Friday, June 05, 2009

The difficulties of the Writings of the Vietnam War

Memory is all about the past, but it is actually a reconstruction of the past by human mind. Writing, as a particular form of memory, may explore the past events in a more profound manner, but it still cannot completely duplicate the past. Particularly, when people encounter deconstructive or uncertain phenomena, for example, wars, they get great difficulties to construct the memory in writing. During 1960s and 1970s, when America was involved in the Vietnam War, Americans had been suffering from lasting warfare, huge casualties, and an end of loss. In the war, the concerns of politics by the government and the concerns of loss of lives by the society and individuals caused great conflicts. After the war, Maya Lin designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial by possessing the theme of mourning for dead soldiers but rejecting political factors of the war. Her theory suits the majority of Americans in their view of this particular war. Vietnam War novels usually stir up difficulties of the war from individual perspective. In his book, The Things They Carried, American writer Tim O’Brien describes many terrible war experiences of soldiers, but he insists that the truth of war is impossible to be described and understood. In comparison with O’Barien, The Sorrow of War by Vietnam write Bao Ninh presents different struggles and sufferings of Vietnamese due to their traditions and the specific post war conditions in Vietnam.
The Vietnam War is an essentially unpopular and unsuccessful war. The chief reason America became involved in the Vietnam War was to prevent the spread of Communism in Asia. However, common Americans had little interests in this political concern. They did not see that the war took place in a far away Asian country was relevant to their lives. A citizen in Beallsville said, “I don’t think this is a war to defend America or to make America a better place to live in (Blankfort 393). Due to the complicated situation in Vietnam, for example, the corruption of the government of South Vietnam, America was unable to gain a decisive victory but was dragged into a lasting war. Although America finally withdrew in 1975, many harmful consequences had already been resulted.
In Reporting Vietnam American Journalism 1959-1975, the writings about the experiences of soldiers are poignant. In the article, “Our Town: The War Comes Home to Beallsville, Ohio” by Jeffrey Blankfort, the author describes unusual war experiences of those residents of Beallsville. As stated by Blankfort, “Viet-Nam has taken a tool from Beallsville that is 75 times the national average” ( Blankfort 386). Many of the young soldiers who were sent to Vietnam were killed in a very short period of time. For example, Duane Greenlee “was sent to Viet-Nam that July and served 44 days before he was killed” (Blankfort 389). His death severely impacted his parents, and as a result, they separated. In other words, the war not only killed a young man, but also destroyed his entire family. Death and destruction of families were already difficult to be accepted, but when there was no a proper explanation of the death and destruction, the situation became even worse. As Duane’s mother commented, “[Duane] said he didn’t know what he was going over there for. […] He didn’t see any sense in it and I don’t see where we’ve gained anything at all by any of them being over there. I just wish was all over” (Blankfort 390). In fact, the war experiences of Beallsville residents reveal a key dilemma of the Vietnam War. Political concern was the real motivation for America participated in the war; but it had long been denounced by American society and people. As a result, the ultimate goal of the war developed into an uncertain appearance. Neither the government nor society could not find a moral explanation to recognize the sacrifices of those dead soldiers. Being restricted by these difficulties, Americans’ memories of the Vietnam War were hard to be formed. For the same reason, the main features of the writings of the war tended to be questions, gloominess and confusion.
After the war, the proposal of the Vietnam Veteran Memorial in Washington D. C. caused controversy. The appearance of the memorial represents the nation’s perspective towards the war, but different people had different opinions on it. Maya Lin’s design was ultimately selected, with a theme focusing on the dead soldiers rather than other factors of the war. Lin’s design had been unfairly criticized due to her young age, gender, and Asian origins. In fact, compared to aged or more experienced experts, Lin’s personal background works to her advantage. Maya Lin’s lack of war experience released her from the details of this particular war; being a female provides her an insight different from males. Her plain but imposing design presents a universal view of the loss of lives in the wars. As Lin stated in her article, Making the Memorial, “I wanted to create a memorial that everyone would be able to respond to, regardless of whether one thought our country should or should not have participated in the war” (Lin 33). Lin attempted to completely get rid of the political factors from her design. She said, “I felt that the politics had eclipsed the veterans, their service, and their lives”, and hoped “this memorial acknowledged those lives without focusing on the war or on creating a political statement of victory or loss” (Lin 33).
By ignoring politics, Lin avoided much confusion and disgrace regarding the war. She preferred to concentrate on the loss of lives, another central problem of the Vietnam War. On the memorial wall, the dead soldiers’ names were carved on highly polished granite. Visitors can touch the carved names and can observe their reflections on the wall overlapping these names. The low height of the memorial provides an intimacy between the visitor and the deaths, and black color of the memorial presents a sentiment of gloom. However, the wall has no glorious or patriotic implication at all. Lin intentionally left such a kind of gloomy and uneasy experience to visitors. She believed that “accepting a person’s death is the first step in being able to overcome that loss” (Lin 33). Lin’s article explains the memorial and presents an idea that political reasons caused the difficulties of the war. She asserted that Americans should focus on the universal understanding of life and death, so they could overcome the difficult experience of loss.
