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 What people are saying about Haunting Legacy

"What a terrific book!"

Lesley Stahl, correspondent for 60 Minutes


"This is great narrative history and biography combined to create informative case studies."

Walter Isaacson, president and CEO of the Aspen Institute


"Marvin Kalb and Deborah Kalb’s account of this phenomenon is studiously researched, vividly narrated, and, above all, highly readable. It will stand as a major contribution to the subject."

Stanley Karnow, author of Vietnam: A History and winner of the Pulitzer Prize

 

To read more reviews of Haunting Legacy, click here.

Saturday
Dec102016

Q&A with Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch

Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch is the author of the new children's picture book Adrift At Sea: A Vietnamese Boy's Story of Survival, written with Tuan Ho. Her many other books include Dance of the Banished and Last Airlift. She lives in Brantford, Ontario, Canada.

Q: How did you end up working with Tuan Ho on his story, and why did you decide to do a picture book?

A: I’ve been writing about Vietnamese boat people since the late 1980s—I was a freelance writer, and was in university when the boat people arrived in Canada and the United States, and I always wanted to write a story [about them].

I wrote two books—one was about Vietnamese orphans in the Canadian version of Operation Babylift, and I’ve written a number of stories about boat people who were children…the stories were too horrific for a child audience.

My publisher knew I was wanting to write a story from a child’s point of view. She met Tuan and realized what a good story he had, and she introduced me to him.

It was great—she was right. The problem is, a lot of stories people have are true but they’re too grim for children. When you’re doing a true story, you have to choose wisely when you’re doing it for children.

Parents may also [learn from the book]—you reach so many more people. I like to make people feel they’re the one –[in the story] with the main character; that develops empathy.

I wrote the first draft within 10 days of our first interview.

Q: So why a picture book?

A: He was 6 years old at the time [of the events in the book]. I tried to stay as close to his own voice—if it wasn’t a picture book, there would have to be more explanation. The visuals give a lot of explanation.

I’m just back from Europe--I did 24 sessions over five days. [The kids] were captivated and understood—because it’s a picture book they can understand [the characters] coming home from school and being confronted with their mother’s packing up [and saying they need to leave their home].

Q: How did the two of you work together to create the book?

A: I interviewed him one time and then wrote the first draft. We kept swapping back and forth—I sent drafts, he would correct them…I wanted it from his point of view…but other family members could correct him. He did an interview with his mother and wrote it all out for me.

He didn’t do any writing [in the book’s text], but it is his voice. I’m pleased the publisher allowed me to have his name on the cover.

Q: What do you see as the right age group for this book?

A: I’ve just started presenting it to schools. Even kids in Grade 2 are good with it. There’s one scene of people drowning, but because of the nature of the story, a simple narrative from a child’s point of view, even kids that young can understand.

One of the things the kids in Bucharest all wanted to know is what happened to Van [Tuan Ho’s younger sister, who was left behind in Vietnam but later joined the rest of the family in Canada].

I emailed her and asked, Can you send a picture of yourself with your family, so they can see you’re OK? You see the family at the end [of the book in photographs] but you still want to know.

Q: You’ve written about the impact of war in many of your books. What draws you to this subject?

A: I think kids today have it tougher than kids when we were young. I’m in my 60s. It wasn’t easy for me either. When kids read stories during difficult times, it gives them tools to deal with everyday life and put things in context.

If they realize what their parents and grandparents were going through, it doesn’t normalize it, but it gives a context to the suffering. Reading about an event…you would rather have a child learn about war by reading about it than experiencing it.

I could write a story about Tuan who wasn’t a boat person, but it wouldn’t give me the opportunity to find out what he’s made of. Having children plunged into a war and having to resolve their own problems—I find that fascinating. Kids are resilient. Children are the biggest victims of war.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I just finished a World War II novel, Don’t Tell the Commandant. It’s probably coming out in 2018 in Canada. My World War II novels get picked up internationally.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: One thing—I’m thrilled that I was able to work with [illustrator] Brian Deines. He was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Awards. His work is breathtaking—it transcends the photographic. I love the fact that pre-reading children can go through the book and get the story because the images are so real.

Brian did his own research as well. The people in the book look like Tuan’s family. A lot of people don’t realize that when a picture book is created, the author and the illustrator don’t collaborate. I was so excited [that he was doing the illustrations]. I didn’t get to see them until [soon] before the book came out.

It was not an easy book to do—in the boat, there were 60 people, and a massive amount of work went into [depicting them]. My story is 1,000 words—it was hard to get down to that. That’s why it’s a 40-page picture book; most are 32.

