Resources in English for Teaching Vietnamese Perspectives on the Viet Nam wars
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break up and illustrate with book and website front pages all the way down
link out within Wikivetlit, creating entries when necessary
Viet Nam is a country made by war. Geoffrey Perret coined that phrase about the United States, in a look back at the American past inspired by the adventure in mainland Southeast Asia, but he could have made a similar case about Viet Nam. The nation gained its present boundaries when Nguyen Anh marched north from Saigon about 1800, taking advantage of conflict in the north to unify the deltas of the Red River and the Mekong under the city of Hue, an imperial capital about as old as Washington, DC.
The Nguyen dynasty sparred with the court at Siam to assert hegemony over the interior highlands, battled with Chinese bandit armies, and by the end of the nineteenth century saw its domain and frontier states carved into two colonies and a protectorate by the French. In 1945 the last Nguyen, Bao Dai, handed over his rule to Ho Chi Minh, whose communists waged war for thirty years to unify the country, expelling the French and Americans and defeating the rival Republic of Viet Nam, then rushed out again to repel a Chinese invasion and remove the Red Khmer from power in Phnom Penh.
So what does an American call any particular Vietnamese war, especially those we are concerned with, the anti-colonial struggles? I follow Vietnamese American poet Linh Dinh in judging the familiar phrase as the best fit after all: "the Viet Nam war". Historian Robert Brigham's choice, "the wars for Viet Nam", apt and eloquent, has not caught on. The Vietnamese Communist Party's term "the American War" is a characteristic elision of their rival in the civil war of 1954-1975, the Saigon governments. "The French war" is equally unsatisfactory for the earlier conflict that ended with the Geneva agreement in 1954, since that depended on US funds and Vietnamese allies.
We are nonetheless stuck with "the French war", both inside Viet Nam and outside it, except of course in France or Algeria. Political scientist William Turley's comprehensive and exact term, the "First, Second and Third Indochina Wars" satisfies those already familiar with the history. Still, for those first learning about the subject, I think the best we can do is speak as historian Marilyn Young does of the "Viet Nam wars", specifying the French one when we have to. As Linh Dinh points out, they were wars for Viet Nam, in Viet Nam and its sphere, fought almost entirely by the Vietnamese.
That is the point made by studying the Viet Nam wars through Vietnamese writing. A local author continuously assumes what outsiders must continually remind themselves, that these were Vietnamese events. Moreover, he or she always exemplifies that the Vietnamese point of view is made of discrete, differing perspectives, linked through family and place as well as career and politics. Especially in anti-colonial and civil wars, even an individual voice will speak from conflicting allegiances.
To let the world hear Vietnamese voices has inspired Vietnamese internationalists and their foreign friends since first contact. For the period of the wars alone, there is a wealth of authors in English and French, both original and in translation. For this brief resources essay I focus on English texts in print that are immediately available online or may be ordered through bookstores, and some out-of-print volumes available through loan within most state library systems.
Three unique authors make especially available a sense of being Vietnamese, of history and family and place. Duong Van Mai Elliott's history of her family from the rise of her great-grandfather to high position in 1884 to her own life in California through the 1980s is an astonishing narrative, with analysis of events and character sketches of individuals, that gives any reader access to the local view of the war as an episode in Vietnamese national life. Mai, a Georgetown graduate who interviewed revolutionary prisoners for RAND, is the wife of political scientist David Elliott, whose monumental account of revolution in the Mekong delta is the most Vietnamese-focused English-language history of the war to date.
Le Ly Haslip, from a shattered peasant family, uneducated, confined to discussing her own life and times, nonetheless delivers in When Heaven and Earth Changed Places an effect similar to Mai's well-born, highly educated, survey. Le Ly's account of war in the 1960s in her village, as a small girl meeting the needs of her family and facing the demands of both revolutionary and nationalist forces, going to the city and marrying an American, tells the same story of generations and family networks, in a style of personal testimony familiar to many students.
