Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War
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I count myself among those Vietnamese dismayed by America’s deeds but tempted to believe in its words. I also count myself among those Americans who often do not know what to make of Vietnam and want to know what to make of it. Americans, as well as many people the world over, tend to mistake Vietnam with the war named in its honor, or dishonor as the case may be.
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the most succinct explanation that I have found about the meaning of the war, at least for Americans, comes from Martin Luther King Jr. “If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned,” he said, “part of the autopsy must read ‘Vietnam.’ ”1 Americans mostly know King for his dream, but this is his prophecy, and it continues in this manner: “The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit. If we ignore this sobering reality, we will find ourselves organizing ‘clergy and laymen concerned’ committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala ...more
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This invocation of Vietnam as quagmire, syndrome, and war speaks neither to Vietnamese reality nor to current difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan. It speaks to American fear.
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the Vietnamese landscape that even American soldiers called beautiful, and America, what the Vietnamese call the beautiful country.
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a war is not just about the shooting but about the people who make the bullets and deliver the bullets and, perhaps most importantly, pay for the bullets, the distracted citizenry complicit in what King calls the “brutal solidarity” of white brother and black.
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Today the Vietnamese and American revolutions manufacture memories only to absolve the hardening of their arteries. For those of us who consider ourselves to be inheritors of one or both of these revolutions, or who have 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.
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The pairing of war and memory is commonplace after the disasters of the twentieth century, with tens of millions of dead who seem to cry out for commemoration, for consecration, and even, if one believes in ghosts, for consolation.
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How do we remember the living and what they did during times of war? How do we remember the nation and the people for whom the dead supposedly died?
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garlands of euphemism and a fog of glorious myth
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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 being one with the nation’s.
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Each war has a distinct identity, a face with carefully drawn features, familiar at a glance to the nation’s people.
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Wars are as complex as individuals, but are remembered by names that tell us as little as the names of individuals do. 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 more than their fair share of the fighting. In the case of the Vietnam War, Americans invented the name, an odd handcuffing of two nouns that has become normal through constant repetition. So normal, in fact, that even if the name is abbreviated to ...more
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The real American War was this entire American Century, a long and uneven expansion marked by a few periodic high-intensity conflicts, many low-intensity skirmishes, and the steady drone of a war machine’s ever-ongoing preparations. The result is that “wartime has become normal time in America.”
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To argue over the Vietnam War or the American War is thus to argue over false choices. Each name obscures human losses, financial costs, and capital gains, as well as how the war also blazed through Cambodia and Laos, something both the Vietnamese and the Americans wish neither to acknowledge nor remember.
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If we count what happened in a bomb-wrecked, politically destabilized Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge regime of 1975–1979 as the 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, or about a quarter of the population. The body count in Vietnam for all sides was closer to one-tenth of the population, while the American dead amounted to about 0.035 percent of the population.
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Denying this war its name also acknowledges what everyone who has lived through a war already knows: their war needs no name, for it is always simply the war.
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What these public memories show is that nations and peoples operate, for the most part, through what I call an ethics of remembering one’s own. This ethics has national variations, with the Vietnamese more willing to remember women and civilians than the Americans are, the Americans more willing than the Vietnamese to remember the enemy, and neither side showing any inclination for remembering the southern Vietnamese, who stink of loss, melancholy, bitterness, and rage.
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A more inclusive memory of war is also an outcome of the struggle to build what the sociologist Maurice Halbwachs called collective memory, where individual memories are made possible by memories already inherited from the communities to which we belong, which is to say that we remember through others.12 The critic James Young revises this through his model of collected memories, where the memories of different groups can be brought together in the reassuring style of American pluralism.
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Whether we speak of collective memory or collected memories, these models are only credible if they are inclusive of the group by which they are defined,
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the inclusiveness of the American Way is, by definition, exclusive of anything not American, which is why, even today, American memories of the war usually forget or obscure the Vietnamese, not to mention the Cambodians and Laotians.
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This desire to include more of one’s own or even others runs into problems both personal and political, for neither individual nor collective memory can be completely inclusive.
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We forget despite our best efforts, and we also forget because powerful interests often actively suppress memory, creating what Milan Kundera calls “the desert of organized forgetting.”
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This dominant logic of remembering one’s own and forgetting others is so strong that even those who have been forgotten will, when given the chance, forget others. The stories of those that lost in this war show that in the conflict over remembrance, no one is innocent of forgetting.
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Meanwhile, through rituals, parades, speeches, memorials, platitudes, and “true war stories,” the citizenry is constantly called to remember the nation’s own heroes and dead, which is easier to do when the citizenry also forgets the enemy and their dead.
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But while remembering others may be admirable to some, this mode of memory can also be dangerous or deceptive, for remembering others can simply be a reversal, a mirror, of remembering one’s own, where the other is good and virtuous and we are bad and flawed.
