile, and the stranger who comes to these new shores may already have a voice, but usually it speaks in a different language than the American lingua franca, English. As a result, the immigrant, the refugee, the exile, and the stranger can be heard in high volume only in their own homes and in the enclaves they carve out for themselves. Outside those ethnic walls, facing an indifferent America, the other struggles to speak. She clears her throat, hesitates and, most often, waits for the next generation raised or born on American soil to speak for her.
Vietnamese American literature written in English follows this ethnic cycle of silence to speech. In this way, Vietnamese American literature fulfills ethnic writing’s most basic function: to serve as proof that regardless of what brought these others to America, they or their children have become accepted, even if grudgingly, by other Americans. This move from silence to speech is the form of ethnic literature in America, the box that contains all sorts of troubling content. After all, what brought these so-called ethnics to America are usually difficult experiences, and more often than not terrible and traumatizing ones. We might say that the form or the box is ethnic, and its contents are racial. The ethnic is what America can assimilate, while the racial is what it can’t. In American mythology, one ethnic is the same, eventually, as any other ethnic: the Irish, the Chinese, the Mexican, and, eventually, hopefully, the black, who remains at the outer edge as the defining limit and the colored line of ethnic hope in America. But the racial continues to roil and disturb the American Dream, diverting the American Way from its road of progress. If form is ethnic and content is racial, then the box one opens in the hopes of finding something savory may yet contain that strange thing, foreign by way of sight and smell, which refuses to be consumed so easily: slavery, exploitation, and expropriation, as well as poverty, starvation, and persecution. In the case of Vietnamese American literature, the form has become aesthetically refined over the past fifty years, but the content – war – remains potentially troublesome and volatile. Race mattered in this war, but to what extent it mattered continues to cause disagreement among Americans and Vietnamese. One can draw a distinction here between the two faces of one country, the United States and America. If the United States is the reality and the infrastructure, then America is the mythology and the façade. Even the Vietnamese who fought against the Americans drew this line, appealing to the hearts and minds of the American people to oppose the policies of the United States and its un-American war. Americans, too, see this line, though what it means exactly is a subject of intense debate. Many Americans experienced and remember the war as an unjust, cruel one that betrayed the American character. But the number of Americans who think the war expressed a fundamental flaw in the American character, as a gut-level expression of genocidal white supremacy, is a minority. Vietnamese American literature is thus published in a country with no consensus on what to make of this war.
Any ethnically defined literature is bound up with that ethnic group’s history in America, because so-called ethnic literatures are forms of memory, saturated by ethical problems around the remembering of selves and others. For ethnic groups that can shed racial difference, such as the Irish who were once depicted in American media as being inassimilable, or the Jews once seen as beyond the pale, mere ethnicity becomes an option. Those ethnic groups that remain marked, or stained, by race, have choices, too, but they have no control about how others thrust their ethnicity on them. The choices made by racially defined people always conflict with the expectations of other Americans, a reality of the literary world. There, the box of form assumes the name of the ethnic group, such as Vietnamese American literature. In contrast, Irish American literature or Jewish American literature has less visibility, with John O’Hara, Mary McCarthy, Saul Bellow, and Philip Roth being American writers first and ethnic writers second, if at all. They have the choice to be white that racial minorities don’t. Minority writers know they’re most easily heard in America when they speak about the historical events that defined their populations. They can speak of something else, but they’re rewarded for speaking about their history and their race.
The most troubling tension runs throughout Vietnamese American literature. On the one hand, when the literature speaks of the war and the harm done to the Vietnamese, the Vietnamese are victims. On the other hand, the existence of the literature seems to prove that America ultimately fulfilled its promise of freedom, giving the Vietnamese a voice. These problematic scenarios of being a victim or having a voice place the ethnic author into an impossible situation.
The literary world hungers for secrets and calls on the ethnic author to work as tour guide, ambassador, translator, and insider, the all-purpose literary fixer who will hand over the exotic or mysterious unknown. But the ethnic population may want to keep its secrets or feel that its stories and its lives are being misused for the benefit of an author they see as a thief and a traitor.
While dominant Americans exist in an economy of narrative plenitude, ethnic and racial others live in an economy of narrative scarcity. Fewer stories exist about them, at least ones that leave their enclaves. In an economy of narrative scarcity and inequity, the ones with real power are the outsiders to the ethnic literature who are the insiders of the literary industry: agents, editors, publishers, reviewers, critics, and readers who demand that things be translated to them. The ethnic writer is the literary industry’s employee, a status shared with most American writers. To be an employee doesn’t say everything about the writer but it says a great deal, most importantly about the choice that all writers face: to see themselves as individuals working privately for art (even as that art becomes a commodity), or to see themselves as part of a larger community, imagining being in solidarity even if writing alone.
While translators serve both sides of the translating relationship, the most important side is the one that pays. How much, exactly, does the person asking for the translation really want to know? Does the translator soften the blow of the translation? Does the translator silence what doesn’t pay?
The majority of Vietnamese American literature engages endorses American self-regard, partially through what it depicts and more so through what it doesn’t. Most of it has given up on revolution, one of the most important ways of transcending victimization.
Vietnamese American literature’s political position on the American landscape as a literature of translation and affirmation might best be described as anticommunist liberalism. As Yen Le Espiritu says, ‘Otherwise absent in U.S. public discussions on Vietnam, Vietnamese refugees become most visible and intelligible to Americans as anticommunist witnesses, testifying to the communist Vietnamese government’s atrocities and failings.’ In the literature of these refugees or their descendants, there is faith in America as well as awareness that America needs protection from its worst instincts. There is sympathy for others, bred from the experience of being others. There is an awareness of history, because these authors are shaped by a history they can’t forget. There is an investment in the individual, in education, in free speech, and in the marketplace. All of these liberal gestures take place against the backdrop of anticommunism, not of the rabid, demagogic kind found on the streets of Little Saigon, but the reasonable, intellectual kind that allows for conversation with former enemies, for returns to the homeland, and, most importantly for American readers, the possibility of a reconciliation that will put their war to rest.
The movement from the homeland to the adopted land, as refugees and exiles, and finally the return and the reconciliation, marks much of the literature. This is the case in Andrew X. Pham’s Catfish and Mandala (2000), about a Viet Kieu [overseas Vietnamese] who returns to the homeland during the early, difficult years of economic reform in the 1990s, or Monique Truong’s The Book of Salt (2003), which follows the story of a young peasant in French colonial Vietnam who migrates to France to become the cook for Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Or the literature is set in ethnic enclaves such as Little Saigon, as in Aimee Phan’s We Should Never Meet (2005), about orphans who have no choice in being moved to America. The literature overall is marked by the powerful stamp that says to America ‘we are here because you were there.’ This stamp’s implications are not to be disregarded, but anticommunist liberalism contains them by holding communism responsible for bringing America to Vietnam.
As Vietnamese American literature in English developed to meet this industrial standard, only one author emerged who wasn’t college-educated or from the political or military elites: Le Ly Hayslip. Her work may lack ‘competence’ as defined by the literary industrial standard, but it possesses great vision, whether or not one agrees with her vision of humanity and reconciliation, which so many literary works lack. Outside of oral histories and besides The Book of Salt, her book is also the only major work that focuses on the life of a peasant. Most of the literature centers on those from the political, merchant, military, mandarin, elite, or middle classes.
