Vietnam: Forgetting The War

2001

Ton-That Quynh-Du

One observation often made by visitors to Vietnam is that the Vietnamese people seem to show no bitterness against foreign visitors who are often former enemies returning to Vietnam for personal or business reasons. The acceptance that former enemies in times of war can work together in times of peace, and that memories of the past must not hinder the dealing with present concerns, has been a crucial factor contributing to the success of the economic reform.

The destructive and bitter nature of the conflict, the massive scale of the human loss and suffering, and the importance of the need to preserve the memories of the ‘just and correct’ war underpin the justification of the continued grip of power by the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV). This makes the management of the collective memory of the war an interesting and important challenge for the Vietnamese government.

The scale of the losses was huge. While the total number of deaths may never be known, the Vietnamese government estimated that 1.1 million of its soldiers died in battle. This figure did not include soldiers of the South Vietnamese army, nor innocent bystanders. It is not an exaggeration to say that there is not a living person in Vietnam who is not touched by the war. And the memories of the war are still very fresh, bursting through to the surface when something happens to disturb the tranquil surface of normal daily life. For example, when former Senator Bob Kerrey this year revealed that the troops under his command had killed a number of civilians at Thanh Phong village in 1968, it took only a few days before a Vietnamese survivor came forward. Her recollection of the event was vivid, specific and quite detailed.

The Vietnamese government deals with such memories of loss and grief in three major ways: public commemoration of the war dead, practical assistance for those who survived, and a singular and exclusive official representation of the war in all cultural expressions.

Commemoration of the war dead is very public and very sustained. In every commune, in every town, the graves of the war dead are found in neat rows beneath a stone stele inscribed with the words ‘The Nation Remembers Your Sacrifice’. At the anniversaries of important dates, this message that their sacrifice has not been forgotten by the nation is often reiterated and emphasised in all mass media, from the radio to television to newspapers. In 1994, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the formation of the People’s Army, the state decided to honour the women who lost all their sons in battle with the title Heroic Mother. Nearly 20,000 such women were identified. In the same year, some 21,000 families who lost their loved ones in battle were also awarded the Independence Medal.

The nation also expresses its gratitude in practical ways, through many social policies aimed at providing material benefits to the relatives of those who died for the cause. In general, surviving relatives enjoy some priority in accessing health care, education and other social services provided by the government. These benefits may be small, but they do provide solace to those who lost their loved ones, and they form an important part of the management of the memories of the war.

Finally, the state maintains an uncompromising line on how the war will be remembered in history. It will be remembered in official history books as a war of national salvation. In this way, the war will be remembered as part of a long history of struggle for independence and those who fought in it as heroes. The state takes this extremely seriously and will not tolerate any dissenting views, whether expressed in fiction, scholarly work or even films and theatre. For example, Bao Ninh’s ‘The Sorrow of War’ won a literary prize in 1991, but was stridently denounced for its depiction of the dark side of the war by many critics.

The Government of Vietnam seems to have managed the painful memories of the war quite well, at least as far as those who fought for correct side is concerned.

WATCHPOINT: The healing process that still needs to be facilitated is how to deal with those who fought for the wrong side and their relatives.

 

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