Nothing Ever Dies – Vietnam and the Memory of War
By Viet Thanh Nguyen
Harvard University Press – £20.95
We remember those we recognise, and we recognise those we remember. Some of us, perhaps most of us, yearn to be remembered and recognised, by our intimates and our colleagues, by society and history […]. Recognition becomes key to the movements for memory that create memorials, museums, an commemorations for victims, veterans, atrocities, battles, wars, and so on, all of which are tied, implicitly or explicitly, to the identities of interest groups and ethnic groups, cultures and races, nations and states. These ethics of recognising self and others help to build inclusive societies and to heal wounds, but they also encourage us to overlook our ability to hurt others.
(‘On the Inhumanities’)
There’s something to be said that all wars are fought twice: once on the battlefield and once within the memory – the latter of which is rather beautifully addressed in this astonishing new book by Viet Thanh Nguyen, Nothing Ever Dies – Vietnam and the Memory of War.
Having been to Vietnam and spent the best part of a month in Ho Chi Minh City, I’ve seen and witnessed for myself, some of the harrowing trajectory of what the Americans continue to call the Vietnam War and the Vietnamese the American War. Reason being, it’s everywhere.
In the streets. In the literature. In the tourist brochures. In the soul.
It could be said that the war has itself, seeped unto the Vietnamese psyche, as if an onerous, psychosomatic illness that dares the populace to rid itself of the shackles of suffering. Of memory – of which Nguyen writes about and reflects upon throughout each of this book’s nine chapters.
In the first, aptly titled ‘Just Memory,’ he already writes: ”The problem of war and memory is […] first and foremost about how to remember the dead, who cannot speak for themselves. Their unnerving silence compels the living – tainted, perhaps by, a touch or more of survivor’s guilt – so to speak.”
In the US, the only place a touch of survivor’s guilt is apparent is among (some) of the veterans themselves. Or at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC. It most definitely isn’t apparent amid everyday American society – that’s for sure. Whether or not this is down to the enormous size of America, or the fact that it has been involved in numerous wars since, may have some bearing.
Although in Vietnam, an under-current of survivor’s guilt appears far more intrinsic. Far more fundamental. Far more heartbreaking.
Overtly prevalent issues which again, Nguyen continues to address: ”The problem of how to remember war is central to the identity of the nation, itself almost always founded on the violent conquest of territory and the subjugation of people. For citizens, garlands of euphemism and a fog of glorious myth shroud this bloody past. The battles that shaped the nation are most often remembered by the citizenry as defending the country, usually in the service of peace, justice, freedom, or other noble ideas. Dressed in this way, the wars of the past justify the wars of the present for which the citizen is willing to fight or at least pay taxes,. Wave flags, cast votes, and carry forth all the duties and rituals that affirm her or his identity as being one with the nation’s.”
Broken into three distinct sections (Ethics, Industries and Aesthetics), each of Nothing Ever Dies 304 pages (excluding Notes, Works Cited, Acknowledgements, Credits and Index) exudes with a most profound quality of truth and collective trauma. The writing is exemplary and the places it takes the reader, nigh second to none.
In fact, upon reaching the book’s conclusion, I actually wanted to carry on reading more; thus making this one of the finest books I have ever read on Vietnam and the Vietnam War.