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What I look for and argue for in this book is a complex ethics of memory, a just memory that strives both to remember one’s own and others, while at the same time drawing attention to the life cycle of memories and their industrial production, how they are fashioned and forgotten, how they evolve and change.
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Art is crucial to this ethical work of just memory. The writing, photography, film, memorials, and monuments that I include in this book are all forms of memory and of witnessing, sometimes of the intimate, the domestic, the ephemeral, and the small, and sometimes of the historical, the public, the enduring, and the epochal. I turn to these works of art because after the official memos and speeches are forgotten, the history books ignored, and the powerful are dust, art remains. Art is the artifact of the imagination, and the imagination is the best manifestation of immortality possessed by ...more
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television channels air documentaries and entertainments that are visually high definition and mnemonically low resolution.
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Emotion and ethnocentrism are key to the memory industry as it turns wars and experiences into sacred objects and soldiers into untouchable mascots of memory, as found in the American fetish for the so-called Greatest Generation who fought the so-called Good War.
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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.
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viewers who are not physically present at those events are anesthetized into resignation, into watching the news as an awful form of entertainment.
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“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.
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Language itself becomes a circuit through which industrial memories circulate, so that 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 do not 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 ...more
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Remembering too much, or remembering the wrong things, is supposedly part of an identity politics, a negative politics motivated by a feeling of victimization, or so the critics claim. For these scholars, identity politics encourages people to believe that they are members of a persecuted group rather than individuals, which incites them to resurrect old histories of grief and resentment that divide a nation from within or separate it from its neighbors. Undermining the nation’s identity, identity politics supposedly diverts us from real politics, the kind concerned with economy and class, ...more
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A just memory opposes this kind of identity politics by recalling the weak, the subjugated, the different, the enemy, and the forgotten. A just memory says that ethically recalling our own is not enough to work through the past, and neither is the less common phenomenon of ethically recalling others.
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A just memory constantly tries to recall what might be forgotten, accidentally or deliberately, through self-serving interests, the debilitating effects of trauma, or the distraction offered by excessively remembering something else, such as the heroism of the nation’s soldiers. These excessive memories do not point to a just approach to the past, but to an unjust one, defined by what philosopher Paul Ricoeur calls “memory abusively summoned” by those in power.25
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War grows on intimate soil, nurtured by friends and neighbors, fought by sons, daughters, wives, and fathers. Our ambivalence about war’s identity simply expresses ambivalence about our own identities, which are collectively inseparable from the wars our nations have fought. These are the wars for which we have paid, from which we have benefitted, by which we are traumatized. Whatever may be noble and heroic in war is found in us, and whatever is evil and horrific in war is also found in us.
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The basic dialectic of memory and amnesia is instead more fundamentally about remembering our humanity and forgetting our inhumanity, while conversely remembering the inhumanity of others and forgetting their humanity.
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for Jorge Luis Borges, remembering is a ghostly verb.
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Memory is haunted, not just by ghostly others but by the horrors we have done, seen, and condoned, or by the unspeakable things from which we have profited.
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necropolis,
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These cemeteries impact the geography in a way that would not be possible in the United States, for while the country is smaller than California and larger than New Mexico, there were more than a million dead to account for, if you counted only those who fought for the winning side.
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cemeteries for tens of thousands of the war dead, regimented in death as in life. Once they stood tall; now they lay supine.
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Embedded in the earth are war’s explosive remnants, the bombs, shells, and mines that did not detonate as designed. Dormant and deadly, they at times activate and continue fulfilling their fate, ending the lives of over seven thousand provincial residents since the war officially concluded, and mutilating many more. No memorials commemorate these accidental dead,
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My traveling companion, a professional photographer, tries to take photos of these arms and legs. He cannot find an angle that pleases him. Every war has these human consequences that are not easy to frame in ways that would make them more acceptable, these amputees, these blind, these depressed, these suicidal, these insane, these jobless, these homeless, these side effects and delayed effects whose existence keeps memories of the war alive when most citizens would rather forget, or, at best, remember in circumscribed fashion.
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As Marc Augé notes of the war cemetery at Normandy, “nobody could say that this arranged beauty is not moving, but the emotion it arouses is born from the harmony of forms,” which “does not evoke raging battles, nor the fear of the men, nothing of what would actually restore some of the past realistically lived by the soldiers buried” there.
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Beautiful, quiet war cemeteries mask the certainty, recorded in many 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.
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Le Duc Tho declined, for there was no peace to speak of in 1973).
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The Communist Party draws its vitality from the marrow of those bones, most of which are found in cemeteries far less grand than Mai Dich.
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In these cemeteries, the masses of the dead lay as inert as facts, a million of them, not counting the contradictory facts of the losers and bystanders.
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