ASA 150E | Winter 2017
3 February 2017
Week 5: Forgotten, Suppressed, Invisible Histories
In the opening of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, Nguyen presents himself as a man who has struggled to understand the Vietnam War and as a by-product, confused by what it means to “be a man with two countries, as well as the inheritor of two revolutions” (1). The sixty year old conflict which took millions of lives and was mired in a swamp of political chicanery led the man of two nations to be torn, confused, uncertain, and starved for comprehension. The framework of Nothing Ever Dies can be found in a quote Nguyen presents by the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read ‘Vietnam’” (1). Nguyen interprets this quote by King as the United States’ intervention in foreign affairs and heralds it as the analysis which ultimately led to his own eventual understanding of the Vietnam conflict. With Dr. King’s sharp critique of U.S. foreign policy, Nguyen sets the stage for the telling of a story, often times, not publically known.
In his chapter, “On Becoming Human”, Nguyen focuses on two fundamental phenomena: the unlikely involvement of South Korean fighters against the North Vietnamese, and the revisionism of said involvement by South Korean media and national tributes. To the recently-introduced, this military involvement of South Korean troops in the Vietnam War will most-likely come as a surprise, but will remain in the realm of believability. After all, the United States was heavily invested in defending South Korea from northern communist invasion all but five years after the end of World War II. However, it is the deeper meaning and reasoning established by Nguyen behind this little-known alliance that cements his thematic construction into one that uncovers disturbing and uncomfortable trends in U.S foreign policy.
Everpresent in Nguyen’s work is the idea that South Korea’s involvement in Vietnam was not a standard alliance, but rather a prostitution in which South Koreans offered their lives, innocences, and humanities, in order to gain an advantage on the world-stage. Nguyen is quick to demonstrate the brutality of South Korean forces in Vietnam, lest they be mistaken by the reader for upstanding models of morality. Nguyen presents evidence that South Korean troops were also responsible for massacres and general mistreatment of the enemy and civilians alike. Upon their insertion into Vietnam, they mimicked the actions and behaviors of the American troops: holding down their lines and executing patrols with varying degrees of hostility. In doing so, the South Korean soldiers gained the respect of the American military personnel overseeing their operations. Propaganda was created and museums established, depicting South Koreans as loyal, brave, and virtuous. Nguyen claims that this positive propaganda was just a small taste of the benefits received by the South Korean people for their country’s involvement in Vietnam. Over the years, the United States’ alliance with South Korea has grown stronger, and through military might and cooperation, South Korea flourished economically, militarily, and socially. Economically, by the Western influx of cash and stimulus packages in response to South Korea’s wartime sacrifice. Militarily, by the partnership and allied response of the American and South Korean armies and socially by the implied establishment of South Koreans as the superior Asian power in the region. With the Vietnamese regarded as helpless and communist-prone, China and North Korea regarded as the enemy, and the Japanese still not having lived-down their actions against the United States in World War II, few Asian nations were left to be heralded in the manner that South Korea was in the decades during, and after the Vietnam War.
No matter the economic, military, and social advancements, however, a far more disturbing gain was awarded to the South Koreans. Nguyen goes on to state that, “Koreans became human in the time of global capitalism, but at what cost, and to whom?”(153). In doing so, he signifies that the reward for South Korea’s involvement in the Vietnam War did not only consist of material goods, but also the granting of a “human” status. At the time of the Vietnam War, it was not uncommon for American attitudes towards non-European foreigners to be less-than flattering. Often times, in fact, foreigners would not even be considered human, as evidenced by the countless atrocities committed against the civilians of various nations. But through their sacrifice, the South Koreans had earned what many could not: their status as human. Their status as, at least, near-equals. And when Nguyen questions who paid the price of this “victory”, he implies that it was the Vietnamese. Afterall, it was the Vietnamese who had their country utterly destroyed by war. It was the Vietnamese who suffered the obliteration of their families and loved ones. As Nguyen is also eager to point out, one needs only to look at the vast difference in economic privilege to see the difference between being regarded as South Korean and human, and being Vietnamese and the inhuman, enemy. This sort of imbalance can be seen across the globe when one compares historically pro-American countries with historically anti-American ones. For example, the state of Saudi Arabia far exceeds the economic conditions of most other Middle Eastern nations, a truth that has been present from the end of the Second World War to the current day. Much like the development gap between South Korea and Vietnam, the cooperation of Saudi Arabia with the U.S. and the Western powers has led to great economic stimulus to befall a nation that, resource-wise, should be in no better or worse shape than a country such as Iraq. In his introduction to the topic, Nguyen even states that the words spoken by Dr. King in reference to Vietnam, would also have been said about Iraq and Afghanistan if the late-civil rights activist was alive today. The parallels between Nguyen’s first claim and the current state of world affairs is striking. It seems then, that the prostitution of a nation certainly pays, but while South Korea and Saudi Arabia might be considered “winners”, one cannot help but get the feeling that the only real winner is the orchestrator of the plot.
