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In Tunnels where Ghosts Dwell: War, Memory, and Identity (Review)

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Viet Thanh Nguyen. 2016.
Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
ISBN 9780674663042

‘Pack Your Bags.’ The Sergeant slapped the back of my father-in-law, a young marine at the time in the 1960s. ‘Pack your bags,’ the Sergeant grunted. The young marine hesitantly began to ask where they were going. ‘Pack your bags,’ was the reply.

Vietnam was the answer the Sergeant could have given, but the young marine would  find out soon enough. A few more memories: of an uncle who was ready to flee to Canada if the draft rolls had his name on it; of a best friend’s father, while a soldier in ‘Nam, ambushed in the jungle, the Vietcong soldier aiming his gun and pressing the trigger, but the weapon  jammed, and in tears and fear and desperation, my friend’s father fired back, his first and haunting kill; of ubiquitous Vietnam war movies, always frightening, demon-like with American soldiers high and murderous, raping; and then my father-in-law again, years later at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, crying, for the first time doubting what it was all for. An American child of the 1980s, I was (and remain?) afraid of Vietnam, a word and place (a war) connoting failure, atrocity, and darkness.

‘This is a book on war and memory and identity’, Viet Thanh Nguyen opens Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War. Nguyen encourages and expects readers to imagine, contextualize, and reinterpret their own experience with such realities and concepts. The book thus is a lyrical, haunting gift to readers, exploring from low and high ground, the role and place of memory and forgetting, by a child refugee from the Vietnam War, the American War, ‘my war’, as he writes, now a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and academic in California. Weaving reflections and photos from his journeys and pilgrimages to sights of violence and loss in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, interspersed with analysis of key academic texts and novels on memory, forgetting, forgiveness, and the Vietnam War, Nguyen constructs, deconstructs, and reconstructs memories of his war and the ripples, aftershocks, and parallels to past, present and future wars.

Forgetting and Remembering
While the relationship between memory and forgetting is messy, and Nguyen highlights how disproportionate power relations give stark asymmetry to who and what is remembered, the book itself is tightly structured, symmetric like Palladian architecture. There are three sections, Ethics, Industries, and Aesthetics each with three chapters, bounded by an opening prologue followed by a self-contained chapter titled ‘Just Memory’, and closing with a final self-contained chapter titled ‘Just Forgetting’, and then an epilogue. Rifts and reflections on various types of memory interpenetrate throughout the book, with the ultimate aim of wondering how a just memory and a just forgetting can establish and promote peace while also serving justice (p. 254). Such would be a powerful memory, overcoming weaponized memory, which in the service of the culture and war machine, perpetuates a need for forever war, obfuscating or denying any stringent calls for accountability, truth, and solidarity across the lines of war. Such combatting carries over into challenging industrial memory and memory that has been capitalized for profit, rarely for those who were the victims of the violence or those left behind and in need of some remuneration.

Much of Nguyen’s thoughts revolve around the mystery of the human person, compiled of both human (humane) and inhuman (inhumane) tendencies but dominated by our unjust and disproportionate application of such tendencies, especially through what we choose to remember or forget, if I echo some of the language of James Baldwin in his The Evidence of Things Not Seen.

Such entails why we choose to remember one’s own at the cost of truly and virtuously remembering others, in terms of the thick memory of theorists like Avishai Margalit. For the Vietnam War, Americans of course remember their own soldiers – and partly because this obligation was seen as tainted from the unpopularity of the war, got reinvigorated during the Gulf War in patriotic fervor to support our troops. Acknowledging or remembering terrorists in Iraq or Afghanistan – or the Vietnamese – whether North or South, civilian or military (or even acknowledging such a distinction) is rarely embraced. Not surprisingly, witness testimony becomes crucial to such a project, whether through memoirs or the imaginative work of artists, novelists, and poets. It demanded Nguyen travel to places of torture and loss, from Cambodia’s S-21 prison to war cemeteries (cities of the dead – and often the forgotten), war memorials and museums throughout Vietnam. He also travelled to Laos, where the role of perpetrator and victim become all the more complicated for Americans and for the Vietnamese, both having concealed their roles and acts of violence through denial and now ongoing gaps and silences within official history and memorialization.

To combat such false or unjust memories, Nguyen highlights three crucial steps. First, we need real and candid acknowledgement of the universal truth of our humanity and inhumanity, nuancing and muddying our identities beyond American or Vietnamese, refugee or citizen. Secondly, just memory requires ‘equal access to the industries of memory, both within countries and among countries’ (p. 283). Such perhaps utopian aims can only happen with a greater transformation and sharing of wealth and power, but the call remains pragmatic and candid: powerful countries, the victors, can use all the resources at their disposal, hard and soft power (Hollywood films in the context of the United States) to promote their version of preferred history. Even where elements of injustice are depicted, the powerful can present them coated and varnished around initially good intentions or a return to those intentions: a lesson learned or mission still accomplished. Thirdly, the power and use of the imagination can envision ‘a world where no one will be exiled from what we think of as near and the dear to those distant realms of the far and the feared’ (p. 283). Not surprisingly, Nguyen’s latest fiction book, titled The Refugees aims to give voice to such forgotten and exiled.

An Ethics of Recognition
The Israeli novelist Amos Oz has praised how the power of literature encourages us to see and feel the Other, expanding and refining our sense of empathy that can begin to break down mass demonizations of the Other. Nguyen has similar hopes, calling for an ethics of recognition (p. 79). The novels, artwork, documentaries, and films he highlights, particularly by Vietnamese, Hmong, and Vietnamese-Americans, serve as anchors and gateways to reach out to those Americans for whom the Vietnamese, or the Iraqi, Afghan or Syrian remain separate, often inhuman (justifying current and future violence to protect one’s freedom or allegedly to spread democracy and peace). The hope is to see more of the humanity of the Other and consequently and tragically more of our own inhumanity in the process. Could such a humbling (as I would describe it) conjured ironically as a powerful memory become a truly just remembering which also entails some just forgetting?

Nguyen rightly notes how his insights came not only from the privilege and space of thinking and reflecting, but in ‘walking and crawling through caves where ghosts dwell, or sweating in museum with peeling walls  and barred windows or swearing at the heat  and the grime and the vomit and the nauseating toilets’ (p. 252). The sentence continues, listing more of his obstacles and setbacks, but arguing that such a low ground, in dialogue with the high ground is needed for perspective and nuance. Of course, such an opportunity can seem like a privilege, to fly multiple times to Vietnam and then back to California for life as an academic and acclaimed writer, but these tunnels with ghosts are within and all around us. It is only a matter of whether we are willing, truly, to see. My fear of Vietnamese war movies touches on some of these hidden truths, the ones of my father-in-law and uncle, and friend’s father less so. They paint a picture of Americans as reluctant warriors, some with little choice because of class and poverty (which is also true). Nuances within nuances are needed. But going beyond remembering one’s own is needed, and Nguyen’s voice and book propels and calls us to do just that.

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