On the fiftieth anniversary of the American intervention in Vietnam, one lesson might be that knowledge is never passed on, only acquired, that history is not a reality which must be discovered but must be thought about and then reconstructed.
A very close friend of mine asked me to write a mostly biographical piece on the 50th anniversary of the American intervention in Vietnam (a rather formulaic anniversary given that we know that American aid to the French army and then to the Vietnamese army takes us back to the fifties). Instead of rehashing the accounts of hundreds of historians who know much more solid fact than I do, I will tell the story through individual accounts in an effort to illustrate in a personal manner the paths which led me to the fringes of the Vietnamese resistance, in order that I might tease out what seems to me to be the lesson of this resistance.
May 1977. The war with the Americans was over. Upon returning to the south of Vietnam, I spent an evening with friends at a restaurant. A singer – about thirty, and skinny – came to give us a serenade. I sent him over a beer and some cigarettes. He approached our table and we asked him to sing us a few pre-war songs. Having sung his songs, just before leaving, he leant towards me and murmured: ‘Brother, when were you liberated?’ (from the re-education camp). What could I return except a warm embrace?
September 2005. In the gardens of the Thong Nhat hospital in Ho Chi Minh city. I went out to visit one of my peers from the Conference on Vietnam (1968-1975) in Paris. I met a group of convalescent veterans of the military coup. I thought I recognised one among them. He too recognised me. We exchanged greetings and he said ‘You seem familiar. Which theatre of operations were you in, my brother?’. I smiled and responded: ‘the diplomatic battle in Paris’. We hugged and each went on his way.
May 2004. A visit to a friend in charge of reconstruction in Iraq. We were in his office, in the heart of the green zone in Baghdad. After a long embrace, I sat down in front of him. ‘No, not there’ he said. ‘Behind the pillar, please. Fifteen days ago one of my visitors was injured by a rocket just there.’ I moved in compliance and began to laugh and asked him: ‘Were they the same rockets that we sent you in Saigon in the sixties?’ He nodded in agreement, chuckling: ‘Yes they are the same, but yours were less precise!’ At that time he worked in South Vietnam for USAID, and was in charge of the program of pacification and reconstruction. After this, our discussions were scattered with Vietnamese words because his wife was from Cholon in Ho Chi Minh city, and he had always spoken the language. A week after our meeting we met again at the airport, me to go on further travels and him to finally and definitively take his retirement. His last words were: ‘These people have no memory and have learnt nothing’ (from the Vietnam experience).
February 2003. Trip to Kabul. As normal, I had to meet the heads of the political parties (though the concept of party politics does not exist in Afghanistan, it’s an approximate translation). Fifteen people sat in a room, armed with their AK 47’s perched on cushions on the ground. Upon my entrance, a large bearded man of a certain age stood up and asked me: ‘Where do you come from?’ I quickly replied that I was from the United Nations and that I was Vietnamese. He laid his gun on the ground and extended his hand towards me in greeting:
"A few months ago, we chased Bin Laden to the mountains of Tora Bora. When we were twenty kilometres from there, we saw B52 bombers target the mountain. I have been a fighter for many years, since the eighties, and I was scared. We said to each other afterwards, ‘How did the Vietnamese resist that?’ You are the first Vietnamese person I have ever met. Let me shake your hand."
The others rose to do the same.
Mexico 2010. A brief article in the local press: The American naval forces have linked with the Vietnamese navy in a joint manoeuvre in the South China Sea. There was no commentary.
I have not recounted these anecdotes in a chronological order. They are all important to me, milestones in a non-linear process of thought within which the events of the past shed light on those in the present and indicate possible outcomes of events in the future. Millions of my compatriots shared the same experience as me, and what interests me in recounting some of my story is to see that in the end, regardless of the paths that we have each of us chosen, we all, or nearly all, find ourselves on the same paths of resistance.
For those men and women of my generation, our adult life, and by that I mean the part of our life for which we have been ourselves responsible, has been a life in which war is omnipresent, to the point that distinction between life and war becomes difficult – a life in which everything is thought about, or often not thought about enough, in terms of war. In other words, war has become much more than an interlude between two moments of peace – it is life itself. Malraux once said that privilege was firstly to be able to choose for oneself. In our case it seems that privilege is to be able to tell the difference between a state of war and a state of peace, and to make a choice.
My school friends from wealthy families, found themselves in French, English, Australian, and American universities, above all during the 1960s when preparations for war were accelerating. Those families who did not have the means to send their children to university had no other alternative but the army. I have no memory of anyone of my generation, baptised during the period of the Viet Kong* movement, who joined the resistance. (Literal translation*: Vietnamese communist, but if one uses a South Vietnamese accent it is pronounced Ziet Cong which means to Eliminate the Communists).
