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Christian Appy on 'Mekong Diaries'

“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.

book cover

Mekong Diaries

By Sherry Buchanan

University Of Chicago Press, 264 pages

Buy the book

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.

Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum
A detail of “Guerrilla Warfare: A Surprise Attack,” 1966. To see several other images from “Mekong Diaries,” click here (PDF file).

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. 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.” 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.

book cover

Mekong Diaries

By Sherry Buchanan

University Of Chicago Press, 264 pages

Buy the book

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.

Christian G. Appy, a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, is the author of “Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered From All Sides” (Penguin).
Christian G. Appy
Reviewer
Christian Appy is the author of "American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity" (Viking, 2015), the Massachusetts Book Award winner "Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered From All Sides"…
Christian G. Appy

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