U.S. Women Got Purple Hearts in Vietnam

May 20, 2017


Naval Historical Center Photograph (NH 93962)

Seen here are, left to right: Lieutenant Barbara Wooster, Lieutenant Ruth Mason, and Lieutenant (junior grade) Ann Darby Reynolds. U.S. Navy Headquarters Support Activity Hospital, Saigon, Vietnam. Naval Historical Center Photograph (NH 93962)

On Christmas Eve, 1964, National Liberation Front guerrillas drove a car loaded with explosives into a parking lot behind the Brinks Hotel Bachelor Officers Quarters in central Saigon. The blast killed two U.S. servicemen and wounded more than sixty American military personnel and Vietnamese civilians. Among the wounded were four Navy nurses who were injured while caring for U.S. servicemen hurt in the attack. On January 9, 1965, the nurses received Purple Heart awards for their service. In the photo above are three of the nurses, left to right: Lieutenant Barbara Wooster, Lieutenant Ruth Mason, and Lieutenant (junior grade) Ann Darby Reynolds. (Lieutenant Frances L. Crumpton is not pictured.) The photo was taken at the awards ceremony at the U.S. Navy Headquarters Support Activity Hospital, Saigon, Vietnam.

We know that male U.S. servicemen earned Purple Hearts in Vietnam, but female nurses don’t typically jump to the collective American mind when it envisions the combat moment in the Vietnam War. Was the story of the Brinks nurses forgotten simply because four women nurses comprised a small fraction of the overwhelmingly male American casualties in Vietnam? Even though the Brinks bombing was part of a broader NLF strategy of urban combat before the 1968 Tet Offensive, did the lieutenants’ status as nurses — traditional women’s roles in wartime — somehow make their wounds acceptable to an American public that likely would not have supported women serving in infantry units or being drafted? Has this story remained obscured because it challenges the notion that the combat moment is a distinctly male space? Why are Americans invested in a Vietnam War narrative in which the characters are almost entirely American men? As the story of the Brinks nurses illustrates, American women saw combat in Vietnam, even in the air-conditioned jungle in Saigon.


Trump, Refugees, and Humanitarianism

January 27, 2017

Vietnamese refugee couple gets married at Camp Pendleton refugee camp. National Archives and Records Administration: Record Group 330: Records of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, 1921 – 2008, 5/1/75

Since the end of World War II, U.S. presidents from both major political parties have temporarily modified immigration laws to allow refugees fleeing humanitarian crises entry into the country. In 1956, Republican President Dwight Eisenhower increased the number of visas available to Hungarian refugees fleeing Soviet persecution. Standing at the base of the Statue of Liberty in October 1965, Democrat Lyndon Johnson declared that U.S. authorities would admit any Cuban who reached American shores seeking asylum from the Castro regime. Republican Gerald Ford and Democrat Jimmy Carter both signed legislation to admit Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian refugees fleeing postwar troubles in Indochina and residual conflicts following the Vietnam War. In all these cases, the presidents invoked America’s humanitarian impulse, arguing that the willingness to take in exiles who had escaped political persecution, war, famine, or other humanitarian crises was part of the American spirit.

Yesterday the Department of Homeland Security halted staff interviews with refugees in anticipation of Donald Trump’s signing of an executive order banning refugees from entry into the U.S. and suspending visas for Syrians and citizens of other Middle Eastern and North African countries. Trump’s approach to refugees departs from the bipartisan consensus that had preceded him regarding humanitarianism and refugees. It is an example of why the Trump ascendancy is such a jarring moment. It’s not because we’re transitioning from one political party’s control of the presidency to another’s. It’s because we are watching a shift away from the worldview that Republican and Democratic presidents generally have shared for the past seventy years.

Trump has argued that refugees from the Middle East pose a national security threat because they come from a largely Muslim region. During the Cold War, Hungarian, Cuban, and Indochinese refugees fled to the U.S. from Communist countries at a time when Americans viewed Communism as the primary global threat. American citizens have not always supported refugee assistance legislation. In 1975, some Americans opposed the resettlement of Vietnamese refugees because they worried about competition for jobs and did not want the reminder of a shocking war. Racism was just below the surface of some of the opposition. Yet President Ford implored Americans to have compassion for Vietnamese refugees and support resettlement efforts. The U.S. had “always been a humanitarian nation,” Ford asserted during a press conference regarding Vietnamese refugees. Taking them in was “a step consistent with our tradition of providing refuge for the homeless, and help for the helpless,” Ford declared.[1]

None of Trump’s predecessors acted solely out of altruism when responding to refugee crises. Politics and international relations influenced their policymaking. But by appealing to the notion that helping those in need is part of the American character, presidents such as Ford and others offered a moral standard that Americans could look to even if actions or policies did not always live up to it. Confucius argued that virtue is the most important characteristic in a leader, and that the best leaders inspire their subjects to strive for higher standards of behavior. Donald Trump’s callous response to the current refugee crisis suggests that he is not interested in this kind of leadership.

