A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
The Vietnam War lives in kind of a fog just off our left shoulder. It hovers there, will not go away, demands to be seen. But we don’t look. It contains too many uncomfortable, unresolved issues. The movies of the sixties swept up the war into its swirling, stoned idea of itself, a style of representation that allowed the fog to remain. The US does not, for the most part, read books by Vietnamese about the war, especially by those Vietnamese who were in-country during the war, either fighting it on one side or the other, or struggling to survive as civilians. I remember one Vietnamese, whose name I grievously forget, talking about a dream he had while he was hiding in a village recovering from his wounds. He dreamed that Hemingway came to visit him. It was raining and Hemingway sought shelter. When he came to the door of the hooch and saw Hemingway he said he was sorry that he had no whiskey, at which point Hemingway, smiling, lifted a bottle from his pack.
The poet, Nguyen Duy, was fond of saying that Vietnamese knew the names of American novelists, but Americans did not know the Vietnamese novelists. This is, unfortunately, and except for a few of us, very true. Who has heard of Bao Ninh, and he is the most famous? Who has read The Sorrow of War? The fiction of Nguyen Khai? Le Minh Que? And there are memoirs: Viet Cong Memoir by Troung relates the complexity of the war in the south where some of the resistance was non-communists who hoped that Ho would form a coalition government after the war. Who knows there was political complexity?
And the magnificent poets: Pham Tien Duat, Lam Thi My Da and many others. Who reads them? We are blessed by a recent novel by a living Vietnamese American, Viet Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, that reveals the deep unresolved splits in the psyches of the Vietnamese with humor and penetrating grief. His novel is a lens by which we may find our way back to the unresolved war.
In another twenty years, most of the veterans of the war will be gone. The war is now merely a notation in history books for most younger people. Will anyone remember the war? Will they inherit the Nagging Unresolved that wakes some of us up in the night?
There are hundreds of books by American Vietnam Veterans that few people have read. Nonfiction and fiction written by vets who have avoided the mysto-steam of the sixties and attempted to be precise in their accounts of what happened. Two of my most recent reads are The Village by Bing West and Charlie 1-5 by Nicholas Warr. The “heroic” POV in these books is deeply moving. As the war became more politically repulsive at home Americans fighting the war turned to each other to survive against a formidable enemy who was willing to die in large numbers for their country’s independence.
Who were these Americans? They were young men who’d been brought up by the people who’d fought World War II, and they carried in their cells a notion that we were decent men involved in a great project to keep the world free. Such sentiment now brings peals of cynical laughter. But that’s who we were, and we got to see the whole thing go wrong; or rather, we got to see the lie revealed. Most of us were not the soldiers at My Lai. We were just people who’d bought the dream and painfully, over many years, saw that it was a hoax. A hoax that caused and is still causing horrible suffering to the Vietnamese, whether expatriot Viet Kieu or still living in Vietnam.
Some of us identify with the OSS agents whom Ho Chi Minh allowed to travel with him in the mountains so they could radio back weather reports for the American and allied pilots flying against the Japanese. These agents attempted to convince American politicians that Ho Chi Minh was the man to back. The politicians, who are not much equipped for listening to something that does not involve their own self-promotion, were deaf. The result was three million dead Vietnamese, sixty thousand dead Americans and the eternal distrust of politicians.
Vietnam veterans: Few people know who we actually are. We are not the victims created by the right and represented by the black flags that fly over post offices, that are supposed to be about POWS, but are really about an ideal of decency and manhood irretrievably lost. Perhaps it never existed. Perhaps “The Greatest Generation” was, like us, just a bunch of grunts trying to survive. In any case, the dream is dead. And what we grow in its decomposition is penetrating knowledge. The attainment and crafting of this knowledge is the real heroism. It’s useful. But no one seems to be asking us for what we know. The cloud remains just off our left shoulder.
Copyright 2016 Doug Anderson.