A review of recent fiction about Vietnam, specifically the Vietnam war, points out something important: the US gets involved in fights around the world, generally with the idea of maintaining our “way of life” and our economic power; we never seem to take the time to understand the “other” — the inscrutable enemies who seem to always foul up our plans for American style democracy; and our failure to come to terms with what happened in to us Vietnam — militarily yes, but also culturally, psychologically, morally — condemns us to make the same mistakes, to be unable to understand or extricate ourselves from the new counterinsurgency wars — Iraq and Afghanistan. If we look at the continuing stream of American fiction coming out with a focus on Vietnam, we can see how the US has been unable to process or make amends for that genocidal war — and we pay for it today.
I am one of those millions of Americans who started out thinking the war was a bad idea and ended up feeling that the Vietnamese revolution, like the anti-colonialist wars in Africa (including South Africa) and Latin America, were on the right side and should be supported. The US military was not just a bunch of well-meaning guys who made some blunders. They were perpetrating horrendous crimes. And people like Henry Kissinger, who calmly calculated the political effects of carpet bombings of civilians, should be on trial. Again, does that mean I hated the GIs? Not at all. I worked with GIs throughout the war and afterwards. They mostly condemned the war, and we do them a disservice to perpetuate the myths that will get another generation sent into the maw. I suggest you Netflix the documentary Sir No Sir, which gives a good picture of the GI and veteran antiwar movement.
As hard as it is to absorb and accept, it is likely that had the GI’s been successful, if they had swept through the countryside and subdued it, if raping and killing had worked, the world would be a more dehumanized place, and they would be worse people. They would be the disgusting braggarts of imperial conquest, happy with the whorehouses and the tales of atrocities. By losing that war, they were open to finding their own humanity. I don’t mean that I am happy with even one casualty inflicted on Americans — I know many who were and are casualties. But the only thing worse than losing in Vietnam would have been winning.
While there is a national project of honoring (and narrowly defining) the Vietnam vets now, it is primarily in order to line up more young men and women to be wounded and killed in new adventures. And, to our discredit, there is no ratified cultural process of honoring the many anti-war activists who also fought in this conflict — in fact, on the right side. So the anti-war activists who were cut down at Kent State and Jackson State, the others who were killed in resistance actions, the Panthers who were set up and killed in an explicit FBI project, the GI’s who were put on point and blown away for professing opposition to the war, the suicides, the despair — these veterans are ignored or vilified in our mainstream discussions of the war.
All this distance, all this willful ignorance, matters deeply. Because if you don’t have the ability to recognize that you have lost a war, if you don’t try to understand the whys and wherefores of it, you are certainly not working on correcting the tragic and terrible choices that made the war happen. Even this, the simple statement that the US lost the war, is a controversial comment in public discourse. Americans can barely choke out this obvious fact. And the many international and national forums that judged US actions and found them to be criminal and unconscionable are slowly fading from memory.
It is important, however, for us to face this reality. Germany went through decades of soul-searching, guilt (appropriate guilt) and struggle after World War II. They did this on both sides, the Eastern and Western Germanys. They wrote novels, made movies, and carried out endless public discussions about the horrors they had committed and how to repair the damage. And they came out of it with some deeper (imperfect, but better) understandings — about everything from the question of what a nation is or should be among other nations, the limits of power, the ethical responsibilities of individuals, and much more. And you would never see a German military officer writing a PhD dissertation on the mistakes that were made in the Eastern Front — how they might have done better on the siege of Leningrad, and more effective plans for the invasion of England. Such a discourse would be impossible now.
But the US military, bolstered by a public relations campaign that suggests we were the injured party in Vietnam, that defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory by appeasers and weak-willed politicians, did go right back to the drawing boards to plan the next Vietnam. General Petraeus was allowed to write a PhD dissertation that looked at how to fight the next counterinsurgency war. And he was unleashed to try out this fine idea on the backs of hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis and Afghans — as well as more US soldiers.
The elements of this so-called strategy, it seems, are simple matters of upping the violence and tamping down political opposition. Some of the brilliant “new” ideas of this military genius include: controlling the media through the process of embedding and co-opting reporters; eliminating the draft so the middle and upper classes do not feel the direct effects of the war; implementing massive assassination projects and unmanned drone missile attacks; utilizing advanced electronic surveillance; and creating pacification zones in the name of defending the civilian population. Since civilians are mostly in danger from the invading forces, however, this last element is mostly a publicity effort but something that gains no traction on the ground in these countries.
