FROM THIS EPISODE
USC professor Viet Thanh Nguyen won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Sympathizer and is a 2017 MacArthur Fellow. He tells Robert Scheer he wanted his novel to tell a story with the Vietnamese experience in the foreground unlike previous narratives about the country. He tells Scheer the United States has often in recent history used its overwhelming power in spite of its ignorance about a foreign country’s culture and people. And he says the independence that Vietnam now has allows the country to control its fate but also destroy its future.
Photo courtesy John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
Viet Thanh Nguyen
Chapter 23 EXCERPTED from “The Sympathizer
With that one word, I completed my reeducation. All that remains to be told is how I glued myself back together, and how I found myself where I am now, preparing for a watery departure from my country. Like everything else of consequence in my life, neither task was easy. Leaving, in particular, is not something that I want to do but is something I must do. What in life is left for me, or any of the other graduates of reeducation? No place exists for us in this revolutionary society, even for those who think of ourselves as revolutionaries. We cannot be represented here, and this knowledge hurts more than anything done to me in my examination. Pain ends but knowledge does not, at least until the mind rots away—and when would that ever happen for me, the man with two minds?
The end of pain, at least, began when I spoke that one word. In retrospect the answer was obvious. So why did it take me so long to understand? Why did I have to be educated and reeducated for so many years, and at such great expense to both the American taxpayer and Vietnamese society, not to mention considerable damage to myself, in order to see, at last, the word that was there at the very beginning? The answer was so absurd that now, months later and in the temporary safety of the navigator’s house, I laugh even as I reread this scene of my enlightenment, which itself devolved—or is it evolved?—from screams to laughter. Of course I was still screaming when the commissar came to turn off the light and sound. I was still screaming when he unbound me and embraced me, cradling my head against his breast until my screams subsided. There, there, he said in the dark examination room, silent at last except for my sobbing. Now you know what I know, don’t you? Yes, I said, sobbing still. I get it. I get it!
What was it that I got? The joke. Nothing was the punch line, and if part of me was rather hurt at being punched—by nothing, no less!—the other part of me thought it was hilarious. That was why, as I shook and shuddered in that dark examination room, my wailing and sobbing turned to howls of laughter. I laughed so hard that eventually the baby-faced guard and the commandant came to investigate the cause of the commotion. What’s so funny? the commandant demanded. Nothing! I cried. I was, at last, broken. I had, at last, spoken. Don’t you get it? I cried. The answer is nothing! Nothing, nothing, nothing!
Only the commissar understood what I meant. The commandant, flustered by my bizarre behavior, said, Look what you’ve done to him. He’s out of his mind. He was not so much concerned with me as he was about the camp’s health, for a madman who kept on saying nothing would be bad for morale. I was mad that it had taken me so long to understand nothing, even though my failure, in hindsight, was inevitable. A good student cannot understand nothing; only the class clown, the misunderstood idiot, the devious fool, and the perpetual joker can do that. Still, such a realization could not spare me from the pain of overlooking the obvious, the pain that drove me to push the commissar away, to beat my fists against my forehead.
Stop that! said the commandant. He turned to the baby-faced guard. Stop him!
The baby-faced guard struggled with me as I beat not only my fists against my forehead, but my head against the wall. Finally, the commissar and the commandant themselves had to help him tie me down again. Only the commissar understood that I had to beat myself. I was so stupid! How could I forget that every truth meant at least two things, that slogans were empty suits draped on the corpse of an idea? The suits depended on how one wore them, and this suit was now worn out. I was mad but not insane, although I was not going to disabuse the commandant. He saw only one meaning in nothing—the negative, the absence, as in there’s nothing there. The positive meaning eluded him, the paradoxical fact that nothing is, indeed, something. Our commandant was a man who didn’t get the joke, and people who do not get the joke are dangerous people indeed. They are the ones who say nothing with great piousness, who ask everyone else to die for nothing, who revere nothing. Such a man could not tolerate someone who laughed at nothing. Satisfied? he asked the commissar, both of them looking down on me, sobbing, weeping, and laughing all at the same time. Now we have to call in the doctor again.
Call him in, then, said the commissar. The hard part’s done.
