Having just read and enjoyed the graphic novel, “Such A Lovely Little War,” but having never heard of its author, Marcelino Truong, I decided to contact him and ask him a few questions about his book.
What follows is an “interview” that we conducted over email.
What you have written is a mixture of history and memory and this makes me wonder what comes from memory and what doesn’t. So how much research did you do for this book? And, if you did conduct research, what did you need to learn about?
Yes, my graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War is indeed a hodgepodge of memory and history.
Because I was so young when I lived in Saigon, in the early 60s, there were many things that I couldn’t remember. I was only 6 when we left Saigon for London. I did have some clear memories, but it was a bit like when you wake up from a dream, you remember perhaps one tenth of the story. Luckily, my French mother was a great letter writer. She would give news to her parents back in France almost every week, when we were abroad. And luckily, my grandparents kept all her letters, in their stamped AirMail envelopes, sky blue pages covered with Mum’s clear handwriting in ballpoint, along with photos and drawings by us, the children, that she would slip in.
My mother Yvette’s detailed accounts of her daily life in Saigon were invaluable to me. I was thus able to reconstruct our family timeline: how in 1961 we left Washington DC, where my Vietnamese father worked as a junior diplomat at the South Vietnamese Embassy; how we flew to Saigon on board a Caravelle; the worrying situation in Saigon when we arrived; how, after staying at our Vietnamese grandparents’ house in the suburb of Gia Dinh, we moved downtown into a three room flat on Nguyen Hue boulevard; etc. . .
All our yesterdays were consigned in her letters.
[My mother Yvette writing home from Washington DC in Such a Lovely Little War.]
Of course, I did a great amount of reading, to check the facts, and to fill in some gaps. But this reading about the history of Vietnam, I have been doing for years. Ever since I was a child in fact. My father was something of an erudite, and we have loads of books on Vietnam at home. He had known or met many of the authors of these books.
And I had countless conversations with my parents, and also many Vietnamese uncles and aunts, and other relations who remembered those days, sometimes reluctantly. As Michael Herr – the author of Dispatches – said: “Those who remember the Vietnam should forget, and those who forget Vietnam should remember.”
[My parents, Yvette and Khanh, met in Paris in 1948, while studying at the Sorbonne. They were married in Dec 1950.]
2) As I’m sure you know, there are many different perspectives on the period of Vietnamese history that you cover in the book. How did you try to deal with those different perspectives? Did you have a plan or a philosophy for that?
In Such a Lovely Little War, I assumed that few readers would be familiar with the background of the Vietnam War, and therefore I had to supply them with the basics.
In doing so, I tried to be objective and balanced, not taking sides, and rendering the different points of view of the belligerent parties.
This was made easier for me, because these different standpoints exist within my own extended Vietnamese family.
Whilst my father, after some hesitation, had chosen the Nationalist side, a brother of his and several cousins followed and supported the Revolution. It seems obvious to me that each and everyone’s opinion must be presented, as I had met all these people, and that they deserved respect. The narration of the Vietnam War has always been a very political thing. Both sides claimed to be the liberators.
The narration of the Vietnamese 20th Century wars of independence was and still is a real can of worms!
However, although I strive to be balanced, I often found myself rather naturally speaking out for the Nationalist side.
That is where I come from.
Sometimes I looked away from the Nationalist side, wanting to hear what the other side had to say, but in the end, that is the coterie I feel the most related to. I must say, however, that I mostly witnessed the Nationalist camp through my father’s personality. My father – Truong Buu Khanh – was a reflective, quietly-spoken, cultured man, who had been to a good catholic school in Huê (L’Institut de la Providence) before setting off for France in 1948, with a scholarship.
By the way, his Maths and English teacher at La Providence was Professor Ta Quang Buu, who later signed the Geneva Accords in 1954, on behalf of the Vietminh!
My father studied literature (French and English) at the Sorbonne and International Relations at Sciences Po (a famous school of political science) in Paris. He began to work for the State of Vietnam, under Emperor Bao Dai, in 1951, in Paris, as the Press Officer of the Haut Commissariat du Vietnam en France.
Later, he became a junior diplomat for the Republic of Vietnam (1955-75).
[My father, Truong Buu Khanh, Press Officer of the State of Vietnam’s representation in Paris, 1951.]
I was born in Manilla, Philippines, during his first overseas posting, and given the name of the street we lived on: la calle San Marcelino.
