Posted on FB on April 26, 2015 The Cornell Vietnam Speakers Series asked last week, “What is on your mind about the Vietnam War as we approach the 40th anniversary of its conclusion?” Here are the things that I jotted down between grading and seeing students as the semester wound down.
• Don’t believe anyone who tells you that this or that particular entity was responsible for the war. The responsibility falls on many parties, plus their complex interactions. Don’t fall for one- or even two-dimensional answers. Only three-dimensional explanations should do.
• There was no such thing as “the Vietnamese experience” of the war. There were instead multiple Vietnamese experiences, many of which rivaled and contradicted one another. Intervention from the U.S. worsened the rivalries and added untold destruction, but rivalries and oppositions had been there well before and remained there long after. No single group held a monopoly when it comes to enduring suffering or causing it.
* If there is any one thing I’m certain from studying the war, it is that Vietnamese were (are?) a divisive lot.
• A hundred things could be said about Vietnamese affected by the war and its aftermath. A hundred things could be said about *each* Vietnamese affected by the war and its aftermath.
• One thing about me: I was extremely lucky to have come to the U.S. when I did (July 1982) – and left Vietnam when I did (May 19, 1981: perfect symbolism). My exposure to and experience of the first six years after the war was as undesirable as it was invaluable for living, thinking, writing, and even teaching. It wasn’t only leaving Vietnam and coming to the U.S. The timing also made a huge difference in my growth as a person.
• The move to the U.S. enabled me to engage continuously with my first love: books and reading. There were fourteen months in refugee camps that saw few reading materials and no schooling (another lucky experience, ha!) Otherwise, a great deal of my life since the late 1970s has been defined by reading what I want to read. This reading life would have been impossible had I remained in Vietnam. In addition, shortly after college I consciously desired to live my life as if to create a work of art. This lofty desire would be difficult to try had I stayed in Vietnam.
• The above is said out of gratitude for my fortune and simultaneously out of grave sorrow for Vietnamese who were disabled and deprived of intellectual opportunities during and after the war. Now a teacher of the young, I find it a tragedy and a disaster that countless young Vietnamese were swept away by revolution, nationalism, ideology, and war with little or no chance to encounter and experience the finer things in life, including the life of the mind.
• It made me think of Henry James’ great novel The Princess Casamassima. The protagonist came from an English working-class background, became involved in revolutionary politics, and committed himself to an assassination plot against a duke. He later met the title character and was drawn into the world of beauty and refined sensibilities, furthered by visits to Paris and Venice. But it also intensified the inner conflict regarding his political commitment, to the point that he turned the gun on himself when the time came for the planned assassination.
• There is something to be said about revolution (and nationalism to a lesser extent) devouring its own kind. It is one of the most important lessons that I draw from this anniversary.