There were comic books back in the 1960s, but the graphic novel hadn’t yet been invented. Now there are two extraordinary graphic novels about the Vietnam War. The first, Dong Xoai, Vietnam 1965 by DC Comics’ Joe Kubert, published in 2010, could have been stripped down into an ambitious comic book project. It’s a visual record of a battle, and Kubert does an amazing job telling the story.
Marcelino Truong’s recently published Such a Lovely War: Saigon 1961-63 (Arsenal Pulp Press, 280 pp., $26.95, paper) is a product unique to the graphic novel: It is graphic, autobiographical, and a novel. And it takes a novel look at the war by telling the story through the perspective of a child in the early 1960s.
This is no ordinary child, however; the boy’s father worked in the South Vietnamese diplomatic corps and became the director of Agence-Vietnam Presse, as well as the official translator for Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem. Not that Diem needed a translator, we learn, but because he wanted time to compose his thoughts.
The book beings in Washington, D.C., and ends with the father’s appointment to a post in London, but for most of the book young Marco is witness to the war’s slow buildup in 1961-63. With a Vietnamese father and a French mother, young Marco reflects the biases of the Catholic elite even while he’s astounded, excited, and horrified by the ever-widening war.
He watches wide-eyed as an enormous aircraft carrier delivers war materiel and helicopters in December 1961. He ducks for cover when rogue Vietnamese pilots attempt a February 1962 assassination of Diem by bombing the Presidential Palace. He marvels at a display in downtown Saigon of confiscated Viet Cong weaponry.
Even as he addresses such complex issues as the failure of the Strategic Hamlet program, class relations among the Vietnamese, the use of Agent Orange, and the self-defeating racism of the American troops, as a child he also has to deal with family issues: the birth of a sister, the death of friends, and the precarious state of a bipolar mother suffering to maintain balance and a family in a war zone.
Such a Lovely Little War (this English translation from the original French is by David Homel) is a fascinating book told in a new way from a new perspective. It’s a new history with interesting comparisons between the North and the South, and between the old ways and the new.
It doesn’t disappoint.