In Hanoi, three of us went to the National Museum of Fine Arts. My academic training kicked in, so I moved quickly – to get an overview of the history of art in Vietnam, to see how the styles changed. At the point the French began teaching Vietnamese artists a studio style my art historical brain began ticking off the stylistic succession – Impressionism, Cubism, even a Vietnamese take on Picasso’s Guernica. In spite of my uncharacteristic tunnel vision, though, I noticed that the styles might have been derivative (my first, analytical, word) but the subjects were Vietnamese and the styles served the nation. There were expressionistic fighters (including women) crawling forward, holding weapons. What in Western traditions would have been bucolic landscapes depicting a pastoral life were almost manifestos – images of the land, the villages, the rice paddies, that the fighters were defending.
Mike, unburdened by that particular kind of academic baggage, saw deeper. He saw the Vietnamese using these styles to tell their own story. What he saw were not so much the subjects as the authority. He saw the story of this country and its struggles to claim, reclaim, and defend their nation from their point of view.
As soon as I got back in my office, and without consciously deciding to do so, I began rearranging my books. When I began this work on our war in Vietnam, I did what I have always thought was the best thing to do – I assembled a library. I began reading books I had heard about but never read – classics like David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest, Neil Sheehan’s A Bright an Shining Lie, Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam: A History. (“Began reading” is what I did. I didn’t finish any of them.) These books are big. They take up a lot of room on the shelf. They look authoritative and are generally treated that way. Ultimately, though, I have found them all unsatisfying. I read Graham Greene’s The Quiet American and Michael Herr’s Dispatches – much slimmer volumes, easily overlooked on the shelf, but in my mind more telling, more challenging. But I lost patience even with these and began to read the women – Frances Fitzgerald, Beverly Deepe, Joyce Hoffmann’s On Their Own. These women flung themselves into a man’s world as journalists, often with no experience and no credentials and no money, so they could see for themselves. What they saw and how they saw it was different from what the men saw. Their view was at the same time broader and more particular. They saw the effect.
Still, and this is hard to shake because we are stubbornly egocentric here in the United States, it was all about us. So in my office I moved the tomes to the bottom shelves, put the women above them, and, above that, the books by Vietnamese – Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War, Dang Thuy Tram’s Last Night I Dreamed of Peace, Quan Barry’s She Weeps Each Time You’re Born. The long, deep process of reconciliation sometimes looks like this – just move our voices of authority down a peg and see what happens next. I will watch, to see how these voices weave together in a different way if someone else takes the lead. It will be terrifying. At first.
Nguyen Van Cuong, A Glimpse of Memory, woodcut, 1997. Fine Arts Museum, Hanoi, Vietnam