Authors of books risk exploiting people and communities through telling their stories, and betrayal is an omnipresent theme in Vietnamese American literature, though for more than formal and racial reasons. Betrayal is a part of Vietnamese history as well, particularly in the 20th-century era of war and revolution, when politics encouraged partisans to betray each other, to betray family members of different political stripes, or to betray certain sides or the entire nation.
In The Eaves of Heaven, Andrew X. Pham, writing in his father’s voice, depicts a man rarely seen in American literature: the southern Vietnamese soldier of a lost regime. He and his father also collaborated on the translation of Dang Thuy Tram’s diary into Last Night I Dreamed of Peace.
The literature can raise the troublesome past of war and even the difficult present of racial inequality, as long as it also promises or hopes for reconciliation and refuge. But signs of betrayal are scattered throughout the literature of loyal opposition, criticisms so serious that they threaten the ways that Americans like to see themselves. At times, the same work exhibits impulses toward both collaboration and betrayal, like The Lotus and the Storm by Lan Cao. The novel ends with reconciliation between Vietnamese and Americans, but it also indicts America for not learning from its war with Vietnam as it fights new wars in the Middle East. At other times, the betrayal is hinted at obliquely, through ruptures where the past cannot be forgotten, as in G.B. Tran’s graphic novel Vietnamerica. The frenetic, color-saturated narrative ends in the blackness of an airplane hold as the cargo doors shut on frightened refugees fleeing the fall of Saigon. Vietnamerica’s timeline continues past this point in the plot of the book, with the refugees fleeing to America, then eventually returning to Vietnam, but the book’s ending on this note of claustrophobic blackness suggests that the loss of their nation and American betrayal will always entrap Vietnamese refugees.
Feminist theorist and filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-ha has focused relentlessly on foregrounding the illusory power in having a voice. Her best-known work, the documentary Surname Viet, Given Name Nam, features the words of Vietnamese women who were interviewed about their wartime and postwar experiences. In the first half of the documentary, actresses perform those words, while the second half focuses on the actresses in their lives off camera. The documentary shows that these women are actresses and not the actual women in order to demonstrate that the stories of Vietnamese women are performances, not historical fact. Trinh’s book Woman Native Other elaborates her suspicion about the seductiveness of authentic voices. She points out how, for women of color, writing is an act of privilege tainted by the guilt of being dependent on other women’s labor, or speaking for other women. Writing should be a form of liberation for the writer and for all women, instead of only a form that seizes the stories of women who can’t tell their own. To enact this liberation, Trinh doesn’t rely on singular notions of ethnic identity in service of a literary industry, in being only Vietnamese, but instead reaches for solidarity with all women of color, drawing on their writings and emphasizing how there is a ‘Third World in the First, and vice versa.’ Following that insight, Linh Dinh’s Love like Hate is raw, sometimes rough, always impolite, as he depicts, satirizes, and criticizes both Vietnam and America unrelentingly. ‘Saigon is often squalid but it is never desolate,’ he writes. ‘Vietnam is a disaster, agreed, but it’s a socialized disaster, whereas America is – for many people, natives or not – a solitary nightmare.’ This double-edged writing cuts both ways in order to slice open the ethnic box, refusing to affirm either of the nations or their platitudes, as a more radical Vietnamese American or ethnic literature should.
One way to dispense with the ethnic is to engage in comparison and contrast across borders, illuminating the cross-border operations of power and its abuse, greed and its operations. Another way is to reveal the disturbing universality of a shared inhumanity, rather than only the heartwarming cliché of a shared humanity. Dinh’s writing carries out both of these strategies. His voice is abrasive and caustic, and his stereoscopic vision of his two countries is sordid, sad, and suicidal. While ethnic literature often turns to digestible metaphors of food and hybrid cuisine, and reviewers of ethnic literature often do the same, a reader of Dinh’s writing experiences the dirty metaphors of parallel roads – the raucous, lawless streets of Saigon and the underpasses and sidewalks of America. This is where Dinh finds evidence of the inhumanity of humanity, as recorded in his blog, Postcards from the End of America, words and photographs depicting the mundane horror of the American present: the wretched and the poor, ghost-like because we’re both afraid of them and refuse to see them.
The threatening voice that ethnic literature so often softens is heard loudly in poet Bao Phi’s Sông I Sing, in which he mixes lyricism with obscenity. His subjects of war, racism, and poverty are obscene, but his other subjects of refugees, people of color, and the working class receive lyrical treatment. In his ‘refugeography,’ war delivers the refugee to America, where he or she will encounter another, if subdued, war on the poor in the inner cities and dead zones of a necropolitical [having power over life and death] regime. Of Vietnamese refugees rendered homeless once again by Hurricane Katrina, he writes that ‘It’s like this country only allows us one grief at a time. Your people, you had that war thing. That’s all you get. Shut. The fuck. Up.’ His grief and rage are aimed not only outward toward America but inward toward those who’ve absorbed the racism and class warfare directed at them, internalizing it and siding with the powerful. What happens when you can no longer tell if you’re liberating yourself through expression or selling your oppression? This challenge can be leveled at any ethnic author in America.”
Nguyen doesn’t mention his own novel about the Vietnam war and its aftermath, The Sympathizers, published a year before Nothing Ever Dies (in the spring of 2015), a surprising omission, since it won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. In the New York Times review of the novel, Phil Caputo, author of a memoir about his experiences as a Marine in Vietnam, says that “Nguyen, born in Vietnam but raised in the United States, brings a distinct perspective to the war and its aftermath. His book fills a void in the literature, giving voice to the previously voiceless while it compels the rest of us to look at the events of 40 years ago in a new light.
But this tragicomic novel reaches beyond its historical context to illuminate more universal themes: the eternal misconceptions and misunderstandings between East and West, and the moral dilemma faced by people forced to choose not between right and wrong, but right and right. The nameless protagonist-narrator, a memorable character despite his anonymity, is an Americanized Vietnamese with a divided heart and mind. Duality is literally in the his blood, for he’s a half-caste, the illegitimate son of a teenage Vietnamese mother (whom he loves) and a French Catholic priest (whom he hates). Widening the split in his nature, he was educated in the United States, where he learned to speak English without an accent and developed another love-hate relationship with the country he feels has coined too many ‘super’ terms (supermarkets, superhighways, the Super Bowl, and so on) ‘from the federal bank of its narcissism.’ The narrator’s acrobatic ability to balance between two worlds is his strength and weakness, as he makes clear in his opening lines: ‘I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds, able to see any issue from both sides. Sometimes I flatter myself that this is a talent, but a talent is something you use, not something that uses you. The talent you cannot not use, the talent that possesses you is a hazard.’
The protagonist’s narrative, which takes the form of a confession written to a man known as ‘the commandant,’ begins in the final days of the war, as Communist forces close in on Saigon. The narrator is aide-de-camp to ‘the general,’ chief of South Vietnam’s secret police. But he’s also a mole, a Communist undercover agent assigned to keep tabs on the general and the Special Branch’s activities. His closest friend is Bon, an assassin with the C.I.A.’s Phoenix program, ‘a genuine patriot’ who volunteered to fight after Communists murdered his father, a village chief. The narrator’s North Vietnamese handler, Man, is also an old friend. The narrator, Bon, and Man were high school classmates, who in their youth melodramatically swore allegiance to one another by becoming blood brothers.
