This week is many things. It was the week of suffering in Nepal, of rage in Baltimore, of decision in the Supreme Court, the 23rd Anniversary of the Rodney King Riots, and the 40th Anniversary of Saigon’s fall.
It has been said that history is written by the winners. If that is true, then it seems as if America won the Vietnam War. Just look at this list of movies about the war made after 1975. There are maybe fifty-five movies about the Vietnam War made in America in a thirty-year period, compared to Vietnam’s six. There are also seventeen American documentaries compared to Vietnam’s one…not including The Last Days in Vietnam that has been airing on PBS this week. Only a couple of these American films are about characters of Vietnamese descent. They are mostly about American soldiers and veterans; the good things that they tried to do, the bad things that they were forced to do, and the worse things that were done to them. Refusing to give the North Vietnamese forces a victory, it has been concluded that incompetent American politicians lost the war with the help of a hostile media and negative public opinion. That may be true, but it also prevents this from being primarily a military defeat and, thus, not a real defeat in that sense. Just like with certain defeated countries from the First World War, we can blame non-military elements for our loss. In any case, the Vietnam War presents for Americans another example of the loss of innocence, the destruction of a generation. The era of peace, love, and understanding got trampled by war, hatred, and confusion. Whether by external barbarism or internal treachery, America was exposed to a world of pain and suffering.
I suppose that it is necessary to have stories that help people deal with a difficult time. Taken altogether, though, this seems somewhatâ€¦self-centered? It is almost all about the American (and primarily White) soldiers, with the Vietnamese people being incidental or a teeming mass of metaphors for the darkness in the soul of the civilized man. Or prostitutes. One exception is The Iron Triangle, which has a North Vietnamese soldier as a co-lead. I suppose that it was an admirable attempt to be an alternative to the narratives that Hollywood had been churning out in the 1980s, but I remember not liking this movie at all.
What of Vietnam? In a sense, Vietnam was victorious…well, as victorious as a country could be after ending a civil war. Today, Vietnam commemorates its triumph in the American War against the United States and its puppet government. Yet, the Vietnam of today is not the same as it was forty years ago. As with other supposedly communist or socialist nations, the economy has undergone so many reforms and overhauls that it is pretty much a market economy; some would say that it is capitalist. There have been some gradual social progress as well. What has stayed the same is that the Communist Party is still in power. And it remains entrenched, corrupt, and oppressive. And talking bad about the government can get you in serious trouble.
It may seem as if younger Americans today are less obsessed with the Vietnam War, except to view it as a precedent to the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan along with various other American military activities in those regions. At the same time, younger Vietnamese appear to be less interested in the American War. For certain, America has been said to have done a lot of damage to Vietnam in a few years, but that was only a few years. The American invasion is a blip in history. France had ruled over Vietnam for a lot longer. Right now, the big boogeyman is China.
China and Vietnam are currently sparring over ownership of some islands. Although China had a huge cultural influence upon Vietnam, the Vietnamese often considered the Chinese to be enemy invaders and conquerors to be repelled. When young Ho Chi Minh first officially started turning to Communism, he turned to the Soviet Union, not China. Communist China and Communist Vietnam were unsteady allies at best, and they even fought a war in 1979. If anything, that war is historically more important to Vietnam’s presence than the American War. Vietnam has even been sort of working together with the United States to stand up to China. It is not really an official alliance, though, since antagonizing China for real would be economically disastrous for Vietnam. For the past few years, though, anti-China protests have been one of the few venues for ordinary Vietnamese to collectively express real anger…as long as they stay within the officially accepted parameters.
So, Vietnam won the American War…but Vietnam also lost. In the first half of the 20th century, there were many different groups fighting for Vietnamese independence. It was just that there were different views of what Vietnam should be like once gaining independence. I had relatives in such groups. Ho Chi Minh’s experience with…well…White people… may have left him feeling like the only good thing to come out of the West was Communism. He was able to inject this ideology into his nationalist rhetoric in the northern part of the country, which primarily poor and did not have much dealing with foreigners other than those evil Chinese. It was different in the South, where the better land made the people there a bit more prosperous and more experienced in dealing with traders from other countries.
The South was more open to the outside world and, dare I say it, more progressive. It is not that they did not want to get rid of French rule; but they also wanted to continue to do business with the French after independence. That set them in opposition to Ho Chi Minh and the Communists, and the horror stories coming from fleeing Northerners over what had happened to Ho’s opposition may have sent the Southerners running to anyone who could help…such as the Americans. The Americans set up a guy to lead who was…well…pretty bad…then they had him killed after he proved to be too much to handle. Putting up a united front against both the North and the Communist insurgency in the South was difficult.
Eventually, the Southern insurgency died down and it seemed as if a two state solution was going to stick, like with the Korean peninsula. But it didn’t; neither side was particularly happy with the agreement and the North eventually made its big move South. The American officials in South Vietnam were deliberately late in executing an evacuation for Americans, let alone anyone who helped. It is common in war for those who are seen to be collaborating with the enemy to be discriminated against, harassed, imprisoned, tortured, or killed. These Southern allies would be targets. But even other Southerners were desperate to leave. Americans admirably attempted to save as many Southern Vietnamese as they could, given how badly the people at the top botched it, but there were still so many Vietnamese unable to leave. America abandoned them.
Many Vietnamese stayed and faced the harsh punishment for supposedly helping the enemy. My grandfather was one of those who stayed. He was not even anti-communist; he was just a follower of TrotskyÂ when the Party favored Stalin. But, the Communist government threw him in a re-education camp, where he died. Many in the local Vietnamese community view my grandfather as a hero, subtly downplaying his leftist leanings.
Many tried to flee on their own. Several went by boat, facing multiple groups of pirates who would rob, rape, and murder. While American soldiers returned scarred and traumatized to an America that did not appreciate them, Vietnamese refugees arrived on foreign shores with nothing except for the clothes that they still had and whatever family members who were still with them. They had to repress their resentments, anger, humiliation, and despair in the face of their foreign hosts who were benevolent enough to let them stay. Americans may have lost Vietnam, but these Vietnamese lost all that they had and all that they were. It is not difficult to see why the older generations of overseas Vietnamese detest the Vietnamese government. There is, however, a small but notable number of overseas Vietnamese in their twenties and thirties who have decided to move to Vietnam, primarily to pursue business interests. Even the son-in-law of Vietnamâ€™s leader is from overseas. Like other younger Americans and Vietnamese, they do not have the same connection to the war as their parents do.
While there are plenty of movies about American soldiers in Vietnam, stories about Vietnamese victims of the war have been mostly relegated to books, such as Inside Out & Back Again. Films are few and far in between. I suppose that Oliver Stone’s Heaven and Earth counts, though critics were mixed about it and practically no one saw it. There was one made a few years ago called Journey from the Fall, which tells the story of a family that was split up when the father was sent to a reeducation camp and the rest escaped to America. It was financed entirely by members of the Vietnamese American community and it was pretty good. So that is…two films? Given that few people cared enough about these storiesÂ before to get them made and fewer are expected to care about them in the future, the chances of many more films being made about them is doubtful. After all, why tell stories to no one?