In 1961, my father was serving as Cultural Counsellor at the RVN Embassy in Washington DC, when he was called back to Saigon. During the two eventful years we spent in Saigon (July 1961- Aug 1963), my father was President Diem’s favorite interpreter (from English to Vietnamese) and was appointed director of Vietnam Press. My father thus met many foreign observers or politicians visiting South Vietnam, and also most of the reporters arriving in Saigon at that time. He later would often tell me about the foreign journalists and diplomats he had known quite well in Saigon.
The non-Communist Vietnamese have all too often been ignored or caricatured.
They were eclipsed by the towering American Armada. Some, like my father and many others, did try to promote some sort of democracy, along Western lines, but their endeavors were overlooked, despised, or got drowned in the smoke of war. They were all too often sneered at and looked down upon as “puppets,” the term used by their communist opponents to depict them. Western progressives often took up this pejorative term of “puppet” and chose to prefer their communist counterparts in North Vietnam, although that regime, hiding behind the Bamboo Curtain, was far more opaque than the Republic of Vietnam, invariably dubbed “the Saigon regime.”
By the way, we nationalists also saw our communist opponents as marionettes of puppet master Mao Zedong of China.
3) As an illustrator who wrote a book about the past, and a past that you yourself experienced, what did you want to convey through your illustrations? Are they just meant to be pleasing or entertaining, or is there something that you want a reader to understand or feel through your illustrations?
A mix of both, I think. As an illustrator, I hope that my illustrations will be pleasing and entertaining.
However, the illustrations also have to convey the violence and the sorrow of war.
Some people have said that I was quite graphic sometimes, showing horrible wounds, beheadings, limbs torn off. . . Well, that is war.
But I also wanted to show the atmosphere of Saigon and the Vietnam, in those days. Saigon was a charming city where Vietnamese and French architecture mingled. Oriental and Western fashions shared the sidewalk. Rickshaws, Renaults and Cadillacs brushed in the clamor of traffic jams. High-heeled shoes clicked dangerously near bare feet in rubber tongs. That’s for ambience of Saigon, back then.
[High heels in Such a Lovely Little War.]
But an illustration can also tell another tale.
I love to look at the way people are dressed. The clothes that leaders wear tell you something of their politics.
Ho Chi Minh’s modest pajamas, and later his Puritan Maoist jackets were a giveaway. First he posed as the tough, whisp-of-a-man Oriental in guerilla fighters’ togs – very romantic! – and later, after 1949, often appeared wearing the Red Chinese democratic uniform for all. . .
President Diem of South Vietnam made a huge mistake in donning white suits, black ties and Consul toe cap shoes: this was the outfit of the former colonial masters!
[Tell-tale togs in Such a Lovely Little War: the Mao jacket vs the white suit of the former colonial masters.]
One of the strengths of our communist adversaries was that baggy peasant work-clothes or frog-green uniforms with a distinctive sun-helmet looked Asian and national, whereas the kaki fatigues and US steel helmets of the slim ARVN soldiers made them look like boys, dressed in foreign imperialist hand-me-downs.
The tiger suits worn by the elite units in the South Vietnamese army also gave the wrong signal to Western progressive eyes. The tiger suit was the outfit of the counter-insurgency forces already during the French Indochina war (1945-54) and even more so in Algeria (1954-62), at the same time. So we, the noncommunist Vietnamese, came out as nasty, reactionary and fascist torturers, whereas our communist foes could pose as the goodies, the heroic rebels, the romantic revolutionaries. . .
All this imagery weighed heavily in those days. They helped Western radicals form what seems to me a very idealized, Orientalist and romantic view of the Vietnamese communists. Ironically, today, the elite troops in the regular Peoples’ Army of Vietnam all parade in tiger suits.
[Robert Shaplen, Ngo Dinh Diem and Truong Buu Khanh, May 1962.]
4) This may be too direct of a question, but what was your purpose in producing this book? It’s both very personal and very educational. Is there something that you wanted to achieve by combining a personal story with the history of a particular time and place?
Nope, it’s not too direct of a question.
At first, I think I just wanted to tell a good story. The most exciting period of my youth, those heady Saigon days seemed to me.
Then, it developed into something else, after the book came out.