[1] Heather Stur, “Hiding Behind the Humanitarian Label: Refugees, Repatriates, and the Rebuilding of America’s Benevolent Image After the Vietnam War,” Diplomatic History, Vol. 39, No. 2, April 2015, pp. 223-244.


July 24, 2016
Emily Strange

Emily Strange served in the Vietnam War as a Red Cross “Donut Dollie” with the 9th Infantry Division and Mobile Riverine Force.

A few days ago, I learned that Emily Strange, one of the first Donut Dollies I interviewed for Beyond Combat, had passed away July 12. It was a shock to hear that she’s gone, in part because she had randomly popped into my mind before I had heard she’d died, and I had been thinking about the stories she had shared with me when we sat together in the living room of her home in Johnson Creek, Wisconsin. That was nearly fifteen years ago, when Beyond Combat was just an idea for a dissertation, but I remember our conversation so vividly. I was a stranger to her, but she welcomed me into her home and told me openly and frankly about her experiences serving with the Red Cross in Vietnam, primarily at Dong Tam with the 9th Infantry Division and Mobile Riverine Force. Her job as a Donut Dollie was to be a morale booster, a “touch of home,” for the troops she worked with. Donut Dollies organized parties and sing-alongs, played games, served sweets and cold (well, lukewarm at best in southern Vietnam’s heat) drinks, and listened to soldiers who needed to talk. Sometimes the most important thing a Donut Dollie could do was to sit beside a GI who couldn’t quite articulate all the things he wanted to say about being at war and just be a sympathetic human presence.

One of Emily’s stories that has stuck with me all these years is of her decision to stop learning the names of the guys she met in Vietnam. She had become close with one GI, a young man named Michael. They both played guitar, and when Emily was assigned to Michael’s unit, they’d sometimes sit around and play folk music together. Shortly after Emily’s Red Cross team moved on to another assignment, she learned that Michael had been killed in action. At that moment, she realized that she needed to put distance between herself and the guys she worked with. She needed to figure out a way to do her job of providing emotional comfort to frightened and lonely young men while protecting her own mental well-being. So Emily stopped learning names. She told me that there are probably guys she knows on the Wall, but she won’t have to face the pain of knowing for sure because she stopped learning names after Michael died.

Like so many veterans, Emily struggled to settle back into “the World.” She told me about times when her girlfriends would call her up and invite her to go shopping, and she would wonder how anyone could possibly care about something so frivolous. She knew it wasn’t that her friends were shallow, that it was her. What she had experienced in Vietnam made it difficult for her to enjoy everyday life back home. She found solace writing poetry, and she connected with other Donut Dollies as well as military veterans. She attended and spoke at vets’ reunions, and she built a website where veterans could publish their stories and find one another.

The emotional toll that the Vietnam War took on the women the Red Cross, the U.S. military, and other organizations sent to Vietnam to care for American troops mentally, emotionally, and physically needs to be part of the broader conversation about the war and its long-term impacts. On the home front, the war had a profound effect on the wives, mothers, sisters, and girlfriends of veterans, as my friend Andrew Wiest is exploring in his research on the families of Charlie Company, his follow-up to The Boys of ’67. The Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), the U.S. Army’s Vietnamese counterpart in the war, employed women in the Women’s Armed Forces Corps (WAFC) to minister to ARVN troops and their families as healthcare and social workers. Women of the National Liberation Front (NLF) tended to their men as nurses and doctors. Dr. Dang Thuy Tram’s posthumous memoir, Last Night I Dreamed of Peace, offers a glimpse of the experiences of an NLF woman doctor, but we have so much more to learn about the war’s impact on Vietnamese women caregivers.

