By ANDREW LAM
LOS ANGELES — Trying to Google news of my homeland, Vietnam, over the last few weeks has not been easy. The headlines that often showed up were about another country, not Vietnam.
Here are a few headlines from major news organizations:
– Afghanistan haunted by ghost of Vietnam
-Barack Obama must stop dithering – or Afghanistan will be his Vietnam
-The Vietnam War Guide to Afghanistan
-Afghanistan is Obama’s Vietnam
-Which is America’s longest war, Afghanistan or Vietnam?
-Vietnam and why we lost Afghanistan
Often times, indeed, when we mention the word Vietnam in the United States, we don’t mean Vietnam as a country. Vietnam is unfortunately not like Thailand or Malaysia or Singapore to America’s collective imagination. Its relationship to us is special: It is a vault filled with tragic metaphors for every pundit to use.
After the Vietnam War, Americans were caught in the past, haunted by unanswerable questions, confronted with an unhappy ending. So much so that my uncle who fought in the Vietnam War as a pilot for the South Vietnamese army, once observed that, “When Americans talk about Vietnam they really are talking about America.” “Americans don’t take defeat and bad memories very well. They try to escape them,” he said in his funny but bitter way. “They make a habit of blaming small countries for things that happen to the United States. AIDS from Haiti, flu from Hong Kong or Mexico, drugs from Columbia, hurricanes from the Caribbean.”
I once met a Vietnamese man who made money acting in Hollywood. He had survived the war and the perilous journey on the South China Sea to come to America. Now he plays Vietcong, ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) soldiers, civilians, peasants. He is a great actor, he bragged. No one recognized his face. Time and again he died, spurting fake blood from his torso and heart. At other times he screamed in pain, re-interpreting his own past. “Hollywood loves me,” he said. “I die well.”
Hollywood, of course, is free with its various interpretations. From “Apocalypse Now,” which describes an American’s mythical adventure in a tropic jungle to The “Deer Hunter,” which shows a game of Russian roulette being played out for money between an American and some Vietnamese, to “Tour of Duty,” in which American GIs raped then blew out the brains of a Vietnamese girl, to Rambo movies in which America single-handedly restored its pride, Vietnam was always the backdrop, the faceless conical hat adorned figure.
Watching such movies, Vietnamese old enough to remember the war giggle uncomfortably. These naïve interpretations of the conflict little resemble their own past. Vietnam was a three-sided war, with North and South at each other’s throats, but the Americans have insinuated themselves as central to an otherwise complex narrative in the retelling. Some Vietnamese are enraged, but many are resigned.
For what they know and won’t admit to the American audience is that for them history is a series of personal impressions. Fact and details and analysis and fancy interpretations can’t capture the truth about Vietnam any more than wildly fabricated war flicks can. Instead, Vietnamese living in America tell their children ghost stories and share their memories of the monsoon rains and harvest festivals. I, too, store in my brain a million of those memories and myths, none of which have anything to do with America’s involvement in the war. But that is another story.
Vietnam has more than doubled in population to 87 million since the war ended. It is a country full of young people, who form a large majority, with no direct memory of the Vietnam War. It is odd to think that 37 years since the war ended, it continues to stoke America’s foreign policy fears. The entire country still stands for America’s loss of innocence, its legacy of defeat and failure.
A few years ago, I went back to Vietnam to participate in a PBS documentary, and I did the touristy thing: I went to the Cu Chi Tunnel in Tay Ninh Province, bordering Cambodia, a complex underground labyrinth in which the Viet Cong hid during the war.
There were a handful of American vets in their 60’s. They were back for the first time. They were very emotional. One wept and said, “I spent a long time looking for this place and lost friends doing the same.”
But the young tour guide told me that it was tourism that forced the Vietnamese to dig up the old hideouts. Then, in a whisper, she told me: “It was a lot smaller back then. But now the New Cu Chi Tunnel is very wide. You know why? To cater to very, very big Americans.”
She did not see the past. She crawled through the same tunnel with foreigners routinely but she emerged with different ideas. Her head is filled with the Golden Gate Bridge and cable cars and two-tiered freeways and Hollywood and Universal studio. “I have many friends over there now,” she said, her eyes dreamy, reflecting the collective desire of Vietnamese youth. “They invite me to come. I’m saving money for this amazing trip.”
Here’s a young woman who looks at tunnel that was the headquarters of the Vietcong and the cause of massive bombings years ago and what does she see? The Magic Kingdom. The Cu Chi tunnel leads some to the past surely, but for the young tour guide it may very well lead to the future.
On the eve of the presidential election, I wish to tell whoever will become the next president of the United States that the Vietnam syndrome cannot be kicked through acts of war. That only through a view that’s rooted in people, rooted in human kindness, and not historical vehemence, would a country open itself up and stop being a haunting metaphor. That not until human basic needs are addressed and human dignity upheld can we truly pacify our enemies and bring about human liberty. And that more soldiers and bombs and drones in the sky will never appease the haunting ghosts of the past.
Quite the opposite. We are in the process of creating more ghosts to haunt future generations. A friend recently told me that he’s been seeing the a few Afghanistan vets now replacing Vietnam vets panhandling in the New York subways. “A sad changing of the guards,” he noted wryly.
Years ago, the poet Robert Bly argued that Americans have yet to perform an ablution over past atrocities. “We’re engaged in a vast forgetting mechanism and from the point of view of psychology, we’re refusing to eat our grief, refusing to really eat our dark side,” Bly told Bill Moyers on public television. “And therefore what Jung says is really terrifying: if you do not absorb the things you have done in your life…then you will have to repeat them.”
It may very well be that the tragedy of Vietnam cannot simply be overcome with some supposed military victory but with another tragedy of equal if not greater proportion. It may very well be that a few years from now, when it’s all over, the new American tourists can visit the heavily bombed mountains and caves of Tora Bora, where we once thought Osama bin Laden was hiding, to weep at some hole in the ground, thinking about the futility of it all.
New America Media editor, Andrew Lam is the author of “Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora” (Heyday Books, 2005), which recently won a Pen American “Beyond the Margins” award and “East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres.” His next book, “Birds of Paradise Lost” is due out in 2013. He has lectured widely at many universities.