For me it was the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, a country the exact opposite of the society I come from. For the young people of my social condition and of my generation, the objective was clear; get the most prestigious degree possible, get to grips with foreign languages as quickly as possible (in addition to the obvious and necessary French and English), and then return home to build a pathway to the summit of power.
The fact that this power was controlled by the armed forces, they themselves controlled by foreigners, did not present itself as a problem to us. Essentially, we had the illusion that the foreign presence could be nothing but temporary. Had we not been brought up with the notion that we came from an ancient civilisation and that our country was already an organised, orderly, and hierarchical society when the United States of America was still merely a colony of Britain? We always repeated De Gaulle’s phrase: ‘France has ancient roots’, applying it to our country. What did the presence of a few foreign soldiers who were only there to serve our interests matter?
For many among us the wake-up to reality was brutal, and with this awakening came a keen awareness that it was now necessary to make a choice that wasn’t necessarily a radical break, but one that would conform with the fundamental values that we had adopted. The war that was beginning before our eyes was not only a conflict of two opposing forces. In its making it became a sort of civil war: the conflict was shattering our lives and changing our way of being, and our traditional values, as much as our future, which was itself more and more uncertain. With hindsight, I would say that the war – with its endless procession of suffering and bereavements (of our loved ones and of our illusions) – was forcing us to globalize.
Personally, I was lucky. In 1962, France negotiated at Evian with the National Liberation Front of Algeria to put an end to the war. The Algerian delegation had established itself in Lausanne. One of its members had taken a liking to me and we spent long evenings during which he would explain to me what the Vietnamese victory against the French armies meant to him - the end of the colonial era. For the first time I saw the political history of my country from an angle other than that of a list of facts. The people involved were no longer limited in my perception of them to my close or distant relatives. My father was a well-known doctor, the former Minister for Health, notably the doctor of the last Head of State in Vietnam. He saw politics as playing with society, a game between friends, allies, or competitors, a worldly game for people of his class.
His particular approach is interesting in that it allows for a certain distance from the passion born of politics, and opens up the possibility for a more welcoming attitude of which I did not appreciate the value until much later, after many years of service in the United Nations. One must also note that this absence of partisan passion comes not only from an education in which the overflow of feelings is considered bad taste, but also from the fact that my extended family is itself divided. Many of my cousins and uncles took up arms for one side or another. And because the war lasted for decades the spirit of confrontation wore itself out, leaving in its place a widespread understanding and an acceptance of destiny, in the Buddhist sense of the term.
At the time I was gripped by reading all that came into my possession on the history of Vietnam and the origins of the colonial wars. I wanted to get to know social reality. The first lesson is that knowledge is never passed on, only acquired, that history is not a reality which must be discovered but must be thought about and then reconstructed.
As a result of this reading I came naturally to think about social change, moving towards bringing my own social practise into line with the theories that I had. This practise took the form of participation in the intellectual movement that began to manifest itself in France and then across Europe, the protest movement against the American war which, from 1965, was taking place across the country.
Within this movement I had the great privilege of meeting and engaging with the greatest minds among Vietnamese exiles, which allowed me to reflect on the culture I carried inside me, on my national identity, which is said to be unchanging but that in reality changes with history and with context. Marc Bloch said that we are more the children of our time than the children of our ancestors. This great wisdom came to me much later in my professional life, but that is another story. What is certain is that I found a new confidence in making decisions within the richness of my new society, a certainty that I still possess today.
And then events accelerated. The frenzy of events in May 1968 saw in Paris the birth of the Peace Conference on Vietnam. Because I am one of the rare Vietnamese/French bilinguals with also some notion of the English language, I was conscripted by the delegation of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam to work in their information office – apparently a press initiative but in reality as a support structure to the negotiations. The work was that of a diplomatic mission and my contribution was principally to translate and to write out the speeches of the members of the National Liberation Front delegation. In addition I also had work as a political analyst.
Thinking back to this period, I don’t feel any misplaced pride, only the feeling of a duty carried out. The country calls and we respond. It is as natural as breathing. Around me, amongst my companions in the service of the country, I found the same feeling of calm. And when it was my turn to look straight in the eye those who saw us as either adversaries or allies of the foreign forces, I saw there a very similar attitude as well. Our ideas, just or unjust, certainly differ, but with regards to the fulfilment of what some consider as public duty, the difference is minimal.
