Posts Tagged ‘fall of Saigon’

“LAST DAYS IN VIETNAM” AND TELLING VIETNAM WAR STORIES

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.

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