A Review of “Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War,” by Viet Thanh Nguyen. Harvard University Press. 2016. 384 pages.

Nothing Ever Dies is a good book, but a difficult read.  It is difficult read for three reasons.  One. The subject matter.  It’s about war and war is never pretty.  Two.  The prose.  It’s dense, sometimes dry, and repetitive.  Third.  The book’s organization.  It is all over the place.  And subjects sometimes strike the reader so fast and so furious that he or she is left reeling.

This is a book that requires deep concentration, discipline, and a willingness to slog through the tangled organization and plodding academic language to arrive at its ideas.  But those ideas are worth the effort.

The main thesis of Nothing Ever Dies – which is repeated too often – is that just memory requires that all sides in any past conflict accept their own inhumanity.  This inhumanity is the savage, primordial primate that co-inhabits our soul alongside our empathetic angel.

Nguyen argues for the acceptance of our inner barbarian.  Once we accept our own capacity for brutality, and our long history of barbarism, we actually become more human, which means we become more compassionate and understanding toward our enemies.  On the other hand, if we continue to emphasize the inhumanity of “the other,” while refusing to acknowledge our inhumanity, we will continue to perpetuate war, the military-industrial complex, and inequality (the primary cause of war).

The author asserts that American citizens are all beneficiaries of the military-industrial complex – of course, some, more than others.  We benefit from the war machine when we purchase a cheap gallon of gasoline or decide to eat a banana for breakfast.  Moreover, every resident of the United States is complicit in the war machine’s violence.  Our complicity is apparent when we pay taxes, refuse to protest interventionist policies, or distract ourselves from the violence that envelopes us by engaging in conspicuous consumption.

Nguyen does not shame us for our complicity, since he acknowledges that he too is a beneficially of the military-industrial complex.  He simply asks us to be aware of our shared responsibility for America’s perpetual wars.  He also subtly challenges the reader to think of all the ways the military-industrial complex has influenced his or her life, either positively or negatively.

Another key point made in the book is that names not only describe, they appropriate.  This idea is not a new idea, but in his examination of the issue, Nguyen raises serious questions about American imperialism.

Consider the name “United States.”  It is a name imposed on a territory stretching from the Atlantic seaboard to the outer boundaries of Hawaii and Alaska.  The name, which originated amongst white males of European descent, all of whom were racist, subsumes all the indigenous names for the lands within that vast region.  Thus, the term “United States” is as much a representation of conquest and appropriation as it is a description of a political entity.

The phrase “Vietnam War” is no different.  Nguyen argues that the “Vietnam War” is an American imposition, and a reflection, like the war itself, of American imperialism.  The name is wholly inadequate in describing the actual war.  The “Vietnam War” restricts the geographical extent of the war to one country – Vietnam.  It limits the number of combatants to two – the Americans and the Vietnamese.  And it confines the war to a specific block of time, usually 1965 to 1975.  This imposed name, with all of its spatial, temporal, and social limitations, has been promoted ceaselessly by the U.S.’s globally-dominate media apparatus.

Nguyen believes the “Vietnam War” purposely ignores the American bombing of Laos and Cambodia, which resulted in about a million deaths; it pays little heed to the many nationalities that fought in the war; and it emphasizes America’s losses over the losses suffered by refugees, the Indochinese peasantry, and the Cambodian victims of genocide.

According to Nguyen, the “Vietnam War” is both nationalistic and problematic.  A proper, just name for the war would be more inclusive, recognizing all victims and victimizers; its borders would go far beyond Vietnam, to include all the nations caught up in the violence and its aftermath; and it would not be so limited in time.  Instead, it would recognize that the war had been preceded by war; and the war that ended in 1975 bled into other wars – including the wars of the 1970s between Vietnam and Cambodia and between China and Vietnam.  Nguyen does not suggest a new, just name for the war – and that is good – because it reveals his humility.  A just name for a war as far-reaching as the one in Indochina cannot be created by one individual nor one nation; rather, it must emerge from an ongoing, equitable negotiation among the historical actors.

Nguyen asks a vital question of those working to deconstruct the military-industrial complex and its subsidiary – the memory industry.  How do we overcome a memory industry that constantly denies humanity to “the other” through movies, literature, and television?  The author believes we do it by turning to un-commodified, un-coopted, and democratized art, meaning art that is not subjected to the whims of an artistic elite who all-to-often kowtows to the military-industrial complex.  Such uncompromising art will inform us and awaken us to our own inhumanity and humanity.

But art can only take us so far.  Eventually, we must take our enhanced awareness out into the world and act upon it, practicing multiple forms of peaceful resistance to the war machine and all of its corollary institutions.

Ultimately, our pursuit of a lasting peace should lead us to a radical, pure forgiveness of “the other” – a forgiveness that asks nothing from the recipient.  Is this unrealistic?  Is it too good to be true?  How do we forgive Ho Chi Minh or Pol Pot or Lyndon Baines Johnson or Richard M. Nixon?  Nguyen responds to the skeptic in all of us with the following statement.  “Why is it possible to murder millions and yet impossible to imagine pure forgiveness…?  Shouldn’t mass murder be impossible?  …It is perpetual war that is unrealistic.  Perpetual war is madness, engineered in the national language of bureaucracy and the high-flown rhetoric of nationalism and sacrifice, operating through campaigns that could lead to human extermination.  This madness can only be matched by the logic of perpetual peace and the excessive, utopian commitment to a pure forgiveness, which the species needs to survive.  If we wish to live, we need a realism of the impossible.”[1]

Nguyen concludes the book by pointing out that neither the Americans, Vietnamese, Cambodians, nor Lao have attained just memory, just forgetting (forgetting without obscuring one’s own inhumanity) or pure forgiveness.  The Americans continue to deify their veterans and deny the incredible devastation and death they unleashed across Indochina; the Vietnamese Communists still wrap themselves in victimhood; the Viet Kieu in America, Australia, and elsewhere remained aggrieved; the Cambodians haven’t reckoned with the crimes of the Khmer Rouge; and the Pathet Lao and Hmong blame each other for the disaster that befell Laos.  To make matters worse, every national participant in the wars for Indochina continues to jockey for resources, political influence, and competitive advantage within the region.  Unfortunately, the war machine, and its supporting ideologies, marches on.

Endnotes

[1] Nguyen, Nothing Ever Dies, 290-291.

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