[Marxism] Bob Kerrey and the ‘American Tragedy’ of Vietnam
lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Jun 21 07:15:34 MDT 2016
NY Times Op-Ed, June 20 2016
Bob Kerrey and the ‘American Tragedy’ of Vietnam
By VIET THANH NGUYEN
Los Angeles — EVEN today, Americans argue over the Vietnam War: what was
done, what mistakes were made, and what were the lasting effects on
This sad history returns because of Bob Kerrey’s appointment as chairman
of the American-sponsored Fulbright University Vietnam, the country’s
first private university. That appointment has also prompted the
Vietnamese to debate how former enemies can forgive and reconcile.
What is not in dispute is that in 1969 a team of Navy SEALs, under a
young Lieutenant Kerrey’s command, killed 20 unarmed Vietnamese
civilians, including women and children, in the village of Thanh Phong.
Mr. Kerrey, who later became a senator, a governor, a presidential
candidate and a university president, acknowledged his role in the
atrocity in his 2002 memoir, “When I Was a Young Man.”
Those in the United States and Vietnam who favor Mr. Kerrey’s
appointment see it as an act of reconciliation: He has confessed, he
deserves to be forgiven because of his efforts to aid Vietnam, and his
unique and terrible history makes him a potent symbol for how both
countries need to move on from their common war.
I disagree. He is the wrong man for the job and regarding him as a
symbol of peace is a failure of moral imagination.
It is true that Americans have been more forthcoming about some of their
crimes than anyone in the Vietnamese government and Communist Party. But
it is equally true that Americans tend to remember the war as an
American tragedy, as I saw distinctly while watching “Platoon,”
“Apocalypse Now” and other movies as a boy growing up in California.
I lived among many Vietnamese refugees for whom this war was a
Vietnamese tragedy. President Obama’s speech on the war’s 50th
anniversary in 2012 focused on the deaths of over 58,000 American
soldiers; I wondered why more than 200,000 South Vietnamese and more
than one million North Vietnamese and Vietcong fighters who died were
not mentioned, nor the countless thousands of civilians who perished.
With Mr. Kerrey’s new position, we are returning to the familiar story
about an American soldier’s redemption. Many Vietnamese are also focused
on that story now, even as it comes at the expense of remembering
Vietnamese suffering. Some opinion polls show a majority of Vietnamese
endorsing Mr. Kerrey’s appointment, and some North Vietnamese veterans,
like the renowned novelist Bao Ninh, have voiced their support.
Some in the United States have said that Mr. Kerrey is also a victim —
of an unjust war and disastrous leadership — but such a claim seems
ironic, if not outright ludicrous, when one compares Mr. Kerrey’s
prominence to the obscurity in which the survivors of the attack he led
and the relatives of those killed now live. His life and career have
barely been impeded, except for any personal regrets.
Indeed, as Mr. Kerrey was once in Vietnam as an expression of United
States power, he now arrives in a different guise but still as a symbol
of Western influence, this time as a leader of a university.
Many Vietnamese hope the university will deliver free-market values to a
nominally Communist country eager to continue its capitalist
development. But such hope must be tempered with the understanding that
Western-style universities are ambivalent places when it comes to
encouraging greater equality.
At their best, they cultivate humane thinking. At their worst, they both
practice and promote an economic inequality that supports the interests
of the 1 percent: exploitation of underpaid adjunct teachers; tremendous
increases in student debt; emphasizing the production of workers rather
Which role will Fulbright play? This question foreshadows how Vietnam’s
capitalist development, guided by institutions like this one, could
leave behind the country’s most vulnerable.
If Mr. Kerrey does continue as chairman, Americans and Vietnamese
together should insist on symbolic and material measures to make amends
to his victims and address his past.
First, he should visit Thanh Phong and apologize to the survivors and
the families of the dead. Reconciliation between the two countries
should be about more than the drama of one American veteran; it should
also include the tragedy of 20 dead Vietnamese villagers.
Second, the Fulbright campus in Ho Chi Minh City should include a
prominent memorial to Thanh Phong’s dead. Already visible throughout
Vietnam are “martyrs’ cemeteries” commemorating more than one million
soldiers who died for the Communist revolution. Memorials to the even
greater number of civilian dead are rare, possibly because remembering
their deaths might raise troublesome questions about who killed them.
Third, Fulbright should create educational programs to benefit Thanh
Phong’s youth and prepare them for a path that will lead to full
scholarships at the school. The people of Thanh Phong, and the many
people throughout Vietnam like them, should benefit from the university
as much as Mr. Kerrey does from his chairmanship’s prestige.
Fourth, the school’s board should include spiritual leaders, peace
activists and teachers who support a humane vision of education, not
just a corporate one.
The dead of Thanh Phong, and all the civilian dead, demand an answer to
the question of whether, and how, a wealthier Vietnam will remember
them, and whether United States-style economic development will benefit
all the citizens of Vietnam, or once again make victims of the weakest
and the poorest.
Viet Thanh Nguyen is the author of “The Sympathizer,” which won the 2016
Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and “Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the
Memory of War.”
More information about the Marxism