Working through a C.I.A. spook named Claude, the narrator dispenses liberal bribes to engineer an air evacuation to the United States for the general, the general’s wife, and their extended family. Bon is also to be lifted out with his wife and child. The narrator wants to stay and take his place in a reunified Vietnam, but Man, convinced that the general and his cohort will plot a counterrevolution from abroad, orders him to go to America too. Nguyen presents a gripping picture of the fall of Saigon, as the narrator flees with the others under a storm of shellfire from his Viet Cong and North Vietnamese comrades. Bon’s wife and child are killed before their plane takes off.
From that brief, intense beginning we proceed to a picaresque account of the narrator’s experiences as a refugee-cum-spy in Los Angeles. He lands a clerical job with his former professor, has an affair with an older Japanese-American woman, and sends messages to Man via an intermediary in Paris. The narrator’s espionage activities lead him to make a foray into the movie business. He’s hired by a director, ‘the auteur’ (a stand-in for Francis Ford Coppola), to round up Vietnamese in a Philippine refugee camp to work as extras in his ‘Apocalypse Now’-like film. Nguyen adroitly handles the shifting tones of these episodes, now hilarious, now sad, as the narrator tries to do what Nguyen has done: de-Americanize the portrayal of the war. Unlike Nguyen, he fails.
The book’s mood darkens after this, as the narrator falls into a web of deceit and treachery spun by his dual role and the schisms in his soul. Man’s suspicions prove accurate: The general and some other die-hards, guilt-ridden for not fighting to the death and bored with their mediocre lives in the States, plot a counterrevolutionary invasion with the help of a right-wing congressman. The narrator assists in the planning, while sending reports to Man. To avoid having his cover blown, he’s compelled to take part in two assassinations. One victim is an ex-Special Branch officer, ‘the crapulent major,’ the other a Vietnamese journalist at a California newspaper. After these events, the narrator’s conscience becomes as torn as the rest of him.
The general assembles a ragtag army of former South Vietnamese soldiers, armed and funded by the Americans. Man, kept abreast of the scheme, orders the narrator to remain in the States as this army heads back to Asia, but he feels he must go to save Bon, his blood brother, from dying in what he’s sure will be a suicide mission. The two are captured and sent to communist prison camp. Under interrogation, the narrator sees that the revolution for which he’s sacrificed so much has betrayed him and everyone who fought for it. Even the people who call the shots admit that the fruits of victory are rotten. Still, ‘despite everything, in the face of nothing,’ he writes at the end of the ‘confession’ that is this book, ‘we still consider ourselves revolutionary. We remain that most hopeful of creatures, a revolutionary in search of a revolution, although we won’t dispute being called a dreamer doped by an illusion. We can’t be alone! Thousands more must be staring into darkness like us, gripped by scandalous thoughts, extravagant hopes, and forbidden plots. We lie in wait for the right moment and the just cause, which, at this moment, is simply wanting to live.’”
Looking back at what I’ve underlined in my own copy of The Sympathizer, I’m impressed with Nguyen’s humility in not quoting his novel in Nothing Ever Dies. There’s some good, strong stuff here…For example, the narrator’s friend Bon, while they’re still in America, says, “We’re not men anymore. Not after the Americans fucked us twice and made our wives and kids watch. First, they said we’ll save your yellow skins – just do what we say. Fight our way, take our money, give us your women, and you’ll be free. Things didn’t work out that way, did they? Then, after fucking us, they rescued us. They just didn’t tell us they’d cut off our balls and cut out our tongues along the way. If we were real men, we wouldn’t have let them do that…Don’t call me a man, or a soldier either. Call the guys who stayed behind men and soldiers. All dead or in prison, but at least they know they’re men.”
Later, the narrator tells his Japanese-American lover, “Wars never die. They just go to sleep.”
In Vietnam, after the narrator and Bon survive their mission near the Laotian border, Bon cried “for only the third time since I’ve known him,” because he’s still alive. In the prison camp, the commandant tells our hero that Bon and the others are prisoners, but that he’s “a special case, a guest of myself and the commissar. Perhaps a better term is ‘patient.’ You’ve traveled to strange lands and been exposed to dangerous ideas. It wouldn’t do to bring infectious ideas into a country unused to them. It’s necessary to quarantine you until we can cure you, even if it hurts us to see a revolutionary like yourself kept in such conditions.” He encourages the narrator to “take a side.” The commandant admits that the ill-fed prisoners doing hard labor are suffering. “But we all suffered, and we must all suffer still. The country is healing, and that takes longer than the war itself. But these prisoners focus only on their own suffering.”
Imprisoned for a year, the narrator asks himself, “What was I confessing to? I’d done nothing wrong, except for being Westernized. Nevertheless, the commandant was right. I was recalcitrant, and could have shortened my stay by writing what he wanted me to write. Long live the Party and the State. Follow Ho Chi Minh’s glorious example. Let’s build a beautiful and perfect society! I believed in these slogans, but I couldn’t bring myself to write them.”
When the narrator finally meets the literally faceless commissar who will complete his reeducation, it’s his friend Man, who says, “Didn’t I tell you not to come? Now, if you have any wish to leave this camp intact, we must play out our roles until the commandant is satisfied.” Man says the narrator will be released if he can say what’s “more precious than independence and freedom.” When the narrator says, “Nothing,” Man says, “Not quite.” He tells the narrator that it’s napalm that’s burned the skin off his face and body.
The narrator is kept awake to force him into confessing his real crime: allowing a female Vietnamese communist agent to be brutally raped and tortured. Finally, the commissar tells him, “the committees and the commissars don’t care about remaking these prisoners. Everyone knows this and no one will say it aloud. All the jargon that the cadres spout only hides an awful truth: Now that we are powerful, we don’t need the French or the Americans to fuck us over. We can fuck ourselves just fine.” He gives the narrator a pistol and asks him to shoot him, since he can no longer live with what he understands and with his physical pain. “How can a teacher live teaching something he doesn’t believe in? How do I live seeing you like this?” Then he apologizes. “That was selfish and weak of me. If I died, you and Bon would too.”
The narrator is released – along with Bon – when he finally screams out, really knowing, the answer to Man’s question – that nothing is literally more important than independence and freedom. Man’s bribed officials to ensure that they’ll be able to leave the country. “I embraced him and wept, knowing that while he was setting me free, he himself could never be free, unable or unwilling to leave this camp except through death.”
The novel concludes with the narrator saying, “We lie in wait for the right moment and the just cause, which at this moment is simply wanting to live. We swear to keep, on penalty of death, this one promise: We will live!”