Emily never knew how influential she was in the development of my thinking about women and the Vietnam War and about what it means to experience war. She taught me about the emotional burden Donut Dollies bore while working to lift the spirits of men at war. Her stories pushed me to think about the various ways in which the Vietnam War affected women’s lives and what it meant to be a woman serving in the war. I am grateful to have spent some time with her, brief as it was. Rest in peace, Emily.

* Check out Emily’s website, http://www.emilydd.com, to see lots of photos from her time in Vietnam, read her poetry, and learn more about her work as a Donut Dollie and the men with whom she served. *


February 18, 2016

Earlier this month, Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter announced a new Pentagon program that will pay for servicemen and women to freeze their sperm and eggs for future family planning. Carter gave two main reasons for the program. One, it would keep women on the career military path, which typically runs right through the childbearing years. Two, it would give deployed troops peace of mind in that they potentially could still have children even if their reproductive organs become casualties of war. The first goal is in line with what appears to be Carter’s commitment to the needs of servicewomen. He has advocated for improved maternity leave, childcare, and breastfeeding support policies, all of which he hopes will help women personnel balance work and family and remain in the service. The second goal speaks to the problems of trying to maintain an all-volunteer force in an age of continuous war.

This is not the first time the U.S. military has gotten into the baby-making business. The 1948 Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, which allowed women to serve as permanent members of the military, permitted the forces to discharge women if they got pregnant. Personnel needs during the Vietnam War led the Army Nurse Corps to grant waivers to some nurses who got pregnant but wanted to stay in the military. In 1975, the Defense Department ruled that the armed forces could no longer forcibly discharge a servicewoman who became pregnant.[1] Considered in this context, Carter’s proposal looks like the next step toward gender equality in the military by giving women the option of delaying childbearing while they advance their careers. Observers have suggested that this policy could position the military as a model that other major employers wanting to implement progressive, pro-family, pro-woman policies in order to recruit and retain the best personnel could follow.

The argument that the U.S. military is becoming more family friendly loses traction when we remember that it is an all-volunteer force, and that the U.S. has been at war for most of this century. Carter’s policies are meant in part to recruit and retain service personnel in a time when enlisting likely will result in deployment. About 60 percent of current troops have been deployed at least once since Sept. 11, 2001. Less than one percent of the U.S. population presently serves in the military, so without a draft, the military must get creative in its efforts to convince young men and women to sign up for a job that could prevent them from having families later on. Conscription would make more Americans –and their reproductive organs – shoulder the weight of U.S. military commitments. That may be the only way to convince the public at large to scrutinize armed interventions and put pressure on elected officials to ponder more carefully the costs and benefits of war. As critics have already pointed out, freezing sperm and eggs will not guarantee that they will result in pregnancy later, so Carter’s program may create false hope in those men and women who have agreed to bear the burden of conflict. The draft has been a topic of conversation since the Pentagon announced in December the opening of combat positions to women, and it is also relevant to the conversation about the military’s use of reproduction as a recruitment tool. Reinstating the draft would either mobilize Americans to hold politicians more accountable for war-making policies or provide the personnel that the military’s long global reach requires. Then the military could leave the baby-making business to the future parents.

[1] Kara Dixon Vuic, “I’m afraid we’re going to have to just change our ways”: Marriage, Motherhood, and Pregnancy in the Army Nurse Corps during the Vietnam War,” Signs, Vol. 32, No. 4 (Summer 2007), pp. 997-1022.


July 2, 2015
U.S. Army Major Rhonda Newsome from the CJTF 76 Surgeon Cell treats an Afghan women during a village medical outreach at Kandahar City, Afghanistan, January 28, 2006. U.S. Army Photo by Spc. Leslie Angulo. National Archives and Records Administration.

U.S. Army Major Rhonda Newsome from the CJTF 76 Surgeon Cell treats an Afghan women during a village medical outreach at Kandahar City, Afghanistan, January 28, 2006. U.S. Army Photo by Spc. Leslie Angulo. National Archives and Records Administration.

The first week of June was “Gender Week” at NATO Headquarters in Brussels. More than 120 participants representing NATO nations, military and civilian organizations, and NATO partners examined and discussed the findings of a report called “UNSCR 1325 Reload.” The report details efforts by NATO nations to implement the recommendations of UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which calls for increased involvement of women in conflict prevention, peace talks, and initiatives to prevent gender violence during wars. UNSCR 1325 was spearheaded by Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah, Namibia’s Minister of Women’s Affairs, and UN members adopted it in October 2000. Unfortunately, the UN has no authority to enforce the resolution. It is up to individual nations to make Resolution 1325 a priority.

