The Debate

Vietnam War: Understanding, Not Celebrating

For some Vietnamese, this week has been a time of remembrance, not celebration.

Vietnam War: Understanding, Not Celebrating
Credit: Long Tan Cross

Vietnam has this week been commemorating the Vietnam War, which ended on April 30, 1975. It has been difficult to remember the occasion without becoming acutely aware of the pain that was associated with it. In addition to coming to terms with the past, it has been a time to reflect on the course that Vietnam has taken.

In doing so, should we give weight to the personal or to collective memory? Because ultimately, memories of the war will differ. What the North Vietnamese celebrate, South Vietnamese might mourn. The date and its symbolism are and remain ambivalent. Lieux de memoires are important, but we must also help each other to understand our shared past.

The Vietnam conflict was a proxy war. That said, most of believed that we were fighting and suffering for a just cause. But while the brutality may be over, its causes and its effects need to be better understood.

Forty years after the war ended, we feel alienated from one another because we have not lived through the same past. Vietnamese society remains deeply divided and polarized. Neither personal nor collective memories supply the best answer. Individual memories are based on individual experience and are thus selective. Even collective memories, while they may be sociological fact for a certain group, can never qualify as a true and complete version of history. And so the victors never forget a glorious past while the losers struggle to suppress a painful one.

Instead, all of us need to accept the past as it was, so that we might go on living. To do this, we need the help of professional historians, who can provide us with an historically objectivized memory.

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But history is always a matter of reconstruction. The historian works with the evidence and describes history in a process of interpretation. And in Vietnam it does not always reach the consumer without adulteration. The textbooks of contemporary history that most Vietnamese students or teachers use today are mythologized.

Perhaps we need to rethink the very notion of narrative. So, although the lieux de memoires are very different, we try to combine them into some larger stories. That requires a new way of telling the story. In so doing, the memories of war can be preserved. What, then, does April 30, 1975 symbolize?

In fact, it symbolizes highly contradictory events and remains the most tragic paradox for every Vietnamese. For the North Vietnamese, it signifies the end of a horrific American war and freedom to those who had suffered under the dictatorship in the South. For the South Vietnamese, April 30, 1975 was the beginning of persecution and imprisonment. There are grounds to support both interpretations, because we were both destroyed and redeemed.

April 30 is not a Day of Liberation, rather it is a Day of Remembrance. We mourn the dead and remember with sorrow the human suffering. And now that we are intimately familiar with the meaninglessness of proxy wars, we seek better alternatives in diplomacy. We realize that the fratricidal struggle was an aberration in history and that we became the victims of our own war.

Looking back, we saw that reunification was followed by a long period of chaos. The country was on the edge of an abyss: inhumane governance, expropriation of land and firms, reeducation camps, boat people, and wars with Cambodia and China.

Looking forward, we see an uncertain future. It is no secret that the concept of a market economy with a socialist orientation is flawed and Vietnam has experienced setbacks in government effectiveness, regulatory improvement, and control of corruption. Our children are at risk of being worse off and our grandchildren may not inherit a livable country. Vietnam is less peaceful internally and more vulnerable externally than ever before. And, most relevant, the government is placing Chinese interests and the interests of the elite above the political will of the people.

Looking outward, we can anticipate that the U.S. will remain a major Pacific power and will help Vietnam balance the rise of China. A great geopolitical conflict is emerging between China and the U.S., but Vietnam will not again become the battleground in a proxy war. Neither the American nor Chinese leadership can offer a vision for Vietnam. That is now the role of ordinary Vietnamese.

Gradually, those with personal memories of the period before 1975 are leaving the stage. A new generation has emerged. Older Vietnamese must help them to accept historical truth and keep memories alive. But Young Vietnamese must also think about a new politics for a new age and push for a more robust public discourse.

The time is ripe for change, and peaceful change through non-violent civil resistance is both desirable and possible. The older generation must help younger people see this and engage with change. Celebrate change, not a war in which there were no victors.

Kim Them Do is the author of The Buddhist Viewpoint on Contemporary Issues (Hong Duc, Viet Nam, 2012).