Viet Thanh Nguyen writes: Thursday, the last day of April, is the 40th anniversary of the end of my war. Americans call it the Vietnam War, and the victorious Vietnamese call it the American War. In fact, both of these names are misnomers, since the war was also fought, to great devastation, in Laos and Cambodia, a fact that Americans and Vietnamese would both rather forget.
In any case, for anyone who has lived through a war, that war needs no name. It is always and only “the war,” which is what my family and I call it. Anniversaries are the time for war stories to be told, and the stories of my family and other refugees are war stories, too. This is important, for when Americans think of war, they tend to think of men fighting “over there.” The tendency to separate war stories from immigrant stories means that most Americans don’t understand how many of the immigrants and refugees in the United States have fled from wars — many of which this country has had a hand in.
Although my family and other refugees brought our war stories with us to America, they remain largely unheard and unread, except by people like us. Compared with many of the four million Vietnamese in the diaspora, my family has been lucky. None of my relatives can be counted among the three million who died during the war, or the hundreds of thousands who disappeared at sea trying to escape by boat. But our experiences in coming to America were difficult.
When I first came to this country, at age 4, I was taken from my parents and put into a household of American strangers who were supposed to care for me while my parents got on their feet. I remember a small apartment, or maybe a mobile home, and a young couple who did not know what to do with me. I was sent on to a bigger house, a family with children, who asked me how to use chopsticks. I’m sure they meant to be welcoming, but I was perplexed and disappointed in myself for not knowing how to use them.
As for Vietnam, it is both familiar and strange. I heard much about it as I grew up in San Jose, Calif., in a Vietnamese enclave where I ate Vietnamese food, went to a Vietnamese church, studied the Vietnamese language, and heard Vietnamese stories, which were always about loss and pain. My parents and everyone I knew had lost homes, wealth, relatives, country and peace of mind. Letters and photographs in Par Avion envelopes, trimmed in red and blue, would arrive bearing words of poverty and hunger and despair. My parents had left behind my older, adopted sister, whom I knew only through one black-and-white photograph, a beautiful girl with a lonely expression. I didn’t remember her at all. I didn’t remember the grandparents who passed away one by one, two of whom I never met because they had stayed in the north while my parents had fled to the south as teenagers in 1954. [Continue reading…]
Clay Claiborne writes: I made a documentary about the Vietnam War five years ago, Vietnam: American Holocaust. Since I wanted it to be the ultimate Vietnam War documentary, I got the guy who narrated and starred in Apocalypse Now to do the voice-over. I made it because too many educated Americans will tell you 58,000 people died in the Vietnam War, when the real number is closer to three million, give or take 50,000. The tag line I have used to promote the film has been “The Vietnam War was a Mỹ Lai every week.” Since most people know about the Mỹ Lai massacre, it is an easy way to say what the film’s message is. The month after I released the film, Nick Turse published an article in The Nation titled “A Mỹ Lai a Month” about Operation Speedy Express, in which 10,889 Vietnamese were killed at the cost of only 267 American lives, which made much the same point.
That point, already known to the Vietnamese, most serious students of the Vietnam War, and certainly most combat vets, is that the only thing really outstanding about the Mỹ Lai massacre is the amount of attention it received.
Consider this relatively unknown massacre related by, Scott Camil, a decorated Vietnam combat Marine who testifies in my film. Why is it any less deserving to be known to the world and remembered throughout history?
In Operation Stone we were sitting up on the rail road trestle with a river on each side. There’s another company behind each river. And like the people were running around inside. And we were just shooting them and the newspaper said Operation Stone like World War Two movie. We just sat up there and wiped them out, women, children, everything. Two hundred nine-one of them.
Was this not worthy of Pulitzer Prize winning reportage? Certainly Operation Speedy Express was because it clearly wasn’t a simple case of a Lieutenant and his company going off the reservation.
I have long been of the opinion that the US imperialists, even in their limited wisdom, understood they could never obliterate the people’s memory of the many atrocities of the Vietnam War, so they allowed one to become famous, they allowed one to be publicized and prosecuted, in the hopes that the public memory of the generalized and pervasive massacres that was the Vietnam War, would be resolved down to the memory of this one atrocity, and in this they have been largely successful. I believe this is the proper context to view Seymour Hersh’s Pulitzer Prizing winning reporting on the Mỹ Lai Massacre. [Continue reading…]
Nguyen Van Tu asks if I’m serious. Am I really willing to tell his story — to tell the story of the Vietnamese who live in this rural corner of the Mekong Delta? Almost 40 years after guerrilla fighters in his country threw the limits of U.S. military power into stark relief — during the 1968 Tet Offensive — we sit in his rustic home, built of wood and thatch with an earthen floor, and speak of two hallmarks of that power: ignorance and lack of accountability. As awkward chicks scurry past my feet, I have the sickening feeling that, in decades to come, far too many Iraqis and Afghans will have similar stories to tell. Similar memories of American troops. Similar accounts of air strikes and artillery bombardments. Nightmare knowledge of what “America” means to far too many outside the United States. [complete article]