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Nothing Ever Dies

Viet Thanh Nguyen sees the American Dream as an insidious, supremely effective tool of colonization. The point seems inarguable; it feels unutterably sad.

Viet Thanh Nguyen
Viet Thanh Nguyen (photo by Bob Chamberlin) Via Los Angeles Times

Viet Thanh Nguyen sees the American Dream as an insidious, supremely effective tool of colonization. The point seems inarguable; it feels unutterably sad.

Nothing Ever Dies

Nothing Ever Dies
by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Harvard University Press (2016)

Once or twice in a lifetime, you happen on a book depicting the past and its legacy in a way that (although the specificities lie outside your experience) you know to be true. For me, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War is such a book. Born in 1971 in southern Vietnam, Viet Thanh Nguyen entered the United States in 1975, after the fall of Saigon. His parents and eleven–year–old brother accompanied him. His sixteen–year–old sister was left behind.

In Nothing Ever Dies, Nguyen parts the curtain between the refugee child he was and the scholar–professor he became. We witness the devastating imprint Apocalypse Now made on him as a ten–year–old. “I saw myself, but as the other, the Gook, and that, I knew, was how others might be seeing me.” We feel his affection for the ferociously patriotic exilic community in which he was raised—and his smoldering fury at the United States and Vietnam, neither country “showing any inclination for remembering the southern Vietnamese, who stink of loss, melancholy, bitterness, and rage.”

Born in 1956, in Dallas, I, too, came of age during the war. I was eight years old when Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, seventeen when the Paris Peace Accords were signed.

“All wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory.”

My memories of the war are scant. I remember my cousin Joe H. Trickey being killed after a Medevac helicopter he was riding in exploded on lift–off. I remember the grown–ups’ stricken, ambivalent response. It’s a terrible thing, Daddy said. He died serving his country, Mother added. I remember writing Senator John Tower suggesting that the United States use nuclear bombs to bring the war to a speedy close; that is, to bring the first war to a speedy close.

“All wars are fought twice,” Nguyen insists, “the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory.” By 1975, when the second war began, I had switched sides.

In Nothing Ever Dies, Nguyen files a dispatch from the memorial front. Drawing on the work of philosophers, artists, and activists, he examines how—in the aftermath of war—individuals, nations, and groups within nations remember “our own” and how we remember, forget, or disremember “others.” He deplores what he sees.

  • We remember only the humanity in “our own” and only the inhumanity in “others.” “The temptation is always present to deny that we can do unjustified harm; it is the other’s ability to do damage that we tend to see as being unjustified.”
  • Or we incriminate ourselves (remembering only our inhumanity) and idealize others (remembering only their humanity), diminishing each.
  • We tell stories (whether in words, monuments, photographs, landscapes, films, or sculptures) that show our people as “noble, virtuous, suffering, and sacrificial” and show others—when we include them at all—as objects of our pity or disdain.

One such story, epic in impact, is told in the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (‘the wall’). Nguyen recounts the wall’s history, from anathema to icon. He speculates about how the ethnicity of its creator, architectural prodigy Maya Lin, influenced her design. Most significantly, he delineates the wall’s omissions, which become glaringly apparent the moment we gaze where he points, to the negative space.

“Present in the black wall are redeemed American soldiers. Absent from the memorial are the casualties who are easier to forget, the veterans who suffer from trauma, or are homeless, or have committed suicide.” — Marita Stuken

In other words, we remember even our own selectively.

Altogether absent from the national memorial are those survivors whose stories have been expunged from the national mythos: Vietnamese, Laotian, Cambodian, and Hmong veterans of the war—and the Southeast Asian dead, including several million Vietnamese. Added to the site, through the protests of nurses and soldiers who felt excluded by or disembodied in the wall, are two heroic sculptures, one depicting three GIs (white, Latino, and African American); the other depicting three nurses, one of whom cradles a fallen soldier. The two sculptures stand apart. They relate neither to each other nor to the wall.

We can and have done better. I have seen it in the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument at Crow Agency, Montana. The original monument was named after the hapless Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer. A massive granite obelisk honored only the fallen Seventh Cavalry, their Crow scouts, and attached personnel; the names of those men were engraved on its shaft. The ‘others’—Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Lakota warriors who won the battle but lost their lives—were left out of the memorial and the history related at the site.

In 1991, Congress passed and President George H.W. Bush signed a bill changing the name of the battlefield and ordering the design and construction of a second memorial—to the Indians.

The Indian Memorial is a recessed stone circle (somewhat evocative of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial) with granite panels designed by and honoring each tribe. So far, so conventional. But here’s the thing: a long rectangular gap in the west–facing stones focuses visitors’ gaze directly onto the obelisk where the soldiers lie. The gap allows—indeed, welcomes—the tribes’ fallen enemies (the others) to join their fallen ancestors (their own).

All memories are not created equal.

All memories are not created equal. “The blast radius of memory, like the blast radius of weaponry is determined by industrial power, even if individual will shapes the act of memory itself.” As Nguyen elucidates, the reach of Vietnam’s memories—packaged by the Communist party in the forms of artworks, billboards, cemeteries, and ubiquitous renderings of Ho Chi Minh—extends only to its borders; whereas, thanks to its superior economic power, the United States exports its memories worldwide.

Readers will know this, mostly, although we may not ponder the results and implications of unilaterally determining which stories about the war get told and at what volume. Nguyen gives the searing example of Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc, whose self–immolation became internationally known because an American journalist photographed it, and the Associated Press disseminated the photograph as breaking news.

It’s not a bad thing, I think, that the photograph appeared in a newspaper my parents read or that (many years later) I saw TV footage of Duc’s fiery suicide. I remember struggling to take in the fact of the self–immolation: that what I was seeing had really taken place.

The image of Duc (and that of nine–year–old napalmed Phan Thi Kim Puc, which Nguyen also discusses), inoculated many in my generation against highfalutin rationales for killing freighted with terms like ‘Communist threat’ and ‘collateral damage.’ Some of us first had much to unlearn.

A truth I hadn’t let in until reading Nothing Ever Dies is that, well, nothing ever does. Rather, everything morphs. From 2,000 military advisors to 543,400 troops. From the War on Communism to the War on Terrorism. From the hard power of Boeing B–52 Stratofortresses and Corvair B–36 Peacemakers to “the soft power exports of cinema, literature, language, ideas, values, commodities, and lifestyles, the whole Hollywood–Coca Cola–McDonald’s network.”

Cinema receives special consideration in Nothing Ever Dies, perhaps because it’s the most pernicious weapon in the war for memory. I sense, also, that Nguyen remains haunted by the trauma he experienced when, at way too young an age, he saw Apocalypse Now. In any case, he lambasts the film for glorying in racial and technological superiority and in killing, “the emblematic scene being the helicopter assault on a Viet Cong village, set to the diegetic soundtrack of The Ride of the Valkyries.”

Captivated by the spectacle, ordinary viewers may not think about the message we’re absorbing.

Hollywood does.

The first sentence in this review appeared on a staff favorite card at University Book Store, Seattle. The first two autobiographical paragraphs appeared in an essay, “Remorse,” published in The Raven Chronicles (Vol. 4, No. 2).

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Elizabeth Alexander Elizabeth Alexander grew up in Dallas, spent the 1980s and 1990s in New York and Boston, and lives happily ever after in Seattle. Elizabeth’s short story collection, On Anzio Beach, is forthcoming from Ravenna Press. Her fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in many strange and wonderful publications, including Defenestration, Archives of Neurology, Gargoyle, The Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, and several magazines named after animals—monkeys, mostly.