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The War in Vietnam: Studies in Remembrance and Legacy, 2000–2014 (June 2016): Commemoration and Memory Studies

By Jerry Lembcke

Commemoration and Memory Studies

The most important new books on commemorative studies indicate the trend toward “transnational commemoration”— practices that fuse the sentiments and architectural styles emanating from the varied national and cultural contexts reflective of the parties to the war.  Christina Schwenkel begins The American War in Contemporary Vietnam: Transnational Remembrance and Representation by contrasting US commemorations such as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall in Washington, DC, which focus on loss and grief, with those in Vietnam, like peace parks, which are more hopeful and forward looking.  Within Vietnam, Schwenkel documents the way the spiritual tones found in “traditional” forms of remembrance have been incorporated into more secular and political forms in order to lessen the postwar tension between popular and statist sentiments.  Most profound is her documentation of the ways US commemorative practices have penetrated Vietnam’s memorial landscape, partly through the marketing of US veteran tourism.

For Americans for whom the 1968 massacre at My Lai remains indelible in memory, Heonik Kwon’s After the Massacre: Commemoration and Consolation in Ha My and My Lai is an engaging anthropological study of the way those hamlets continue to process their experience with mass death nearly fifty years ago.  Kwon distinguishes between the traditional Vietnamese rituals for natural or expected “home” deaths and rituals for “street” deaths through violent or other unexpected events.  The massacres involving the burning of homes, the murder of children in them, and the disposal of bodies in mass graves blurred those distinctions, making commemoration impossible.  Commemoration was further complicated by the postwar effort of the Vietnamese government to supplant ancestor veneration with a modern statist celebration of the war dead as heroes, identification with whom would galvanize a new sense of nationalism.

Nathalie Huynh Chau Nguyen’s New Perceptions of the Vietnam War: Essays on the War, the South Vietnamese Experience, the Diaspora and the Continuing Impact is an edited volume that counterbalances the US domination of commemoration studies.  In chapters that foreground the South Vietnamese and US allies like Australia, Nguyen (Monash University, Australia) recalls the war from the perspective of the South.  She attends to the postwar experience of the South Vietnamese now resettled in Australia with a focus on the “side-by-side” memorials positioning Australian and South Vietnamese soldiers together on a single pedestal.  The creative design of Scott Laderman’s Tours of Vietnam: War, Travel Guides, and Memory credentials it for a broad range of comparative US and Vietnamese studies of memory and commemoration.  It should be required for US study-abroad students headed for Vietnam.

Yen Le Espiritu’s Body Counts: The Vietnam War and Militarized Refuge(es) calls out the narcissism threading Americans’ memory of the war, critically reassessing the “refugee” narrative of Vietnamese resettlement in the United States.  Viewing the Vietnamese as refugees, she argues, extends into the present the mythologies that the evacuation of Saigon in 1975 was a noble “rescue” mission by Americans to “save” helpless South Vietnamese from the communists, and that the ten-year US military presence in Vietnam was a response to the fledgling nation’s request for assistance in repelling the foreign aggression of communism.  Framed within that narrative, she says, the story of Vietnamese Americans is really code for the heroic altruism of Americans—a story line she rejects.  Body Counts is a valuable counterweight to the 2015 film Last Days in Vietnam commemorating the US role in the Saigon evacuation, and the author’s interviews with Vietnamese Americans complicate the efforts of many US scholars to disconnect the war years—”Vietnam is more than a war”—from today’s Vietnam and its diaspora.

The studies of commemoration and representation such as those cited challenge conventional views of war as indelible—feelings sealed in the emotional fabric of individuals or fixed in some compartment of the brain.  In that vein, the years following Vietnam spawned a whole new generation of scholarship on the meaning of memory qua memory, the literature of which is reviewed by Jenny Edkins in Trauma and the Memory of Politics.  Edkins uses the war in Vietnam and World War I as case studies to distinguish between memory as something that we have versus memory as something that we do and create through a socially mediated process such as commemoration.  Her contention that memories exist only in the state of the creative moment of their present challenges the validity of preexisting, “archived” memories that can reappear, unbidden, as “flashbacks” symptomatic of trauma.

Studies of war trauma dominate the recent literature on the war in Vietnam, and while the image of the trauma-stricken US veteran figures most centrally in these books, there are notable others, such as Gina Marie Weaver’s Ideologies of Forgetting: Rape in the Vietnam War.  Weaver complements Turse (Kill Anything), although Brenda Boyle’s Masculinity in Vietnam War Narratives: A Critical Study of Fiction, Films, and Nonfiction Writings provides the same view, while taking readers into deeper theoretical waters.  Living up to its title, Boyle’s book is also appropriate for holdings in film, literature, and gender studies.