Back in Nothing Ever Dies, Nguyen asks, “Can a writer do more than intuit the problems in having a voice and speaking of one’s victimization? Trinh T. Minh-ha shows us one way, gesturing at the importance of suspicion (toward authenticity and voice) and solidarity (between women, natives, and others). Linh Dinh and Bao Phi show us another, pointing toward the simultaneity of the human and inhuman. Some other writers who aren’t Vietnamese provide a third way, invoking Vietnam and sharing their grief and rage. James Baldwin speaks of the Black Panthers, the Viet Cong, and America: ‘Nothing more thoroughly reveals the actual intentions of this country, domestically and globally, than the ferocity of the repression, the storm of fire and blood which the Panthers have been forced to undergo merely for declaring themselves as men who want “land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice, and peace.” For Baldwin, the Panthers became ‘the native Vietcong, the ghetto became the village in which the Vietcong were hidden, and in the ensuing search and destroy operations, everyone in the village became suspect.’ Baldwin neither denies nor bemoans the histories of war and slavery that define the Vietnamese and African Americans in American eyes. He doesn’t simply inhabit the history given to him as a black man. He connects those histories, bringing two different spaces together so that the exercise of American power over there becomes the logical extension of American power over here – the Third World within the First, and vice versa. Victimization is shared, a point Susan Sontag makes when she criticizes how many victims privilege their suffering: ‘victims are interested in the representation of their own sufferings. But they want the suffering to be seen as unique.’ Even more, ‘it’s intolerable to have one’s own suffering twinned with anybody else’s.’ Sontag and Baldwin agree that victimization must be seen as more than an isolated or unique experience. Suffering can become solidarity through political consciousness and revolution, the only ways for the natives over there and over here to confront the global force of the American war machine. First the natives of a particular place must learn that they aren’t the only ones victimized, that there are others who share their grief; then they have to stop identifying themselves as only victims. So it is that Baldwin insists that war occurs not only on foreign soil, waged by soldiers against the enemy or villagers, but also on American soil, carried out by the police against blacks.
Oscar Zeta Acosta makes the same charge on behalf of Chicanos when he says, ‘We are the Viet Cong of America. Tooner Flats is Mylai…The Poverty Program of Johnson, the Welfare of Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy, the New Deal and the Old Deal, the New Frontier as well as Nixon’s American Revolution…these are further embellishments of the government’s pacification program.’ To be poor and black or Chicano was to suffer from a low-intensity counterinsurgency that occasionally erupted into all-out assault, as happened to the Panthers, who the state needed to put down because the Panthers had ceased to see themselves as only being victims and began to see themselves as revolutionaries. Writer Junot Díaz agrees that war, and the interpenetration of foreign wars and domestic tragedies, is central to American life: ‘Americans have a bad habit of invading other countries. American memory may forget the invasion of my country [the Dominican Republic], but that shouldn’t prevent us from seeing that the invasion of Vietnam wasn’t an aberration.’ Díaz tells his readers that his Dominican characters live on American soil because war brought them here. When we remember the wars that forced people to flee, oftentimes into the embrace of their colonizer or invader, then we can see that the immigrant story, staple of American culture, must actually be understood, in many cases, as a war story. Readers and writers often imagine damage, wound, and identity as the results of cultural conflict, being torn between two worlds, rather than what they often are, the calamitous consequences of war, colonization, and exploitation, conducted by foreign forces and domestic tyrants.
The writer marked as ethnic or racial, who’s categorized and looked down on for engaging in ‘identity politics,’ mustn’t simply accept or deny that pejorative. To do so is to be forced into accepting the impossible choice that a dominant society built on whiteness gives to its minorities: be a victim or have a voice, accept one’s lesser identity or strive to have no identity. To have no identity at all is the privilege of whiteness, which is the identity that pretends not to have an identity, that denies how it’s tied to capitalism, race, and war. Victimization and voice become the markers of difference and identity for minorities, while whiteness becomes unmarked alienation, manifest in the supposedly universal experiences of loneliness, divorce, ennui, and anomie, all of which are the cancerous costs of living in a capitalist society whose profits accrue to whiteness. Minorities must dissent from the terms that a regime of whiteness offers. They must call forth anger and rage, demand solidarity and revolution, critique whiteness, domination, power, and all the faces of the war machine. Southeast Asians must insist that the war that defines them in America isn’t only their war, but a war made by white people, a war that isn’t an aberration but a manifestation of a war machine that would prefer refugees to think of their stories as immigrant stories.
Ghosts are both inhuman and human and their appearance tells us that we are, too. To understand our fate and theirs, we must do more than tell ghost stories. We must also tell the war stories that made ghosts and made us ghosts, the war stories that brought us here. A true war story should tell not only of the soldier but also what happened to her or him after war’s end. A true war story should also tell of the civilian, the refugee, the enemy, and, most importantly, the war machine that encompasses them all.
War is so woven into society’s fabric that it’s almost impossible for a citizen not to be complicit. Thinking of war as an isolated action carried out by soldiers transforms the soldier into the face and body of war, when in truth he’s only its appendage.” Nguyen asks us to consider the prevalence of rape and banality in war. “Contemporary war is a bureaucratic and capitalistic enterprise that requires its bored clerks, soulless administrators, ignorant taxpayers, contradictory priests, and encouraging families. Critics and their sense of taste, beauty, and goodness are intertwined with the values and ideology of their dominant class. They don’t see that their aesthetic values, which they understand to be evidence of their humanity, are tainted and shaped by the inhumanity of the capitalist system and the war machine within which they live and whose profits and costs they take for granted. As critic Pankaj Mishra says, Westerners, including Western writers, routinely expect non-Western writers to decry the oppressive regimes under which they suffer. Not to protest seems like moral failure to them, but these same writers often don’t work up the same aesthetic outrage toward their own society’s crimes. They lack the imagination to see how their drab stories of unhappiness, divorce, cancer, etc. – the stuff of award-winning realism and the bad outcomes of white privilege over here – might be connected to, and made possible by, their society’s wars and capitalist exploitation over there.
As outsiders to communism, Westerners can easily see its hypocrisies and blind spots, the inhumanity at the heart of its ideology. The rebellious writer in Vietnam faces a system of power, prestige, and taste that defines what’s acceptable and what’s human or inhuman, and the Westerner demands a heroic response. But what’s obvious about Western values, when seen from the outside, is that they too reinforce propriety. This propriety prefers to deny the inhuman, the colonialism, imperialism, domination, warfare, and savagery found in the heart of whiteness. When this inhumanity is acknowledged, its connection to, and contamination of, Western humanity is often suppressed or disavowed by artists, readers, and critics, blind to their own hypocrisies and contradictions, their participation in inhumanity, and their lack of heroism when confronted with the lures of institutional reward.
A true war story ultimately challenges identity, because war radically challenges identity, from the soldier who must confront himself as well as the enemy on the battlefield to the civilian who discovers she’s less than human when she becomes a refugee. Blown up, dismembered, wasted bodies on the battlefield also fundamentally disturb human identity for those who killed them, witnessed their demise, or buried them. Those bodies also unsettle national identity when a country divides itself over a controversial war, or when the body politic persuades soldiers to kill others even if in so doing they bring their own humanity into question.
Not all soldiers who write make the grade, but they can, as O’Brien does, because the war story belongs to them. The difficult transformation from soldier to writer isn’t a change in her or his already granted humanity. But a refugee becoming a writer must go from being inhuman to human. Also, while the refugee who becomes a writer is given the license to tell a refugee story, he or she isn’t seen as writing an war story, at least not one given the same weight as a soldier’s.