The doctor moved me back to my old isolation cell, although now the chamber was unlocked and I was not shackled. I was free to go as I pleased but was reluctant to do so, sometimes needing the baby-faced guard to coax me out of the corners. Even on those rare occasions when I emerged voluntarily, it was never into sunlight, but only the night, a conjunctivitis having rendered my eyes sensitive to the solarized world. The doctor prescribed an improved diet, sunlight, and exercise, but all I wanted was to sleep, and when I was not sleeping, I was somnambulent and silent, except for when the commandant came. Is he still not saying anything? the commandant asked whenever he dropped by, to which I said, Nothing, nothing, nothing, a grinning simpleton huddled in the corner. Poor fellow, said the doctor. He is a little, how shall we say, discombobulated after his experiences.
Well, do something about it! cried the commandant.
I’ll do my best, but it’s all in his mind, the doctor said, pointing at my bruised forehead. The doctor was only half right. It was certainly all in my mind, but which one? Eventually, however, the doctor did hit on the treatment that put me on the slow road to recovery, its end the reunification of me with myself. Perhaps, he said one day, sitting on a chair next to me as I huddled in the corner, arms folded and head resting on them, a familiar activity might help you. I peered at him with one eye. Before your examination began, your days were occupied by writing your confession. Your state of mind is such that I don’t think you can write anything now, but perhaps just going through the motions may help. I peered at him with both eyes. From his briefcase, he extracted a thick stack of paper. Does this look familiar? Cautiously, I unfolded my arms and took the stack. I looked at the first page, then the second, and the third, slowly thumbing my way through the numbered sheaf of 295 pages. What do you think that is? said the doctor. My confession, I muttered. Exactly, dear fellow! Very good! Now what I want you to do is to copy this confession. Out came another stack of paper from his briefcase, as well as a handful of pens. Word for word. Can you do that for me?
I nodded slowly. He left me alone with my two stacks of paper, and for a very long time—it must have been hours—I stared at the first blank page, pen in trembling hand. And then I began, my tongue between my lips. At first I could copy only a few words an hour, then a page an hour, and then a few pages an hour. My drool dotted the pages as I saw my entire life unfold over the months it took to copy the confession. Gradually, as my bruised forehead healed, and as I absorbed my own words, I developed a growing sympathy for the man in these pages, the intelligence operative of doubtful intelligence. Was he a fool or too smart for his own good? Had he chosen the right side or the wrong side of history? And were not these the questions we should all ask ourselves? Or was it only me and myself who should be so concerned?
By the time I finished copying my confession, enough of my senses had returned for me to understand that the answers were not to be found in those pages. When the doctor next came to examine me, I asked for a favor. What is it, dear fellow? More paper, Doctor. More paper! I explained that I wanted to write the story of those events that had happened after my confession, in the interminable time of my examination. So he brought me more paper, and I wrote new pages about what had been done to me in the examination room. I felt very sorry for the man with two minds, as would be expected. He had not realized that such a man best belonged in a low-budget movie, a Hollywood film or perhaps a Japanese one about a military-grade science experiment gone terribly awry. How dare a man with two minds think he could represent himself much less anyone else, including his own recalcitrant people? They would never, in the end, be representable at all, regardless of what their representatives claimed. But as the pages mounted, I felt something else that surprised me: sympathy for the man who did those things to me. Would he, my friend, not also be tortured by the things he had done to me? I was certain he would be by the time I finished writing, by the time I concluded with me screaming that one awful word into the bright, shining light. All that remained after the certainty was to ask the doctor to let me see the commissar once more.
That is a very good idea, the doctor said, patting the pages of my manuscript and nodding with satisfaction. You are nearly done, my boy. You are nearly done.
I had not seen the commissar since the examination’s conclusion. He had left me alone to begin my recovery, and I can only think that it was because he, too, was conflicted over what he had done to me, even though what was done to me had to be done, for I had to come to the answer myself. No one could tell me the solution to his riddle, not even him. All he could do was speed up my reeducation through the regrettable method of pain. Having used such a method, he was reluctant to see me again, reasonably expecting my hatred. Meeting him in his quarters for our next and last meeting, I could see that he was uneasy, offering me tea, tapping his fingers on his knees, studying the new pages I had written. What do a torturer and the tortured say to each other after their climax has passed? I did not know, but as I sat watching him from my bamboo chair, still bisected into myself and another, I detected a similar division in him, in the horrible void where a face had been. He was the commissar but he was also Man; he was my interrogator but also my only confidant; he was the fiend who had tortured me but also my friend. Some might say I was seeing things, but the true optical illusion was in seeing others and oneself as undivided and whole, as if being in focus was more real than being out of focus. We thought our reflection in the mirror was who we truly were, when how we saw ourselves and how others saw us was often not the same. Likewise, we often deceived overselves when we thought we saw ourselves most clearly. And how did I know that I was not deluding myself as I heard my friend speak? I do not. I could only try to understand whether he was fooling me as he skipped the pleasantries of inquiring about my dubious health, physical and mental, and announced that Bon and I were leaving both camp and country. I had assumed that I would die here, and the finality of what he was saying startled me. Leave? I said. How?