While American idiocy in the Middle East maps on well to the disaster of Vietnam, clearly there are huge differences between the Vietnamese and the Afghan or Iraqi resistance. What they have in common is America’s blinkered inability to understand them. What do the Taliban, the Mahdi Army, or the Sunni insurgency have in common? Their ability to defeat the US by simply not surrendering. A low-level, asymmetrical, resistance war that grinds out the years, that slowly learns to adapt to US measures, will ultimately throw out the invaders. No one knows what kind of regime will be in place after the US is worn down and leaves, but we can be pretty sure it will be something worse than what it would have been if the US had built relations that respect cultures and peoples. That is something Americans never learned from Vietnam.
Which brings me to the fiction on Vietnam. Usually we can count on our artists, our fiction writers, to reveal deeper truths than the historians. But somehow the American imagination falls short. Yes, some incredible work has been done in the past, such as Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried; and must include films like Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now. But even these, while extremely insightful on the pitiful and tragic error of US war making, fail to give even a glimpse of the “other,” of the Vietnamese themselves. Recent books are even a greater disappointment. Leaving aside policy considerations and political debates for a minute, I tried to explore whether we have managed, in our cultural processing of the war through fiction, to shine any more light on the Vietnamese perspective of the war. I set out to read American fiction on Vietnam.
I recently reviewed Karl Marlantes’ novel Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War. While it was a gripping account of the horrors of combat, in the end I found myself disgusted with the book:
Often, I think, feel that those who have suffered in war are the wiser for it. The opposite may be true: Some try to justify a horrible crime of a war in order to make the sacrifice seem meaningful.
The first thing that is egregiously missing from Marlantes’ story is any depiction, or even any remote understanding or feeling, for the Vietnamese — their lives, their history, their culture and their tradition of resistance. Indeed, Americans have wallowed in self-pity and recriminations about the defeat in Vietnam without really considering, soberly and honestly, the meaning of the three million Vietnamese the US invasion and occupation killed there and the many more still suffering the effects of Agent Orange.
Three more books that came to my attention as perhaps dealing with “both sides” in the conflict were Tatiana Soli’s The Lotus Eaters, Robert Olen Butler’s A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, and David Rabe’s A Girl by the Road at Night. I thoroughly enjoyed reading each of these books. And the authors’ attempts, through research, relationships, or imagination, to capture the Vietnamese experience were evident. Still, I found myself disappointed.
Soli’s novel explores the adventures and growing education of an American woman photographer at the height of the Vietnam War. Through a love affair, first with a hard-bitten American freelancer and, after he’s killed, with a Vietnamese journalist who reports for the US press, she comes closer and closer to Vietnamese life. Her Vietnamese character Linh is, apparently, roughly based on the true story of Pham Xuan An — a Vietnamese interpreter and fixer who became a main contact for US journalists and revealed himself, only after the war ended, as an agent for the National Liberation Front (what the western media called the Viet Cong).
In the end, though, The Lotus Eaters was a disappointment to me. It held on to a deeply American prejudice, an absolute inability to imagine why anyone would be on the communist side. Clearly anyone who opposed the US must be the victim of blackmail or terror. Linh’s communist contact, Mr. Bao, is the most silly caricature — a ridiculous, corrupt, and selfish man. A heroin smuggler. But everyone knows that heroin was a specialty of the Saigon government and military forces.
The point is that the Vietnamese have not been silent. We have just not been paying attention. There are many sources that offer more insight to the Vietnamese reality. There is a biography of Pham Xuan An (Larry Berman’s Perfect Spy: The Incredible Double Life of Pham Xuan An, Time Magazine Reporter and Vietnamese Communist Agent). You can also get the wartime accounts of such women as, Dinh Thi Van, Xuan Phuong, and Nguyen Thi Dinh. Nguyen Khac Vien patiently explained the Vietnamese world view to western readers, even during the war. Other powerful Vietnamese writing comes from Bao Ninh, whose The Sorrow of War is an anti-war plea from a former North Vietnamese soldier, and Ho Anh Thai.