Chang-Rae Lee has tried mightily to be the perfect student and has garnered his fair share of good grades, including being named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for The Surrendered, his novel of the Korean War. Like Kao Kalia Yang and myself, he’s caught in the struggle to tell the true war story while in the middle of a true war story: the one about how writers and critics who inherit the legacies of wars find themselves caught between being degraded and given the perfect grade, judged by an aesthetic system implicated in the war machine. This doesn’t mean that artists who struggle to tell true war stories can’t speak or can’t strive for a perfect grade; it does mean that they should question their own identities as artists as well as the identities of the forms they choose, since both these kinds of identities are part and parcel of the triad of war, memory, and identity.”
Nguyen says his “final chapter is on the need for a powerful memory to fight war and find peace. As fraught as engaging with power may be, one must confront it and hope that one can manage it, and oneself, ethically. Our use of power must be done with the full awareness of our humanity and inhumanity, our capacity for both good and bad.
I visited Dachau in 1998, a work of memory conducted from the higher ground, erected with the power of industrial memory. This work calls for sobriety, contemplation, reflection, and respect and reverence for the dead. It urges us to further our resolve never to allow this atrocity to be forgotten or repeated. But what I also took away from my visits to Germany’s memorial network was how horror can be framed in beautiful ways. What I saw in Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek; in the killing caves of Battambang, and in the small stupas full of skulls and bones that rose here and there on the Cambodian landscape; in the unlit cavern of Tham Phiu in Laos; in the homes near the Plain of Jars that used the casings of American bombs and shells for décor; in the neglected village cemeteries of martyrs and unknown soldiers throughout Vietnam; and in the 2003 iteration of Saigon’s War Remnants Museum housed in a handful of small buildings that featured the bottled, deformed fetuses of Agent Orange victims was far from beautiful. I saw the poverty of memory found in poor countries, in small places. There were no vast expanses of marble and granite, no imposing sheets of glass, no precision-cut etchings, no grammatically perfect captions or commentaries. Absent were extensive historical documentation, perfectly shaded lighting, and a modulated ambiance of sound, sight, smell, and temperature. Also missing were fellow well-trained visitors who’d already been socialized, like returning churchgoers, into the customs and rituals of silent mnemonic worship. In mnemonic places of poverty, the mood isn’t one of horror, but of shabbiness and sadness, at least for someone like me, because of what’s shown and how. Sometimes one does confront the horror fully, as in the photographs of the dead with their eyes open at Tuol Sleng, or the thankfully blurry photograph of a grisly corpse on a torture bed exhibited in the same torture chamber where the prison’s Vietnamese liberators found it. These rough, crude, unfinished, imperfect, disturbing examples of a wretched aesthetics will change over time as poor places and poor people become wealthier and less wretched. This can be seen in the Vietnamese Women’s Museum of Hanoi, transformed from a provincial space of simply mounted exhibits during my first visit in 2003 into one of the most polished museums in the country by 2013, with the help of French curatorial collaborators who put into place many of the features of wealthy memory. Tuol Sleng, too, is changing, with the assistance of curators from the stunning Okinawa Prefectural Peace Museum, where Cambodian curators have trained. The Okinawa museum is one of those rare places that remembers the dead of all sides, military and civilian, in vast hallways and exhibition rooms and on memorial grounds at the edge of a cliff where the names of all those gone – some 200,000 in the battle for Okinawa during World War II – are engraved on massive blocks of stone facing the sea. Memory in southeast Asia will change, and people shouldn’t be denied their right to the trappings of wealthy memory, just as they shouldn’t be denied their right to own cars, refrigerators, luxury handbags, and all those other features of a consumer lifestyle that the wealthy already own, whose price tag is the destruction of the environment, the alienation of human beings from one another, and the perpetuation of a system of global inequality. But although the poor shouldn’t be denied what the wealthy possess, including their industries of memory, we should also be cognizant of what the costs are of the poor repeating the behavior of the rich, no matter where that occurs, including in the realm of memory. For while Tuol Sleng, Choeung Ek, and all the other places of the shadowy sublime disturbed me, they also imprinted themselves on me in physical, mental, and spiritual ways. These places were unrelenting in reminding me, and anyone else who stumbled across them, of inhumanity. They do so not just by telling horrible stories, but also by showing that horror, through the very roughness and bluntness of their wretched aesthetics of memory. This is memory that confronts and exhausts – a slap in the face rather than a sermon from the mount.
From low to high, from profane to divine, we need both kinds of memory work. But when do we need each, and in what proportion to the other? Let’s turn to some examples of powerful memory conducted from the high ground to try and answer that question. Le Ly Hayslip stakes her memoir on the moral high ground, speaking from what Paul Ricoeur calls ‘the height of forgiveness.’ In her prologue, she condemns the war machine but forgives its soldiers. Her memoir is framed by this ‘Dedication to Peace’ and an epilogue, the ‘Song of Enlightenment,’ whose purpose is ‘to break the chain of vengeance forever.’ The memoir offers conciliatory gestures to American soldiers and to the American nation, as when she says that she’s ‘honored to live in the United States and proud to be a U.S. citizen.’ But the memoir resolutely places Vietnamese peasants at the center of their own story. ‘We were what the war was all about,’ she writes. ‘We peasants survived – and still survive today – as both makers and victims of our war.’ As the filmmaker Rithy Panh does, she claims this war for her people, a direct rebuttal to the persistent American belief that it was all about Americans. As the people who helped make the war and became its victims, the peasants earned both moral responsibility and the right to forgive.