Some people might say there should have been more, but I wanted to have that one arc. You can read about when happened to one million people and you won’t remember it, but you can read about Tuan [and you will].

It’s mindboggling to me that there has not been a picture book done on that topic ever before. I was so happy I got to do the story I’ve wanted to do since I started writing.

Right around now, last year, since the death of Aylan Kurdi, the little Syrian boy—people [earlier] were not interested in refugee stories. I’ve had books out for 20 years, and only two are not about refugees. I’m glad the readership has caught up to that.

The U.S. and Canada are nations of immigrants. If you don’t have immigrants, you don’t have a nation.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This Q&A also appears on deborahkalbbooks.blogspot.com.

Thursday
Oct062016

Q&A with Professor Christopher Goscha

Christopher Goscha is the author of the new book Vietnam: A New History. His other work includes Vietnam: Un etat ne de la guerre and Thailand and the Southeast Asian Networks of the Vietnamese Revolution. He is an associate professor of history at the Université du Québec à Montréal.

Q: You write that "the United States was hardly the first 'great power' to send their warships into the waters off Vietnam's coastline." How do you see the U.S./Vietnam War fitting into Vietnamese history overall?

A: Because of its overland connections to Southeast Asia and its maritime opening to the Pacific and Indian Oceans, Vietnam has always tempted bigger powers to intervene.

The Chinese empire ruled northern Vietnam for almost a thousand years beginning around the first century BCE. As the Chinese empire’s southern most province, Vietnam served as a gateway for China’s trade with Indian Ocean markets extending to India and the Middle East.

The Vietnamese secured their independence in 939, but briefly lost it again to the Chinese in the early 15th century as the Ming dynasty recolonized Vietnam as part of a wider expansion that sent Chinese armadas across the Indian Ocean as far as Africa and the Red Sea.

The Vietnamese regained their independence and then pushed their own empire southwards to benefit from trade with the Indian Ocean world.

Following the Chinese naval withdrawal in 1433, a new set of European imperial powers soon expanded into the region via the Pacific and Indian Oceans. These Western empires adopted increasingly aggressive policies towards Asia in the 19th century when the French colonized Vietnam and the British confiscated Singapore, Burma, and Malaya.

Meanwhile, the Americans crossed the Pacific Ocean to take the Philippines from the Spanish while the Japanese focused their colonial attention on Korea and Taiwan. The Americans were part of a larger Euro-American and Japanese colonial assault on Asia.

The French were aware of the strategic importance of their Vietnamese colony in this wider imperial competition. In the early 20th century, they finished building the deep-water port of Cam Ranh Bay, located off the southeastern coast of Vietnam.

Russian warships dispatched from the Baltic to stop Japanese colonial expansion into China and Korea gathered there before being defeated by the Japanese in 1905.

Following the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt closely followed Japanese movements down the Chinese coastline and imposed an embargo on Tokyo as Japanese imperial troops started occupying Vietnam in 1940.

His fears of a wider Japanese thrust into the Indian Ocean via Vietnam were well founded. In early 1942, having attacked Pearl Harbor and occupied all of Vietnam, the Japanese then concentrated their ships in Cam Ranh Bay before attacking Southeast Asia and striking as far as the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

Created in 1942, the American 7th Fleet helped roll back the Japanese empire during World War II and remained to protect America’s postwar control of the Pacific and Indian Oceans to this day.

Following the Chinese communist victory in 1949, American presidents of all political colors (Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson) were convinced that if Vietnam fell to the communists, it would allow the Soviets and the Chinese to march across the region much as the Japanese had done before them.

Despite their disdain for French colonial rule, from 1950 (as the Korean War got underway just to the north), the Americans increased support of the French in Vietnam in a bid to contain the spread of communism. The 7th Fleet first called on Vietnam in 1950 to reassure the French of American backing.

When the French withdrew from their war with Ho Chi Minh and agreed to divide Vietnam, like Korea, into a communist north led by Ho and a non-communist South, the Americans accepted but switched their support to an anticommunist Vietnamese leader for the South named Ngo Dinh Diem.

As long as this man did not undermine America’s wider strategic goal of containing Eurasian communism, things could continue as they had with the French.

But they didn’t and when Diem’s draconian policies in the countryside (land reform, strategic hamlets, repression) seemed to play into the communist hands the Americans supported his overthrow in 1963.

However, when stability still remained elusive, Johnson decided to intervene directly in 1965 by sending ground troops while the US navy stationed the bulk of its forces in Cam Ranh Bay.

