I came across this image from Sài Gòn giải phóng (1 June 1975). The kid says, “Mom, those books are really beautiful!!” And the mother responds, “Truly beautiful, but those are ‘sugar coated bullets’ my son! They are very dangerous!”
The books in this picture were “dangerous” because they were deemed to be ideologically threatening.
It is interesting to contrast that time with the present, because at present there are a couple of books that have just been published that some people undoubtedly view as “dangerous,” but I think for more complex reasons.
Huy Đức’s Bên Thắng Cuộc is getting a lot of attention among people who read Vietnamese, and Nick Turse’s Kill Anything that Moves is getting reviewed and discussed by people who read English.
There are a few ways in which these two books are comparable. First of all, they both deal with Vietnam in the second half of the twentieth century. Turse looks at atrocities committed by US soldiers during the American/Vietnam war, and Huy Đức covers the history of Vietnam after that war ended.
Second, both works were written by people who are not officially historians, although both writers engaged in archival research and produced works of historical scholarship.
Finally, both authors deal with sensitive topics.
So these two books are similar in some ways, but it is also interesting to look at how they differ. One difference is in the way the two works are being received.
I sense a degree of anxiety at times about Bên Thắng Cuộc. The comments on the BBC’s Vietnamese language web page the other day (here) by politician/historian Dương Trung Quốc seem to be directed at that anxiety, as his message in that article is to say that the book is good, but that people should not get overly excited by it because it is just one person’s view of the past, and it contains information that professional historians in Vietnam already know about.
Somewhat by contrast, I just read a positive review of Kill Anything that Moves (here) by the executive director of the MIT Center for International Studies and the author of The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars, John Tirman, in which Tirman praises the book, but ultimately doubts it will have the kind of influence that one might think a book about such a serious topic would.
Is this because the book is not well-researched? No, that is not the point that Tirman makes. He praises the research. The “problem” is not with the book but with the people who read it.
Tirman states that “there’s little evidence that the public wants to know more about atrocities, much less act upon them. British scholar Kendrick Oliver made this argument brilliantly in his book on My Lai, showing how reactions to revealed atrocities follow a pattern that ultimately leads to a rally-round-the-troops phenomenon.”
In other words, while Dương Trung Quốc’s comments seem to be aimed at calming anxiety about Bên Thắng Cuộc, Tirman’s comments indicate that he doesn’t expect there to be much anxiety about a book like Kill Anything that Moves, even though it addresses an extremely sensitive topic.
Historians produce knowledge with at least some belief that educating people about the past is good for the present or the future. However, it’s never easy to see if that in fact ever happens.
The anxiety about Bên Thắng Cuộc can lead one to think that some people believe that that book might change the way some people think, whereas Tirman’s comments about Kill Anything that Moves suggests that works of history might in fact have very little influence on the way people think (or might have the opposite effect of what an author expected).
So to return to that mother’s comment in 1975, “sugar coated bullets” sound like they must be pretty dangerous, but if what Tirman says is correct, then it looks like those bullets do not actually cause much harm.
So why write and read about the past if doing so doesn’t matter??? Hmmmm. . . I guess because that sugar coating around the bullet still tastes sweet??