In gatherings, conferences and signings, it emerged that I was becoming a self-elected spokesman for the non-communist Vietnamese, the losers of the war. I was going to have a go at telling our story. Our voice was drowned during the war. Our powerful American ally stole the scene. Its powerful media flooded the world with images and stories of the boys from Wisconsin and Ohio fighting it out in Vietnam.
We South Vietnamese became the walk-on parts of our own war.
The Vietnam war has often been told either by gung-ho hawks, or by antiwar intellectuals and activists, and nothing much in between.
In the universities of the western world, the history of the Vietnam War was mostly based on material supplied or written by academics who were for the most opposed to the war, and sometimes sympathetic to the Hanoi side.
I can fully understand why so many Americans were against the war, especially after 1968, that turning point in the conflict. This was not their war. They had no reason to be maimed or killed in this foreign land.
However, when one is against a war, or all wars, need one take sides?
It so happened that in their haste to end the war, many pacifists thought it fit to give the other side a helping hand, and felt it proper to paint us black. Uncle Ho Chi Minh was near idolized, while his antagonists Presidents Diem and Thieu usually were demonized.
Certainly many mistakes were made in the South, but this was done under the full glare of Western spotlights, while many blunders were committed in the communist North, but these were given much less publicity.
The Vietnam War was like a match in which almost all the referees are whistling fouls on one side of the pitch, while it’s a field day for the other side, with little or no international supervision.
It has often been said that the Vietnam War was in asymmetrical one. In many ways it was. David against Goliath? Probably so.
However, the war of images was certainly asymmetrical.
In the South, during the whole duration of the war (1959-75), we had hundreds of foreign reporters roaming freely and full-time all over the country. Meanwhile, up north, Hanoi would only now and then let in a treacle of carefully screened progressive-minded journalists, committed or at least favorable to their Cause.
Many of the foreign reporters hacking it out in the South were opposed to the war, and were trying to bring it to an end, by producing horrific clichés. And horror galore it was. But no such thing was taking place in the propaganda-minded communist armies. Photographers there were soldiers, and the camera was their weapon. Their pictures were designed to help the struggle, to extol the heroics of the People’s Army, and certainly not to display the real suffering and sorrow caused by its blows.
This perspective of the war appears in several parts of the book, and it is voiced on page 98 by a South Vietnamese Airborne officer, speaking to an American reporter (I had Neil Sheehan in mind, but it could have been almost any other), out in the boonies.
The rookie reporter has followed an Airborne unit on an operation in the delta. He has witnessed an interrogation scene during which a Vietcong suspect dies under torture. This he has not dared to photograph.
Here are the seasoned para’s words to the stunned and mute photo-reporter in Such a Lovely Little War:
“Now you know! The war against insurrection isn’t pretty. But in two or three hours you’ll take a shower, smoke some weed, pick up a cute little Vietnamese whore who will get you off. . . And next time, take the pictures you didn’t take today. We’ll let you do it. Your photos will hurt our cause. But that’s the difference between us and the other side.”
[Counterinsurgency under the scrutiny of a foreign reporter in Such a Lovely Little War.]
Luckily, things seem to be changing. There seems to be a refreshing current in the academic world, in the West at least, regarding the narration of the Vietnamese wars of independence, and also of its colonial past. This is not revisionism – as some may snicker -, but rather a more balanced and less politicized view of Vietnamese history that is slowly emerging.
Historians like Liam Kelley, Christopher Goscha, Keith Taylor, Olga Dror and others, in Canada and the USA, along with François Guillemot and others in France, are offering a less anti-imperialist and anti-war approach, in which the Nationalist view is also given.
The official standpoint in Vietnam, even today, is that all the Vietnamese were with Ho Chi Minh in the struggle for independence, and that those Vietnamese who were not on his side were just traitors and puppets of the Western imperialists (France, USA, etc. . .). Thus, according to the communists, the Indochina wars were not civil wars. All the People were fighting against foreign aggression, under the leadership of Uncle Ho.
Well, I find that very simplistic, and moreover, false.
I would venture that from 1945 onwards, the Vietnamese elites (I don’t know about the People) were dreaming of Independence – an irresistible dream!-, but were divided from the very beginning as to the nature of this independence.
Would it be a red, pink, light blue or dark blue independence?
All these political affiliations existed in Vietnam. There was not just the one single current, although powerful, of the Vietnamese communists.
I hope this message will spread. It’s about time.
“The truth is rarely pure and is never simple,” Oscar Wilde said. This could apply to Vietnamese history.
March 21, 2017