Quang Van Nguyen in Fourth Uncle in the Mountain takes the reader directly into his wartime childhood in the western frontier of southern Viet Nam, where Communism and nationalism and the war itself are no more important than daily life, structured by his religious and medical education. He meditates in a cave with a monk who has taught his family there since before French conquest, has visions, and altogether introduces the reader to life on emphatically local terms. The medical anthropology in the book may be familiar from Anne Fadiman's best-selling account of the Hmong, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, but the story is told by the shaman himself. Historians Hue-Tam Ho-Tai's Millenarianism and Peasant Politics in Viet Nam and Jayne Werner's Peasant Politics and Relgious Sectarianism will provide context on this entirely different but quite convincing story of the war.
Two anthropologists, a novelist and a Quaker aid worker have worked closely with Vietnamese people and texts to produce ethnographic accounts of war and its memory. The most startling, and the closest to everyday Vietnamese life, is by anthropologist Heonek Kwon, a Korean who reports on the active life of ghosts from the war today in the heavily bombed and fought-over central region, where any given spot of ground may conceal human remains. His own earlier After the Massacre, about commemoration at My Lai, and the collection The Country of Memory edited by Hue-Tam Ho-Tai will provide context for this close-in study.
Neil Jamieson's Understanding Viet Nam deals with the fantastic in a different milieu, among the urban intellectuals who write and read Vietnamese literature. Although Jamieson's recent work as an anthropologist is with highlanders, in the war he advised the functionaries of the Republic of Viet Nam and his vision of the country is theirs, often expressed with reference to modern poetry and fiction. Jamieson translated a quantity of literature four times as long as his published book to select the passages that illustrate it.
Two American literary authors have reported on the Vietnamese lives they have shared in their reconciliation work. In After Sorrow, aid worker Lady Borton relays the wartime memories of the dedicated Communist women she worked near in Quang Ngai during the war and works with in Ha Noi today. Students may relate to Borton's gift for compassion, also the attractive feature of her earlier report from assisting Vietnamese boat people in Malaysia, Sensing the Enemy.
Novelist Wayne Karlin's new Wandering Souls engages with a variety of Vietnamese speakers in what may be the most accessible and synoptic of these works of scholarship. Karlin tells the life of Homer Steedly, an American soldier, and the life and afterlife of Hoang Ngoc Dam, the man he killed. Karlin, himself a Marine combat veteran, draws on his contacts among Ha Noi intellectuals from previous exchanges to accompany Steedly in contacting the family of Dam, country people, who were delighted to receive Steedly and accept the documents he had taken from their son, brother and husband.
These are demanding, sophisticated works of history, autobiography and ethnography perhaps best read by the instructor and used as a basis for lectures or for individual study projects. I now turn to sources for short or excerptable works, mostly fiction and poetry, that provide appropriate reading for a single class meeting.
Literary critic John C. Schafer's XY, available in print or online, reviews the available literature by topics such as XY, XY. Schafer taught in Hue during the war and subsequently taught English at Humboldt State University, lending his bibliography the rare mixture of research expertise and practical teaching experience. It is available online from Yale Southeast Asia Studies, as well as in print. For more from Schafer's own engagement with a Vietnamese writer, see his Vo Phien and the Sadness of Exile.
Teachers seeking works addressing a particular topic or period should go directly to Schafer. The rest of this resource article gives an "ethnography of the sources", the scholars who have brought Vietnamese writers into English, whose motivations may track or inspire those searching for Vietnamese texts in English.
The United States made war in Viet Nam to oppose the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China. Whatever its merits, the Cold War strategy of containment neglected the interests and agency of all Vietnamese, including our allies as well as our opponents and most of all the people each sought to rule. Understanding the motivations of those who spoke up, in the voice of Vietnamese writers, against "the fight of the elephants", can guide a selection of their products.
My personal recommendations:
What is not translated:
RVN 54-75 19C systematically NNN and other overseas