A truck is waiting for you and Bon at the gates. When I heard you were ready to see me, I wanted to waste no more time. You are going to Saigon. Bon has a cousin there, who I am sure he will contact. This man has already tried twice to flee from this country and been caught both times. This third time, with you and Bon, he will succeed.
His plan left me in a daze. How do you know that? I said at last.
How do I know? His void was without expression, but his voice was amused and, perhaps, bitter. Because I bought your escape. I’ve sent money to the right officials, who will make sure the right police officers look the other way when the time comes. Do you know where the money comes from? I had no idea. Desperate women will pay any price to see their husbands in this camp. The guards take their portion and leave the rest to the commandant and myself. I send some home to my wife, I pay my tithe to my superiors, and I used the remainder for your escape. Isn’t it remarkable that in a communist country money can still buy you anything you want?
It’s not remarkable, I muttered. It’s funny.
Is it? I can’t say I laughed in taking the money and gold of these poor women. But you see, while a confession may be enough to free you from this camp, given your revolutionary background, nothing less than money will free Bon. The commandant must be paid, after all—a considerable sum, too, given Bon’s crimes. And nothing less than a great deal of money will ensure that the two of you can leave our country, as you must. This, my friend, is what I have done to these women out of friendship for you. Am I still the friend you recognize and love?
He was the faceless man who had tortured me, for my own good, for the sake of nothing. But I could still recognize him, for who but a man with two minds could understand a man with no face? I embraced him then and wept, knowing that while he was setting me free, he himself could never be free, unable or unwilling to leave this camp except through death, which at least would be a relief from his living death. The only benefit from his condition was that he could see what others could not, or what they might have seen and disavowed, for when he looked into the mirror and saw the void he understood the meaning of nothing.
But what was this meaning? What had I intuited at last? Namely this: while nothing is more precious than independence and freedom, nothing is also more precious than independence and freedom! These two slogans are almost the same, but not quite. The first inspiring slogan was Ho Chi Minh’s empty suit, which he no longer wore. How could he? He was dead. The second slogan was the tricky one, the joke. It was Uncle Ho’s empty suit turned inside out, a sartorial sensation that only a man of two minds, or a man with no face, dared to wear. This odd suit suited me, for it was of a cutting-edge cut. Wearing this inside-out suit, my seams exposed in an unseemly way, I understood, at last, how our revolution had gone from being the vanguard of political change to the rearguard hoarding power. In this transformation, we were not unusual. Hadn’t the French and the Americans done exactly the same? Once revolutionaries themselves, they had become imperialists, colonizing and occupying our defiant little land, taking away our freedom in the name of saving us. Our revolution took considerably longer than theirs, and was consideraby bloodier, but we made up for lost time. When it came to learning the worst habits of our French masters and their American replacements, we quickly proved ourselves the best. We, too, could abuse grand ideals! Having liberated ourselves in the name of independence and freedom—I was so tired of saying these words!—we then deprived our defeated brethren of the same.
Besides a man with no face, only a man of two minds could get this joke, about how a revolution fought for independence and freedom could make those things worth less than nothing. I was that man of two minds, me and myself. We had been through so much, me and myself. Everyone we met had wanted to drive us apart from each other, wanted us to choose either one thing or another, except the commissar. He showed us his hand and we showed him ours, the red scars as indelible as they were in our youth. Even after all we had been through, this was the only mark on our body. We clasped hands and he said, Before you leave, I have something to give you. From beneath his desk he retrieved our battered rucksack and our copy of Asian Communism and the Oriental Mode of Destruction. The last we had seen it, the book was nearly falling apart, creased deeply at the spine. The binding had finally torn apart, and a rubber band bound the book’s two halves. We tried to refuse it, but he slipped the book in the rucksack and pressed it on us. In case you ever need to send me a message, he said. Or vice versa. I still have my copy.
