by Viet Thanh Nguyen
America is still sorting out how it feels about the Vietnam War. As the decades pass and its brutality is less fresh in our minds, we don't think too hard about it any more. Indeed, when we do, we begin to realize that, ever since President Eisenhower, in the very earliest days of America's involvement in Vietnam, warned us against the dominance of the Military Industrial Complex, America has been engaged in an almost perpetual war. This is a war fought on many fronts, from Vietnam to Central America, from Grenada to Beirut, Nicaragua and Panama, Dominican Republic and Kosovo, Libya and Yemen, to our current wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, not to mention our numerous covert actions all over the world. We are a warring nation, as much as we like to envision ourselves as agents of peace. So, we struggle with Vietnam, because we basically lost that conflict. It was a brutal war overseas, and a deeply divisive politcal war at home. At the heart of this rich political, cultural and philosophical analysis is a sense that we perpetuate war because we fail to acknowledge the very elements of our being that allow the killing to go on.
Here, professor and prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen takes us through a thought experiment in memory. A child of the Vietnam War, himself, he challenges us to look at the very basic nature of not just our humanity, but our capacity for inhumanity, that that acknowledgement is key to breaking the cycle of war, engendering a just and lasting remembering, and proceeding forward toward a world of human understanding that transcends war. He acknowledges the Utopian quality of that quest, but you don't alter human behavior without grand visions for how the world can be made a better place.
Nguyen does this by traveling back and forth between America and Southeast Asia, with momentary excursions to sites of human brutality in Europe and the Middle East. He looks at how Americans have commemorated Vietnam, the power of the Vietnam Memorial and the failures of our inability to recognize the humanity of our opponents. (While, indeed, much of the anti-war movement was a demand that we recognize Vietnam as a victim of Western aggression.) Meanwhile, in Vietnam, a nation that seems to lose for winning, the government controls the industry of memory (as the American government does in the USA, with the collusion of our cultural infrastructure) and inspires a kind of David and Goliath narrative in its down-at-heels memorials, cemeteries and museums. But Vietnam, too, fails to see its own inhumanity. It participates in an industry of memory (memorials, artworks, novels, movies) that, no matter how critical of war, paradoxically perpetuates our warlike nature. Throughout, he appeals to literature, much of it on the fringes of the "mainstream", for its arguments for an ethical memory and a just forgetting. The Memory Industrial Complex is tied up with the Military Industrial Complex. Apocalypse Now may be an anti-war movie, but its ultimate message has little to do with actually transcending war at all.
This book is highly erudite. It is dense with considered arguments for a handful of points repeatedly supported by Nguyen's experience, his analysis, and the compelling visits he makes to sites of memory and forgetting. The book is a challenge to its readers, but is ultimately rewarding. Nguyen won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his novel The Sympathizer. In this non-fiction meditation may be revealed much of the philosophy underlying his fiction. The book is a challenge to how we think of our wars, our culture and ourselves. And in the end, it is a moving appeal for transcendence. Highly recommended.
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