Ironically, the American withdrawal from the country in April 1975 in no way diminished its geopolitical importance to a new set of ‘great powers’ competing with each for influence in the communist world – the Soviets and the Chinese.

Having broken ideologically and violently with the Soviets by the late 1960s, the Chinese worried that their communist brethren in Hanoi would join the Soviets to help encircle them from the south (the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan in 1979).

The Chinese threw their weight behind the genocidal Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, whose leaders were virulently opposed to the Vietnamese, communist or not.

The Vietnamese turned to the Soviets, signed a security alliance in 1978, including the lease of Cam Ranh Bay to the Soviets, before overthrowing the Khmer Rouge later that year.

China’s leader, Deng Xiaoping, travelled to the United States to win over American support of a project to teach Vietnam a lesson. In early 1979, the Chinese sent troops into Vietnam in what was the first war among communists in world history.

Thanks to their access to Cam Ranh Bay, the Soviets projected their naval power deep into South East Asia for the first time ever.

The crumbling of the Soviet empire and its European satellites by 1991 profoundly changed the geopolitical calculus but not the strategic importance of Vietnam.

With the Soviets gone, the Chinese have for the first time since recalling their armadas in 1433 begun reasserting their influence into the Indian Ocean, taking, claiming, and even building islands as they dispatch their vessels across the seas.

Given that the war among Asian communists in the late 1970s put to rest any form of international communist bloc, Vietnamese communists have now entered negotiations with the Americans, Japanese, Europeans and anyone else who can help them deal with the resurgence of Chinese power.

The Americans agree. And this is why President Obama, like Presidents Clinton and Bush before him, travelled to Vietnam earlier this year. The Americans still ‘need’ Vietnam and the Vietnamese need them.

Vietnam is right in the middle of that zone where American control of the Indian Ocean dating from WWII bumps up against the Eurasian continent and a Chinese empire increasingly willing to challenge the American monopoly of the Asian waters.

Little wonder talks have already begun allowing American and Russian vessels to use the naval facilities of Cam Ranh Bay …

Q: In the book, you write that "there has never been one Vietnam but several remarkably varied ones." What were some of the different permutations over the centuries?

A: Like the United States, the Vietnam that we see on the map today did not begin that way. Like the United States, Vietnam is a product of its own colonial expansion.

If Euro-American colonizers went westwards from the 13 colonies and conquered lands extending to California, the Vietnamese went south, leaving the Red River to conquer the Cham in central Vietnam, the Khmers in the south, and a host of non-Vietnamese peoples in the surrounding highlands. Vietnam is as much a colonial creation as so many other nations in world history.

Like the United States, this colonial expansion also triggered civil wars and the creation of contesting Vietnamese states. Two Vietnams emerged following the Chinese withdrawal in the 15th century, one in the north ruled by the Trinh military family, the other expanding southwards under the leadership of the Nguyen lords.

By the 18th century, this southern family ruled a separate state. Civil war intensified from the 1770s when the Tay Son brothers marched out of the highlands and rode a wave of famine-driven hunger to power in the 1790s. It only lasted a few years before the Nguyen marched from the Mekong delta in the south to the defeat them in 1802.

This is why the S-like Vietnam that we see on the map today only dates from 1802, a product of Vietnamese colonial expansion and civil wars. Indeed, in the 1830s, the Vietnamese expanded their empire to include all of Cambodia and parts of Laos.

They returned to the S-like Vietnam in the 1840s, but the French would build their own Indochinese colonial state on the remnants of the pre-existing Vietnamese one.

This is why I write that there has never been one Vietnam but several remarkably varied ones. The Vietnamese, like the Americans, are colonizers too. Unity is certainly a part of Vietnamese history. But civil war is as much a part of Vietnamese history as it is of so many other countries in world history. 

Q: How would you describe the relationship between Vietnam and China?

A: I would refer back to my point 1. But I would add that Vietnam, like Korea and even Japan to some extent, is in a unique position in that it has been a part of and has always had to deal with this massive world empire the Chinese built since Han times in the third century BCE.

Like the Franks and Germans dealing with the Roman Empire at the same time on the other side of Eurasia, the Vietnamese borrowed all sorts of things from the Chinese – Confucian statecraft, Mahayana Buddhism, a character-based writing system, architecture, chopsticks and the like.

The difference, however, is that the Roman Empire crumbled in the 5th century CE whereas its Chinese counterpart is still with us. The Chinese empire was always able to reconstitute and even grow itself.