Reluctantly, we took the rucksack. Dear friend—
One more thing. He picked up our manuscript, the copy of our confession and everything after, and motioned for us to open the rucksack. What happened in that examination room is between us. So take this with you, too.
We just want you to know—
Go! Bon is waiting.
So we went, rucksack over our shoulders, dismissed for the last time. No more pencils, no more books, no more teacher’s dirty looks. Silly rhymes and childish wordplay, but if we had thought of anything more serious we would have fallen down under the weight of disbelief, of our sheer relief.
The baby-faced guard escorted us to the camp gates, where the commandant and Bon stood by an idling Molotova truck. We had not seen Bon in a year and many months, and the first words he said were, You look like hell. Us? What about him? Our disembodied minds laughed, but our embodied selves did not. How could we? Our poor friend stumbled before us in patchwork and rags, a puppet in an alcoholic’s hands, hair thinning and skin a sickly shade of decayed jungle vegetation. Over one eye he wore a black patch, and we knew better than to ask him what had been done to him. A few meters away, behind barbed wire, three other haggard men in shambolic clothing watched. It took us a moment to recognize our comrades, the Hmong scout, the philosophical medic, and the dark marine. You don’t look like hell, the Hmong scout said. You look worse. The philosophical medic managed a grin with half his teeth missing. Don’t pay him any attention, he said. He’s just jealous. As for the dark marine, he said, I knew you bastards would get out of here first. Good luck to you.
We couldn’t say anything, only smile and raise our hand in farewell before climbing into the truck with Bon. The baby-faced guard raised the hatch and locked it. What? the commandant said, looking up at us. You still have nothing to say? In fact, we had many things to say, but not wanting to provoke the commandant into revoking our release, we only shook our head. Have it your way. You’ve confessed your errors and there’s nothing more to say after that, is there?
Nothing indeed! Nothing was truly unspeakable. As the truck departed in a cloud of red dust that made the baby-faced guard cough, we watched the commandant walk away and the Hmong scout, the philosophical medic, and the dark marine cover their eyes. Then we turned a corner and the camp disappeared from view. When we asked Bon about our other comrades, he told us that the Lao farmer had vanished in the river, trying to escape, while the darkest marine bled to death after a landmine sheared off his legs. At first we were quiet on hearing this news. What cause had they died for? For what reason had millions more died in our great war to unify our country and liberate ourselves, often through no choice of their own? Like them, we had sacrificed everything, but at least we still had a sense of humor. If one really thought about it, with just a little bit of distance, with even the faintest sense of irony, one could laugh at this joke played on us, those who had so willingly sacrificed ourselves and others. So we laughed and laughed and laughed, and when Bon looked at us as if we were crazy and asked what was the matter with us, we wiped the tears from our eyes and said, Nothing.
After a numbing two-day journey over mountain passes and crumbling highways, the Molotova deposited us on Saigon’s outskirts. From there we shuffled along sullied streets populated by sullen people toward the navigator’s house, our pace slowed by Bon’s limp. The muffled city was eerily muted, perhaps because the country was once again at war, or so we were told by the Molotova’s driver. Tired of the Khmer Rouge attacks on our western border, we had invaded and seized Cambodia. China, to punish us, had raided our northern border earlier in the year, sometime during my examination. So much for peace. What bothered us more was that we had not heard even one romantic song or snatch of pop music by the time we arrived at the home of the navigator, Bon’s cousin. Sidewalk cafés and transistor radios had always played such tunes, but over a dinner only marginally better than the commandant’s meal, the navigator confirmed what the commandant had implied. Yellow music was now banned, and only red, revolutionary music was allowed.
No yellow music in a land of so-called yellow people? Not having fought for this, we could not help but laugh. The navigator looked at us curiously. I’ve seen worse, he said. Two stints in reeducation and I’ve seen much worse. He had been reeducated for the crime of trying to escape the country by boat. On those previous attempts, he had not taken his family with him, hoping to brave the dangers alone and reach a foreign country from where he could send money home to help his family survive or flee, once the route was proven safe. But he was certain that a third capture would lead to reeducation in a northern camp, from which no one had so far returned. For this attempt, then, he was taking his wife, three sons and their families, two daughters and their families, and the families of three in-laws, the clan living or dying together on the open sea.