The second phenomena Nguyen discusses is the revision of history, by the South Korean media, to thoroughly avoid responsibility for the aforementioned events involving Vietnam. South Korea might not be able to deny the events that occurred, but through blatant ignorance, and the reshaping of media, Nguyen claims that South Korea is trying to reshape the perception of its actions, over 40 years ago. They do this mainly through the use of cinema and war memorials, depicting Korean soldiers as honorable freedom fighters in the former, and whitewashing memorabilia in the latter. In these depictions and alterations, the South Koreans often find it necessary to throw the American forces under the allegorical bus. The images constructed by these media seem to show a corrupt American force contrasted against an innocent, fresh-faced, good-intentioned Korean force. Where the Americans would slaughter, the Koreans would bravely save civilian lives, often at great expense to themselves. This revisionism may have started lightly, but has recently increased in its level of alteration. This increase correlates with a changing world: one where acts of imperialism and hierarchy are becoming more unforgivable in the eyes of the developing world. While there has always been exploitation, in the modern-day, old wounds are consistently reopened and apologies are frequently demanded, often causing great embarrassment to the offending nations. It is unclear exactly why the South Korean media has engaged in this revisionist movement, but the reasons most likely include a high level of shame over the brutal actions carried-out in Vietnam. It appears as if the South Koreans are finding a method of gradual denial is best in trying to sweep any wrongdoings away from the public’s knowledge. No matter the reason, however, the truth cannot be sacrificed in order to spare the feelings of any entity. History must be remembered the way it occurred. To try and change the historical narrative to befit an agenda is not only an insult to the lives affected by that history, but it also sets a dangerous precedent, where history can be shaped for the purposes of any administration.
The South Korean involvement in Vietnam is a forgotten, suppressed, and invisible history. History books largely ignore it, media revises known records, and the bones of those killed have long since become bare. The motivations behind this disappearing history are horribly self-serving and create only more pain while defiling the lives lost in conflict. This lost history, however, is not only the history of the South Koreans, rather, it is also the history of the Vietnamese. Anything that occurred in the terrible conflict that has come to be known as the Vietnam War is a part of that history, and is therefore a worthwhile testament to the slaughter of so many, “innocent”, and otherwise. It becomes increasingly crucial, as time goes on, to preserve these histories in the cultural landscape, and revive those that have seemingly been lost. In the current political climate, the risk of such horrible histories re-occurring is growing, and with the U.S. militarily invested, again, in so many foreign nations, unless more histories are to be forgotten, suppressed, and wiped, it would seem to be best to simply hold onto the histories that are left, no matter how painful or shameful they might be.
In the chapter “On Victims and Voices”, Nguyen contemplates the power relations and victim-savior relationship of the United States and Vietnam. Contrasted with the experience of Korean Americans, the forgotten and suppressed histories of the Vietnamese give them a power of word and prose. As Nguyen stated the possibility of a minority holding power “may be forgotten or overlooked in the temptation to see the minority as the victim of abusive power” (197). These “ghosts” of their past essentially give Vietnamese power and leverage, they give writers a voice. Rather than affirming America and it’s “greatness” these ghosts of their pasts allow them to present and animate the repressed histories of a war that ravaged families and the nation.
In trying to define literature and prose that was indicative of the Vietnamese experience, Nguyen noted that “remembering [for the Vietnamese] becomes imbued with death” (194). Without a formal discourse and rhetoric, writing about the Vietnamese experience faced ethical dilemmas of mass-market appeal or being labeled as “ethnic literature.” Although the Vietnamese refugees come to America, their voice differs from that of English. This language and communication barrier suppresses and ignores their histories, driving the point that literature about vietnam is mostly labeled as “ethnic literature.” Nguyen relates this concept of race and ethnicity through a metaphor comparing it to a box, “the ethnic is what America can assimilate, while the racial is what America cannot digest” (199). The box, itself, symbolizes the ethnic while the contents symbolize the racial. What further drives this point of difference is that American dominant discourses simply will not let any minority group forget about their past. Not only is it the struggle to grapple and come to terms with past experiences, the addition of an indifferent American population silences minorities.
What Nguyen argues is that the establishment of a voice and literature to make sense of suppressed and invisible histories of the Vietnamese brings up ghosts of the past, but redefining narratives allows for reconciliation of the past. Prose and literature have power in the tone and diction. When the United States views upon the Vietnamese as victims, it perpetuates a hegemonic victim-rescuer relation. Viewing the Vietnamese as victims masks the ability for the Vietnamese to hold a sense of power in their voice and literature. Vietnamese literature can be more than the war itself, it must present their refugee experience and their past. Voicing and prose give Vietnamese refugees the power to help redefine a discourse. To tackle the American aggression towards Vietnamese, Vietnamese must voice their pasts and give livelihood to these ghosts. Vietnamese literature and prose is not an ethnic literature to affirm America, it is a literature to make sense of the past so “nothing ever dies”.