The Vietnamese (again like the Koreans) thus found themselves borrowing from the Chinese to build their own countries and cultures on the periphery of the Chinese empire while always having to make sure that the Chinese didn’t return to return them to that same imperial order.

This meant that the Vietnamese have always had to convince themselves that they were not Chinese despite their reliance on Chinese models and attempts to present themselves as the messengers of a superior Chinese-based civilization. It was a unique and difficult balancing act.

The French and the Germans, for example, never had to worry about the Romans coming back to crush them or to heap ridicule on their borrowings of Roman statecraft, myths, language, or claims to be the new Caesars in post-Roman Europe (Tsars, Czar, Kaiser).

Ironically, Vietnamese communists find themselves in a similar situation today. They have heavily borrowed Chinese communist models and methods including ones for tailoring capitalist economics to preserving communist rule.

But they do this despite the fact that the Chinese communists are now intent on pushing their empire far beyond its continental limits. This historical relationship with China is such that the Vietnamese continue to find themselves relying on Chinese models while opposing the Chinese empire at the same time.

Q: What do you see looking ahead for Vietnam?

A: At the international level, the Vietnamese government will do all it can to contain Chinese naval expansion into the Indian Ocean all the while being careful not to lean too far to any ‘great power’ side.

At the internal level, Vietnamese communists will follow the Chinese lead by trying to curb calls for greater political pluralism that could spin out of control and challenge the communist party’s right to run the country as a single-party state.

Again, as in the past, it’s a fine line to walk.  

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m trying to write a social history of Saigon during the French and American wars between 1945 and 1975.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I thank you sincerely for your interest in the book and Vietnamese history. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This Q&A also appears on deborahkalbbooks.blogspot.com.

 

Wednesday
Aug032016

Q&A with author Howard Means

Howard Means is the author of the new book 67 Shots: Kent State and the End of American Innocence. His other books include Johnny Appleseed and Money and Power. He is a former senior editor of Washingtonian magazine, and he lives in Virginia.

Q: Why did you decide to write about the Kent State shootings, and how did you research the book?

A: It’s just something that stuck with me for a long time. I was a high school teacher in May 1970 at St. Albans in Washington, I was two or three years older and the students were [a little younger] than the people involved. The event ripped me apart when it happened...

I was trying to find a subject that allowed me to write about the ‘60s. This happened in 1970, but seemed to be the concluding act of the ‘60s.

I found an amazing cache of oral histories in the university archives. I thought, this is a way to tell the story holistically. I found the story…hadn’t been told at book length in a long time. The documentary work on it was through the same set of four, five, or six eyes.

In a way, I wanted to rescue it and write a book [without a single point of view]. I started with Vietnam, honoring the memory of the people who died in the other war.

Q: What do you think are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about the Kent State shootings?

A: There’s a woman quoted in the book—she said she was leading kids on a tour in 1990 and telling them what happened. One kid said, I thought kids were partying and were shot.

One [other] misperception is that the students were rioting and out of control. They weren’t. A few were behaving badly, but they weren’t rioting and out of control.

I went to the 45th commemoration of the shootings. A lot of people were convinced it was a conspiracy, that Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover were behind it. It carries all that weight of the ‘60s.

When you break it down, you can look at it as a Harvard Business School case study, there was horrible mismanagement on all fronts, absentee stakeholders, stakeholders without elasticity in their positions.

People forget how tied up it was in [Ohio governor] Jim Rhodes’s political ambitions. Rhodes was one of those people who was a baleful figure from the late ‘60s. On one level it was about his political ambitions. You can lay a lot at his feet.

The misperceptions are many. The biggest is that this was about the Vietnam war. It was not about Vietnam [on that day] but about the militarization on the Kent State campus.

That’s how the book has contemporary value—we militarize [a given situation, for example] in Ferguson, you bring in people like Jedi warriors behind shields with semiautomatics. It becomes about you vs. them, not about the person who was shot…

Even I had forgotten that [it was about militarization]. That emerges so powerfully in the oral histories, what it was like living with helicopters circling overhead. Everybody was on edge. You can’t separate it from the hideous decade that preceded it.

Another thing that surprised me was the reaction afterwards, how cruel it was. I had forgotten that, how ugly it was when you had long hair…

Q: Yes, you mentioned the militarization--I was going to ask you about the contemporary issues and the legacy of the shootings. Could you say more about that?

A: I think there are a lot of lessons still to be learned. Disproportionate firepower does not always ensure the safety of anyone. At Kent State, the guardsmen were equipped with battle rifles to do crowd control.

