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Christian Appy on ‘Mekong Diaries’

Posted on Jan 16, 2009
book cover

(Page 2)

    Much of the art they produced during the war has been lost or destroyed. Many works that survive were stored in abandoned U.S. ammunition boxes—the driest and tightest containers the artists could find. After the war, what remained was tucked away in trunks and largely forgotten, in part because the postwar artistic establishment regarded most of it as crude and unfinished, created under duress with the most rudimentary supplies—with pencils, worn-out brushes or twigs, with inferior ink, children’s watercolor kits or dirt and saliva, on cheap paper, newsprint or cardboard. In the postwar era some of it was reworked into larger, more polished watercolor, lacquer and oil paintings, but the great bulk of it was ignored for many years. At least part of the explanation for its recovery has been the interest expressed in it by foreigners, especially American veterans, art collectors, scholars and tourists (and quite a lot has been sold to them). 


book cover


Mekong Diaries


By Sherry Buchanan


University Of Chicago Press, 264 pages


Buy the book


    Many of the works gathered here are simply beautiful—amazingly so given the conditions of their creation—the kind of art you could hang in a dining room without risk of distressing your dinner guests. Indeed, one of the most obvious things to say about this work is that it defies almost every common American or Western conception of war-related art. There is very little here that evokes the horrifying human, animal and physical wreckage of war that is the subject of Picasso’s “Guernica,” Goya’s “The Disaster of War” etchings, or Delacroix’s “The Massacre at Chois.” Nor does it resemble the searing and violence-haunted work produced by America’s Vietnam veteran artists and collected by the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum (examples of this art have been published as “Vietnam: Reflexes and Reflections,” edited by Eve Sinaiko and published by Harry Abrams Inc., 1998). Nor does it even resemble most of the propaganda poster art that was produced in Hanoi during the war and meant to celebrate the heroism and righteousness of “people’s war.”

    Instead, most of it is surprisingly serene. For example, several watercolors feature an adolescent boy or girl sitting calmly on the ground. They look perfectly at ease with a tranquil, somewhat faraway gaze, posed as if on a picnic or a school outing with a hint of foliage in the background. The only indication that they are guerrilla fighters is the striking fact that they are holding automatic rifles. Yet, they are holding them as lightly and casually as you might hold a parasol. While a few images depict Vietnamese guerrillas aiming and presumably firing their rifles, there are no exploding bombs or napalm, no scenes of civilian massacres, no images of the bloody aftermath of battle, no severed limbs, no children screaming in agony or grieving mothers, certainly nothing resembling the images (mostly from photography) that most characterize American visual memory of the war. Nor, even, do they match Vietnamese accounts of the war’s harder realities.

Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum
Fragment from “Crossing Bas Sac River,” 1970. To see several other images from “Mekong Diaries,” click here (PDF file).

    Looking at those calm, well-fed teenagers in the war art made me think of five women I met who had, as teenagers, volunteered to serve in the jungles of the Truong Son Mountains, building and repairing the many branches of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. In the rainy season they were almost never dry. Sometimes they stood for hours up to their waists in water trying to damn rushing streams that threatened the trails. The work was backbreaking. Some girls were rendered infertile. Food was so scarce many became malnourished. Everyone eventually got malaria. It killed some. Most survived, but the disease made their hair fall out. Sometimes after a bombing attack they would form “dare to die” squads to defuse an unexploded bomb. One day, a bomb fell nearby and they had to dig five people out of a shelter that had suffered a direct hit. “We were on our hands and knees clawing at the dirt. Our arms were smeared with blood. There were five people in that shelter. Four of them just turned to porridge. We couldn’t tell them apart. Only one body was recognizable. That woman was holding her child so tightly we couldn’t separate them. We buried them together.” Finally, after years, the girls, now women, were able to go home. “Living in the jungle for so many years made us look terrible. After the war we came home hairless with ghostly white eyes, pale skin, and purple lips.”