“UNSCR 1325 Reload” noted that as of 2013, the final year of the study:

* Women made up approximately 10 percent of the militaries of NATO nations

* 93 percent of NATO nations had equal enlistment processes for men and women

* About half of NATO members had departments or positions dedicated to facilitating gender integration

* 43 percent of NATO nations have gender advisers in their militaries

* Countries with highest representations of women in their militaries are Hungary at 20.3 percent, the U.S. at 18 percent, and Latvia at 16.5 percent.

Due to a lack of available data, the report does not offer findings on sexual assault prevention.

That so many NATO nations appear to be taking 1325 to heart is encouraging, but will increasing the numbers of women in NATO armed forces transform the military and wartime cultures that inspire violence against women? Even when servicewomen are trained in combat tactics and weapons handling like their male counterparts, observers sometimes still emphasize the importance of the “feminine” qualities that women soldiers bring to a war zone. In a discussion about UN women peacekeepers in Liberia, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf stated, “What a woman brings to the task is extra sensitivity, more caring. I think that these are the characteristics that come from being a mother, taking care of a family, being concerned about children, managing the home.”[1] Gerard J. DeGroot, a history professor at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and an expert on women in the military, said, “Any conflict where you have an all-male army, it’s like a holiday from reality. If you inject women into that situation, they do have a civilizing effect.”[2]

Meant to affirm women’s peacekeeping roles, DeGroot and Sirleaf’s comments actually enforce the gender divisions that make war zones and post-conflict situations particularly dangerous spaces for women. Afghanistan offers a disturbing case study: Efforts to increase the numbers of Afghan women in security forces have led to the murders of policewomen because of a cultural opposition to women working outside the home, especially in the police and security fields. If we are talking about gender, we need to consider men, sexuality, and culture, not just women’s roles.

[1] Doreen Carvajal, “A Female Approach to Peacekeeping,” New York Times, Mar. 5, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/06/world/africa/06iht-ffpeace.html

[2] Ibid.


June 14, 2015

This post was originally published on “Reflections on War & Society.” *

Three Afghan girls pose for the camera in the Khowst province of Afghanistan on December 1, 2004, during Operation Enduring Freedom.  (U.S. Marine Corps official photo by Corporal Justin L. Schaeffer, National Archives and Records Administration.)

Three Afghan girls pose for the camera in the Khowst province of Afghanistan on December 1, 2004, during Operation Enduring Freedom.
(U.S. Marine Corps official photo by Corporal Justin L. Schaeffer, National Archives and Records Administration.)

A couple of articles I read recently got me thinking about the long reach of war and how we define casualties. The first is a New York Times article about disabled Afghan veterans struggling against corruption and red tape to get pensions and other government assistance. Some of the men featured in the article needed prosthetic limbs and costly physical therapy that they could not afford without disability payments. One such veteran was Saheb, who lost his left leg to a Taliban land mine and could not pay for a prosthesis on his own. Desperate after learning he did not qualify for a pension because he had served in the Afghan Local Police rather than the national police or army, Saheb sold his 11-year-old daughter, Noor Bibi, into a marriage for the $3,000 he needed to pay for a leg.[1]

The second piece, a commentary on Vox.com, addresses the debate over whether the world has become more peaceful since the end of World War II. The dispute dates back to the 2011, when psychologist Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, was published. Pinker argues that the period since 1945 has been the most peaceful era in human history, and he focuses on statistics indicating that the number of deaths from war has reach a record low. Pinker’s critics have countered that looking solely at recorded casualty numbers is misleading. There are consequences of war that we cannot measure with “big-picture numbers,” as Zack Beauchamp, the author of the Vox piece, notes.[2]

A close up of an Afghan girl from the Pashtun tribe in Kabul, Afghanistan. (National Archives and Records Administration.)

A close up of an Afghan girl from the Pashtun tribe in Kabul, Afghanistan. (National Archives and Records Administration.)

Big-picture statistics don’t count victims like child bride Noor Bibi, a casualty of a long-running civil war in a country where the sale of a prepubescent girl into marriage is an option for a wounded veteran who needs money to pay for a prosthesis because his government won’t help him. Her father, Saheb, might be counted in a casualty list that includes the dead and the wounded, but such statistics fail to recognize the other ways in which war wounds people by transforming life options and paths and forcing families to make decisions that could inflict emotional or physical harm to some members. We don’t hear Noor Bibi’s voice in the New York Times article, but Saheb said she didn’t want to be sold into marriage. She had no choice, Saheb explained, because “in Pashtun society, when the father wants something, the daughter has to give it, even if she is not happy.”[3] The story of Noor Bibi reflects the long reach of war – how it upended the life of an 11-year-old girl who was neither a soldier nor a civilian casualty in the usual sense of the word. Body counts don’t reveal all the indirect casualties of war.

