War Stories – part 1
During my time in Vietnam, I have tried to avoid the iconography of war. For me, there have been no trips to the War Museum, replete with its horrific imagery of violence and anti-American rhetoric. I have even avoided (until now) the Cu Chi tunnels, where entire villages and Viet Cong soldiers hid, literally and figuratively under the feet of the Americans. In a nation where the median population is 27, the war is a somewhat distant memory for many.
However, to paraphrase Faulkner, sometimes the past isn’t forgotten; it isn’t even past yet.
While I tried to watch my favorite television program, I found instead a static message of condolence on the screen (and most screens) for the”national days of mourning” for General Vo Nguyen Giap.
By way of history, Giap, who died at 102, was a Vietnamese “war hero”, engineering the defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu, an event that led to their ouster from then-French Indochina and the arrival of the Americans. Called back into duty, this history teacher turned strategist engineered a second victory – that of North Vietnam over the United States and our allies, the army of South Vietnam.
Considered one of the twin pillars of 20th century Vietnamese history, Giap lived on to see the country reunified under a Communist regime in 1975 (Ho Chi MInh died six years earlier). But Giap, while revered in death, found himself on the “outs” of the new administration after reunification, warning against Chinese influence, corruption, and the myriad other curses of post unification Vietnam. Still, his death saw a government public relations machine in full force and genuine reverence on the part of many Vietnamese, particularly in the North and of people of a certain vintage.
Unable to watch cable television, we paid a visit to a local shopping mall where, except for a few touristic shops, most prominent businesses equally shuttered to honor Giap.
At the the theater in the very modern, first world Bitexco mall, we thought we would catch a movie but finding the theater closed, slowly asked the receptionist at the desk why the closing (not yet knowing the reason). “General Giap death” I repeated, several times, slowly. Understanding a little English, the twenty-something looked at the marquee of movies playing at the theater – thinking I was looking for the title of a film, rather than an explanation for the darkened theater.
For him, at least, the war was ancient history.