After thirty years of war that left their country in ruins, with millions dead and many more millions wounded, thousands of communities destroyed, the life-giving earth choking with unexploded munitions and toxic chemicals, etc., etc., one might assume that the Vietnamese would be consumed with outrage over what has been done to them in the name of freedom and democracy. But most visitors to post-war Vietnam have been struck by the apparent absence of bitterness, and the friendliness with which even former tormentors from the U.S. military machine are greeted.
This singular pattern of behaviour is partly due to a government policy which emphasizes the need to consign the war to the past, and focus instead on rebuilding the country for the future. Probably more significant in this context are deeply-rooted cultural beliefs in Buddhist reincarnation and stoic acceptance.
Whatever the causes, the results can be misleading to observers from other cultural backgrounds who are often left with the impression that the war has had no lasting impact on the country or its people. That being the case, there is no reason for outsiders to be especially concerned about the legacy of the war or the ethical issues that it obviously raises. For, if the Vietnamese do not themselves bemoan their fate, why should anyone else?
It is a thought that has frequently been expressed, directly or by implication; but it suggests a curious approach to basic issues of morality and international law. The principle seems to be that any great crime against humanity may be ignored, as long as the victims do not make too much of a fuss about it.
Yet, it should not require too much effort of empathy or the imagination for any normally constituted human being to grasp that, beneath the smiling surface of the stoic Vietnamese, there must be a world of silent sorrow, rage and grief. One who has studied the Vietnamese experience of the war is Helle Rydstrøm, a Danish social anthropologist currently affiliated with Linköping University in Sweden, who has been conducting research among the country folk of northern Vietnam since 1994.
In a seminal article published last year in Danish and Swedish newspapers, she explained that the apparent forgetfulness of those who survived the war is part of a strategy for dealing with profound grief and painful memories. Further, that strategy is linked to fundamental Vietnamese values of respect and honour: In striving to show respect for guests of their nation, while at the same time maintaining their personal honour, she observes, many northern Vietnamese avoid confronting visitors from the West with the devastation to which their country has been subjected by foreigners throughout history.
Return to Haiphong
She relates the experience of a young woman to whom she gives the fictional name of Lien, who in the mid-1990s was assigned to act as guide and interpreter for a U.S. pilot who had returned to visit Haiphong, the port city near Hanoi that had been subjected to massive bombing during the war. Lien knew the area well, having grown up in Haiphong and having survived the traumatic experience of the bomb attacks in which the returning pilot had participated. Many of her relatives were killed in those attacks and Lien, like so many other Vietnamese, had lived ever since with a constant, aching survivors guilt.
So there they were in Haiphong, some twenty years later-- the returning pilot who for decades had been living in anguished awareness of the suffering that he had helped to inflict, together with the young Vietnamese woman who was inwardly overwhelmed with anguish and bitterness at the human consequences of the U.S. bombings. But outwardly, she disclosed nothing of all this-- thereby preserving her honour while treating her nations guest with customary respect.
Such encounters have become commonplace in recent years, as both the U.S. and Vietnamese governments have initiated various gestures of reconciliation. Not surprisingly, such efforts do not alter the fact that ordinary people still feel strong bitterness, rage and grief as a result of their experiences at the hands and bombs of the U.S.A.
There are about 400,000 Vietnamese MIAs (Missing in Action) from the American War, as well as many others who have not been buried according to traditional rite. Each of them is a source of pain and anxiety among the survivors, according to Helle Rydstrøm:
The Vietnamese seldom speak of their anxieties in this connection. But the pain is there, and it is dealt with by purposely forgetting-- as with so many other traumatic memories of the war. Thus, the will to forget reflects the traces of memory that a tragic war has imprinted in the minds of the survivors, and that will becomes a strategy for enabling life to go on.
for what they did.
In their book, Even the Women Must Fight, Karen Gottschang Turner and Phan Thanh Haoa also address the Vietnamese experience of the war. The following is an excerpt from the authors encounter with a female war veteran from northern Vietnam:
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Rydstrøm, Helle. Guida din bödel [Guiding Ones Executioner]. Dagens Nyheter, 8 September 2000
Turner, Karen Gottschang, with Phan Thanh Hao. Even the Women Must Fight. New York: John Wiley, 1998.