Looking Like the Enemy: Race and the Legacy of the Vietnam War (notes) – EN
November 11, 2020 — A group of experts explores the reverberations of the American-Vietnam War across the two countries’ cultures from the war’s outset to the present day. Speakers include Roger Harris, Karen L. Ishizuka, Lynn Novick, and Viet Thanh Nguyen. The conversation was moderated by Michelle Yun Mapplethorpe, artistic director of the Asia Society Triennial and director of the Asia Society Museum in New York. (1 hr., 3 min.)
Lynn Novick is the co-director with Ken Burns of the long documentary “Vietnam War” (but surprisingly we mostly remember the man’s name).
When asked what motivated this documentary, she answers :
Every generation has to reexam the history that had been taught through the lens of who we are, where we are.
and affirms the will to do justice to the many perspectives of the war.
Viet Thanh Nguyen is asked to talk about this claim that we can’t separate stories from power and about how did he feel empowered to share this other side of history.
Everybody’s stories matter (to themselves) but not everybody has access and control, to have their stories published, amplified, broadcasted.
Karen Ishisuka is a third generation Japanese-American, she produced the following documentary that portrays Japanese-Americans fighting for the United-States.
This cover of one of the first magazine from and on Asian-Americans, Gidra, shows the duality and dissonance of Asian-American soldiers mainly but also other People of Colors when having to fight against Vietnamese or other Asian.
She shares about the process of interviewing veterans. As they said,
this was a double war : fighting for democracy abroad and their rights at home.
Their were being mistaken for the enemy. They had to pay this price with blood. Soldiers don’t talk about their wars, about their feelings. Many wifes said later they had never heard those stories.
“I was concerned of being a woman, never having been in combat, asking these sensitive questions. It was interesting that most of the WWII Vets saw me as the grand-child or niece, it was an excuse as opening up. […] It was a catalyst, a reason that Asian American, small number, had no voice, where ignored, considered, being nor black or white. How would we make a difference.”
[Personal note] This testimony shows how the process of transmission that seems obviously necessary for veterans but also anybody who experienced the war, is also the hardest because we usually do not want to share traumas and atrocities. This is where an outsider, a third-person can play a important role to heal wounds.
As Michelle Yun summed up, there was a disconnect between what they where fighting for and what they were experiencing. This could apply to other communities, like the African-Americans who fought during American wars.
Roger Harris, a veteran we can see in Ken Burn and Lynn Novick’s movie, shares his own experience.
I didn’t know, I was young and ignorant, I drank the coolade. I went to Vietnam with that mindset. I then realised it was different from what I’ve been told.
At that time, coming from a poor uneducated family, being a soldier was a way to be accepted in the society.
“If we pay in blood, maybe we will be accepted.”
But this did work, this is not enough and he calls for a paradigm shift. “No matter what sacrifices you make, it does not change” he says. He refered to Muhammad Ali who refused the war.
Michelle Yun then addresses the final question : How can we change this dynamic? Dismantle that power structure? How can we create this paradigm shift?
For R. Harris we need to stop glorifying violence and change what it means to be a hero, be the tough guy that beats and kills the enemy. Heroes should be the one who use their brains to resolve conflicts. He then emphasizes on education, specially now in order to reduce the gap between USA and China.
Viet Thanh Nguyen underlights the fact that we need a deep in change in the society. For those who know him already, it is not suprising to hear him talk about how
We are not voiceless, we are just no heard !
That is why we can not change this problem until more people has access to education, granting more diversity.
He also gives a good example to understand how the memory industry and narratives are important. If everyone remembers Martin Luther King and his speech “I have a dream“, a few know the one on Vietnam War. He was against capitalism, but we don’t teach that because the government needs a certain image of him that fits its claims and agenda.