KEEPERS OF MEMORY
If the invaded country can be associated with the figure of a helpless young girl, and if the country at war can summon up visions of the Trung Sisters and transform women's domestic skills into military ones, postwar remembrance has brought forth another image of women.
Memory is an important aspect of cultural production, a production that the state is eager to control. In the two decades since the war ended, the Vietnamese state has tried to shape collective memory to underline the continuity between the Revolution and the War Against the Americans, on the one hand, and past struggles for national independence, on the other. The year 1995, which marked the twentieth anniversary of the fall of Saigon (April 30) and the fiftieth anniversary of independence (September 2) and the founding of the Vietnamese People's Army (December 19), saw an outpouring of commemorative products, speeches, and rituals. It is customary in Vietnam to honor a man by paying one's respect to his mother. In the same spirit, it is the mother, rather than the wife, who is the cultural vector of grief and memory (fig.6.1). At the center of commemoration, therefore, was the face of the mother of heroes, full of pride in their deeds and sorrow for their loss.
War commemoration in Vietnam thus is quite different than in the West. In Western literature, war is often treated as a rite of passage that makes men out of callow boys. If a soldier succumbs, his memory is located with his wife or sweetheart. In the words of James Jones, war is a “widowmaker.” In Vietnamese commemorations of war, however, the dominant voice belongs to mothers rather than wives. Most soldiers were too young to be married when they went into the army, and thus were deprived of the culturally significant rites of passage that would have granted them entry into the community of adult men: marriage and fatherhood. But marriage in Vietnam does not require that a man “cleave only to his wife”; for him, the key emotional relationship remains with his mother. Even hardboiled veterans have been known to wax lyrical on the subject of motherhood: “In the life of each of us, our mother is our support, our faith, our sheltering shade, the stuff of life; always nurturing and raising us to become adults; mothers are ready to bear any burden, to sacrifice everything, never asking anything for themselves, except for the ultimate wish that their children should always be faithful to the Homeland and pious toward the people.”
The cult of motherhood may account for the abundance of statues,
Figure 6.1. A Heroic Mother poses in front of her son's altar, Hanoi. Photograph by Natalia Puchalt.
By fixing on the figure of the grieving mother, Vietnamese culture infantilizes the dead soldier. Unlike the Western soldier who has tested his manhood in combat, he remains eternally a child, as a popular song of the South suggests:
|She rocks her child, cradling the bullet that turns his wound red.|
|At twenty, her child went away to soldier.|
|And having gone, never came back.|
|Sleep my child, child of a yellow-skinned mother.|
|My god, this body once so slight.|
|Which I, your mother, once carried in my womb,|
|Which I, your mother, once cradled in my arms,|
|Why do you sleep at twenty?|
The statues, photographs, and paintings of mothers of soldiers were designed partly in homage to the soldiers, both dead and living, partly as a means of acknowledging the enormous sacrifices of the civilian population. These commemorative productions were functionally equivalent to the military cemeteries in which the soldiers who died during the Revolution and the War Against the Americans are buried. Another
As the anniversaries succeeded one another in 1995, it became clear that there was growing ambivalence about the past decades of war and revolution. Commemorative events were not only opportunities for the state to inject new vigor into its narrative of national glory and heroic struggle; they also occasioned contrapuntal, subversive questioning of this legacy of struggle. The adoption of the Doi Moi program of economic reforms and engagement in the global economy seemed to undermine the very rationale for war and revolution. In the wake of profound economic difficulties and the worldwide decline of Marxism-Leninism, the triumphalist mood of the immediate postwar period had dissipated and the meaning of victory had become clouded.
Commemoration that was structured not around the celebration of triumph but around the acknowledgment of loss seemed appropriate, and honoring the mothers of dead soldiers was particularly fitted to this purpose. But this was not entirely without risk. Focusing on the extraordinary losses suffered by the Heroic Mothers could—and occasionally did—lead to a questioning of the human cost of war. The combined toll for North and South Vietnam is well over three million, which does not take into account the three hundred thousand North Vietnamese soldiers officially listed as missing in action. In 1991, the playwright Ngo Thao, who had taken part in a major landmark of the 1972 Easter Offensive, the battle of Quang Tri, called that battle “a senseless tragedy.” Around that time, two veterans, one male and one female, published novels that captured this feeling of senseless tragedy: Bao Ninh with The Sorrow of War and Duong Thu Huong with Novel without a Name.
Acknowledgment that the Vietnam War was a civil war came late in
Figure 6.2. A Heroic Mother poses in front of a list of revolutionary war dead, Ho Chi Minh City. Photograph by Hue-Tam Ho Tai.
Heroic Mothers include only those whose sons and daughters died in the cause of the Revolution and the War Against the Americans. There are countless other mothers whose sons died fighting in the South Vietnamese army, and whose grief goes officially unacknowledged. Photographs of wrinkled women who are said to have lost three, five, or nine children blend into the collective figure of Mother Vietnam who loves