How small and sour-grapes our postwar punishment of Vietnam, our trade and diplomatic embargoes that keep the country in economic ruin. How self-punishing and miserly in American spirit are these policies. How much better it would be for our national pride if we offered this country our help, for it is we and those who threw in their lot with us who seem to dwell in needless quandary, who live lives punctuated by active resentments and pain.
Go visit Vietnam, I’d tell the troubled vets. Go visit, if you can, and do something good there, and your pain won’t seem so private, your need for resentment so great.
-John Balaban in “Remembering Heaven’s Face: A Moral Witness in Vietnam” (1991)
A few weeks ago, I received a book in the mail from Vietnam War veteran Paul C. Steffy. It’s a novel about a veteran who returns to Vietnam to “lessen his war grief and post-traumatic stress disorder” and to better understand a gift he received from an elderly woman during the war. Needless to say, it’s a topic that’s right up my alley and the book has found a good home on my bookshelf.
If you’re interested in reading Paul’s book, “The Good Soldier,” you can find it here on Amazon. Paul was kind enough to autograph my copy.
With the birth of my daughter at the end of October and the cold weather here in Chicago, I haven’t been getting out of the house much these days. Luckily, I received two books in the mail recently to keep me busy indoors.
The first is by Chicago author and veteran Rory Fanning — “Worth Fighting For: An Army Ranger’s Journey Out of the Military and Across America.” The book chronicles Rory’s journey by foot across the United States to raise money for the Pat TIllman Foundation and to find peace after fighting in Afghanistan. Rory was so moved by what he saw in Afghanistan that he become a conscientious objector to the war, so his perspective as a returned veteran is particularly unique.
The other book I’m currently reading is also a peace odyssey, but one set in Vietnam. Kent Hinckley’s novel “Hearts, Minds, and Coffee” takes place during the war and follows the story of one American soldier sent to a dangerous Viet Cong stronghold as punishment for his anti-war views. The soldier must “wage peace” with the Vietnamese people in the area in order to survive. Kent was so kind as to inscribe the book he sent to me:
What books are you reading this December? Are there any veteran or Vietnam-centered books you’d recommend?
Last night I finished reading Monique Brinson Demery‘s fascinating biography of South Vietnam’s Madame Nhu. Known in the US as “the Dragon Lady,” Nhu was a pivotal figure in the early days of South Vietnam. She served as first lady in the Diem administration, although her influence went far beyond that of other first ladies of her day. She helped prevent early coups and spoke out against the US’s growing influence in the country. For her efforts, journalist David Halberstam called her a “beautiful but diabolic sex dictatress.” When President Kennedy authorized the overthrow of the Diem government, he said that Madame Nhu had forced his hand. She was just too dangerous to US interests in the region.
While history has largely condemned Madame Nhu as a villain in the story of the United States’ early involvement in Vietnam, Demery paints a more complex portrait of the Dragon Lady. Through interviews and archival evidence, the reader comes to know a woman who was determined to protect her country and family, even though some of her actions resulted in the contrary.
I got to meet Demery at her book release event in Chicago last month. I was struck by Demery’s age — she was born in 1976 — and the fact that she was one of the first people to really delve into Madame Nhu’s life. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the coup that killed Madame Nhu’s husband and brother, and it seems that it has taken that much distance to fully comprehend the first lady’s role in Vietnamese history.
As a young woman like myself, Demery has benefited from a generation of writing about the Vietnam War and advances in gender equality that situate Madame Nhu’s actions in the larger story of war in Vietnam. We can finally look past the derisive name-calling of the 60s, where journalists and presidents alike belittled Madame Nhu for being both strong and beautiful. With the benefit of hindsight, we can also see how Kennedy’s ordering of that 1963 coup helped usher in the Vietnam-US war.
Some stories can only be told in the moment. Others take decades or even centuries to reveal. The Vietnam War’s long shadows in the US demand our attention. I’m glad that writers like Demery and Nick Turse are digging deeper into the past to help illuminate our understanding of the war and its consequences.