Tag Archive: vietnam

THE SYMPATHIZER by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Corsair, 2015)

51gf6tbbznl-_sx316_bo1204203200_Vietnam was a war that was technically won by the Viet Cong but which American are reluctant to concede to having lost. The unnamed Vietnamese Army Captain narrating this tale has sympathies with both sides but this only serves to place him between a rock and a hard place.

As a reluctant revolutionary he pleads guilty to the charge of being westernized, admitting: “If longing for riches made me a Occidentalist, I confess to it”. As a uncomitted communist he sees no attraction in the authentic “rustic realities” of village life in Saigon.

While not being blind to the faults of the US, he recognizes that there is more freedom of speech than in his homeland. This, together with air conditioning, an efficient traffic system and the modernist novel are among the other things that he admires. On the down side, he reviles the American knack for putting a positive spin on defeat and for hyping up the benefits of individualism. Continue reading


IN THE LAKE OF THE WOODS by Tim O’Brien (First published 1995)

itlw3Twenty years on from his debut non-fiction work – If I Die In A Combat Zone – this novel by Tim O’Brien shows that the author is still burdened by the memories of his year spent in Vietnam.

The tale begins as a study of a marriage in which whatever glow there once was has long since faded.

We meet democratic politician John Wade and his wife who are holed up in a remote cabin, escaping the public humiliation of a heavy electoral defeat.

His previously high standing with the voters has nosedived after his involvement in the atrocities at Mai Lai is exposed. Kathy never seems entirely sympathetic to his plight.

Prior to his downfall she had had a brief fling with her dentist and her sudden disappearance doesn’t initially cause him great concern.

Eventually he wakes up to the idea that something bad may have happened to her. In a series of hypotheses, possible scenarios are laid out but early on O’Brien warns the reader that we will never be told what really became of her.

The ‘evidence’ chapters mix real quotes with fictional ones but these increasingly strike you as a contrived series of red herrings. It’s as if O’Brien started out with the notion of writing a mystery story then got bored with the idea.

This is a shaggy dog story, albeit one with adult themes. As such,  the author effectively removes most reasons to keep on reading.

On top of this, we quickly get to realize that the man Kathy left behind was a jerk before his wartime traumas and is an even bigger jerk after.

A story like this demands that you should feel a degree of sympathy for one or other of this ill-fated couple but redeeming factors in both are in short supply. There are half-baked hints that she may have been murdered but knowing that you will never know doesn’t exactly make this into much of a page turner.

The would-be drama is offset by prolonged flashbacks to the horrors of war that don’t properly belong here.

Tim O’Brien writes succinctly but the plot goes off at too many tangents and leaves all the interesting questions dangling.

IF I DIE IN A COMBAT ZONE by Tim O’Brien (First published 1973)

Nowadays, few are prepared to defend America’s invasion of Vietnam in the 1960s but, at the time, anyone who opposed the draft were seen at best as naive beatniks, at worst as traitors.

In times of conflict, propaganda machines of the state and media go into overdrive. Dissenting voices are ridiculed or silenced. Lip service is paid to alternative perspectives but killing continues to be routinely sanctioned in the bogus name of patriotism and justice.

Tim O’Brien’s first book was written, or begun, while serving in the combat zone of Vietnam then completed at graduate school when the war was over. The short sentences and plain language are reminiscent of Hemingway but this is no celebration of machismo.

On the contrary, O’Brien’s first instinct was to escape to Canada or Sweden. He ended up signing up; not because he believed in the cause but out of “a fear of society’s censure…..fear of weakness, afraid that to avoid war is to avoid manhood”. Continue reading

THE ACT OF KILLING co-directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn and an anonymous third person (Indonesia, 2012)

"War crimes are defined by the winners" - Adi Zulkadry (Indonesian death squad leader)

akillingA conventional documentary about the Indonesian death squads of 1965-6 would probably have used archive news footage to show the genocide and gone on to explain its impact on the families of survivors. I doubt that such an approach would have had the same impact and shock value as The Act of Killing.

For Joshua Oppenheimer and crew (many working anonymously) adopted an altogether riskier, and more controversial approach whereby the perspective is switched from the victims to perpetrators.

It affords the murderers the luxury of reenacting in cinematic terms the murderous roles they played. These self-proclaimed ‘gangsters’ and warped freedom fighters were inspired by American movies so were more than happy to turn their real life horror show into a film.

Not surprisingly, giving a voice to such monsters has been attacked in some quarters. The Christian Science Monitor and critic Nick Fraser condemn the way these cold-blooded killers can glory in their bloody actions as though they were something to be proud of.

Killers acting as victims -  Adi Zulkardy and Anwar Congo

Killers acting as victims – Adi Zulkardy and Anwar Congo

However ,the majority of critics rightly recognise the film’s achievement. The documentary may have missed out on Oscars glory but it won the BAFTA and The Guardian named it as the best film of 2013 in all categories.

Mark Kermode, writing in The Observer, described the bizarre blend of musical, western and crime genres as being “insanely surreal and distressingly domestic”.

I confess that the purpose of the dancing-girls gyrating in front of large scale model of a fish was lost on me but the other sequences are terrifyingly unambiguous. The dismembering of a teddy bear to symbolise the slaughter of a baby in front of its mother illustrates how the killers’ barbarity knew no bounds. Continue reading



The Vietnam Veterans Against the War organized this event called the Winter Soldier Investigation. More than 125 veterans spoke of atrocities they had witnessed and committed and this resulted in the film ‘Winter Soldier’.

This only now getting a DVD release so that people can hear their testimony.

This is history which is repeated by the war in Iraq. Now at least the Internet allows this voices to be heard while the horrors are taking place, although there is still the unfortunate sense that they are preaching to the converted.

For the truth about the war in Iraq go to : IVAW – Iraq Veterans Against The War

I picked one video at random at random. There are many more. The one I watched was by Jon Turner who went to Iraq with “fuck you” in Arabic tattooed on his wrist. Turner ends his testimony with the words: “I just want to say that I’m sorry for the hate and destruction that I’ve inflicted on innocent people?? Turner says. I am no longer the monster that I once was.”

Would that he were part of the majority.

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