November 23, 2014
Christian Appy on ‘Mekong Diaries’
Posted on Jan 16, 2009
There are important exceptions. In 1965, from Hanoi, Le Lam did some drawings of U.S.-supported torture based on reports from the South. One of them shows a woman lying on the ground, naked to the waist, with two snakes crawling out of her trousers and a third posed to strike her face, an image reminiscent of the torture inflicted by South Vietnamese soldiers on Le Ly Hayslip after she was caught spying for the Viet Cong (as described in her memoir, “When Heaven and Earth Change Places”).
And artist Huynh Phuong Dong told Buchanan, “As an artist, I went to record the agony of the war. My drawings are history through painting.” His scarlet and orange watercolor, “Crossing the Saigon River Late at Night,” has a kind of lurid turbulence that powerfully signals impending violence without directly depicting it. The same might be said of Vo Dong Minh’s pastels of the Tet offensive. And perhaps one reason we don’t see more images of combat scenes is that they have been eagerly snapped up by private collectors.
Even so, virtually all of this art avoids death and suffering. Dong’s work doesn’t really evoke much “agony”—the goal he claimed—and even Le Lam seems to dismiss the significance of his torture sketches: “A photographer documents atrocities, the artist must portray life.” Still, the serenity of the art remains puzzling. “What calmness of mind,” Buchanan wonders, “allowed them to create stunning landscapes and elegant portraits as B-52s dropped their arsenals?”
The question she poses circles back on itself, but perhaps extraordinary calmness is a key explanation of this art. As Quach Phong put it, “The soldiers liked to watch me draw. I was calm, it helped calm them down. They asked to have their portraits done in case they died. It made them feel part of history.” Pham Thanh Tam said something very similar: “They liked to have me around to watch me draw. It seemed to calm them, and make them feel special.” After a body of work was completed, the soldier-artists would have an exhibition. They would tie a clothesline between two trees and hang their work with clothespins. It doesn’t take too great a leap to imagine that an art exhibit in the middle of the jungle, in the midst of war, could have a powerful emotional effect.
Though the artists do not say as much, it is also surely true that there were clear orders from political officers to keep this art as positive and inspiring as possible. These were, after all, artists with a political mission. That they produced great work in spite of constrictions on subject matter is a tribute to their skill and passion. And it is also probable that many, if not all of the artists, shared the official desire to accentuate the positive. As Buchanan suggests, the artists’ personal beliefs and artistic vision seem to have “coincided with official propaganda.”
Regardless of why and how this art was produced, Buchanan was clearly drawn to it for the effect it might have on Americans. “If people could see these graceful images by the ‘savage’ Viet Cong,” she thought, “they would understand that war is a psychotic episode … not a policy choice to solve conflicts.” That’s dubious at best, I think, but it is certainly true that American culture has produced way too many cartoon images of the Vietnamese “enemy” as a ruthless and fanatical demon. As Gen. Westmoreland said, “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does the Westerner. … Life is cheap in the Orient.”
And yet, does such an exclusive focus on Vietnamese serenity truly humanize them? My only concern is that it might invite us to an equally reductive conclusion: that the Vietnamese were, even in the midst of war, entirely noble and saintly. That is not unlike the image that surfaced in some quarters of the anti-war movement of the 1960s when valiant guerrilla revolutionaries were said to be so pure they “stole neither a needle nor a piece of thread from the people” (to use the Maoist expression). However disciplined and mentally serene, this was not a nonviolent revolution. Communist commanders ordered countless mass-wave attacks on U.S. and South Vietnamese bases, and their troops generally fought with extraordinary commitment. And, like soldiers in all wars, they could be utterly ruthless. One of them, a guerrilla fighter named Nguyen Thi Gung, was the only woman in her unit and one of its most celebrated members. She was given a decoration with the title “Valiant Destroyer of American Infantrymen.” She is not abashed about the killing she did: “I can’t imagine how many GIs I killed. After all, I detonated land mines and threw grenades, both of which could kill many men at a time.”
My point is that we need to consider the possibility that the romantic wartime art was not merely an escape from war, but served the war. Perhaps more effectively than the cant-filled propaganda of political speeches and poster art, these works may well have connected deeply with a people who undeniably believed they were participating in a sacred cause linked to a long history of struggles for national independence and unification. Vietnamese culture has a powerful strain of romanticism that coincides with other “isms,” sometimes serving them, sometimes not. Ho Chi Minh himself deeply reflected that strain. Consider this short poem he wrote in 1948 called “Full Moon in January.” It was written in the midst of war against the French:
Now comes the first full moon of the year
Rivers rise in mists to join spring skies.
We talk of strategy in high places.
Yes, sell the compass, come on the boat of the full moon.
Perhaps Heinemann’s right: We lost because we didn’t understand that they were poets.
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