(Re)Collecting the Vietnam War
Vol. 6, No. 2
Collateral + Damage
Cathy J. Schlund-Vials
My twin brother and I were born on September 2, 1974 in Udon Thani, Thailand. While Thailand may not immediately come to mind as a Vietnam War-era front, the circumstances of our birth make clear a connection to the conflict. We were born right outside Udorn Royal Thai Air Force base, which was a major military hub for American soldiers and Southeast Asian military men during the war. My biological father was a U.S. Air Force man who met my biological mother – a Cambodian woman – at the base. We were a product of that union. Unbeknownst to my mother, my father was married, with four children, and returned to his Massachusetts home and family well before we were born. Abandoned, my mother would eventually befriend an American soldier and his Japanese wife, who were also stationed in Udon Thani. She orchestrated an adoption, and the rest is my personal “history.”
This particular history – which brings into focus war-driven rupture and conflict-oriented union – is one that was not easily gathered; indeed, what I have recounted portrays a linearity that obscures the true fragmentary nature of such “recollecting.” Faced with incomplete parental accounts, adoption papers, and no memory, I have spent most of my life collecting facts and details in order to make sense of a war that remains – notwithstanding its hypervisibility in Hollywood film and mainstream media – strategically disremembered and tactically forgotten. This impulse to recollect the vast dimensions of the second Indochina War – which involves multiple communities, generations, and formations – is reiterated, revised, and re-envisioned in this section, titled “Collateral + Damage.” While the very notion of “collateral damage” euphemistically suggests unintentional impact and inadvertent loss, the contributors to this section – who likewise access the personal in order to understand the political and bellicose – make clear the degree to which what’s past remains both prologue and epilogue to the ongoing War on Terror and the geopolitical expansiveness of U.S. war-making.
“Collateral + Damage” opens with an evocative collaboration between writer Monique Truong and visual artist UuDam Nguyen, “M O R E T H A N M Y M E M O R I E S D E F I N E M E,” a word search puzzle which carries the following instruction:
The first ten words that you see are what you desire most in your Present, Future, and Past.
(All three exists at once, elbowing and bruising each other like siblings. We are not the first to tell you this, are we?)
The simultaneity of “present, future, and past” as fixed to refugee-ness, resettlement, and war, is at the forefront of Maya Espiritu’s “Operation Babylift” flipbook; it is also a theme followed up in Viet Thanh Nguyen’s essay, “On True War Stories,” which extends the idea of “war stories” to encompass those displaced bodies who have lost “home, business, family, health, sanity, or country.” These particular bodies are largely forgotten in mainstream accounts of the conflict, which consistently rehearse a familiar U.S. soldier narrative of regret and remorse. At the same time, such war stories focused on the “exceptional” military experiences “over there” distressingly disremember the ubiquity of war in people’s everyday lives. In that vein, Nguyen notes:
…what if we understood that war stories disturb even more when they are not about soldiers, when they show us how normal war is, how war touches and transforms everything and everybody, including, most of all, civilians?
This move to consider “other” stories and bodies presages Yên Lê Espiritu’s “Rethinking ‘Collateral Damage’ in the Vietnam War,” which commences with a definition of “collateral damage” as a mode which denotes “damage to people, property, and ecology that is allegedly incidental to the intended target.” Yet, while those of us in Asian American studies and Southeast Asian American studies have indefatigably endeavored to recollect the experiences of Southeast Asian refugees, we have – as Espiritu observes – failed to
think of … the collateral damage sustained by the other Others in the circuits of U.S. empire.
As “othered” locus, Espiritu considers how the militarized relocation of Vietnamese refugees, who made their way from the country of origin to the United States through Guam, intersects with a larger history of American militarization and occupation in the Pacific.
These larger histories of militarization – made visible through the optic of “collateral damage” – are at the forefront of Anida Yeou Ali’s “What’s in a Name?”, “Living Memory/Living Absence,” and “In Time of War,” which to varying degrees and related ends poetically evokes the true expansiveness of U.S. war-making in Cambodia, Vietnam, and Iraq. These written contemplations, which vocalize an unreconciled and multi-sited refugee-ness, are analogously reflected and refracted in Ali’s camp-focused photography. As significant context, Ali’s work rehearses, restages, and recollects what most know outside Cambodia as the Killing Fields era. To clarify, between 1975 and 1979, over the course of three years, eight months, and twenty days, under the authoritarian Khmer Rouge, an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians perished as a result of starvation, forced labor, torture, disease, and execution. The rise of the Khmer Rouge was substantively facilitated by the illegal bombings of the Cambodian countryside (1965 – 1973), which profoundly destabilized the nation. This particular genocide history likewise presages artist Sayon Syprasoeuth’s insistence that – in the face of such profound cultural, social, political, and human loss – a re-imagined return to tradition becomes a resistive Cambodian American act.
Such re-imaginations of state-authorized violence and excessive military power, which lay bare the extent to which the United States strategically damaged other sites, is at the forefront of Saymoukda Duangphouxay Vongsay’s Kung Fu Zombies vs Cannibals, which is featured via an excerpt. Notwithstanding its imagined future setting (in 2026), Kung Fu Zombies vs Cannibals is very much a “past is present” story that pivots on the cluster bombings of Laos during the second Indochina War. Divergently, Thuy Linh Nguyen Tu’s “What not to Wear in Vietnam” meditates upon the politics and practices of renovation in present-day Vietnam. Such renovation – which encapsulates both the built environment and the beauty industry – is complicated when set adjacent collateral ecological catastrophes like Agent Orange.
In the face of undeniably violent legacies and open-ended aftermaths, “Refugee/Veteran Pedagogies in Asian American Studies,” co-authored by Peter Kiang, Shirley Suet-ling Tang, and Loan Thị Đào, provides a more hopeful look at the possibilities inherent in ongoing dialogues between veterans and refugees. In recounting “generative, inter-generational pedagogies” which connect “veterans and refugees across time and place through sustained relationships in both classroom and community contexts,” Kiang, Tang, and Dao evocatively and productively return us – as students, artists, practitioners, and scholars — to the collaborative practices and pedagogies which brought the field “into being.”