June 19, 2013
Christian Appy on ‘Mekong Diaries’
Posted on Jan 16, 2009
“We lost the war because the Vietnamese just flat out beat us. And we lost the war because we didn’t understand that they were poets.” I was offered this Delphic explanation of American defeat in Vietnam by Larry Heinemann, a novelist who survived some of the war’s fiercest fighting in 1967 and 1968 as a soldier with the 25th Infantry Division near the Cambodian border in Tay Ninh province. The inspiration for his enigmatic comment came years later when he revisited Vietnam and met a professor of literature whose wartime service included lectures on American writers to Vietnamese troops as they traveled down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Professor Lien told the young soldiers about Walt Whitman and Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner.
“Now what Vietnamese literature did the American military teach to you?” Lien asked in all sincerity. “I laughed so hard I almost squirted beer up my nose,” Heinemann recalls. He explained that American military training did not place a premium on the prose or poetry of any culture, even its own.
But how could poetry, or any kind of art, help explain one of history’s most astonishing victories? I think what Heinemann meant was that the Communist-led cause in Vietnam mobilized not just bodies, but souls. How else to explain the will of millions of Vietnamese to fight for years under unimaginably difficult conditions—under the most massive bombing in world history, in jungle camps and tunnels, on a diet of rice and cassava, for year after year after year. It was common for people to fight for five or even 10 years if they lived long enough. I met one man who was away from home for 29 years fighting the French and then the Americans. When he finally returned, his mother insisted that he show her a familiar mole on the back of his head to confirm that he was, in fact, her son.
To maintain morale, the government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) deployed hundreds of artists, writers, actors, singers, photographers, puppeteers and dancers. These members of the “Literature and Arts” section of the military (Van Nghe) did not just visit combat troops, or lecture to them; they lived with them, moved with them, camped with them, and sometimes fought along with them. They were military artists in residence, only the residence was a war zone, not a campus. When combat was imminent they might move to the rear, but, when necessary, they picked up arms and fought, and died.
What a contrast to the morale-boosting efforts of the U.S. military. In his memoir, commander William Westmoreland, sounding very much like a corporate personnel manager, claimed that the morale of his troops remained high because they had a one-year tour of duty, a one-week R & R in an Asian capital like Bangkok, well-stocked PXs and other “creature comforts.” That, and an occasional USO show featuring Bob Hope and young starlets like Joey Heatherton and Ann-Margret, pretty much exhausted the command’s prescription for morale. Of course, the strongest morale is built on an enduring commitment to a clear and convincing underlying moral purpose, a cause, and the military was no more successful than U.S. policymakers at identifying a cause in Vietnam that could sustain the faith of its citizens and its soldiers.
Sherry Buchanan’s new book, “Mekong Diaries: Viet Cong Drawings & Stories, 1964-1975,” gives us a stunning look at some of the wartime art produced by the Vietnamese soldier-artists who served in the “American War” to drive out the U.S., topple the American-backed government in Saigon and reunite Vietnam. The book’s title is a bit misleading. This is not a collection of diaries. There are a few scraps of moving wartime correspondence and some wartime poems by Nguyen Duy, but this is, primarily, a collection of watercolors and sketches created during the war by soldier-artists.
To provide some context for the images, Buchanan has included several introductory essays and reminiscences from each of the 10 featured artists. The essays are written by Buchanan, a former features editor at The Wall Street Journal who now works independently on Asian art and culture, and two of her collaborators—Nam Nguyen (a Vietnamese-American who left Vietnam as a refugee in 1975 at age 7), and Nguyen Toan Thi, a war artist who was, until 2005, the director of the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum.
Most of the featured artists were born in southern Vietnam, and a number of them served in the war of resistance to French rule (1946-1954)—the First Indochina War—as well as the American War. After the Geneva Accords divided Vietnam in 1954, they “regrouped” to the North, where they received training at the Hanoi School of Fine Arts; a few trained in the Soviet Union as well. As the United States escalated its military intervention to prevent the collapse of the government it had backed in South Vietnam since 1954, Hanoi began to send artists on the four-month trip down the Ho Chi Minh Trail to the southern “Front.” During the course of the American War, about 100 soldier-artists served with units of the People’s Liberation Armed Forces (the southern guerrillas known to Americans as the Viet Cong) and units of the People’s Army of Vietnam (the North Vietnamese army). Sixty-two of them died in the war.
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