Unlike Lin’s rational manner of thinking and writing, O’Brien’s novel emotionally presents individual soldiers’ terrifying war experiences and their enduring inner struggles in the post war period. In The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, an American soldier, Norman Bowker and his partners had to stay in a “shit field” all night while it was raining (O’Brien 146). Bowker had witnessed the sinking and burying of his partners. This experience was too dramatic and terrifying to be accepted by anyone. Even though someone physically survived, they became mentally and emotionally altered. As the author describes, in a post war day, Norman Bowker drove a car around a lake over and over from the noon to the late afternoon (O’Brien 138). The symbolic meaning of it is that Vietnam War veterans were traumatized by the deaths of the soldiers and the terrible war memories. Although war was over and they physically returned to a peaceful world, their all memories were about the Vietnam War. Being unable to bear the mental sufferings, Bowker committed suicide several years after the war (O’Brien 160).
O’Brien believes that the essence of the war cannot be fully captured by using words, nor be comprehended by the reader, which causes a struggle in his writing. In the chapter of “How to Tell a True War Story” in The Things They Carried, O’Brien claims that “[a] true war story is never moral” (O’Brien 68). As a rule, a writer is expected to provide something positive and moral in order to inspire the reader. In regards to writing about war, writers could argue war’s moral features such as defending one’s homeland. Nevertheless, since the ultimate purpose of the Vietnam War is confusing, O’Brien does not see any moral aspect of it, and thus struggles on the ideology in his writing. For this reason, he says that “[t]he old rules are no longer binding, the old truths no longer true” (O’Brien 82). In addition, the extremely brutal aspect of the war severely damaged soldiers’ normal emotion and mentality. “In war you lose your sense of the definite, hence your sense of truth itself, and therefore it’s safe to say that in a true war story nothing is ever absolutely true” (O’Brien 82). Even though he personally experienced the war, O’Brien feels that he is unable to recall and analyze the actual war. Hence, for a common reader who is distant from Vietnam War, it would be more difficult for him or her to understand the writing as well as the real meaning of the war.
Although the North Vietnam gained the final victory of the war, the fact that the war took place in Vietnam suggests the truth that the Vietnamese must suffer more than Americans. During the end of the war, American soldiers quickly retreated from Vietnam and returned to their home. Although they were badly injured by the war, physically or mentally, they now lived in another peaceful and prosperous society. In contrast, Vietnamese had to live on the destructive land and chaotic society after the war. The Vietnamese had no way to escape their tough situation in a material level as well as a spiritual level.
The particular traditions of Vietnam caused the Vietnamese were extremely difficult to deal with the deaths in the war. According to After the Massacre by Heonik Kwon, the Vietnamese makes a clear distinction between “death at home” and “death in the stress;” the former refers to natural death which is considered good, but the latter refers to unnatural death which is bad (Kwon 89).The prolonged and brutal war resulted in countless deaths all the places in this country. It became a source of the bitter pain to Vietnamese. Beyond that, being unable to properly bury the dead is regarded as a disgrace to family members. “In popular knowledge, the dead who are properly entombed in an appropriate site according to ritual propriety are less inclined to roam about the streets than those who are improperly buried and did not benefit from remembrance rites” (Kwon 89). Despite the fact that the Vietnamese tried very hard to look for and rebury their family deaths with proper rituals after the war, the situation in Vietnam provided no basis to fully fulfill their goal. This fact left tremendous suffering to Vietnam society as well as individuals.
In the Vietnam novel, The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh, the author provides a universal detestation of the war and individuals’ suffering in the war. Kien is a Vietnam War veteran with a prominent feature as sorrow. Although he was lucky to survive the war, most of his partners died. After the war, he found that the relationship between his first lover and himself can never be recovered. The war destroyed their innocence and left only awful marks on them. As Ninh comments in the book, “war was a world with no home, no roof, no comforts. A miserable journey, of endless drifting. War was a world without real men, without real women, without feeling” (Ninh 31).
More importantly, Ninh’s novel unfolds the fact that the difficulties of the war memory of the Vietnamese is directly related to their cultural and social background that differs from Americans’. Lan, a common village woman in Vietnam, lost her brothers, then her mother, then her husband, then her son during the war (Ninh 54). In the post war period, she intended to go other place to rebuild her life, but she changed her mind. “I just couldn’t leave my mother and my son lying over there” (Ninh 54). The Vietnamese regard their dead family members as important as living family members. This belief and the large amount of deaths in the war combined caused the considerable difficulties of the Vietnamese when they tried to get rid of their terrible war memories and to start a new life.
Because the political concerns of the Vietnam War were rejected by American society and the majority of individuals, the ultimate goal of the war became vague. Also, the failure of the war and the large loss of lives in the war provided a special and difficult experience for Americans to construct their war memories. Both the writings and the memories of war share similar features such as difficulty, struggle, and confusion. While news reports offer real stories to illustrate the central problem of loss of lives of soldiers, O’Brien’s novel depicts soldiers’ unbelievable war experiences and their enduring inner struggles. The unique features of the Vietnam War result in the visible difficulties in his writing. In fact, in Vietnam, the destruction of the land and their traditions caused more difficulty in this country than in America. For this reason, Ninh’s novel appears a constantly gloomy impression, which at the same time reveals the writer’s struggle in writing.


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