Reviews

Viet Thanh Nguyen Is a Lucid and Robust Voice for the Forgotten

Nothing Ever Dies is a timely meditation on the power of memory as an implement and a consequence of war.


Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War

Publisher: Harvard University Press
Price: $27.95
Author: Viet Thanh Nguyen
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2016-04
Amazon

Near the beginning of Nothing Ever Dies, Viet Thanh Nguyen draws on Freud to explain the book's theme of remembering and forgetting in relation to war. Nguyen writes, "A just memory suggests that we must work through the past or else be condemned to act out because of it." In guiding readers through this process of working through the past, the book is as much about understanding the way in which the Vietnam War has been packaged and interpreted through memory as it is about the industrial processes of memory overall.

In Nothing Ever Dies, Nguyen has written a powerful meditation on the manner in which memories are produced, cultivated, even empowered and subdued, but Vietnam is only one vehicle to document these memory-making (and unmaking) processes. If all we take away from the book is a greater understanding of how Vietnam is alternately remembered or forgotten, surely we have missed Nguyen's most potent lesson.

Beyond the Vietnam War itself (known to the Vietnamese as the American War), the book asks us to look honestly at how we represent war, both how we remember it and what we choose (consciously or unconsciously) to forget in making those memories. Nguyen doesn't write to excoriate the memory-makers, their industry, or even those "passively" (debatably so) taking part in the industry of memory. But he does expect a certain degree of self-honesty from all participants in contemplating their degree of participation.

For Nguyen, this is no navel-gazing exercise in academic rumination. There are profound consequences to the dishonesty with which we remember wars like Vietnam. Even if, in some ways, it may not be over even today for many, the War We Lost lingers spectrally in American memory even for those born long after its conclusion; after all, as the title says, nothing ever dies. It's for this very reason that Nguyen expects us to interrogate those memories we have been handed down, not as products of our own memory-making, but as product of what he calls an industry of memory.

Unlike a memory industry (which might evoke images of knickknack replicas of memorials or History Channel commemorations), an industry of memory exists at the intersection of ideological and material forces capable of determining which victims are remembered and which are forgotten, how others feel about what is remembered, and who even decides which memories become a part of the Memory of the War.

It is undeniable that the American memory of the Vietnam War predominates, not only in the United States but in countless other countries. For Nguyen, this represents a consequence of the power of the American industry of memory vis-a-vis the Vietnamese industry of memory -- both inextricably tied to their political, cultural, ideological, and economic influence on other countries. Where Nguyen leads us in this lesson is to remind us to seek out the humanity in our "enemies" and the inhumanity in ourselves.

The phrases Never forget and Always remember carry an uncommon currency in American memory relative to their simplicity, but with each, American memory-makers prioritize the conscious remembering of others' inhumanity toward them. In response, Nguyen asks what might be forgotten by obsessively prioritizing the heroism of one's own soldiers in memory; and whether we can truly bring about a fair remembering without examining the inhumanity within the human. The processes of the industry of memory may seem difficult to contemplate or even to face, but for Nguyen they are immeasurably important: "If we do not recognize our capacity to victimize, then it would be difficult for us to prevent the victimization carried out on our behalf..." Further along, Nguyen reminds the reader of the succession of wars that have followed Vietnam -- and in which each name becomes shorthand for a war, not a place or its people (e.g. Iraq, Afghanistan).

How do we overcome these shortcomings in our processes of remembering and even forgetting? For Nguyen, it comes down to pursuing both a just memory and a just forgetting. A just memory means consciously evaluating the forces, ideas, and systems that discard some memories in favor of others. Part of this process involves telling true war stories. In the American mind, as seen in American cinema and literature, a war story always involves soldiers. We must peek behind the stage to find the other equally indispensable elements of war -- victims on both sides, participants on both sides, idle civilians enjoying ballgames and movies at home, the companies who simultaneously produce both the implements of war and the luxuries and necessities of everyday civilian life at home, and equally important, those whose lives must continue long after the war has ended.

When we strip away the gore and glory of war stories and, as Nguyen writes, "see how boring wars actually are, how war seeps into everyday life, then we might want to imagine stopping wars." War's remoteness can be both an insulation and an amplification of our expectations of it; that remoteness breeds a world in which endless war seems routine and natural and where achievable peace seems farfetched and naive. Nguyen leaves us to consider the perversity of this.

Nguyen's writing is appropriately quiet and well-paced, but he also writes with the fastidious precision of a humanities professor, a nomenclature that -- outside of university humanities departments -- can seem self-indulgent and tiresome. But many times throughout Nothing Ever Dies, he dispenses with this tendency and when Nguyen gets going, he's a lucid and robust voice for the forgotten -- forgotten people, forgotten places, and forgotten memories most of all. At the moments when he writes most persuasively, Nothing Ever Dies shines through the humanities parlance and delivers a critical lesson on how we remember and how we forget, how even memory can be an industry and how to tell a truly good war story.

Nothing Ever Dies is one man's powerful entreaty to a country which has seen nearly endless conflict (one war running upon the next) for generations. Will Nguyen's words be heeded, or will they be heeded by anyone with the power to bring about the necessary changes to avoid the endless succession of American wars and conflicts that have continued almost unbroken since Vietnam? It's not clear, but what Nguyen does accomplish is to foreground a discussion that is vital to the future of authentic storytelling, memory-making, history recording, and art, regardless of the actors or the conflict.

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