What are the odds? Bon asked the navigator, an experienced sailor of the old regime whose expertise Bon trusted. Fifty-fifty, the navigator said. I’ve only heard from half of those who fled. It’s safe to assume the other half never made it. Bon shrugged. Sounds good enough, he said. What do you think? This was addressed to us. We looked to the ceiling, where Sonny and the crapulent major lay flat on their backs, scaring away the geckos. In unison, as they were now wont to speak, they said, Those are excellent odds, as the chances of one ultimately dying are one hundred percent. Thus reassured, we turned back to Bon and the navigator and, with no more laughter, nodded our agreement. This they interpreted as a sign of progress.
Over the next two months, as we waited for our departure, we continued working on our manuscript. Despite the chronic shortages of almost every good and commodity, there was no shortage of paper, since everyone in the neighborhood was required to write confessions on a periodic basis. Even we, who had confessed so extensively, had to write these and submit them to the local cadres. They were exercises in fiction, for we had to find things to confess even though we had not done anything since our return to Saigon. Small things, like failing to display sufficient enthusiasm at a self-criticism session, were acceptable. But certainly nothing big, and we never failed to end a confession without writing that nothing was more precious than independence and freedom.
Now it is the evening before our departure. We have paid for Bon’s fare and our own with the commissar’s gold, hidden in my rucksack’s false bottom. The cipher that we share with the commissar has taken the gold’s place, the heaviest thing we will carry after this manuscript, our testament if not our will. We have nothing to leave to anyone except these words, our best attempt to represent ourselves against all those who sought to represent us. Tomorrow we will join those tens of thousands who have taken to the sea, refugees from a revolution. According to the navigator’s plan, on the afternoon of our departure tomorrow, from houses all over Saigon, families will leave as if on a short trip lasting less than a day. We will travel by bus to a village three hours south, where a ferryman waits by a riverbank, a conical hat shading his features. Can you take us to our uncle’s funeral? To this coded question, the coded answer: Your uncle was a great man. We, along with the navigator, his wife, and Bon, clamber on board the skiff, we carrying in our rucksack our rubber-bound cipher and this unbound manuscript, wrapped in watertight plastic. We glide across the river to a hamlet where the rest of the navigator’s clan will join us. The mother ship awaits further down the river, a fishing trawler for 150, almost all of whom will hide in the hold. It will be hot, warned the navigator. It reeks. Once the crew battens down the hatches of the hold, we will struggle to breathe, no vents to alleviate the pressure from 150 bodies locked into a space for a third that number. Heavier than depleted air, however, is the knowledge that even astronauts have a better chance of survival than we do.
Around our shoulders and chest we will strap the rucksack, cipher and manuscript inside. Whether we live or die, the weight of those words will hang on us. Only a few more need to be written by the light of this oil lamp. Having answered the commissar’s question, we find ourselves facing more questions, universal and timeless ones that never get tired. What do those who struggle against power do when they seize power? What does the revolutionary do when the revolution triumphs? Why do those who call for independence and freedom take away the independence and freedom of others? And is it sane or insane to believe, as so many around us apparently do, in nothing? We can only answer these questions for ourselves. Our life and our death have taught us always to sympathize with the undesirables among the undesirables. Thus magnetized by experience, our compass continually points toward those who suffer. Even now, we think of our suffering friend, our blood brother, the commissar, the faceless man, the one who spoke the unspeakable, sleeping his morphine dream, dreaming of an eternal sleep, or perhaps dreaming of nothing. As for us, how long it had taken us to stare at nothing until we saw something! Might this be what our mother felt? Did she look into herself and feel wonderstruck that where nothing had been something now existed, namely us? Where was the turning point when she began wanting us rather than not wanting us, seed of a father who should not have been a father? When did she stop thinking of herself and began to think of us?
