- Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War by Viet Thanh Nguyen
How do we as individuals, societies, and nations remember war? That is the central question animating Viet Thanh Nguyen's groundbreaking book Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War. By critically deconstructing the myriad memories of the American period of the war in Vietnam, from roughly 1965 to 1975, constructed by the people, communities, and states that were drawn into its destructive maelstrom, he not only demonstrates the complexity of the project of remembering on both a personal and collective scale, but makes a compelling argument for the establishment of a "just memory" of the war in Vietnam that will help bring an end to what he sees as America's near-century of perpetual conflict. According to Nguyen, a just memory is an ethical practice that involves both the "dialectic" of "remembering one's own"-generally the heroes—and "remembering others"-the enemy or victims-in war, as well as recognition of one's own inhumanity (19). Since it is our ability to construct a memory of war, particularly around its dead, that demonstrates that "nothing ever dies," a quotation from Toni Morrison's Beloved (269), such an inclusive and self-critical approach to remembering America's wars is essential for the American people to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past and continue to fight costly and destructive wars of their government's own making.
Viet Thanh Nguyen, an associate professor of English and American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California, is no stranger to the war's memory. It is part of his identity, as a refugee who left Vietnam as a small child with his family in the chaotic spring of 1975, and it serves as the narrative vehicle for his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Sympathizer, a fictional account of a Viet Cong spy living among the exiled South Vietnamese community in Southern California told as a confession to a mysterious Vietnamese commandant. Both his personal attachment and professional interest guide this study. [End Page 681]
Nguyen turns to the "artistic work on war and memory" as his subject matter in appraising how the war in Vietnam has been remembered, mining "the writing, photography, film, memorials and monuments" of the Americans, former North Vietnamese, South Vietnamese exiles, Laotians, Cambodians, and South Koreans (12-13). Naturally, this involves critical appraisal of such well-known memorials as the Truong Song Martyrs Cemetery in Quang Tri province, Vietnam, and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. But its greatest strength is its consideration of the edifices of memory that have been overlooked by a Western-read American-audience. To identify but a few examples, Nguyen discusses the forgotten national cemetery for the Southern Army of the Republic of Vietnam, on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City; the exhibit commemorating South Korea's contribution to the War in Vietnam in the Korean War Memoria in Seoul; and the work of the Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh, which tries to come to terms both with the genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge and with the monstrous inhumanity of the perpetrators themselves.
The central theme that ties the various strands of Nguyen's argument together is what he refers to as the "industrialization of memory." This is a powerful phenomenon that reinforces the "ideas, ideologies, fantasies and words that justify the war" for all sides (106). In what is the book's most novel feature, Nguyen compares both the industries of memory and their products of the war's participant nations. He demonstrates a caustic asymmetry that exists in the way the war's losers have been able to monopolize the memory of the war over its victors, which serves to grossly distort how the war has been remembered globally. For the United States, the industry of memory is a product of the connection between capitalism, memory, and the military, an unspoken partnership between Hollywood and the military industrial complex that "exploits memory...