Four delegations were present at the conference: ours (the provisional revolutionary government of South Vietnam), the delegation from the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, the delegation from the government of the United States of America, and the delegation of the government of the Vietnamese Republic which we called the administration of Saigon. One of my cousins, a colonel, was responsible for the communications of the Saigon delegates, and my own brother in law, also a colonel, was the military advisor of these same people. The two often came to dinner at my house and the only rule that we all respected at the table was not to speak about the conference. We were opponents, but we each respected the other’s choices: this was essential in order to preserve our dignity.
When I look back and reflect on these meetings that were on the fringes of a crucial conference for the country, my first conclusion is that fundamentally, the concepts of family, culture, history, shared affections, and one word - our nation - transcend war. Someone said that he felt sorry for those people who had to choose between friendship, and the love of one’s country. I confess that I don’t really understand this pity because the love of one’s country of birth is also the love of its greatness and what greatness is it that surpasses the virtues of tolerance? In this sense, why would other nations in the world feel different from us Vietnamese? For certain people, the nation is a community, a tribe, a clan. In an abstract vision of life and social evolution, those who promote democracy by force tend to forget this. For many years I tried to explain to my European friends what national feeling meant. I don’t think I succeeded. Benedict Anderson wrote a superb book on this theme, one that has never been out of print. This feeling, however, remains an abstraction above all in countries born into the world bearing messianic messages, countries which themselves arose out of revolution or immense industrial power, and for these countries, ‘national feeling’ is expressed primarily by spreading their message.
So for these countries nationalism is a kind of screen to hide social domination by a traditional elite who is being dispossessed by globalization. I would like to underline the fact that the Vietnamese combatants launched their attack under the banner of ‘doc lap’ (independence), and not ‘cach mang’ (revolution); that this feeling is a difficult one to rationalise; and that one must know how to distinguish between nationalistic conquests and more dignified nationalism. It is even more interesting that even though the colonies have disappeared from a global perspective, revolts continue to call for independence for a nation that may be more and more difficult to define, yet is more and more anchored in the hearts of the people.
I don’t want to return to the debate launched in earlier decades by Perry Anderson about whether Marxism, the official doctrine of modern Vietnam, has a large gap in it – that is the national question and its ideological companion, nationalism. If that is true, Marxism is itself clearly a child of its time and Stalin’s ‘National Question’ can’t alter it.
Fifty years after American intervention in Vietnam and debates on nationalism continue to be current whether in Iraq or in Afghanistan, without even considering the less visible but equally murderous conflicts in Africa. At the time of my visits to these two countries, I often had the feeling that I had been cast back forty years into the past. What was the solution to the Vietnamese conflict devised by the USA? Vietnamisation - a national army, a national police force, and social, national, and economic development. All of this, including the massive foreign aid initiatives, can be significantly reduced as soon as the national institutions are in a position to maintain and support themselves. Hadn’t precisely this worked in Vietnam? But Vietnam is an exception because… (here one could put thirty reasons other than the right one). This might succeed, touch-wood, in Afghanistan and Iraq. It would be called Afghanisation or Iraqisation. It doesn’t really matter, however, because the national feeling is absent. Does the country have a unified desire? It plays a part in rhetorical discussions but never in politics – the only political actions are the construction of democratic institutions following any election. The hope is that in time, civil education and the decline of illiteracy will bring everyone into the mainstream of democracy.
Looking at my life and at my travels across the world, I would be tempted to say that the passion for democracy - the democracy that implies justice, liberty and equality - does not exist and cannot exist other than as a product of the passion for independence and autonomy which are attributes of the nation where each of us was born. This nation has a story.
Returning to the four anecdotes I presented at the beginning, I would say that for my part, I am a part of my country and its history with its dreams and its nightmares. In accepting this fundamental fact, one might also assume oneself to be a man or a woman of the resistance or as an opponent of this same resistance, as a disciplined partisan but also as a clear-sighted intellectual, confronting the constraints of reality. The harmony of life lies in accepting our past as unchangeable and in preparation for an indefinable future, which depends on every decision we make.
The paths to resistance, the paths to the country that nurtured us, which gave us our dreams and which made us suffer, are infinite. We set out on them in accordance with our personal experiences, because of chance encounters, or even with the smallest of decisions.
I am not sure that even thirty years after the war, the wounds have healed. But what I am sure of, or rather what I hope with all my heart, is that the paths will remain open to everybody, and that everybody, enemies or compatriots, friends or foes, will come together to find peace and fulfilment.
This article was translated from the French by Asher Korner