Such casualties take many forms. Last month, I ended my “World Civilizations Since 1500” course with a slide juxtaposing a photograph of ISIS militants with an image of Syrian refugee children. I asked my students to ponder whether the children, hamming it up for the photographer who took their picture, would end up being the next generation of angry, disillusioned, impoverished recruits for ISIS or a similar group. Like Noor Bibi, refugees are casualties of war, and neglected refugee crises can feed back into a conflict, perpetuating a cycle of violence and fighting. Envisioning a world where parts of it are continually at war, where war’s long reach keeps producing casualties of all sorts, makes it difficult to buy Pinker’s argument that we are living in a time of unprecedented peace.

[1] Rod Nordland, “Maimed Defending Afghanistan, Then Neglected,” New York Times, May 2, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/03/world/middleeast/maimed-defending-afghanistan-then-neglected.html?_r=1

[2] Zack Beauchamp, “This fascinating academic debate has huge implications for the future of world peace,” Vox.com, May 21, 2015, http://www.vox.com/2015/5/21/8635369/pinker-taleb

[3] “Maimed Defending Afghanistan, Then Neglected.”


March 30, 2015
Afghan women at the market in downtown Kabul, July 16, 2002. National Archives and Records Administration.

Afghan women and a little boy at the market in downtown Kabul, July 16, 2002. National Archives and Records Administration.

Earlier this month, the New York Times published an article about the dangers Afghan policewomen face, not from suspected criminals, but from Afghan men who put policewomen and prostitutes in the same category and believe both dishonor their families. The article opens with the story of Parveena, who was shot 11 times at close range by a member the Taliban and killed for being a policewoman. A relative who was either in the Taliban or had Taliban sympathies had informed on her. The broader point the article emphasizes is the problematic nature of Western aid organizations’ requirements that Afghan women hold certain jobs, such as positions on local police forces, in order for Afghanistan to receive aid. As Parveena’s death sadly demonstrates, Western demands for gender equality in places where a violent patriarchal culture is deeply rooted can be dangerous, even life-threatening, to the women international humanitarian organizations want to help.

In this story and others like it that highlight women’s attempts to resist local conservatism, the emphasis is almost always on women — their lives, their bravery, the discrimination and violence they face. Getting their stories out to the world is a crucial step toward stimulating international efforts to support women, but absent from most of the conversations is an equally crucial question: where are the men? This is a play on distinguished international relations scholar Cynthia Enloe’s question to IR practitioners: where are the women? Enloe has built her career (and inspired a subsequent generation of scholars, myself included) on a commitment to incorporating the voices and perspectives of women into her examinations of war, militarization, and global affairs, issues that previous scholars had treated as men’s business. But what Enloe understands is that it is not enough to just talk about women — we also have to talk about gender. How does a gender ideology that infantilizes grown women and criminalizes women’s behavior outside a closely-monitored domestic sphere take hold in young men who, as boys, spent much of their time at their mothers’ sides? How can journalists, humanitarian aid workers, and others on the ground in Afghanistan and elsewhere give voice to the men who oppose violence and discrimination against women? If Western aid organizations expect Afghan women to have access to certain careers as a measure of “progress” toward gender equality, should foreign governments advising Afghan political leaders demand that those men be clearly committed to ending gender violence? Do foreigners have the right or responsibility to make such demands? Are they possible to enforce?

Addressing such questions is controversial. India banned the BBC documentary “India’s Daughter,” about the 2012 gang rape and murder of a woman medical student on a bus in Delhi, after an Indian court ruled that the film could “encourage and incite violence against women.” Filmmaker Leslee Udwin explains that the documentary is not just about the men who brutally raped and murdered 23-year-old Jyoti Singh; it is meant to force discussions about a broader, global culture that renders women’s bodies objects on which men vent their social anxieties and perform violent acts of dominance. Varying degrees of this culture range from sexual assault on college campuses to the murders of women like Parveena and Jyoti Singh. In banning “India’s Daughter,” Indian officials argued that Udwin’s interviews with the rapists and other Indian men who attempted to justify the gender hierarchy could spark more violence against women, but Udwin’s film is important precisely because it pays attention to men and seeks to understand the roots of India’s rape culture.