The police need protection, but they are doing crowd control with weapons developed for door-to-door combat in Kabul. It changes the reality in front of them, and creates a new reality. I don’t think we’ve learned that lesson at all.

We can say, at least the National Guard was never sent on campus carrying live ammunition to do crowd control [again]. I guess there’s something to be said there.

The last thing we saw was the World Trade Organization and IMF protests. In contrast to Kent State, we see an absence of involvement, and I don’t think that’s good. It’s partly a legacy of the volunteer army.

I thought [at first] it was a wonderful idea but now [do not]. There’s no stake on college campuses with what happens in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan. You don’t want Kent State repeated, but you want engagement with serious issues. That’s been a big change, and not a good change…

Another thing that horrified me when I was writing the book…the Urban Outfitter Kent State shirt came out, the blood-stained one. [The company] would say that’s the way the colors worked out.

It is so obscene. I said, I’ve got to do this book the right way. That’s the absence of memory…when things aren’t taught, and when commerce takes the lead in [teaching about] the past.

Q: Your subtitle is “Kent State and the end of American innocence.” Why do you think this is the case?

A: I don’t think it’s an exaggerated claim. Up until the Kent State shootings, there still was a sense that rebellious youth were in control.

Sixteen months before Kent State, I went to the counter-inaugural ball. A tent was set up on the Mall. You walked into the tent, and there was dope everywhere. [The tent] was surrounded by Park Police. The feeling was that you could do anything, the future was yours.

What Governor Jim Rhodes said when he went to Kent on Sunday [before the shootings] was, we are no longer gong to treat the symptoms, but eradicate the problem—it sent a message that the grownups were in charge.

[Afterwards] there were elements of the 82nd…[in the Old Executive Office Building in D.C. The area] was ringed by DC Transit buses. The circles had Jeeps with heavily armored people. The roofs of the Smithsonian were lined with sharpshooters…

I think that changed the equation, the psychology of the country. I don’t think we ever have gone back to that point since. You talk to people, they said, That’s it, I’m through with activism…

[In terms of writing the book,] I was looking for a break point in history. The other reason I did the book is that I always thought I’d written one perfect poem. I wrote a sonnet that night [about the events]…It was a deeply meaningful moment to me. I was glad to have the time to revisit it.

Q: Are you working on another book?

A: I’m trying to figure it out. There’s nothing specific at the moment. I’m trying to find another moment like this. I would like it to be within my own lifetime.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’ve done a lot of books. I’ve found this more emotionally powerful for me and the audience. I always seem to find someone who was there. I get emails from people telling me their own stories, and some rip me apart.

One is a guy who had been a guardsman on the other side of Taylor Hall. They had practice with the M-1s [soon after the events] and the major in charge said, Great shooting—if you had practice before last Monday, you could have gotten 40 of the sons of bitches.[The guardsman] was stunned, he said it was as if someone socked us in the stomach.

It just devastated me. People say, their parents say they should have shot them all. I can’t imagine that…

 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This Q&A also appears on deborahkalbbooks.blogspot.com.

Monday
Apr182016

Q&A with professor and novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen

Viet Thanh Nguyen, photo by BeBe JacobsViet Thanh Nguyen is the author of the new book Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War. He just won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Sympathizer. He also has written the book Race and Resistance, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Best New American Voices and TriQuarterly. He is associate professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California.

Q: In your new book Nothing Ever Dies, you write, “I was born in Vietnam but made in America.” How did you come up with the idea for this book, and what does its title signify for you?

A: I began writing this book in 2003, and it was meant to address how the United States has failed to remember the Vietnam War adequately. For all the thousands of books and films that the U.S. has produced about this war, there’s a strikingly limited amount that addresses how the Vietnamese of all sides experienced what the victorious Vietnamese called the American War.

As I delved deeper into researching and thinking about this war, however, the more it became clear to me that simply doing a comparative work about how both Americans and Vietnamese have remembered the war would not be enough. The war spilled over into Cambodia and Laos. The United States and Vietnam were both responsible for that, and neither one wants to remember that.

So the book kept expanding to take into account what happened to Cambodia and Laos, and the creation of Southeast Asian diasporas in the United States because of the enormous numbers of refugees that fled. That’s one reason why the book took 12 years to write.

The other reason is that I was writing short stories and a novel during that time. That experience transformed me as a writer, inasmuch as researching Nothing Ever Dies transformed me as a scholar.

