Posted by: koolwine | July 11, 2010

Vietnam: Paradise of the Blind

Country: Vietnam

Local Name: Việt Nam

Title: Paradise of the Blind

Author: Duong Thu Huong (Vietnamese)
“I never intended to write.  It just happened because of the pain.”

Translators: Phan Huy Duong and Nina McPherson

Published: 1988 Pages: 258

Acclaim: One of Vietnam’s most popular writers; the first novel from Vietnam published in the U.S.; banned in Vietnam

Setting: Post-war Vietnam, circa 1970 – 1985, in both Vietnam and the Soviet Union

Summary: Traditional and complex family relationships weigh heavily on Hang, a young Vietnamese woman.  Despite the fact that her domineering uncle, a communist official, caused her father and mother’s separation, her mother becomes obsessed with helping his family to the detriment of her own.  Hang is forced to take factory work in the Soviet Union, but the devotion and wealth of her paternal aunt offer a chance for a better life.

My opinion: Although the storyline was depressing, I found Duong Thu Huong’s writing to be beautiful and profound.  Her novel also strongly evokes both country and city life in Vietnam and is particularly descriptive of local food.

In my book, or how Vietnam has affected me and maybe you, too

WAR-ning:  This post is mostly about America, not Vietnam
When I think of Vietnam, neither the landscape nor the Vietnamese people come to mind.  Instead, I pull up images of  American soldiers fighting in the jungle or troubled veterans on city streets.

Vietnam has the unusual distinction of dividing, humbling  and shaming our country, so it’s not surprising that both veterans and civilians have spent a lot of time, creativity and thought into working through those complex emotions.

The distillation of these experiences and flooding of the media with them has ensured that even though I had no firsthand experience of the conflict (I was just out of diapers when Saigon fell) it’s extremely difficult to take the war filter off my mental picture of Vietnam.

We have all been affected by Vietnam
If you know a American man who was of draftable age while the Vietnam War was going on, then you likely know someone whose life was directly changed by Vietnam – either because they shipped out or because they changed their lives to avoid military service. And if you know any American women who would have been the same age, then their lives were likely changed because men they knew were either going off to fight, returning in body bags or suddenly making major life decisions.

My parents were that age; they rushed to get married before Dad shipped out as a naval officer.  My uncle was that age; he died relatively young of illness related to Agent Orange exposure.   My favorite high school teacher was that age; he decided to become a teacher in order to avoid the draft.

“It has become something of a shrine”*
We used to live just a few hours from Washington, D.C., so my family would drive up to sight-see.  On one of those trips, we visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.  I can’t remember if my parents looked for any particular name.  To a bored and uncaring teenager, it was just a long bunch of names of nobody I knew, although I was intrigued by the offerings that mourners left behind.

Initially derided as “a black gash of shame,” architecture student Maya Lin’s unorthodox design was ranked 10th on the “List of America’s Favorite Architecture” by the American Institute of Architects in 2007.  Approximately 4 million people make their way to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial each year; visitors have placed over 100,000 mementos along the wall in remembrance of the fallen.

*Quote from Jan Scruggs, who was the first person to request the creation of a Vietnam Veterans Memorial

“I am reality”*
When I think of the Vietnam War, scenes from Oliver Stone’s 1986 movie Platoon play in my head.

One of Platoon‘s most poignant and memorable moments is the death of Sergeant Elias  (Willem Defoe’s character) who kneels and imploringly throws his hands in the air as he is cut down by enemy fire.

Stone framed this shot to replicate Arthur Greenspon’s 1968 photograph entitled “No. 13.” The AP photographer’s shot catches a U.S. Army paratrooper bathed in a ray of light with his arms raised, surrounded by wounded soldiers.  The subject was guiding a medical helicopter to a safe landing, but to a viewer without that knowledge he appears to be crying out for deliverance from the carnage.

In his essay, “American Soldiers as Victims in Vietnam,” Professor David Parsons writes:

“When he snapped this picture, Greenspon could not have possibly known that the image he captured would inspire a canonical moment in cinema that would become a kind of pop culture shorthand for the collective suffering of American soldiers and a repositioning of the terms of victimhood. Through its own unique path from the jungles of Vietnam to the fantasy factory of Hollywood, the haunting “No. 13” transcends the immediate moment it depicts, taking a slice of the chaos of war and amplifying the reality until it captures the pain and confusion of a tortured nation.”

*Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger’s character) to his soldiers in Platoon

The birth of a protester
Although the role was an 180 degree turn from his studly fighter pilot hero in Top Gun three years prior, my then-crush on Tom Cruise dictated that I see him star as paralyzed veteran and anti-war protester Ron Kovic in Oliver Stone’s second film on the Vietnam War, Born on the Fourth of July.

This movie was pretty eye-opening for me: the friendly fire incident (the first I’d heard of such a thing;  it had never crossed my mind that you might confuse your fellow soldiers with the enemy), the deplorable conditions and treatment Kovic endured in the V.A. hospital (In America?!  In a hospital for soldiers?!), and I didn’t know what to make of the anti-war protesting (This movie made it seem like being a war protester was good, but it was my understanding up until then that protesters were despicable people who spit on returning soldiers,  and that Jane Fonda was one and to never, ever watch her movies).

In the 2005 introduction to his autobiography with the same title, Kovic stated:

“I wanted people to understand. I wanted to share with them as nakedly and openly and intimately as possible what I had gone through, what I had endured. I wanted them to know what it really meant to be in a war—to be shot and wounded, to be fighting for my life on the intensive care ward—not the myth we had grown up believing. I wanted people to know about the hospitals and the enema room, about why I had become opposed to the war, why I had grown more and more committed to peace and nonviolence. I had been beaten by the police and arrested twelve times for protesting the war and I had spent many nights in jail in my wheelchair. I had been called a Communist and a traitor, simply for trying to tell the truth about what had happened in that war, but I refused to be intimidated.”

Kovic received the Golden Globe Award for Best Screenplay on January 20, 1990, exactly 22 years to the day that he was shot and paralyzed in the Vietnam War.

More than just a rumor
Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War (1977), a memoir of his service as a Marine infantryman in Vietnam, is memorable not only for his firsthand account of combat but also for his administrative experience as Regimental Casualty Reporting Officer.  The work was as bad as it sounds;  he was responsible for filing reports on American and enemy deaths, hostile or nonhostile.  Caputo writes, “It was a job that gave me a lot of bad dreams, though it had the beneficial effect of cauterizing whatever silly, abstract, romantic ideas I still had about war.”  Reading his book helped do the same for me.

Carry this
A New York Times Notable Book of the Century and a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Critics Circle Award, The Things They Carried (1990) by Vietnam veteran Tim O’Brien is a collection of  short stories which are integral to my interpretation of  a soldier’s experience in Vietnam.  I’ll never forget either the title story (which is literally about what soldiers carried with them – from official gear to cigarettes to emotional burdens) or the chilling “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” which tells of a soldier who shipped his girlfriend over for a conjugal visit and lost her “Heart of Darkness” style to the jungle.

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