“All wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory.”
This powerful sentence helps open an important work on war, memory and one-sided accounts of conflict by a prize-winning writer who pushes us to recognize the humanity — and the inhumanity — that is in each of us. It is a bracing reminder of the power of our remembrances and the responsibilities we share in crafting and consuming unjust and unethical memories.
Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (2016) by Viet Thanh Nguyen, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Sympathizer, examines the many ways we remember wars and how those memories are shaped through the years. This is a comprehensive look at one particular war — what Americans call the Vietnam War and what the Vietnamese call the American War — that pushes the reader to think beyond simple frames, self-serving myths, and established timelines. The naming of this war is an immediate challenge for both sides that the author confronts. Nguyen suggests that what we call the war encourages selective memory in how we remember the violence that spread beyond Vietnam’s borders; a violence which was administered not only by the Americans and their allies but also by the Vietnamese people against each other and to Cambodia and Laos, and which led to the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia from 1975-1979 after the “Vietnam War” was “officially” over.
Nguyen considers the ethics of memory in the book’s first section, a thoughtful view of war memorial sites in both Vietnam and the U.S. Most of these sites are established and maintained to showcase the humanity of the winning sides’ fallen soldiers and population while excluding a remembrance of those deceased and exiled people who fought for the losing side. But the author suggests that realizing our own inhumanity is necessary for us to be fully human. We all have the capacity for victimizing others and “disremembering” those on the opposite side.
To create what he calls “Just” or “Ethical” memories, Nguyen calls for a process of commemoration which remembers one’s own as well as remembers others in a way beyond simply identifying them as “The Other.” The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington begins to move in this direction, notes Nguyen, but there is more that can be done. And yet, the challenges, especially in an asymmetrical war and world, are daunting, as one reviewer notes.
The difficulty of ethical recognition in an unequal conflict is compounded by the more powerful culture’s ability to create designated memories and understandings about the war. Nguyen suggests that the US industry of memory includes the material and ideological forces that determine how and why memories are produced and circulated, and who has access to, and control of, the memories.
What Nguyen calls the Industry of Memory includes film, television, museums, literature, and more. The Vietnamese may have “liberated” their homeland from foreign invaders, but they have less power establishing memories globally against the intertwined War Industrial Complex / Movie Industrial Complex in the U.S., in part because this war is not being fought on their home turf. The U.S. industry of memory is so strong that it can take a quote from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — “Freedom is not free” — and strip it of its original context so that it becomes a trite patriotic cliche. But the context is important. In 1959, Dr. King said,
“I am afraid that too many of us want the fruits of integration but are not willing to courageously challenge the roots of segregation. But let me assure you that it does not come this way. Freedom is not free. It is always purchased with the high price of sacrifice and suffering.” (Noting that Black soldiers have long fought in America’s wars, he adds:) “America, we are simply asking you to guarantee our freedom.”
King was saying that “America wages wars overseas in the name of protecting the freedom of others, but is reluctant to wage war against racism at home.” Memory has become weaponized.
Nguyen blends ideas with family history in a compelling way. His MacArthur Fellow citation speaks to how he brings the various elements together in this work.
Nguyen weaves together personal narratives, philosophical meditations, and analyses of literature, cinema, photography, cemeteries, and monuments — not only from the United States and Vietnam, but from Cambodia, Laos, and South Korea, as well. The juxtaposition of this range of sources throws into relief how America’s war stories have been perpetuated as global historical memories that obscure the experiences of populations that suffered far greater devastation and casualties, both combatant and civilian.
Even when memory is just, it is nonetheless a poet and not a historian. Nguyen points to the many ways this is true in this powerful work, which also includes provocative chapters looking at the Korean involvement in Vietnam, the way the voices of victims are raised or — more often — silenced, and the telling of “true” war stories. He quotes the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur in stating that “memory is presence that evokes absence.” While memory is present in our minds, it inevitably points to what is no longer there. And it is shaped, and reshaped, in thousands of ways we seldom recognize or acknowledge.
Nothing Ever Dies is Nguyen’s effort to help us construct just war memories that move beyond our simplified and one-sided way of remembrance. This work is as current and important as today’s headlines in the U.S. over who owns and who sets the narrative of American history. His powerful final chapter looks beyond just memories to consider just forgetting. “We must remember in order to live, but we must also forget,” he writes. Too much of either is fatal. And unjust ways of forgetting certainly exist, usually involving our “leaving behind a past that we have not dealt with in adequate ways.”
Just memory, on the other hand, involves the ethical awareness of our simultaneous humanity and inhumanity, equal access to the industry of memory, and “the ability to imagine a world where no one will be exiled from what we think of as the near and dear to those distant realms of the far and the feared.” That requires an imagination that can see beyond the present, as our ancestors have done for millennia. To continue to rely on unjust memory and unjust forgetting leads to perpetual war, eternal war, Forever War.
Jiachen Zhang suggests that Nguyen’s book itself “might tell us another effective way to present the humanities and inhumanities from multiple perspectives.” It is through Nguyen’s “visits to those unvisited graveyards and monuments, provocative meditation over the torture scenes in the death camp and convincing analysis on cinematic representation” which show us ways to approach “forgotten war memories that are ‘impossible to forget but difficult to remember’ in intersectional and individualistic manners.”
His epilogue ends with a powerful personal story of the time when he returned to the region of his birth in Vietnam and visited the grave of his father’s father, only to find that his grandfather was not buried in the family mausoleum, but in a nearby field.
I think back to my father’s father and what happened to his remains. The Vietnamese believe a person should be buried twice. The first time, in a field removed from home and village, the earth eats the flesh. The second time, the survivors must disinter what remains. If they have timed it correctly, there will only be bones. If they have timed it wrong, there will still be flesh. Regardless of what they find, they must wash the bones with their own hands. Then they bury the bones once more, this time closer to the living.
Like the fighting of a war, this tradition of the burial of the dead involves dealing with the death when it happens and then later — when we can face them — bringing the memories back into our lives.
Nothing Ever Dies was a National Book Award finalist. It is highly recommended.
More to come…