I aimed to bring everything I knew about fiction writing—its use of emotion, passion, feeling, narrative, theme, and character—into Nothing Ever Dies. What I thought of initially as a rather limited academic study has now become a vast cultural history, aimed at the general reader as well as the scholarly one.

As for the title, it comes from Toni Morrison’s Beloved and her concept of rememory. A rememory never dies. Slavery is a rememory. War is a rememory. That nothing ever dies is terrifying, but it’s also potentially hopeful. Perhaps we are perpetually haunted if war never dies in our memory. But if nothing ever dies, we can also remember in order to work against a repetition of the past.

Q: You note that wars take on identities, with World War II as “the Good War” and Vietnam as “the bad war.” What would you say is the legacy of the Vietnam War today, both in the U.S. and in Vietnam?

A: For the United States, there are two basic lessons, the positive and the negative. The negative lesson is that the U.S. should never engage in this type of criminal war again, one that involved occupying another country and compromising morality. This is the motivation of the antiwar movement, and while it remains visible, its power seems to be fading.

The positive lesson is the opposite. Those who have absorbed this lesson believe the war was noble and just, but flawed in its execution. They blame the media, the government, the antiwar movement, and military policy for the failure, and have crafted various strategies to prevent that failure from happening again.

The belief here is that wars after this one can be conducted more successfully if we learn from this war’s failure. This is the lesson put forth by both generals and politicians, including every president of both parties since the end of the war.

It is the basis for the continual expansion of American power globally, the increase in American military bases all over the world, the ever greater expenditure of treasure on the military budget, the detachment of the American military from American society, and the increasing entrenchment of the military-industrial complex. All of these factors practically guarantee our engagement in perpetual war of both high and low intensity.

For Vietnam, the lesson is that the Communist Party must do whatever it can to control the memory of this war as a heroic, revolutionary effort that was worth the sacrifice of one million soldiers and two million civilians.

This war was fought to unify and liberate the country, and also to bring to the people both freedom and equality. But while the country is unified and independent, the people are neither equal nor free. Class inequality is great and growing, and while some few become rich, and while a middle-class is expanding, the majority of people struggle.

The irony of living in an unequal communist society is exacerbated by the fact that the country is a de facto crony capitalist economy, run by a corrupt Communist Party. Everyone knows this to be true, but no one is allowed to say so in public.

This corruption, inequality, and hypocrisy is a betrayal of those three million lives, and so the Communist Party continually repeats the idea that the war was worth all the blood because if it wasn’t, the basis of the Communist Party’s moral and political legitimacy would be completely eroded.

Q: The book delves into many areas, including memorials, films, and literature. How did you research it, and was there anything that particularly surprised you in the course of your research?

A: I read a lot of books and watched a lot of films. I also traveled to memorials, museums, battlefields, and cemeteries all over Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and to Seoul, South Korea, which is also included in this cultural history.

Most people aren’t even aware that America’s largest ally during the war was South Korea, which was paid well for the use of its 300,000 troops. These payments, plus the American contracts offered to South Korean chaebol like Hyundai and Daewoo, helped to boost South Korea from being a country poorer than South Vietnam in the 1960s to the global powerhouse it is today. Learning about this was a big surprise for me. 

The greatest surprise for me, however, had to do with my thinking on the question of memory and war. The book is not only about this particular war. It’s about how we remember and forget war in general.

I didn’t anticipate the book’s conclusion when I set out to write the book. My conclusion is that the basic dynamic of memory and forgetting when it comes to war is that most people want to remember their humanity and forget their inhumanity. Conversely, people want to forget the humanity of their enemies and others, and remember their inhumanity.

And this basic dynamic is one important reason why societies keep going to war. By forgetting the inhumanity that is latent in all of us, we fool ourselves into thinking that any war we fight will be a just one, and that if it isn’t, it is the fault of our enemies and others.

Q: Toward the end of the book, you write, “Too much remembering and too much forgetting are both fatal…” What would you say is the right amount of remembering and forgetting, especially regarding the Vietnam War?

A: Some people say that there can be too much remembering, and that if we do not forget, we will always be stuck in the past, unable to move on. My stance on this is that remembering and forgetting do not take place in isolation and cannot be discussed as if they are ideal processes that only happen in the mind, or for the individual.

Even arguing that memories are collective is not enough to get at how memory is something that takes place both inside and outside of the individual. Memories are not only individual and collective; they are also corporate and industrial.

