BOOK REVIEWS: Susan Sontag’ Trip to Hanoi & Frances Fitzgerald’s Fire in the Lake

“The photographer is an armed version of the solitary walker reconnoitering, stalking, cruising the urban inferno, the voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes. Adept of the joys of watching, connoisseur of empathy, the flâneur finds the world ‘picturesque.”

– Susan Sontag, On Photography

From February to November 1966 journalist Frances Fitzgerald visited South Vietnam during the period of Lyndon Johnson’s ‘escalation’ strategy and the Buddhist crisis; in June to July 1968, writer Susan Sontag visited Hanoi. From these brief voyeuristic trips emerged two influential and distinct works, Fitzgerald’s Fire in the Lake (1972) and Sontag’s Trip to Hanoi (1968) that attempted to make sense of Vietnamese society and politics. Yet, in what ways do the actual experiences during these trips influence or are influenced by the author’s preconceived and imagined Vietnam?

In her travelogue Trip to Hanoi, critical thinker, writer, and political activist Susan Sontag attempts to reconcile the Vietnam that existed in her head with that which she witnesses firsthand. Throughout the short text, Sontag weaves between idyllic representations of Vietnamese society and political commentary on American hegemony. Reflecting on Vietnamese language, mannerisms, and worldview, she argues that North Vietnam in fact “deserves to be idealized.” At times Sontag does in fact poignantly call attention to the inherent voyeurism, phony sentimentality”, and romanticism that texture her perspectives as a visitor. Nevertheless, these stylistic comments on positionality veil Sontag’s inherent orientalist representations and overarching use of Vietnam as a backdrop for her personal journey.

While Sontag excuses her simplicity by recognizing her naivete, Frances Fitzgerald exposes her ignorance by claiming her understanding of Vietnam. Fitzgerald’s Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and Americans in Vietnam consists of two parts: an examination into the history, culture, and mentality of ‘the Vietnamese’ as a people and a critical analysis of American involvement in the Saigon government. This text falls within the extreme side of the orthodox school and focuses on American total misunderstanding of Vietnamese politics and society. The two-part cause and effect structure of this text reflect Fitzgerald’s near obsession with understanding the ‘Vietnamese’ psyche in order to explain the current state of the war. In this way, rather than a singular historical argument, Fire in the Lake is a statement of essential cultural difference between the Vietnamese and the Americans.

Fitzgerald selectively draws from a long duree of Vietnamese history, grossly simplifying complex facets such as Confucianism, resistance to foreign aggression, village relations, and land policy. For Fitzgerald, these dimensions form the core cultural and political essence of ‘Vietnamese-ness’ and are constantly in opposition to and incomprehensible within ‘American’ worldviews. These generalizations also function as stock explanations for the historical turn of events. Most prominently, Fitzgerald transposes a simplified and romanticized understanding of Confucian power relations to explain the following: the Diem regime’s authoritarianism, the appeal of Ho Chi Minh’s Confucian behavior, the lack of cohesion of the GVN and ARVN, and the failures of southern relocation strategies. Furthermore by setting up this US-Vietnam binary, Fitzgerald flattens the DRV, NLF, RVN, religious and ethnic minority groups into a singular cultural monolith. Fitzgerald is then able to position the NLF as the manifestation of Vietnamese national and popular will, brought to arms out of the necessity to survive.

From a historical method standpoint, this book is a horrific failure. Aside from the obvious essentialisms and orientalist simplification of ‘the Vietnamese’, Fire in the Lake is full of historical inaccuracies, typos, and a cyclical, mono-causal argumentative structure. Yet, why did American audiences laud (and continue to commend) this work as an insightful and provocative? With its timely publication during the widespread recognition of ‘American defeat’, Fire in the Lake could have reaffirmed that the Vietnam War was in fact, unwinnable. Additionally, the investigative journalism style of Fire in the Lake exhibits a formulaic structure of popular, award winning non-fiction that include the appeal of clear answers with an allure of depth.

 

 

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