Photographer An-My Lê offers another take from the high ground, more clinical than spiritual. The MacArthur Foundation awarded her a grant that carries a prize of over half a million dollars, an amount for one individual that outstrips the budget of many a small museum in a small country. In her series ‘29 Palms,’ she embeds herself, in the Orwellian language of the American military and media, with U.S. Marines as they train at a desert base in California. One of the most striking shots, taken at night, shows a squadron of armored vehicles firing their weapons, the barrage of tracers an intense web of lightning and glare through the darkness. Photographed from on high, the armored vehicles assume the size of toy trucks and cars. Lê doesn’t have Hayslip’s moral weight of being a victim, of surviving intimate encounters with combat, rape, and torture. She can’t forgive, but through her lens, her aesthetic, she assumes another high ground, the related one of vision. Optics concern both war and ethics, and Lê’s camera shows both the soldiers and a glimpse of the war machine. While Tod Papageorge shoots the war machine from the civilian’s point of view, Lê shoots it from the military’s point of view. The individual soldier and his feelings matter less in this photograph and others in Lê’s series than the ensemble and the equipment, the war machinery’s collective presence and force. Depersonalized through uniforms, weapons, and armor, these individual humans transform into an inhuman mass seen from on high, the viewpoint of aerial reconnaissance, drones, satellites, and strategic vision. Generals and presidents make decisions based on the movement and placement of these mass units, to which the individual, the human, must be sacrificed. In her photograph, Lê captures the essentially inhuman face of the war machine, which transcends human beings and human bodies into something sublime, something seductive, in its man-made beauty
To confront the war machine and tell the true war story, the artist, the activist, and the concerned citizen, resident, alien, or victim, must climb to the high ground. This is an ethical and aesthetic move, a double gesture that involves both moral standing and strategic vision. Morally, one must be above the fray in order to renounce and to forgive the bloodletting, as well as to see the potential culpability of oneself and one’s allies in past, present, and future conflicts. Strategically, one must be able to see a vast landscape if one wants to comprehend the war machine in its totality and its mobility, as well as the war machine’s other, the movement for peace. This task requires, among others, the artist. To imagine and dream beyond being the citizen of a nation, to articulate the yearning for a citizenship of the imagination, that is the artist’s calling. Whereas the war machine wants acts of imagination to focus only on the human face of the soldier, the artist needs to imagine the war machine’s totality, collectivity, enormousness, sublimity, and inhumanity. The artist must refuse the identity that the war machine offers through the human soldier, whose dead, sacrificed body persuades the patriotic citizen to identify with the nation. The artist must instead show how the inhuman identity of the war machine incorporates the patriotic citizen and renders her or him inhuman as well. This is where art plays a crucial role in both antiwar movements and movements for peace, which aren’t the same. Antiwar movements oppose and react. They can repeat the logic of the war machine, when, for example, antiwar activists treat victims of the war machine solely as victims, taking away the full complexity of their flawed (in)humanity in the name of saving them. When a particular war ends, so may the antiwar movement opposed to it. Understanding that war is not a singular event but a perpetual one mobilizes a peace movement. This movement looks beyond reacting to the war machine’s binary logic of us versus them, victim versus victimizer, good versus bad, and even winning versus losing. Perpetual war no longer requires victory in warfare, as what happened in Korea, Vietnam, and now the Middle East shows. While victories would certainly be wonderful, the war machine’s primary interest is to justify its existence and growth, which perpetual war serves nicely. An endless war built on a series of proxy wars, small wars, distant wars, drone strikes, covert operations, and the like, means that the war machine need never go out of business or reduce its budget.
A peace movement is required to confront this inhuman reality. This peace movement is based not on a sentimental, utopian vision of everyone getting along because everyone is human, but on a sober, simultaneous vision that recognizes everyone’s unrealized humanity and latent inhumanity. The good artist must expand her scope of empathy and compassion to embrace as many and as much as she can, including the war machine’s participants. We need an art that celebrates the humanity of all sides and acknowledges the inhumanity of all sides, an art that enacts powerful memory, an art that speaks truth to power even when our side exercises and abuses that power. For this purpose, the problem is that empathy and compassion are tools, not solutions. They lead to no political, or even moral, certainty,
Narratives that ask readers to witness scenes of suffering, may purge them of the need to take political action. ‘Compassion is an unstable emotion,’ according to Susan Sontag, that ‘needs to be translated into action, or it withers.’ But while compassion may allow us to disavow our complicity, without compassion we could never move the far and the feared closer to our circle of the near and the dear. Such a move is crucial to art and fundamental to forgiveness and reconciliation, without which war will never cease. The artist Dinh Q. Lê, born in Vietnam but raised in the United States, exemplifies how compassion produces powerful, moving, and vulnerable art. In his series ‘Cambodia: Splendor and Darkness,’ Lê draws attention to Cambodian suffering. ‘Untitled Cambodia #4’ features his trademark technique of cutting images and weaving them together in order to fuse the splendor of Cambodia’s past with the darkness of Cambodia’s genocide. While remembering that past as splendorous is tempting, critic Holland Cotter points out that darkness overshadows its beauty, since Angkor Wat was built by the labor of many as a tribute to kings. Also, by turning the dead into a work of art, perhaps Lê runs the risk of being an accomplice, grave-robbing the dead and stealing their images. As Sontag points out, ‘the more remote or exotic the place, the more likely we are to have full frontal views of the dead and dying.’ The living can take the images of the dead because they are strong and the dead are weak. In so doing, the living also may allow themselves to forget the ugliness of the dead’s passing, which is the danger of powerful memory done from the high ground. Lê urges us to look at the dead again, past their victimization. Resurrected through art, the dead touch us, warning us against our latent inhumanity and telling us that the past can repeat if we do not remember. This art also shows us, in the words of Toni Morrison, that ‘nothing ever dies,’ an insight both terrifying and hopeful.
I conclude with an example of a mirror image that shows how the enemy feels as viscerally as we do, if we are Americans: Nhat Ky Dang Thuy Tram (The Diary of Dang Thuy Tram). Dang Thuy Tram was a 27-year-old North Vietnamese doctor serving in the south when U.S. troops killed her in 1970. The American officer who recovered her diary kept it for decades before returning it to Tram’s family in 2005. Published in Vietnam later that year, the diary sold some 430,000 copies. For the English version, Tram’s family and the publisher selected the title Last Night I Dreamed of Peace, a sentiment extracted from two occasions in the diary. Mostly, however, the diary is marked by ‘hatred as hot as the summer sun’ for the U.S. and South Vietnamese militaries. The diary’s power for American readers arises from this anger and Tram’s love for her comrades. She dreams of a peace that arises after the defeat of the enemy, the ‘vicious dogs’ and ‘bloodthirsty devils’ against whom she yearns for revenge. Reading Tram’s diary at the time of its publication, the English title may evoke a cosmopolitan feeling on the part of readers, a sense that we should reconcile with our current enemies and we can make peace with our former enemies. So while Last Night I Dreamed of Peace is inaccurate in foregrounding a relatively insignificant theme in Tram’s writing, it nevertheless signals a hope for a broader peace than the one Tram imagined.
Art, particularly narrative art, makes possible a ‘cosmopolitan education’ allowing us to see others empathetically and see ourselves from the perspective of the other. Cosmopolitan education helps limit the violence we inflict on those we see as closer to us on the human scale, but it can also justify us pouring torrents of violence on those not included in our curriculum. We can measure the degree to which we’ve been educated about others via our approach to bombing. How many bombs are we willing to drop? What kinds of bombs? Where, and on whom? The indiscriminate, massive American bombing of southeast Asia was possible because Americans considered its residents inhuman or less than human. Similarly, in The English Patient, the novelist Michael Ondaatje depicts the atomic bombing of Hiroshima from the perspective the Indian sapper Kip, a soldier in the British Army. When he hears of the atomic bomb’s detonation, Kip has a flash of understanding: white people would never drop the bomb on a white country.
Peace happens through confronting the war machine and taking over the industries that make it possible, which include the industries of memory. It’s no surprise, then, that peace seems so much harder to achieve than war, which offers us an immediate profit. Exploiting our fear and our greed, the cynical supporters of war can convert even powerful memory to weaponized memory, the kind that encourages patriotism, nationalism, and the heroic sacrifice of soldiers for the country. The strength of weaponized memory is why appeals from the high ground alone can’t stop war or realize peace. A need remains for memory that forces us to look at our inhumanity, which we might wish to deny. Recognizing our inhumanity, we begin remaking our identity so that it doesn’t belong to the war machine, which tells us that we are always and only human, and our enemies less so.