Tomorrow we will find ourselves among strangers, reluctant mariners of whom a tentative manifest can be written. Among us will be infants and children, as well as adults and parents, but no elderly, for none dare the voyage. Among us will be men and women, as well as the thin and lean, but not one among us will be fat, the entire nation having undergone a forced diet. Among us will be the light skinned, dark skinned, and every shade in between, some speaking in refined accents and some in rough ones. Many will be Chinese, persecuted for being Chinese, with many others the recipients of degrees in reeducation. Collectively we will be called the boat people, a name we heard once more earlier this night, when we surreptitiously listened to the Voice of America on the navigator’s radio. Now that we are to be counted among these boat people, their name disturbs us. It smacks of anthropological condescension, evoking some forgotten branch of the human family, some lost tribe of amphibians emerging from ocean mist, crowned with seaweed. But we are not primitives, and we are not to be pitied. If and when we reach safe harbor, it will hardly be a surprise if we, in turn, turn our backs on the unwanted, human nature being what we know of it. Yet we are not cynical. Despite it all—yes, despite everything, in the face of nothing—we still consider ourselves revolutionary. We remain that most hopeful of creatures, a revolutionary in search of a revolution, although we will not dispute being called a dreamer doped by an illusion. Soon enough we will see the scarlet sunrise on that horizon where the East is always red, but for now our view through our window is of a dark alley, the pavement barren, the curtains closed. Surely we cannot be the only ones awake, even if we are the only ones with a single lamp lit. No, we cannot be alone! Thousands more must be staring into darkness like us, gripped by scandalous thoughts, extravagant hopes, and forbidden plots. We lie in wait for the right moment and the just cause, which, at this moment, is simply wanting to live. And even as we write this final sentence, the sentence that will not be revised, we confess to being certain of one and only one thing—we swear to keep, on penalty of death, this one promise:
We will live!
Excerpted from Nothing Ever Dies by Viet Thanh Nguyen
I WAS BORN IN VIETNAM but made in America. I count myself among those Vietnamese dismayed by America’s deeds but tempted to believe in its words. I also count myself among those Americans who often do not know what to make of Vietnam and want to know what to make of it. Americans, as well as many people the world over, tend to mistake Vietnam with the war named in its honor, or dishonor as the case may be. This confusion has no doubt led to some of my own uncertainty about what it means to be a man with two countries, as well as the inheritor of two revolutions.
I have spent much of my life sorting through this confusion, both my own and that of the world, and the most succinct explanation that I have found about the meaning of the war, at least for Americans, comes from Martin Luther King Jr. “If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned,” he said, “part of the autopsy must read ‘Vietnam.’ ”1 Americans mostly know King for his dream, but this is his prophecy, and it continues in this manner: “The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit. If we ignore this sobering reality, we will find ourselves organizing ‘clergy and laymen concerned’ committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end, unless there is a significant and profound change in American life.”2 Exactly one year after uttering these words, he was assassinated.
He did not mention Iraq and Afghanistan, but since his speech, many Americans have raised the relationship between the conflicts there and the war in Vietnam.3 Even though Vietnam is neither Iraq nor Afghanistan, the analogy keeps returning for Americans. This invocation of Vietnam as quagmire, syndrome, and war speaks neither to Vietnamese reality nor to current difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan. It speaks to American fear. Americans think defeat in these wars is the worst thing, when winning in Iraq and Afghanistan today only means more of the same tomorrow: Somalia, Pakistan, Yemen, and so on. This is the most important reason for Americans to remember what they call the Vietnam War, the fact that it was one conflict in a long line of horrific wars that came before it and after it. This war’s identity—and, indeed, any war’s identity—cannot be extricated from the identity of war itself.
For King, “the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together.”4 His prophecy does not always roll off the tongue. The language is only occasionally biblical, never uplifting. He asks us not to turn our eyes up to the mountaintop but down to the plain, the factory, the field, the ghetto, the unemployment line, the draft board, the rice paddy, the lotus blossoming in a pond of mud, the Vietnamese landscape that even American soldiers called beautiful, and America, what the Vietnamese call the beautiful country. These are the places where memories of war belong. Most troublesome is the memory of how it was a war that took place not only over there but also over here, because a war is not just about the shooting but about the people who make the bullets and deliver the bullets and, perhaps most importantly, pay for the bullets, the distracted citizenry complicit in what King calls the “brutal solidarity” of white brother and black.5
Although King refers to America, he may as well be gesturing to Vietnam, both revolutionary countries which have not lived up to their revolutions. While the America that was a city upon a hill now exists mostly as a sentimental fantasy, even wartime Vietnam seems far away. This was the country of which the revolutionary Che Guevara could say, “How close and bright would the future appear if two, three, many Vietnams flowered on the face of the globe.”6 He was speaking of the way that the Vietnamese war against American occupation had inspired hope among those who dreamed of liberation and independence in the Americas, Africa, and Asia. Today the Vietnamese and American revolutions manufacture memories only to absolve the hardening of their arteries. For those of us who consider ourselves to be inheritors of one or both of these revolutions, or who have been influenced by them in some way, we have to know how we make memories and how we forget them so that we can beat their hearts back to life. That is the project, or at least the hope, of this book.