Vietnamese demonstrate how to recover from atrocity

Copyright The International Herald Tribune
Letter from Asia
By Howard W. French
Published: March 6, 2008
HANOI: A conspicuous sign in the immaculate baggage collection area at this city’s recently built airport proclaimed the availability of CNN, anywhere, anytime.
During a weeklong stay, I couldn’t rigorously test out this boast, but arriving here from China, I did know one thing, that such prominent ads for Western news outlets can’t be found there at all.
Hmm, I thought, as my taxi sped along the highway into the city, passing billboard after billboard announcing “Intel Inside,” along with the presence here of a host of other major Western companies.
I had read of the extraordinary growth of the Vietnamese economy, nearly on a pace with that of its giant neighbor, China; of the blossoming of a frothy stock market; and of the culture of entrepreneurship and of acquisition that often goes with such things.
What I had not heard much of lately or frankly bothered to think of very often was of the bloody and costly war that the United States waged in Vietnam from 1959 to 1975
Memories of that war had come back to me powerfully some weeks before my arrival here when I read Denis Johnson’s long and intensely imagined Vietnam novel, “Tree of Smoke,” whose story is woven together from the strands of numerous characters’ lives. Most central, though, are Colonel Francis X. Sands and his nephew, Skip Sands. They are both operatives in military intelligence, one a legend and rogue, and the other an eager novice who eventually also becomes a rogue.
The Vietnam War has, of course, already been fought and refought in literature, much as in American politics. Before Johnson dropped his massive novel on us, many might have asked what the point was, 40 years after the Tet offensive that demonstrated the power of the Vietcong to strike ferociously in the south.
Without stooping to polemic, but rather by delving into the language of myth and of religion, Johnson turns that question on its head, as his characters slog, driven by duty, folly or sheer inertia through the increasingly patent meaninglessness of the war.
The question why is asked and answered over and over again in the book, albeit never in the same way, reinforcing an impression of moral quicksand, and challenging us to ask ourselves just that: What was the point?
“We’re in a worldwide war, have been for close to twenty years,” says the colonel in one exchange with his nephew. “It’s a covert World War Three. It’s Armageddon by proxy. It’s a contest between good and evil, and its true ground is the heart of every human. I’m going to transgress outside the line a little bit now. I’m going to tell you, Skip: Sometimes I wonder if it isn’t the goddam Alamo. This is a fallen world. Every time we turn around there’s somebody else going Red.”
Through history’s rearview mirror, this domino theory can look risible these days, and nowhere more than in today’s Vietnam, where the Communists “won,” and where Intel signs and the stock market players and the CNN that I faced everywhere here, and in a stop in Saigon, too, had me asking myself Denis Johnson’s questions.
There was more to it than the facile accoutrements of the capitalist West that are on plain display, though. Given our readiness to believe in good and evil, more disorienting still were the quick and genuine smiles of the people, complete strangers who welcomed me into their neighborhoods and homes, the easy conversations that I was able to have, scarcely haunted by the awful shared history of our two countries.
No, the Vietnamese have not forgotten what happened, but they have given us a humbling demonstration of the human capacity to get on with things, to get over even the most atrocious of life’s chapters and to recover.
This was brought home to me most powerfully late one afternoon when I lingered in the densely packed Ngoc Ha neighborhood, where the wreckage of an American B-52 bomber sits belly up in a shallow pond, where it fell out of the sky during the December 1972 bombing campaign. A modest commemorative plaque hangs on a wall nearby.
I was, myself, a year or so too young to have been drafted and but for that accident of birth, might have come to Vietnam as a pilot or a rifleman. Instead, I wield a notebook and camera today.
A nearby school had just let its students out, and the youngsters tagged along with me smiling and playfully testing out their English as I tried to imagine the terrible scene here decades before they were born. Adults smiled warmly too.
As a visitor, the least it seemed I could do was to reflect on the seemingly banal and yet truly profound truth that war is awful, and indeed very seldom just. It pushes us to think of others as subhuman, in terms like chinks and slopes and gooks, numbing our sensibilities and draining away our compassion.
This isn’t, by the way, even remotely an American phenomenon or an American criticism. Everywhere, mass mobilization, armament and organized killing have required it. Powerful narratives take root and carry us along, playing on our emotions bolstering self-justification and suppressing doubt.
“War is 90 percent myth anyway, isn’t it,” Johnson’s colonel says. “In order to prosecute our own wars we raise them to the level of human sacrifice, don’t we, and we constantly invoke our God. It’s got to be about something bigger than dying or we’d all turn deserter. I think we need to be much more conscious of that. I think we need to be invoking the other fellow’s gods too.”
As a visitor, the least it seemed I could do was to reflect on the seemingly banal and yet truly profound truth that war is awful, and indeed very seldom just. It pushes us to think of others as subhuman, in terms like chinks and slopes and gooks, numbing our sensibilities and draining away our compassion.
This isn’t, by the way, even remotely an American phenomenon or an American criticism. Everywhere, mass mobilization, armament and organized killing have required it. Powerful narratives take root and carry us along, playing on our emotions bolstering self-justification and suppressing doubt.
“War is 90 percent myth anyway, isn’t it,” Johnson’s colonel says. “In order to prosecute our own wars we raise them to the level of human sacrifice, don’t we, and we constantly invoke our God. It’s got to be about something bigger than dying or we’d all turn deserter. I think we need to be much more conscious of that. I think we need to be invoking the other fellow’s gods too.”
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