By Andrew Lam
Trying to Google news of my homeland, Vietnam, lately has not been
easy. The headlines that showed were anything but Vietnam. Leading up
to President Barack Obama's speech on why we need to send 30,000 more
troops to Afghanistan, Vietnam is once again reduced to America's boogeyman.
Here are a few headlines from major news organizations: "Afghanistan
haunted by ghost of Vietnam," "Will Obama's War Become his Vietnam?"
"Afghanistan is Obama's Vietnam," "Vietnam's lesson for Afghanistan."
When we mention the word Vietnam, we don't mean Vietnam as a country.
Its relationship to us is special: It is a vault filled with tragic
metaphors for every pundit to use.
After the Vietnam War, Americans were caught in the past, haunted by
unanswerable questions, confronted with an unhappy ending. So much so
that my uncle, who fought in the Vietnam War as a pilot for the South
Vietnamese army, once observed that, "When Americans talk about
Vietnam, they really are talking about America. They make a habit of
blaming small countries for things that happen to the U.S. AIDS
from Haiti, flu from Mexico, drugs from Colombia, hurricanes from the
I once met a Vietnamese man who made money acting in Hollywood. He
had survived the war and the perilous journey on the South China Sea.
Now he plays Viet Cong, civilians, peasants. He is a great actor, he
bragged. No one recognized his face. Time and again he died, spurting
fake blood from his torso and heart. "Hollywood loves me," he said.
"I die well."
Hollywood, of course, is free with its various interpretations. From
"Apocalypse Now," which describes an American's mythical adventure in
a tropic jungle, to "Tour of Duty," in which American GIs rape then
blow out the brains of a Vietnamese girl, to the Rambo movies, in
which America single-handedly restores its pride, Vietnam was always
the backdrop, the faceless, conical hat-adorned figure.
Watching such movies, Vietnamese old enough to remember the war
giggle uncomfortably. These naive interpretations of the conflict
little resemble their own past. Vietnam was a three-sided war, with
North and South at each other's throats, but the Americans have
insinuated themselves as central to an otherwise complex narrative in
Here's the real Vietnam: It has more than doubled in population to 86
million since the war ended. It is a country full of young, hopeful
people, who form a large majority, with no direct memory of the
Vietnam War. It is odd to think that 34 years after the war ended, it
continues to stoke America's foreign policy fears.
Poet Robert Bly once observed that Americans have yet to perform an
absolution over past atrocities. "We're refusing to eat our grief,
refusing to really eat our dark side. And therefore what (Carl) Jung
says is really terrifying: If you do not absorb the things you have
done in your life, then you will have to repeat them."
On the eve of the second wave of a U.S. invasion in Afghanistan, I
wish to tell the American media, as well as President Obama, that the
Vietnam syndrome cannot be kicked through acts of war. That only
through a view that's rooted in people, rooted in human kindness, and
not historical vehemence, would a country open itself up and stop
being a haunting metaphor. That not until basic human needs are
addressed and dignity upheld can we truly pacify our enemies and
bring about human liberty.
More soldiers, bombs and droids in the sky will never appease the
haunting ghosts of the past. Quite the opposite. We are in the
process of creating more ghosts to haunt future generations.
ANDREW LAM is editor of New America Media and author of "Perfume
Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora."