Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Book Review: Nguyen's 'Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam And The Memory Of War'

Every American generation, it seems, has its own war.  My grandparents had the Great War, my parents had the Good War, and I had the Vietnam War, with the Forgotten War in between.  My children had the Iraq War and, at the rate things are going, my grandchildren with inherit the War in Afghanistan, which at 15 years and counting, is far and away the U.S.'s longest overseas military adventure. 
This bloody roll call tells you a few things about America: Protestations to the contrary, we are a bellicose people who will never run out of wars because, after all, they're good for business, if not the mortality rates of young men, and remind us of how much better we are than everyone else, especially people who look and dress funny.  Wars also distract us from problems on the home front and help prime the old patriotic pump.   
The narratives we hand down about our wars invariably summon memories of heroism and sacrifice.  After the tide of public opinion turned against LBJ on Vietnam, a popular catchphrase was "Even if you don't support the war, you can support the troops," a semantic trap if ever there was one, and the narratives invariably overlook the enormous suffering of the armies and peoples of the lands we vanquish, which always is for the greater good, of course.  Our greater good.  
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., which contains 58,000 names of American ward dead, is 150 yards long.  Do you know how long a comparable monument to Vietnamese war dead with a similar density of names would be?  (No, I didn't think you would.) 
It would be nine miles long. 
Wars are fought twice over -- once on the battlefield and once in our memory -- and that is the subject of Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, a scholarly, profound and challenging but hugely readable new book by Viet Thanh Nguyen.   
Nguyen cites the works of philosophers, historians, journalists, filmmakers and artists who have plumbed the murky depths of the psychological impact of war on combatants and civilians, but to my mind Nothing Ever Dies is nothing less than the paradigm exploration of the subject as it applies to war in general, but especially my war.   
He writes:
"The problem of war and memory is . . . first and foremost about how to remember the dead, who cannot speak for themselves.  Their unnerving silence compels the living -- tainted, perhaps by, a touch or more of survivor's guilt -- so to speak."
Nothing Ever Dies arguably is the nonfiction underpinning of his magnificent The Sympathizer, which won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.  (Click here for my review.)  This debut novel explores the post-Vietnam identity and politics of America through the eyes of a Vietnamese army captain and spy whose loyalties are deeply divided between East and West.   
I wrote: 
"The analogy is imperfect, but will suffice: The Sympathizer . . . is a terrific bookend to Fire In the Lake, the Frances FitzGerald classic.  While one book is fiction and the other nonfiction, both tell the story of the Vietnam War, its aftermath and legacy from a Vietnamese point of view.  And both, in their genre different but similarly powerful ways, are reminders to believers of the cocked-hat notion the U.S. could have 'won' the war if the politicians had only butted out, that it was a fool's errand from start to ignominious finish.  And while there was a surplus of fools on all sides, the biggest were the brass at the American Central Command in Saigon."
Nguyen was born in Vietnam and raised in the U.S.  He is harshly critical of American conduct in the Vietnam War and the amnesia that has conveniently enabled many of us to forget what a humbling defeat it was for our self-aggrandizing imperialist selves.  But he is no apologist for the Vietnamese, who called the decade-long conflict the American War and considered it a resounding victory, which it was not.  He writes that both countries "have not lived up to their revolutions." 
In Nothing Ever Dies, Nguyen references Apocalypse Now, the epic 1979 Vietnam War film starring Marlon Brando as the insane Special Forces colonel who commands his own Montagnard troops as a sort of demi-god.  The Sympathizer has numerous indirect references to the Francis Ford Coppola masterwork, including the character of a megalomaniacal Hollywood director who hires the captain-spy to critique his war movie and share his expertise during filming in the Philippines, which happens to be where Apocalypse Now was shot.
"Apocalypse Now is an important work of art," Nguyen told an interviewer in the run-up to publication of Nothing Ever Dies, "But that doesn't mean that I'm going to bow down before it. I'm going to fight with it because it fought with me," 
Nguyen first saw Apocalypse Now when he was 10, a Vietnamese refugee who spoke fluent English, and says he was devastated.   
"People just like me were being slaughtered," Nguyen told the interviewer.  "I felt violated.  It was an antiwar movie about the war in Vietnam, but the movie was about Americans.  The Vietnamese were silent and erased."   Thus began his scholarly, decades-long pursuit of war and memory.   
He is referencing both the U.S. and Vietnam, and for that matter any other nation, when he writes:
"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.  For citizens, garlands of euphemism and a fog of glorious myth shroud this bloody past.  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 nobles 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 being one with the nation's."
In the end, Nothing Ever Dies is a powerful meditation.  It is a book to be read in small sips and not big gulps.  It is worthwhile alone for revealing the intellectual roots of The Sympathizer, but even more so for confirming in compelling and passionate terms how we choose to remember and how we choose to forget, most notably for me that America is indeed fighting a forever War. 

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