- Tours of Vietnam: War, Travel Guides, and Memory
Scott Laderman's Tours of Vietnam: War, Travel Guides, and Memory takes an unusual route into the well-travelled terrain of the history of America's war in Vietnam. Instead of writing a top-down political history or bottom-up social history, Laderman has written a cultural history that explores how tourism and travel writing have, from the late 1950s through the early 2000s, been "intertwined with the projection of American power" into Southeast Asia (p. 10). Laderman treats travel and tourism not as ends in themselves, but as an "interpretive lens" (p. 11) through which he can understand the larger issues of U.S. ideology and the construction of historical memory. Over the course of five chapters, Laderman argues that travel writing legitimated the Diem regime, sold military service as a form of pleasurable tourism, reproduced myths of communist savagery, and naturalized capitalist economic principles. Laderman also reads guidebooks as instances of popular history writing, and considers how the insights of professional historians are — and are not — filtering down to the average American tourist. Laderman earned his PhD in American Studies and his book participates in that field's "transnational turn", in which the study of American culture is combined with diplomatic history's traditional focus on the exercise of U.S. political and military power beyond the nation's borders.
Tours of Vietnam is an uneven work of scholarship. As the subtitle suggests, the book has two main interpretive foci: the travel guides to Vietnam that were produced during and after the war by both American and Vietnamese writers, and the memories of the war that were discursively constructed by a variety of cultural producers and social actors after 1975. Those portions of the book that take memory as their central object of inquiry are far stronger than those devoted primarily to travel guides. Ultimately, the book is stronger when it thinks historically about memory than when it thinks textually about travel writing. [End Page 161]
The book has two main weak spots. The first is its oversimplified understanding of the concept of ideology. Laderman neither defines this term nor engages with those theorists, such as Antonio Gramsci, Raymond Williams, or Frederic Jameson, who have used it most productively to analyze culture. Tours of Vietnam too often defaults to a reductive base-and-superstructure-type model of thinking in which works of culture more or less accurately reflect some external social or political reality; the less accurate the reflection, the more ideological the text. The guidebooks to Vietnam are ideological, according to Laderman, because they fail to reflect accurately a number of social and political realities (which Laderman spends many pages documenting), including the Nixon administration's awareness in the early 1960s of the Diem regime's instability, the nature of and motivations for the so-called Hue massacre of 1968, and the economic consequences of the market reforms launched in the 1980s. Travel writing, in Laderman's formulation, often works to "erase" (p. 30), "mask" (p. 51), "elide" (p. 53), "ignor[e]" (p. 69), "cloak" (p. 69), and "distort" (p. 83) the truths of the war.
The second (and related) problem lies in the book's treatment of travel guides. Laderman does not interpret travel writings as expressive, literary texts and offers no analysis of travel writing as a distinct genre, beholden to its own formal conventions, commercial motivations, and assumptions about audiences. Too often Laderman condemns travel guides for failing to meet the standards of academic history writing: they ignore scholarly debates, reduce complexities, and do not consider competing narratives. At the same time, the book is focused quite narrowly on guidebooks, without adequately situating them within larger cultural discourses about Vietnam that may include alternative or competing representations. Although Laderman at times gestures towards this cultural milieu, he rarely brings it into focus with any depth. As a result, there are jarring moments when the travel texts under consideration utterly fail to illuminate — or even connect to — a given historical situation. For example...