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A dying memory: the urgency of doing oral histories of the Vietnam Wars

Memories of the Vietnam Wars are dying. The generations that witnessed and lived through one of the bloodiest wars of the twentieth century are ageing. Their memories are fading, and very soon, there will no longer be any chances to record the missing voices of the wars. It is saddening to see how few people will be left to tell their stories less than a decade from now. I intentionally put the Vietnam Wars in the plural form to include their global scope against its conventional singular form; for example, to include the overlapping wars in Laos and Cambodia.


Late May 2020, when I returned to Vietnam from university, less than 500 metres away from my home in Quang Tri, a trench of corpses with five filled water bottles, thought to be of soldiers of the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN), was discovered as a group of men in my neighbourhood dug up the ground to build a fishing lake. My great uncle, a veteran of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, confirmed that his father once told him that in 1968 he saw a group of PAVN hiding inside a trench in that location. Living in Quảng Trị for most of my life, I should not be surprised by this sort of news of the discovery of soldiers’ corpses, cemeteries of unknown martyrs, unexploded ordnance, or victims of Agent Orange. But what’s less visible, yet just as dramatically grievous, are the intangible markers of tragic deaths, destructions, shoutings and cries, family separation, and injustices. Perhaps episodes of horror and trauma that keep haunting Kiên, the protagonist of the Sorrow of War - arguably the greatest Vietnam War novel written in Vietnamese telling the heart-wrenching story of a soldier who is collecting dead bodies postwar and reflects on his wartime past - are not exceptional to him at all; instead, Kiên’s tormenting experience is just one in millions of lives that had to endure the spine-chilling brutality of war.


“All wars are fought twice. The first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory.”- writes Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen. Unlike the war on the battlefield in which there is a clearer line of defeat or victory, the war in memory is indeterminate, because it is never ending. That said, I would argue that the war in memory will be an irredeemable failure if the will to preserve history and memory vanishes. This will is not exclusively within the scholarly academic world of historians, but open to anyone in wider society. This seemingly grand work of preserving the past war, in fact, begins with a very elementary archival practice of talking to the elderly. Recording conversations, participating in interviews, writing memoirs and diaries, sharing photographs and documents, and reaching out to archives, museums, and history classrooms are highly encouraged.


The current scholarship of oral histories of the Vietnam Wars has been extensively complemented by, for instance, oral histories of American soldiers, advisors, and high-ranked military and political figures, of the overseas Vietnamese, of high ranked figures of the former Democratic Republic of Vietnam, and of other protagonists thanks to massive contributions from worldwide archives and scholars. Nevertheless, there are still unknown questions about the wars that might only be answered if the younger generations try to reach out and learn what might have happened to their parents and grandparents. Voices of the civilians and private soldiers, in particular, witnesses of massacres, soldiers from less mainstream armies and forces, or people from less popular ethnic or religious backgrounds, are critical to filling up the gaps in the chronology of the Vietnam Wars. From an academic historical research perspective, this is a timely way to collect the last voices, which might lead to a new interpretation of the wars. On top of that, chronicling stories of those who lived the Vietnam Wars is imperative for honouring their sacrifices and the sacrifices of those who perished.


Oral histories have the advantage of accessibility, allowing a wider range of participants, from high-ranked military officials to civilians or private soldiers. Interviews conducted in oral history target the direct personal experiences of the narrator. But this task is much more complex than simply collecting information. Conducting oral histories is about giving those at the very bottom bearing the worst catastrophic consequences of the war a chance to speak up, allowing them to relive their experiences through retelling life events and expressing gratitude and compassion towards their tragic history. Getting someone to recall distressing images and speak about atrocities is not an easy task. Conversations about how they had to kill someone or how they saw someone get killed are in no way regular conversations. The listener must acquire a good knowledge of history, or even culture, language, and traditions, and develop deep compassion for the narrator. The prerequisites required to win this war in memory are active participation to preserve memories, a bravery to tell the dirtiest and most gruesome truths, and a free setting to operate. If these difficult conversations never take place, truths will be forever buried in the past.


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