    How then can we understand what Sherry Buchanan fully acknowledges as the “romantic,” “dreamy” and “idyllic” quality of much of this art? As she points out, “Life in the damp, dark, snake-infested chambers of the Cu Chi tunnels is made to look cozy, with a scarf used as a pillow, a teapot, a bottle of rice wine.” By way of explanation, she and Nam Nguyen suggest that the serenity of the work reflects both an immersion in French-influenced art training along with a deeper Vietnamese cultural predisposition to seek mental peace amid physical and emotional turmoil. And even the length of the war may have reinforced a tendency toward a wishful, wistful art meant to deflect attention from the apparently endless hardship. “I didn’t want to portray suffering,” artist Thai Ha recalled. “You must keep on living an ordinary life to be able to fight a long war.”

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By Robert, January 21, 2009 at 6:55 am Link to this comment
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I read the book review posted on this site on Friday.  I immediately went out and bought the book at my local bookstore.  I finished the book within 2 days.  I was thoroughly impressed by the emotions that spilled out the pages by those who experienced this war.  The stories behind the painting/drawings were heartfelt.  It just shows that war is as psycological as it is physical.  It also goes to show the human toll war takes on everyone involved - as well as their family members. I will read this book again because it tells a story from a perspective that is usually ignored.

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By xyzaffair, January 19, 2009 at 1:32 pm Link to this comment
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I get really angry when I see the intransigence of Vietnamese refugees in the U.S. who violently protest the slightest acknowledgement of the current government in Vietnam.  Protesters in Orange County, CA, the largest Vietnamese community outside Vietnam, vandalized an art exhibit that displayed the red star flag and a repair shop whose owner displayed a portrait of Ho Chih Minh.  They claim such displays stir up painful memories.  What about those still in Vietnam who had family members killed by the mindless U.S. carpet bombings?  There are two sides to the issue, and these protesters should take the time to examine both.

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By James E Taylor, January 18, 2009 at 11:43 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The art and science is a true indicator of
man humanity, much more so than teaching man to kill
one another.  One of the major problem in our schools,
are the lack of teaching the spiritual virtues to the
students.  Growing up in the thirties and forties we never had the kinds of problems you see from the schools today because, student not only respected their teachers, but each other also.  Each school day were open with all students and teachers beginning the day with devotions and songs.  How much more to have someone to recite a poem.

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By since1492, January 18, 2009 at 5:55 am Link to this comment

We lost because we didn’t know anything about them, or their history, let alone their poetry and art work. We were given USO shows more for distraction than for inspiration.
Hoa binh

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By JayRoot22, January 17, 2009 at 5:11 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Fascinating piece giving further insight into the differences in approach to morale uplift and maintenance between the Viet Cong and their G.I. counterparts during the “American War” in Vietnam. It’s clear that Sherry Buchanan’s book will shed new light on the conflict and our huge gap in understanding our so-called “enemies” during that war. For that reason alone, “Mekong Diaries” would appear to be a valuable resource, but as fascinating as this piece is, I am a bit baffled by the “official” nomenclature that Christian Appy uses for the southern guerrillas usually known as “Viet Cong” (which, I believe is simply Vietnamese for “Vietnamese Communist”)as the People’s Liberation Armed Forces. I had always thought that they were officially known as the National Liberation Front for Vietnam. Or was that assumption incorrect all along?

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By rav, January 16, 2009 at 9:48 am Link to this comment

A unique and real’ view. There is a beautiful ugliness to war, from this perspective. I havn’t persued this view of war and I think this article has sparked my need to look further as with your comment. Thank you

I will look to aquire the Mekong Diaries’ I think will be a good start.

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By Anarcissie, January 16, 2009 at 7:28 am Link to this comment

“How else to explain the will of millions of Vietnamese to fight for years?”

That’s normal territorial-trooping-primate behavior.  If the Vietnamese invaded the U.S., the Americans would have resisted for years.  In fact, the Vietnamese actually did fight smaller nations or tribes within their borders who didn’t care to be assimilated for years.  Humans are not very different from chimpanzees and baboons in this area.

Poetry may shore up the spirits of the warriors, but it doesn’t guarantee victory—the Japanese forces in World War 2 seem to have been fond of it.  Germans and Americans (the preponderance of whom descend from Germanic tribes) seem to prefer their verse with music.  Did “Lili Marlene” win the war, or lose it?

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By rav, January 16, 2009 at 6:18 am Link to this comment

There is alway’s some new thing to learn about war and culture, this in particular is unique. Artistry and poetry grafted into the vietnamese soldiers fields of war for morall and balance. 
  I must say we Americans are a bit off the mark when it comes to morality and Balance in war.

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