Too much remembering and too much forgetting are both fatal, certainly to ourselves, and perhaps to others. This is why demands to always remember and never forget eventually face calls to reconcile and forgive. The cycle works in reverse as well, when we respond to amnesia by calling for history. As Paul Ricoeur argues, there are unjust and just ways of forgetting, as there are unjust and just ways of remembering. Unjust ways of forgetting are much more common than just ones. They involve leaving behind a past that we haven’t dealt with in adequate ways. We ignore that past, we pretend it didn’t exist, or we write its history to serve a prejudicial agenda. Sometimes we even conduct these actions under the guise of reconciliation, as when former enemies agree on treaties that allow them to be friends without addressing their mutual history of violence. In regard to my war, all of these modes of unjust forgetting have happened or are happening.
Whether we’re winners or losers when it comes to war, the challenge of forgetting is inextricably tied to the question of forgiving. Winners may find it somewhat easier to be magnanimous and forgiving, while losers are perhaps easier to forgive, given their suffering. But most types of forgiveness are compromised, and a just forgetting won’t happen unless we meet the conditions of just memory or until we extend genuine forgiveness. Forgetting can be difficult when both war’s winners and losers attempt to portray themselves virtuously, as they usually do. Defeat aggravates this sentiment, as is the case in the community in which I was raised, the Vietnamese refugees in America who lost everything except their memories. They have valid reasons to remember their past, but they also tend to forget, particularly in public commemoration, the venality of the southern Vietnamese regime, the violence committed by their own soldiers, and how their sentiments may be viewed from elsewhere.
As I’ve argued throughout this book, just memory proceeds from three things. First, an ethical awareness of our simultaneous humanity and inhumanity, which leads to a more complex understanding of our identity, of what it means to be human and to be complicit in the deeds that our side, our kin, and we ourselves commit. Second, equal access to the industries of memory, both within countries and among countries, which won’t be possible without a radical transformation, even a revolution, in the distribution of wealth and power. And third, the ability to imagine a world where no one will be exiled from what we think of as the near and the dear to the distant realms of the far and the feared. I’ve foregrounded an imagination that thinks and sees beyond the nation because the nation dominates how we carry out our struggles over culture and race, over economy and territory, and over power and religion. The nation seduces us, particularly if we happen to be cast out of it as refugees, a population that now numbers at least sixty million, a floating, global archipelago of human dispossession.
When will we have a time of ethical awareness of our inhumanity, where the industries of memory are available to all, where the artistic will to claim the imagination is norm rather than exception? This is utopian. Yet, at one point, the human imagination had difficulty thinking beyond the light cast by the fire, then of the distance the tribe could walk, then the walls of the city-state. So why can’t we imagine a future where nations at war seem absurd? Novelist Doris Lessing puts it this way: ‘I’ve lived through Hitler, ranting and raving; Mussolini too; the Soviet Union, which we thought would last for all time; the British Empire, which seemed impregnable; the color bar in Rhodesia and elsewhere; the heyday of European empires. It was inconceivable to think these would disappear. They seemed permanent. Now not one of them remains, and I think that is a recipe for optimism.’ The impossible might yet be possible at some point in the future, which is again where art, among other agents, plays a guiding role. Sometimes art does so by imagining utopia, or, through negative lessons, dystopia. Sometimes it does so by offering us models for how to be more human or more ethical in our behavior to one another, or by demanding that we see how inhuman and unethical we can be.
While art can provoke the ethical awareness of our inhumanity that’s necessary for just memory, it can’t achieve just memory alone, not while the industries of memory remain unequal. Still, art’s potential for the individual points toward one way that solace can be achieved during times of unjust memory and unjust forgetting, like ours today. That solace is also found in forgiveness of the most genuine kind, what the philosopher Jacques Derrida called ‘pure’ forgiveness. For Derrida, pure forgiveness is distinct from the kinds of forgiveness tainted by political, legal, or economic considerations – acts of amnesty, excuse, regret, reparation, apology, therapy, and so on. Pure forgiveness arises from the paradox of forgiving the unforgivable. All other forms of forgiveness are conditional: I will forgive, if you give me something. The act of forgiving is compromised, as it is between Vietnam and America. Vietnam will forgive America, so long as America invests in it and offers protection against China. 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. Americans who return to Vietnam and feel wonderstruck by how the Vietnamese seem to forgive them don’t understand that such forgiveness is conditional. While the Vietnamese surely extend some generosity of spirit to Americans, an undertone of profit exists, for Americans are walking wallets. Faced with how individuals and states compromise, abuse, and exploit forgiveness and reconciliation, its related term, Derrida argues that forgiveness ‘is not, and should not be, normal.’ Rather, ‘forgiveness must announce itself as impossibility itself,’ something not dependent on the repentance of the person or entity one might forgive. I must admit that on first encountering Derrida’s notion of forgiveness, I struggled with it. If something is unforgivable, how can it be forgiven? I can forgive, in the abstract, America and Vietnam – in all their factions and variations – for what they’ve done in the past. But I can’t forgive them for what they do in the present, because the present isn’t finished. The present, perhaps, is always unforgivable.
What about pragmatic moments of forgiveness that allow things such as reparations, returns, or recognitions to happen? Are they inconsequential? In the case of my war, even these pragmatic acts are rare. The United States pays a pittance to remove the tons of unexploded ordnance it dropped in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. It refuses to admit that Agent Orange damaged and damages human beings and the land in southeast Asia. Many southeast Asian exiles and refugees continue to hate their communist enemies, don’t recognize the communist government, and are afraid or unwilling to return. The communists in Vietnam and Laos have never apologized for reeducation camps and the persecution of people who turned into refugees. The Cambodian government is reluctant to acknowledge the widespread complicity of many people, including its own politicians and leaders, in the Khmer Rouge. A list of sensible things that people and governments could do to admit to the errors and horrors of the past include: truth and reconciliation commissions to encourage face to face dialogue between enemies; trials of war criminals, or at least offers of amnesty which acknowledge that certain people committed criminal acts; returning the homes and property of refugees, which may now be owned by other victims; erecting memorials to dead refugees and dead soldiers of the other side; constructing a curriculum that acknowledges all sides; allowing a civil society that can dissent and discuss the past freely; and staging dramas of genuine and mutual apology, instead of the more typical dramas of grief and resentment. Any of these would be enormously difficult but would help to heal the wounds of the past and encourage people and governments to move forward without denying the past. Instead, we have well-intentioned if flawed efforts such as the United Nations–sponsored Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia, with its mandate to prosecute only five high-ranking individuals for the crimes of the Khmer Rouge. The trial has gone on for years and will go on for years, at least until all the aging defendants are dead, or, in the case of one, demented and beyond prosecution. This is literally political theater, one with the duration of a hit Broadway musical and much more expensive to produce. In a country where the average salary is hundreds of dollars per year, the cost of the trials runs into the tens of millions of dollars. While the court will mete out some kind of justice, this is also a show meant to assure Cambodians that their government is addressing the past, even when its efforts are weak. And it’s a show meant to assure the world that the United Nations carries out its mission of staunching the bleeding of the world’s injuries, even when it can’t do so. The guaranteed convictions that will result from this pseudo trial, while worthwhile, will only lead to a pseudo reconciliation with the past. The inequality and injustice that led to the rise of the Khmer Rouge still remain, thousands of Khmer Rouge still alive, many in power, and the governments of Vietnam, China, and the United States, won’t ask for forgiveness, even if they were on trial, which they aren’t.
