Nothing Ever Dies by Viet Thanh Nguyen

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Wars are fought twice, first on the battlefield and second in memory. A war is not just about shooting, but about people who make bullets and deliver bullets and, perhaps most importantly, those who pay for the bullets. Each ethnic group in the United States gets its own notable history by which Americans remember it: Vietnamese get the war.

That just about sums up the core of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (Harvard University Press, 384 pp., $27.95, hardcover: $12.58 Kindle), an examination of the possibility of overcoming the residual scourges of war through discussing ethics, industries, and aesthetics. The book contains a continuous flow of truths and suppositions that merit support—or beg challenge.

From the opening pages, I recognized that Viet Nguyen’s philosophy of life differs markedly from mine. Consequently, I found the book difficult to read. However, I surrendered to the strength and persistence of his arguments and read every page. Throughout the book, I detected different voices in his style. Deep into the book, the voices grew more convincing. By the end, I felt loosely bonded with Nguyen’s arguments, but had reservations about what comes next.

Viet Nguyen was born in Ban Me Thuot in 1971. His parents had moved south from North Vietnam in 1954. His family came to the United States as refugees in 1975. He grew up in San Jose, California. At UC Berkeley, he earned degrees in English and ethnic studies and a Ph.D. in English. He teaches English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. His much-heralded Vietnam War-heavy novel, The Sympathizers, won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Nothing Ever Dies focuses on the Vietnam War, but the arguments extend to the war’s repercussions in Laos, Cambodia, and South Korea. Viet Nguyen has traveled extensively across the areas he analyzes. His observations are eye opening, such as when he compares cemeteries of Vietnamese war casualties buried in Vietnam with American names on The Wall in Washington, D.C. His message is that nations tend to remember their own losses and forget the deaths of their opponents, with military casualties taking precedence.

Nguyen says that remembrance of war is a debt fully paid only when soldiers and civilians from both sides are included in recollections of good and evil events. That process allows a war to truly end and peaceful relations to ensue. Without reconciliation, war’s truth will be impossible to remember, and war’s trauma impossible to forget.

He chooses sides, favoring poor and weak nations that are victims of industrialized nations with more powerful armies. He stresses, however, that both sides overlook their ability to hurt others, which often results in inhumane actions. Forgiving inhumanities with emotions above the level of mere resignation is part of the remembrance process. In this regard, he analyses “the most horrific of horrors” inflicted by the Khmer Rouge on the Cambodian population, citing its difficulty to reconcile because “few are willing to acknowledge themselves as victimizers.”

Nguyen expands his idea of erasing the stigmas related to war by discussing war literature written by Vietnamese Americans. “Literature can raise the troublesome past of war and even the difficult present of racial inequality,” he writes, “so long as it also promises or hopes for reconciliation and refuge.”

He illustrates the benefits of war by explaining how participation by the South Korean army—and its 5,000 men killed in action in the Vietnam War—gave the nation a new role in global capitalization. He analyzes Korea’s post-war movies, masculinity, exploitation, and submission to “the American giant who has never learned to live outside his own world,” which has resulted in the “giant” recreating his environment wherever he goes. Faithful to his land of birth, Nguyen recalls the cruelty inflicted on Vietnamese when Koreans ran prison camps under Japanese occupation during World War II.

The description of visiting Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum flashed me back to the awe I felt in 1987 while walking through Lenin’s Tomb in Moscow. Seeing Ho’s body as either “a heroic statue or a gruesome zombie,” Nguyen belittles the legendary leader as a “stage prop for the Communist Party.” Comparatively speaking, seeing Lenin’s body produced a quasi-religious experience within me, making me nod in appreciation of a man who changed a nation and the world. Of course, neither man had stolen my country from my me and my family.

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Award-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen

One disappointment was Nguyen’s reliance on analyses of Vietnam War films. Basing conclusions on directors’ interpretations of the war left me less satisfied than, let’s say, using memoirs of participants from both sides. But it is what it is.

Nothing Ever Dies is a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in General Nonfiction. The book was also a finalist for the National Book Award in Nonfiction. Nguyen also has earned several teaching and service awards.

—Henry Zeybel