History Makes Literature


Works Discussed

Man on a String
, Michael Wolfe, Houghton Mifflin, 1973
The Alleys of Eden, Robert Olen Butler, Henry Holt 1981
The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Grove Atlantic, 2015

Thirty-five years after a haphazard evacuation from Saigon, In August, 2010, the United States declared the Iraq war over and moved its troops south to a friendlier Kuwait, still grateful for its rescue from Saddam years earlier. Vietnam, if not an ally, was now a friend. The war called the "American War" in Vietnam was but a distant memory. The United States had lost battles, but until Vietnam it had never lost a war. 

It is said that only generals can make peace. Nixon's path to an "honorable" peace detoured past the Watergate. After the Paris Peace Accords were signed in January, June 1973 was the last month anyone was drafted. The war was now in the hands of the ARVN, the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam. Between the North Vietnamese Army and Saigon were Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger and their willingness to use B-52's. Then Nixon was out and Gerald Ford his timid replacement who asked Congress for authority to backstop the ARVN. Congress said no. 

In case of an evacuation, Bing Cosby's "White Christmas" would be played over and over on the Armed Forces Radio and Television Network. In April, the ARVN crumbled, the NVA headed to Saigon and after nearly twenty years Bing sang. 

History makes literature. Published in 1973, Michael Wolfe's Man on a String sets his story in the interregnum between the U.S. drawdown and the full pull-out in 1975. He tells the story of Michael Keefe, a military cameraman from the Midwest who decided to stay in Vietnam as a stringer for a news network. The network had fallen on hard times--no one wanted to hear about Vietnam anymore--and Keefe is forced to resort to black market dealings in order to stay alive. When these fail, he is made an offer by Colonel Xe, a Vietnamese officer who had once fought the French but now was allied himself with the South and more importantly, greed. Keefe's mission takes us through the terrain of a decaying war into a Papillon-like journey into hinterlands that, due to their isolation, have become a refuge from the war. But there is no refuge for Keefe--he must go back. Wolfe's writing brings the end of war to life. 

Robert Olen Butler's first, almost forgotten but Pulitzer Prize winning novel is about an American deserter who stayed in Vietnam after the collapse of the ARVN. The deserter speaks Vietnamese, has a Vietnamese girlfriend and lives on the economy, far from the paradise of the military commissary and PX. He somehow escapes, makes it to California and hooks up with an antiwar group who, in those days when driver's licenses bore no photographs, provide him with false papers. While the deserter is back in what the GI's called "the world" it is clear that Vietnam has never left him. Deserter or not, even for those who returned from Vietnam it was a one-way trip. 

Fast forward forty years. The children of the Vietnamese exile, educated in the United States, Australia and elsewhere, speak and write English perfectly. Mindful that concentrating refugees in one area creates political instability, as had happened in Florida, the U.S. had resettled Southeast Asian refugees throughout the United States. Cambodians are assigned to Minnesota and Chicago. 

The U.S. military recovers its honor in the operation against Grenada; a small war put together to make sure that our soldiers still had the mettle shown by both sides during the Battle of Gettysburg. The Grenada success led to the invasion of Panama, an action that violated our Treaty of Neutrality with that country but so what? George Bush 43 needed a war. Even though we invaded Panama we were already there: the 193rd Infantry Brigade was stationed at Ft. Clayton, across from the Miraflores locks, the first set of locks on the Pacific side of the Panama Canal. 

After those two "wins" Vietnam was increasingly seen as an aberration. Not every team can be the 1972 Miami Dolphins. Every now and then you take a loss; hell, even the Russian hockey pro's lost to a U.S. collegiate pick-up hockey team. We were back on. 

Gulf War I came in 1990. Paying close attention to Deng Xiao Ping's opening to capitalism with a Chinese face and the benefits it brought the northern People's Republic, the Vietnamese government turned slowly towards freer markets.

America has once again become a warlike place. Peter Jennings worshipped at the feet of the war god Mars with a paen to the launch of an armed cruise missle towards a country that was one of the few that accepted refugees from our war in Iraq, echoing Maykovsky's "a racing motorcar is more beautiful than the Winged Victory." Of Thrace, that is. 

Wolfe writes that "whenever a convoy stopped the earth opened up and fruit vendors and others selling goods appeared." Wolfe presciently noted also that in the Vietnamese highlands, all sorts of produce grows. Wolfe was not the only one. The Vietnamese planted coffee and if they could not beat Colombia on quality they could on price.

Soon businessmen of all sorts were traipsing back and forth to the renamed Ho Chi Minh City, led in the main by the sons and daughters of those who fled in 1975 but who preserved their five tone language. Business travel became so common that the front-page of the Wall Street Journal noted the disquiet of Vietnamese-American wives who did not accompany their husbands on these business trips. 

There is an American experience of the Vietnam war, and there is a shared Vietnamese-American experience of the postwar period in America. The Vietnamese struggled, as do all immigrants, with the language, with becoming successful, with earning a living without the contacts that smoothed day to day life in the homes they could not return to. 

There has been no great novel of the Cuban diaspora. I am not sure why this is the case. There are certainly many talented writers, in English and Spanish, who could have produced such a work. Unlike the Vietnam diaspora, the Cuban diaspora never lost hope that next year there would be a return to Havana.

There may be potholes in the streets of Miami, but who cares? The future lies in Havana, in Camaguey, in Cardenas, in Santiago, in the municipios that Florida lawmakers strangely kept alive. There was euphoria when Fidel died, as if the community knew collectively that "ya viene llegando" and that return was just around the corner. 

The Vietnamese refugees of 1975 knew that there would be no return. Though they could not take a minor southern city like Miami in the 1950's, they started coalescing in neighborhoods in places like Los Angeles; their neighborhood came to be known as Little Saigon. There are more than a million and a half people of Vietnamese descent living in the United States.

Forty years after the fall of Saigon, the Pulitzer Prize winning The Sympathizer, was published. The novel is really three books, not one. New York publishing's prejudice against the novella shines through. Let's be generous and call the book a triptych.

In the first panel, the war is ending and a Vietnamese general much like Wolfe's Colonel Xe gets out and decides to settle scores in Los Angeles. The war is over, Americans don't want to hear about any of it, but the general held the power of life and death over his men and dreams of leading an army back to liberate Vietnam.

The second panel is about the making of a Hollywood film (think:
Apocalypse Now) about the war and stands independently, as does the third panel which documents a man's effort to go back to Viet Nam on a rescue mission only to be captured and imprisoned by the VC who were never the VC at all, but who are now the country's masters. 

The first panel of the triptych is the most interesting, for except in a few rare instances, such as the discrimination against Vietnamese-refugee fishermen in such places as Texas and Alabama, the stories of the postwar Vietnamese have been decidedly under the American radar. The Sympathizer resurrects the memories of the escape of Saigon and those early years building lives in a new country.

Not to read Wolfe, Butler and Nguyen is to forget that time when war brought nothing but shame. 

It is a lesson forgotten today. Don't overlook these books. 

A few notes: (1) the mention of the 193 Inf.Bde. at Ft. Clayton is called, "going off on a tangent." According to the Treaty of Neutrality Concerning the Panama Canal, the United States pledged not to interfere in Panama's internal affairs. If a full scale invasion designed to remove that country's leader doesn't constitute interference, then what does? (2) Vietnamese as spoken in the north has six tones; the southern variety has five. Since reunification, linguists have noted a certain amount of blending. Vietnamese spoken in the United States for the most part retains five tones. The paragraph concerning the lack of similar work from the Cuban diaspora doesn't really fit in, but in this case I decided not to take Warhol's advice and let this "darling" live.