We submit to the pragmatists, the profiteers, and the paranoiacs who insist that war is part of humanity, our identity. They’re half-right but all wrong in believing that we can’t convert the recognition of our inevitable inhumanity into a different kind of realism, a realism that believes we must imagine peace, no matter how impossible it may seem. It’s perpetual war that’s unrealistic and insane, engineered in the rational language of bureaucracy and the high-flown rhetoric of nationalism and sacrifice, operating through campaigns that can only lead to human extermination. This madness can only be matched by the logic of perpetual peace and the excessive, utopian commitment to a pure forgiveness, which the species needs to survive. If we wish to live, we need a realism of the impossible. Thich Nhat Hanh, who inspired Martin Luther King Jr., provides another perspective on ‘the situation of a country suffering war or any other situation of injustice.’ Rather than laying the blame on one side or another, he says, ‘ see every person involved in the conflict as a victim. See that the situation is possible because of the clinging to ideologies and to an unjust world economic system which is upheld by every person through ignorance or through lack of resolve to change it.’ Even more, the duality of conflict itself, the either-or of war and hatred, is illusory: ‘See that two sides in a conflict aren’t really opposing, but two aspects of the same reality. See that the most essential thing is life and that killing or oppressing one another won’t solve anything.’ What Jacques Derrida and Thich Nhat Hanh ask for is both simple and difficult: the need to challenge the story about war and violence that so many find easy to accept. This story says that we must resign ourselves to the necessity and even nobility of war. War and violence are currently part of human identity, but identity can change, if we tell another kind of story and seize the means of production to circulate it. This story foresees a just rather than unjust forgetting, pivoting on just memory and pure forgiveness.
Forgiving others and letting go of resentment is an act both for others and for oneself. Only through forgiveness of the pure kind, extended to others and ourselves, can we have a just forgetting and a hope for a new kind of story where we don’t constantly turn to the unjust past. This is why storytelling specifically and art in general inhabit such an important place. The moving documentary The Betrayal (Nerakhoon) makes explicit how storytelling addresses betrayal and resentment. Betrayal happens at least twice in this film about a Laotian family whose father fought with the royalists and the Americans during the war. First, the Americans betrayed their Laotian allies and abandoned them to the communists. The father is sent to reeducation and his family become refugees, forced to flee to a ghetto in New York. Second, the father betrays his family when, after being released from reeducation, he finds another wife. The dual betrayals nearly destroy his first wife and children emotionally, sending them into poverty and tearing the family apart. But the eldest son, Thavisouk Phrasavath, is befriended by a young filmmaker, Ellen Kuras, and together they film the family’s story. The ending of the story isn’t exactly happy. After Laotian gang members murder Thavisouk’s half-brother, the son of his father and his other wife, Thavisouk and his father begin a fragile reconciliation. The father acknowledges his culpability in the war, when his job was to call for American bombings. Thavisouk gets married, becomes a father, and visits Laos, where he reunites tearfully with two sisters left behind. ‘I run between what I remember and what is forgotten, searching for the story of our people whose truth has not been told,’ he says. ‘As we move further from the Laos of our past, we are travelers moving in and out of dreams and nightmares. What happens to people in our land, the place we call home?’ The Betrayal doesn’t heal all the wounds inflicted on the family because of the war, but the story gestures toward just memory and toward forgiveness between family members. Just as importantly, the film refuses the lure of the Hollywood spectacular or the vanity of auteurship. Instead, it was filmed over decades, a long and patient collaboration. The relationship between Phrasavath and Kuras required trust and giving, which, lest we forget, is a part of forgiving. The film and its makers worked actively to prevent the betrayal of memory, and this film is their gift to those who have seen it. Each time I encounter a meaningful work of art, I feel like I’ve received an unexpected gift, something to cherish.
While storytelling and art aren’t the only ways we can give and receive gifts, they are one form of the ultimate gift, the one that comes without expectation of reciprocity. This idea of gift giving prevails among the spiritual and religious, especially those we perceive to be martyrs who have given their lives, from Jesus Christ to Thich Quang Duc to Martin Luther King Jr. But gifts can be secular as well, and small, and this book has explored a myriad of such small gifts, each one a step toward just memory and just forgetting. Giving without expecting reciprocity.
The Christian gift of love and forgiveness serves as a model for the personal act of just forgetting, where one lets go of the past, of resentment, of hatred without expectation. Forgiveness is also at the heart of the Buddhist practice offered by Thich Nhat Hanh and, intriguingly, in the secular, artistic work offered by some war veterans. They visit their former enemy’s land or commune with those enemies through their writing, as is the case with American writers such as John Balaban (Remembering Heaven’s Face), W. D. Ehrhart (Going Back), Larry Heinemann (Black Virgin Mountain), Wayne Karlin (Wandering Souls), or Bruce Weigl (The Circle of Hanh). Forgiveness on the part of these veterans also involves letting go of the need to be remembered in terms of nationalism, which is implicitly built on an antagonism toward others. This is the hidden price of the memorials and the monuments erected toward a nation’s veterans. As Ehrhart writes, ‘I didn’t want a monument. What I wanted was an end to monuments.’ Evident in this model of giving and forgiving, of letting go and surrendering, is the gratifying picture of two enemies making peace, acting out the binary of giver and receiver. The model is laudable but vulnerable because the reciprocity of gift giving still implies indebtedness, the expectation of getting something in return for a gift, even if it’s love and friendship.
Giving without hope of reciprocity, including the gift of art, is a better model for pure forgiveness and just forgetting. Rather than think of giving as involving only two people or entities, imagine giving as part of a chain in which the gift circulates among many. The one who receives a gift need not return it but can instead give a gift to another. In this manner, the giver eliminates the problem of reciprocity and expectation. Critic Lewis Hyde proposes this when he discusses the work of art as a gift that the artist sends out into the world, to be passed along to others. For Hyde, art doesn’t organize parties, nor is it the servant or colleague of power. Rather, the work of art becomes a political force simply through the faithful representation of the spirit. It’s a political act to create an image of the self or of the collective. So long as the artist speaks the truth, he will, whenever the government is lying or has betrayed the people, become a political force whether he intends to or not.
Giving without expectation of return is a way of working toward a time when just forgetting and actual justice exist in all ways of life, including in memory. The work of art crafted in the spirit of truth is a sign of justice and points toward justice, even if it can’t completely escape the material and unjust world that can turn the gift into a thing to be bought and sold.
To all those who demand that we must forget even without justice if we wish to move on, forgetting at all costs will one day cost you or your descendants. The violence and injustice you wish to leave in the past will return, perhaps in the old guise or perhaps in a new and deceptive one that will only be another face of perpetual war. Just forgetting only happens as a consequence of just memory. Remembering in this manner remains a task that seems impossible, given the irony that many of us prefer to carry the burden of injustice instead of putting it down, a reluctance that makes us bound to our past and present. Until that impossible moment of just memory occurs for everyone, some can undertake the task of just forgetting by giving and forgiving, working alone or, preferably, in solidarity with others. Meanwhile, the future of memory remains unknown.