Symposium Seeks New Stories of Vietnam Past and Present

By Phyllis Jeffrey - How might exploring the Vietnam War through the experience of ordinary Vietnamese individuals complicate existing historical accounts? How can engagement with new sources, histories, and perspectives afford new opportunities to probe Vietnam’s past—and engage with its present, too? Such questions were at the heart of an event entitled "Revisiting Viet Nam War History: Understanding the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam," hosted by the New Viet Nam Studies Cluster on October 19, 2016.

The cluster, led by Professor of Asian American Studies Kieu Linh Caroline Valverde, is building a consortium of scholars engaged in research on current issues of development in Vietnam, facilitating collaboration in areas as diverse as agriculture, technology, and culture. In addition to holding symposia, the Initiative is working to create a database of contemporary Vietnam scholars to serve as a hub for students.

In keeping with the Initiative’s mission, Wednesday’s event brought together a multi-national, multi-disciplinary, multi-ethnic, and multi-generational group of speakers, moderated by award-winning writer Mai Quynh Diem (Zora).

New materials, new interest

In her opening remarks, Dr. Valverde observed that existing scholarship has often obscured exploration of the Vietnamese story: the history of war between the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam (the Americans’ ally), and the combined forces of the People’s Army of Viet Nam in the North and southern-based communist guerillas. Not simply reducible to geographic conflict between “North” and “South,” the history of the Vietnam War contains myriad complexities elided by accounts that do not focus on Vietnamese participants.

The extent to which American accounts, both scholarly and popular, have dominated is often remarkable. For instance, the most iconic images of the war—Dr. Valverde noted the photograph of the shooting of a member of the Viet Cong by a South Vietnamese chief of police—were taken by American photojournalists, and are known through their impacts upon U.S. audiences. But what is the story of the war outside of the American experience? What are the memories of those who served in ARVN, including ordinary officers and their families? And how do such memories influence the present? For many in the Vietnamese diaspora, the historic blind spot has made serious engagement with their pasts difficult. 

Happily, new materials (such as declassified American war documents) and new interest in types of historical artifacts once dismissed (cartoons; songs; the oral accounts of ordinary individuals) enable new projects. And with the aging of participants in the war, a new urgency is felt both by those who want to tell their stories, and by scholars (many in the Vietnamese diaspora themselves) who want to hear them.

 

Acts of witness

Speaking first, Nathalie Nguyen, an associate professor and deputy director at the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, drew on her recently published book, South Vietnamese Soldiers: Memories of the Vietnam War and After. 

In her discussion of the memories of Nguyen Huu An, Nguyen explored the complexity of memory and oral history. In telling his own narrative, Nguyen Huu An, a former ARVN Ranger and lawyer, expressed a desire to narrate the life of his childhood friend, the late Tranh Dinh Tu. Tranh Dinh Tu was the leader of ARVN’s 38th Battalion who refused to surrender on April 30, 1975, following news that Saigon had fallen to Northern forces. An and Tu had become friends in the course of their shared experience as childhood refugees from the North after 1954. The experience seemed to sharpen Tu’s resolve, for, as An recalled him saying, “We’ve already left the North. If we cannot defend the South, where are we going to live?” Refusing surrender, Tu and his men fought until out of ammunition. They were captured, killed, and buried in a mass grave.

In narrating Tu’s story, An provided an act of witnessing to his friend’s life and fate. And, by spreading the story of Tu, he has inspired annual popular commemorations. Yet reconstructing battlefield events through oral history, Nguyen noted, is complex. Were Tranh Dinh Tu and his men killed by the regular North Vietnamese army, or by communist guerillas, as a 2013 account proposed? Such lacunae emblematize the experience of war’s aftermath.

Unsettling myths

George J. Veith discussed findings published in his recent book, Black April: The Fall of South Vietnam, 1973-1975. Drawing on archival material gathered from recently declassified sources, Veith sought to unsettle what he identified as several myths about the end of the war following U.S. withdrawal.

Foremost among those myths was the notion that the rapid fall of the ARVN to the People’s Army of Viet Nam shows South Vietnam to have been weak and corrupt. Veith argued that the capability and commitment of the ARVN has been underestimated. In fact, the North’s final campaign was launched in response to the lack of a quick ARVN fall. Veith also disputed the claim that the North’s victory in Saigon was easy, noting that much fighting took place outside the city proper. Veith quoted a North Vietnamese commander—who lost 400 men in battle against ARVN forces—expressing anger toward those who claimed in hindsight that victory against the South had been easy: “Back then I told people, anyone who says we attacked Saigon without breaking a single light bulb, I will give him a shovel and have him dig the graves of our dead.” 

No surrender

Nguyễn Hà Tường Anh offered insights drawn from the wartime experiences of her father, Nguyen Cong Luan, an officer in ARVN. Nguyễn Hà Tường Anh, who is the author of the Vietnamese-language version of her father’s memoirs, Nationalist in the Viet Nam Wars: Memoirs of a Victim Turned Soldier, spoke of the commitment of ARVN fighters.

She recounted how her father, while on a training visit to the U.S., was presented with an official invitation to remain permanently. Rather than accede, Nguyen Cong Luan telephoned his family in Vietnam and asked permission to return home. His mother passed the phone to 11-year-old Nguyễn Hà Tường Anh, who told her father, “Whatever decision you make, we will abide by.” 

During the Fall of Saigon, Nguyen Cong Luan’s unit—like many—refused to surrender. Nguyễn Hà Tường Anh was again called upon, this time to convince her father to return home. Nguyen Cong Luan, now elderly and suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, participated in the symposium remotely, from his home in San Jose.

Pushing back

Evyn Le Espiritu, PhD candidate in rhetoric at UC Berkeley, presented her documentary film “Who was Colonel Hồ Ngọc Cẩn?” The film traces the story—or, stories—of her granduncle, revealing an interest in the multivocality of memory and history, particularly memory in war. In in, Espiritu reflects on the simultaneous “absence” and “excess” of information on this man—his initial obscurity to her, his lack of state-sponsored commemoration, juxtaposed with a wealth of accounts and stories that overwhelmed her once she began to search.

The construction of Espiritu’s film reflects this diversity of accounts: recordings of interviews with her granduncle’s siblings in Vietnam play while key dates in her granduncle’s life silently appear in white text on the screen. This is all overlaid on footage from Espiritu’s own visits to Vietnamese cultural events in California. 

For Espiritu, war’s disruptive power lies not only in its displacing of people, but also in its displacing of memory. Thus, in some ways, “the center is absence.” But by telling the stories found “around the absence,” preservation of memory—through oral history, archival work, and artistic reflection—becomes a means of “pushing back against state-organized forgetting.”

Learn more about the New Viet Nam Studies Cluster at UC Davis. 

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