February 23, 2015

Vietnamese_evacuationOne of the most harrowing scenes in “Last Days in Vietnam,” Rory Kennedy’s Academy Award-nominated documentary about the U.S. evacuation of Saigon in April, 1975, depicts a South Vietnamese air force pilot’s efforts to get his family out of Vietnam. His wife and their three young children boarded a Chinook helicopter, which he flew out to the USS Kirk in the Pacific Ocean. The helicopter was too large to land on the frigate, so the pilot hovered the aircraft as low as he could to allow his family to jump out into the arms of American sailors on deck. Miki Nguyen, the pilot’s oldest son, who was six years old at the time, is interviewed in the documentary, and he describes watching in amazement as his mother dropped his six-month-old baby sister out of the Chinook. After his family was out, the pilot flew the helicopter back over the water and managed to keep it in the air while he removed his flight suit. He jumped out the door as the Chinook crashed into the sea, and then he surfaced, uninjured. A Navy rescue boat brought him to the Kirk, where he rejoined his family.

That Kennedy and her team of filmmakers chose to include the stories of South Vietnamese military personnel and their families makes the film an important addition to one of the most well-documented events in recent history. Scholars, journalists, and participants have spilled much ink on the Vietnam War, but Vietnamese voices, particularly those of the men and women who supported the Republic of Vietnam (commonly known to Americans as South Vietnam) and served in its military, remain largely absent from the dominant war narrative in the U.S. and in Vietnam. Although “Last Days in Vietnam” tells the story of the U.S. evacuation mainly from an American perspective, four Vietnamese are interviewed on camera: two South Vietnamese military veterans, a civilian who was a college student in 1975, and Miki Nguyen, the son of the Chinook pilot. It’s nowhere near a comprehensive list of the range of Vietnamese experiences as the war came to an end, but it’s a start.

Critics of the documentary have missed this point. In his review in The Nation, Nick Turse, author of Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, suggests that the stories of those Vietnamese, especially military personnel, who made the decision to flee their country in 1975 are less important than the stories of war deaths and American atrocities. Turse writes that a South Vietnamese army captain’s decision to leave Vietnam with his family was “surely a gut-wrenching personal choice, but microscopic in a war that saw suffering on an almost unimaginable scale.” The gist of his review is that Kennedy should have made an entirely different documentary, one that focused on the destruction U.S. intervention in Vietnam caused rather than the evacuation of South Vietnam and the experiences of those who tried to escape.

The truth about atrocities U.S. troops committed in Vietnam, the lasting effects of chemical warfare, the bombing of civilians, and other American sins are rightly part of the Vietnam War narrative. “Last Days in Vietnam” is not a revision of that history. The stories of South Vietnamese troops and anticommunist Vietnamese perspectives will not conceal the devastation arrogant U.S. policies caused in Vietnam. They will help us understand Vietnamese motivations and the complex political situation in the Republic of Vietnam, where there were multiple opinions about what Vietnam’s postcolonial identity should be. By downplaying the importance of these stories, Turse implies that not all Vietnamese voices matter.

Acknowledging various Vietnamese perspectives can help facilitate reconciliation among wartime adversaries, especially in Vietnam. When I lived and taught in Saigon last year, some of the friends I made came from families that had favored a non-communist Vietnam. One friend, a restaurant owner in Saigon, told me a saying: “Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa tiêu Công Lý,
Đồng Khởi vùng lên mất Tự Do.” It is a reference to Saigon street names that the new government changed after the fall of Saigon. Công Lý (“justice”) was renamed Nam Kỳ Khởi Nghĩa (“Southern peasant uprising”), and Tự Do (“freedom”) became Đồng Khởi (“total revolution”). My friend said it translates in English to: “The Southern uprising killed justice. Total revolution stole freedom.” I met others who are bitter about not being eligible for government jobs or benefits because they or their loved ones had served in the South Vietnamese armed forces or were associated with the Saigon government before 1975. I met veterans who served time in reeducation camps. The students I taught at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities, as well as students I met when giving talks and workshops at other universities, were fascinated when they learned I was doing research on the Republic of Vietnam because they know very little about it. It is not part of the official Vietnamese story about the “American War” beyond the characterization of the Saigon government and South Vietnamese military as “puppets” of the U.S. Engaging with the stories of “the losing side,” as Vietnamese journalist Huy Đức called his book about post-1975 Vietnam, can help facilitate the healing of forty-year-old wounds.