Thus, the reason why we are often stuck in the past when it comes to difficult events like war, genocide, slavery, and the like, is that the legacies of these horrors remain embedded in our everyday lives. These terrible things are not simply injustices of the past; they become the injustices of the present by leading to continuing conditions of economic, social, and political inequality.

Part of how this mnemonic legacy manifests itself is that the very means of memory in the present are themselves unequal. Powerful groups that have benefitted from the terrors of the past control the means of memory in the present.

Those groups that have suffered in the past do not usually have equal access to these means of memory, because they are also excluded from economic privilege and the ownership of the means of production in general.

If there is no economic equality, then how can we expect mnemonic equality? In short, there are such things as industries of memory, including publishing, film-making, news media, punditry, scholarship, and political discourses, and they amplify the memories and the voices of the powerful.

In the United States, what this means is that the military-industrial complex is matched by an industry of memory that serves it. They share technology, ideology, culture, and history.

This is why after the actual Vietnam War a second war was waged in memory by the Hollywood cinema-industrial complex. The United States lost the war in fact but won the war in memory all over the world, outside of Vietnam. In short, this is the first war where the losers got to write the history.

Until there is equality in the memories of industry, which means equality in general, there will never be a proper balance of remembering and forgetting when it comes to war, trauma, conflict. All the arguments about people remembering too much or forgetting too much miss this basic point.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am revising a short story collection that I will deliver to my publisher at the end of the summer. I’ve also written 50 pages of the sequel to The Sympathizer. An excerpt will appear in a forthcoming issue of Ploughshares edited by Claire Messud and James Wood.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I really do believe that a work of cultural history like this, if written in the right way, can be read by anyone with an interest and an open mind. That was the challenge I set for myself, as a scholar who is also a novelist, and as a reader who has faith in the intelligence of readers.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This Q&A also appears on deborahkalbbooks.blogspot.com. For a previous Q&A with Viet Thanh Nguyen, please click here

Wednesday
Mar232016

Q&A with journalist Michael Putzel

Michael Putzel is the author of the book The Price They Paid: Enduring Wounds of War. It focuses on the life of Jim Newman, a helicopter commander in the Vietnam War, and the impact of the war on him and those who served with him. Putzel covered the war for the Associated Press. His journalism career included serving as Washington bureau chief for The Boston Globe. He lives in Washington, D.C.

Q: Why did you decide to write about Jim Newman?

A: The decision really caught me by surprise. I had long thought about Newman as an incredible natural-born leader. After I covered Newman as a war correspondent, I was in Washington covering Watergate and other stories, I was in Moscow, I’d reflect back on Newman as a leader, an uncanny person, but not as a book prospect.

Only at his funeral did my interest in profiling him [for a story] turn into, I’ve got to answer some questions. I was asked to make remarks at the gravesite. We all were collecting in the administration building at Arlington. A guy approached me, and said, I know who you are, and not everybody is happy with the way the service is being conducted.

I was nonplussed. Newman was a certified war hero, and he certainly would have expected full military honors. What’s not to like about [the ceremony]?

I looked at the guy very quizzically, and he said, My name is Roger Newman, and I’m Major Newman’s eldest son…they won’t give me the flag.

I didn’t know Roger existed. He also has a younger brother born before the war. Newman was a legend—he would never leave anybody behind when he was in command. He came home from the war and left his wife and two boys behind when they were 15 and 17, and never spoke to them again.

It seemed an incredible contradiction to the man I had known. I had to find out what happened. In the course of that search, I talked to his first and second families, and then I started on the people I had known.

A dozen of his officers came to the funeral. They still worshipped him. I was asking the wrong questions: What was it about Newman? I began to get an inkling it wasn’t just Newman. They had their own problems. I began to ask the right questions.

One characteristic of combat veterans is they don’t talk about it. They know nobody would understand. Many of them told their stories to me for the first time.

Q: How much of Newman’s story is unique to him, and how much is it representative of others who served in combat in Vietnam?

A: It’s very hard to say. Certainly Newman as a leader was very unusual in my own personal experience. Of the people I knew in the field in Vietnam…he really was an unusual commander.

He didn’t look like a commander, he wasn’t an imposing physical presence, but he had a sense of how to make a decision in a hurry…how to keep [his people] going. He kept doing what he saw as his job…

His behavior after the war—I can’t really explain it. I can say what the family said, that Vietnam changed him. It was something about Vietnam.

Though he never as far as I know was evaluated for PTSD, he would never have applied for disability for PTSD--he had 100 percent disability for other things. He did get disability benefits, but never thought of applying as a victim of PTSD.

Q: Looking at the impact of PTSD, was he aware of the effect it had on him?

