Teaching Peace and Ethical Memory with Voices of Vietnam

By Patrick Chura, University of Akron

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., a black granite wall listing the names of all 58,286 American war dead, is 150 yards long; if a similar monument were built with the same density of names listing the three million Vietnamese who died in the same war, that wall would be four and a half miles long. The beautifully designed Veterans Memorial in Washington—a place of reflection and reckoning about a national atrocity—speaks profoundly to Americans, insisting that the United States search its conscience and confront the truth about itself. The fact that it does not acknowledge the Vietnamese is not surprising, but it reminds us that remembering only “one’s own” as narrowly defined by national borders leaves room for more cosmopolitan forms of memory.

During a five-week Fulbright lecturing grant at Ho Chi Minh City Open University in May-June 2016, I taught a course on American Literature of the Vietnam War for 22 Vietnamese undergraduates. In the first stage of our work, we read and discussed American literature and music. (The students loved Pete Seeger, by the way.) The second stage of the course shifted the focus, requiring the students to conduct oral history interviews with parents, grandparents or other Vietnamese who remembered the war, and to translate those interviews into English. These interviews were used immediately in the final stage of the class: the creation and performance of an oral history “memory play” about the conflict referred to in Vietnamese history books as The American War.

Realizing that this plan asked a lot of the students, I devised a short rationale to provide clarity and motivation (for them and for me), as we began. After holding up a copy of Viet Than Nguyen’s recent study, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of the War and explaining that Nguyen is a Vietnamese-American whose novel The Sympathizer had just won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, I recited a statement I had silently rehearsed a few days earlier on the flight from Hong Kong to Saigon: “Nguyen says that Ethical Memory of war remembers one’s own, but does not fail to remember others as well,” I said. “This course asks you to remember others—Americans. It also asks you to remember your own—Vietnamese—in order to help Americans remember others.”

The play we made together, Voices of Vietnam, in War and Peace, is the product of their interviews and translations, and my editing and scripting. The play promotes Ethical Memory by speaking the truths of the Vietnamese people while evoking the humanity, and inhumanity, of soldiers and civilians on all sides of the conflict. It was performed in June 2016 in an on-campus auditorium at Ho Chi Minh City Open University, using a minimal set and simple staging, by student-actors who had been rehearsing for only a few days.

At the opening of the play, each student carried a single white flower onstage and placed it in a vase that remained in view throughout the performance. The six scenes that followed offered perspectives perhaps unfamiliar to Americans, describing viewpoints that have not been acknowledged by the English-speaking “memory industry” epitomized in American war films. Voices heard include those of a Vietnamese draft resister, a female doctor who worked for the Viet Cong, and a grandmother who kept books for the American military at the Saigon airport from 1956 until 1973. Voices of Vietnam explores striking cultural differences but also confirms that the prevailing American view of the war—a political and moral failure that left a young generation scarred and stripped of illusions—is largely shared by the Vietnamese.

At the end of the play, the students retrieved their flowers, presented them to an invited guest and led that guest forward. I gave this explanation of the play’s Epilogue: “You have been listening to the students speak your voices, the voices of Vietnamese who remember the war. Now you will speak the students’ voices. Please don’t be shy about coming up on stage.” As their own words became our text, I could see pride on the students’ faces. When they said, “This is my voice,” there was strong emotion, made stronger by the fact that speaking out is still closely monitored in Vietnam. Also lending power were the words themselves, the student-written “appeals to ethical memory.” Here is a sample of those appeals; words about war from Vietnamese 20-year-olds:

Thảo Quy: I did not comprehend the war until I talked to my parents about it. Its brutality is beyond imagination. There are still misunderstandings and untold stories. War has no heroes and no right side. War is wrong. War does not bring peace. The young must understand so as not to repeat. Silence explains nothing.

Le Thanh Tan: The husbands, wives, fathers, sons and daughters who lie beneath us can’t rise again to tell untold stories. But we can find them again in your voices, your stories. Some now want to go to war again; both the young and the old can be childish and naïve. So open your hearts and tell us your stories.

Hồng Loan: War is loss—friends, family, dream, and hopes. We are still affected after 41 years. Agent Orange victims suffer and leftover bombs have killed thousands. Teach the young the value of human life. Whether you are soldiers or farmers, from North or South, Vietnamese or American, we need to hear your voices, for a better future.

Gia Hân: Why did the U.S. fight here? They killed many, including my grandfather, and the consequences of dioxin remain. My father’s house was burned 3 times by bombs. My grandparents had nowhere to turn, they were poor and hungry. History books are not enough. Talk to your elders. Sympathize with them. Problems aren’t solved by fighting but by talking.

Watching the students perform and seeing the audience captivated by how openly they were speaking remains my favorite Vietnam memory. I was grateful to the students for stepping out of their comfort zone to do something in an academic setting that went beyond what they thought was possible. I had told the Vietnamese students that their play would “help Americans remember others,” which meant that U.S. students would perform it also. When some of my Akron undergraduates came down with acute cases of stage fright, I used the bravery of the Vietnamese students as motivation.

We performed the play in Akron on November 9. In a discussion with the audience afterward, someone asked the cast how it felt to speak the voices of Vietnam. Several students said that the experience was “eye-opening.” One remarked thoughtfully, “When you have to present someone else’s story, someone else’s feeling, there is a seriousness to it.” Another said, “This — performing this play — has been a way for us to go back and trace a dark part in our nation’s history and also grow more empathy.” I shared these responses by email with a Vietnamese colleague I’d met during my stay in Ho Chi Minh City. He wrote back, “I’m very moved to learn that the U.S students found performing Voices of Vietnam ‘eye-opening’ and that is has developed a mutual understanding between seemingly old enemies.”

A key defining trait of oral history is how effectively it countermands state-sponsored narratives that glorify war. At our June 2 performance in Vietnam, an audience member stopped me during intermission. “Do you know what you’re doing is strictly forbidden in this country?” he asked. Then he said that the play wasn’t “true.” I said something like, “It’s the truth of the people affected by the war. All we’re claiming to do is to express what people said, so it’s automatically the truth. We’re speaking the words of people interviewed and the play is about what they said.” That automatic truth, I think, is what Viet Thanh Nguyen has in mind when he writes, “telling family war stories . . . is an important way to treat the disorder of our military-industrial complex.”

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Image courtesy of Patrick Chura

Perhaps projects of this type can help students see history from another angle and teach peace for the future. Fundamentally about words, oral history plays embrace simple staging and are adaptable to groups of almost any size and composition. Young people may speak the voices of the elderly, males may speak female voices and vice versa. In our production, a Vietnamese grandmother was played successfully by a young man of 19. By allowing students to imaginatively inhabit the Other—especially those of differing ethnicities, nationalities, gender identities and age groups—oral history readings foster social awareness and cultural sensitivity.

Educators who are interested in using Voices of Vietnam in the classroom may write me for a copy at jpc@uakron.edu.