A few Western writers have tried to bring some truths to the self-delusional discourse on Vietnam. You can read the insightful writing of Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame — he describes an American patrol in his book Secrets; then there is John Paul Vann and his expos of the war, A Bright Shining Lie; Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett explained the war while it was going on with clarity and should have reached a wider audience; Milton Bates examined our own cultural conflicts around the war in The Wars We Took to Vietnam; and Jerry Lembecke debunked the myth of veterans being spat upon in his well researched book, The Spitting Image, Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam.
But I am always disappointed when these fiction authors fall into the typical US myths about what the National Liberation Front and the North Vietnamese forces were like. The June 10, 2010, issue of the New York Review of Books has an interesting article on the stupidity of US leadership during the war, particularly McGeorge Bundy. When asked in 1996 what was most surprising about the war, Bundy replied: “The endurance of the enemy.” Right. The US war makers had no idea. But it’s not that no one had an idea. We young people, for instance, pretty much understood that. Other architects of the war, such as Robert McNamara have also had their second and third thoughts, as seen in the documentary of his late apologies for the debacle, The Fog of War.
As for other recent fiction, it is less satisfying. Robert Olen Butler’s A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, is an affecting bit of writing, a series of short stories centered in the Vietnamese-American community of Versailles in eastern New Orleans. Each story is from another person’s point of view. And I suppose Butler shows a certain literary courage (or arrogance) to imagine he can inhabit the consciousness of a South Vietnamese officer, a bar girl, a businessman, and so on. As often happens in such cases, the author must sacrifice some of the narrative to make an anthropological observation, or background explanation, for his American readers — referencing and explaining certain Vietnamese historical or mythological touchstones. Sometimes this approach becomes didactic, losing the Vietnamese voice for the lecture to the foreign reader.
Still, I would grant him the benefit of the doubt and congratulate him in his attempt to see the Vietnamese point of view. From Butler we get only the anti-communist Vietnamese, however, only the ones who describe “our country” as “falling” to the communists. In other words, only the perspective on the war shared by the small minority that sided with the US and the Americans themselves. Granted, this is the story of a Vietnamese exile community in the US, but even here a truer version would include the complexity of loyalties and perspectives that exist. And the one story that tries to capture the thoughts of a Viet Cong fighter, “Salem,” actually shows a cadre who secretly turned against the Viet Cong, who doubted the resistance movement.
So once again, American fiction finds the view of the Vietnamese resistance unfathomable. Even in imaginative writing, most authors cannot come to terms with the people who defeated the US military.
So we come to David Rabe’s A Girl by the Road at Night, which is another disappointment, at least in the department of cross-cultural understanding. Rabe juxtaposes the lives of a young draftee, Private Joseph Whitaker, with a poor prostitute, Quach Ngoc Lan, in the area of Bien Hoa outside of Saigon. Of course their paths cross, of course they have sex. But nothing is good — the communication, the understandings, even the sex. In fact, there is nothing transformative to recommend the story, nothing to make you even care much about anyone. And, when Lan is raped and killed by some creepy South Vietnamese Army soldiers, Whitaker learns nothing. Indeed, he never even learns that she has been killed.
Perhaps this is Rabe’s harsh message: These people crossed paths in brutal moments but never were curious about each other, never cared to know about each other. In the end, though, it is just another Big-Western-Man-Screws-Eroticized-Asian-Woman tale, which has a pathetic tradition that includes Madame Butterfly, South Pacific, The Quiet American, and so many more. One has to ask: Have we not had enough? Is this all you’ve got? Again, Rabe advances no understanding of the Vietnamese revolution, the anti-American resistance, no understanding of much of anything at all.
It matters that we continue the debate over Vietnam, the war to explain the war, because our ignorance continues to have dire consequences for millions of people and for the prospect of ever reaching world peace. If the other side is a perpetual mystery, if we frame them with either demonizing stereotypes (they live through mindless terror) or patronizing soft tones (they all secretly want to be like us), we never manage to come to terms with the intractable morass of conflict we are mired in. We need to think differently. And we need artists — because the political chatting classes are incapable of it — to imagine a different set of possibilities. As they say in the slogan of the World Social Forum, “Another world is possible.”