A: He certainly understood the impact it had on some of his people. He was sympathetic in that way. Even when he was dying of cancer, he found one of the pilots he had rescued—he was living in a one-room shack—[and tried to help him].

He was still devoted to these guys, and very proud of his service. He didn’t question that people had bad experiences after the war, but I don’t think he applied that to himself.

One of the book’s disappointments [is that] he had not told me about his first family. It’s one of the endless frustrations.

Q: How did you research the book, and how did his family react to it?

A: I was a reporter for almost 40 years. I started out the way I would report [a story]—what I know and didn’t know. When Roger approached me at the funeral, it didn’t take me very long to call him and ask to see him.

I spoke to him, his mother, his brother Ronald. I met members of Newman’s family, and interviewed the people around him. His stepson. His youngest son, born after the war, was very helpful. He worships his father. I went around interviewing these people, and then the people who flew for him. Stories began pouring out.

It turned out the people you never would have expected to have problems after the war—career military officers, dedicated soldiers, still waving the flag, proud of the duties they performed, at first it would never occur to me to ask them.

I’d ask a few questions: What are you doing now? Then I began to realize even guys who seemed so immune were anything but…My conclusion was that no one is immune.

Q: What did the family members think of the book?

A: Roger never saw the book, sadly, he was dying of complications from diabetes. His mother told me he was very near the end…FedEx lost the package [with the book I had sent him], and it arrived the day after he died. He was totally devoted to what I was doing.

Flora, Newman’s first wife, was hugely grateful for getting the story told, the true story…she and Ronald were hugely appreciative, and a number of other people.

Jay Newman, the youngest son, has not spoken to me [since the book came out]. We used to have regular visits—he would come visit his father’s grave, and I would go with him or meet him in Virginia. He was tremendously helpful during the process...

Q: In the book, you describe how, at his funeral, the mourners were divided in three groups. How did each group view him?

A: The group of former officers who flew for him still worshipped him and knew nothing of [his actions toward his family]…some knew he’d been divorced, but didn’t know the details. They were still grateful.

The first family had known him before the war, and some of his siblings, one who he’d broken all ties with, they knew Jimmy Newman, the one they’d grown up with, who lied to get into the Army at 16. They were the group who’d known him before.

The third group, Jay and the grandchildren, Jay’s family and some cousins and others—they basically knew him afterwards. They went off by themselves [at the funeral] as well.

Q: What do you see as Jim Newman’s legacy today?

A: Certainly he was a man who believed in duty, honor, his view of the military and what it was capable of was unquestioning loyalty to the Army and his country.

I think when you say, How did he leave things for the people who followed him, it’s hard to answer. The people in Army aviation, what’s remembered is the first part, the amazing leadership. They don’t deny what happened afterwards, but they celebrate what happened before.

One of the things that surprised me about the book—I thought the market for the book would be Vietnam veterans and families who understood. I believe that’s still a large market for the book, and the people in it and the people they know, but the market I did not know to explore was the military community itself, particularly retired leaders.

I’ve given several talks, in which three-star generals are coming up and saying they’d read this book and got to get it to this person or that person. They are tremendously receptive of the book because it tells the whole story. They are not denying it—they’re concerned about it too.

I viscerally expected more opposition, and I have not encountered it, I’m pleased to say.

Q: Are you working on another book?

A: I’ve been married more than 40 years. My wife [journalist Ann Blackman] wrote four biographies in less time than it took me to write this! I promised her there would be time for sailing when the book was done.

Last summer I started sailing with her [many] afternoons, and I will do more before I decide what’s next. She’s been enormously patient and helpful…

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: For me, the turning point was realizing I was writing the wrong book—a biography of Jim Newman—and realizing it was a bigger book…While in one sense, it was a mistake to not realize it earlier, it made it a more important book: [that’s] why it goes in other directions and deals with families and legacy.

Robert Howard’s story, and how [the war] affected his life—those are things that are just as important or more important than the extraordinary heroics people focus on…

People throw around a lot of statistics about the prevalence of PTSD among military people, but those numbers mean little because they include combatants, rear-echelon troops and all sorts of military experiences that vary widely, even among those sent to war.

The Price They Paid shows that in at least one unit that went through intense enemy fire and numerous losses of its own day after day, week after week, all those I found—and some who chose not to be found—were changed by the war in ways they never expected. For those warriors, the price for doing what their country asked of them is measured in lifetimes. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This Q&A can also be seen on deborahkalbbooks.blogspot.com.