At one point in the documentary, the Republic of Vietnam national anthem plays over footage of the national flag being lowered on a South Vietnamese ship. Vietnamese soldiers salute the flag one last time. Interviewed for the documentary, Kiem Do, former Deputy Chief of Staff of the South Vietnamese navy, reflects on that moment and sings a bit of the song before saying, “I had lost my beloved country.” The scene is gripping in large part because it is surprising. Images of South Vietnamese servicemen and others who had supported South Vietnam are rare in both American and Vietnamese accounts of the Vietnam War. Nothing about these images challenges or revises the history of American brutality in Vietnam. The images acknowledge the loss of identity and homeland that many Vietnamese felt as a result of the war, which was a civil war as well as an American war.


January 18, 2015


When I saw the headline “John Kerry Decides The Best Way To Apologize To France Is To Have James Taylor Perform,” I figured it had to be from The Onion. Turns out it was real news: after critics condemned President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry for not attending the solidarity rally held in Paris last weekend in response to the assassinations of the Charlie Hebdo journalists and subsequent terrorist attack on a kosher market in Paris, Kerry went to the French capital and brought James Taylor. Taylor performed “You’ve Got a Friend” at Paris city hall as a type of apology for the sending of U.S. Ambassador to France Jane Hartley instead of a more prominent representative to the demonstration. Now, I love James Taylor as much as the next Seventies singer/songwriter fan, but I couldn’t envision him as a powerful diplomatic tool. Before I learned that the criticism had come from Americans, not the French, I wondered if anyone in Kerry’s office had thought a better idea was to send Fleetwood Mac to sing “Go Your Own Way.” If Hartley wasn’t good enough, then maybe it was time to say that after 200+ years of a tempestuous on-again off-again relationship, “loving you isn’t the right thing to do.” But France’s ambassador to the U.S., Gerard Araud, has tried to assure Americans that the French hold no hard feelings over which American representative did or did not attend the rally. Araud has suggested that the U.S. media has created a controversy where there isn’t one and stated that French citizens are surprised that this is even a topic of conversation. (Maybe President Obama should send Fleetwood Mac to tell the media, and blowhards like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, to go their own ways.)

The whole thing got me thinking about strange diplomatic gifts, and after doing a bit of research, I discovered that heads of state and diplomatic representatives have been exchanging unusual presents for centuries. In 1502, a Venetian diplomat gave an Egyptian prince a block of parmesan cheese, a luxury item at the time. As a greeting from the “New World,” Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes sent sorcerers to Pope Clement VII. Louis XVI gave Benjamin Franklin a diamond-encrusted snuffbox. The Marquise de Lafayette gave President John Quincy Adams an alligator. In 1826, Muhammad Ali of Egypt gifted a giraffe to King Charles X of France. From one paranoid autocrat to another, Josef Stalin sent Kim Il Sung an armored limousine. Kim Jong Il’s favorite diplomatic gift allegedly was a basketball signed by Michael Jordan. The Chinese have been giving pandas as diplomatic gifts since the Tang Dynasty, and Richard Nixon received two, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, in 1972. President Obama once gave Queen Elizabeth II an iPod loaded with showtunes. In 2013, Malian officials gave a camel to French President Francoise Hollande as thanks for French military assistance against Islamic rebels. Hollande regifted the camel to a Timbuktu family, which later enjoyed it in a stew.

Compared to some of these, perhaps James Taylor singing wasn’t really a strange gift. After all, didn’t rock-n-roll end the Cold War?

Further reading:







December 11, 2014

As an unabashed lover of Christmas songs, I thought I knew them all, but yesterday, I heard this poignant gem for the first time:

In 1972, Marvin Gaye and Forest Hairston wrote “I Want to Come Home for Christmas,” which is sung from the perspective of an American POW in Vietnam. The song got me thinking about being at war and longing for home during the holidays, and I turned to what is probably the most well-known war-time Christmas song, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”:

Bing Crosby recorded the song, which is about a soldier serving in World War II and longing for his family at Christmastime, in 1943. Both songs are powerful expressions of the loneliness that comes with being far from home during the winter holidays, and they are reminders of what families risk and lose when their loved ones are at war.

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