BOOK REVIEW: Christina Schwenkel’s The American War in Contemporary Vietnam

Schwenkel, Christina. The American War in Contemporary Vietnam: Transnational Remembrance and Representation. Tracking Globalization. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009.

What does the memory of the American War look like in Vietnam? In her important work The American War in Contemporary Vietnam: Transnational Remembrance and Representation, Christina Schwenkel examines the interconnected processes of popular remembrance, state commemoration, history writing, and personal reconciliation in contemporary Vietnam. Schwenkel’s theoretical discussion about memory of war provides a useful framework to understand the weight of experience, representation, rumor, and the imagination from our previous week’s discussion on massacres, PTSD, memoirs, re-enactment experiences, and author’s Vietnam War politics. However, the depth of Schwenkel’s analysis is weak and her analytical framework of transnational forces such as economic development, tourism markets, and artistic trends often pulls the discussion away from a Vietnam and Vietnamese perspectives into the realm of global and American-driven forces.

Nevertheless, certain parts of Schwenkel’s analysis is useful to think through and compare state practices of memory and history. As the first work of anthropology we have read in this class, American War in Contemporary Vietnam engages deeply with theories on history and memory writing. She draws from the work of Klein, Halbwachs, Ricoeur, Nora, and Trouillot on history writing to draw striking parallels with the processes of memory making. Additionally, Schwenkel engages with concepts of the materiality of memory in her examination of museums, exhibitions, and monuments. Responding to Pierre Nora’s binary between affective practices of memory and objective state pursuit and production of history, Schwenkel instead chooses to blur the boundaries between the individual, private, public, popular, official, national, local and global. This blurring of boundaries allows for the productive examination of ‘historical memory’ as a process of “transnational truth making and knowledge practices” that can transcend the disciplines of history and memory studies and reflect their co-constitutive relationship. (12) Additionally this approach allows for the examination of memory beyond the binaries of state and individual and allows for the critical analysis of Vietnamese contemporary practices beyond a simplistic dismissal of socialist state produced propaganda.

As a multi-sited ethnography, Schwenkel’s approach to thinking about commemorative practices is broad rather than deep and the overall reception of the book feels piecemeal and at times superficial. Even in anecdotal descriptions, she is brief and fleeting; small instances serve to reinforce large sweeping claims regarding essential differences between Vietnamese and US cultural practices of war photography, moral atonement, healing, martyrdom, and guilt. It is striking that even with so many translated quotations from Vietnamese, Schwenkel’s quick analytical approach leaves Vietnamese voices somehow truncated and distorted. Part of this is a stylistic interruption of a hyper analytical anthropologist. These fragmented ruminations are not suitable to demonstrate and speak to deeply complex and highly opinionated views around Vietnamese externally defined identity, perceptions of post-war youth, or relationships with their dead. Additionally Vietnamese quotations regarding character, values, and ideals are scattered throughout the text without clear connection to the existing argument (see for example on page 91 how Schwenkel drops the quotation from a Hanoi intellectual on Vietnamese perseverance in the middle of discussions on embodied war experiences at Cu Chi tunnels). As a result Vietnamese respondents in this text appear superficial themselves in their thinking, simply as a reflection of official state doctrine (and also as ornamental evidence to support Schwenkel’s previously formed ideas). At the same time, some of these comments do in fact reveal the simple ways in which most Americans and Vietnamese understand and explain the inexplicable dimensions of their culture and history (see for example, note 20 that mentions how Vietnamese respondents explained Vietnamese politics of forgiveness based on doctrine, or tributary payment, offering of Vietnamese princesses). The few cases in which Vietnamese actors contest official memorial discourse is not deeply explored, such as in her examination of ARVN tour guides retelling of their marginalized positionality.

However, Schwenkel’s broad approach lays the foundation to think about the multifaceted ways in which the individual, state, and community have processed, produced, and capitalized on certain facets of war memory. Although Schwenkel’s comparative approach to understanding Vietnamese and American culture at times slips into cultural essentialism, comparisons can be productive to think through Vietnamese and American interactions during and after the war. For example, Schwenkel’s second chapter on photographic practices during the war reveal immensely different models of state control and use of the press, journalistic roles, aesthetic practices of objective and socialist realism, and gendered relationships between photographers and their subject—important political and cultural factors that should be considered when examining the enormous collections of war photography. Comparisons between Vietnamese and foreign tourism to war memorial sites in Ben Duoc reveal the differing symbolic and leisurely purposes a war site serves. For example, this location offers both a commodified, palatable, embodied, and exotic war experience for foreigners in the Cu Chi tunnels and also a touristic retreat for Vietnamese youth who make use of state-subsidized tours to the memorial temple. Additionally, Schwenkel’s scattered discussions around gendered power relationships point to the pervasive discourse of war and postwar paternalism, masculinity, economic development, and moral responsibility. Although as a single monograph American War contains a problematic argumentative structure, Schwenkel’s expansive and diverse questions poses important questions for further inquiry into the writing and remembering of the war.


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