Over the past few weeks the New York Times has published a series of essays in a series called “Vietnam ‘67” in which “Historians, veterans and journalists recall 1967 in Vietnam, a year that changed the war and changed America.”
The historians who have written for this series (Fredrik Logevall, Lien-Hang Nguyen, Christopher Goscha, Heather Stur, Sean Fear, Mark Atwood Lawrence, etc.) are all scholars who did not experience the war directly. They are from a “post-war” generation, and that distance from the war is one factor that makes their scholarship different from that of scholars who experienced the war, and/or who wrote in response to the war.
On the one hand, these scholars are able to look at the past with a degree of “scholarly neutrality” that can be (understandably) difficult for people who lived through those years to maintain. And on the other hand, some of these scholars have linguistic skills (i.e., they read Vietnamese) that some of the most famous writers on Vietnam in the English-speaking world in the second half of the twentieth century (Frances FitzGerald, Stanley Karnow, Gabriel Kolko, etc.) did not possess, and they have done something important that none of the above scholars did either – they have conducted research in Vietnamese archives.
There are many new findings and insights that such scholars (and there are several others) have brought to our understanding of the period from 1945-1975 in Vietnam. First, they have enabled us to gain a much more complex understanding of what was happening in North Vietnam (particularly at the leadership level) in that period.
Second, they have forced us to take the South more seriously, and to try to come to terms with the fact that there have always been “multiple Vietnams.”
It is in that academic context that I recently read a graphic novel by the French illustrator, Marcelino Truong, entitled Such a Lovely Little War and was very pleased to find that it masterfully conveys through images and text the complexity that is now being produced in academic works.
Such a Lovely Little War is about the early years of the Vietnam War, and it provides basic information about what happened in Vietnam in the 1950s-1960s.
At the same time, however, Such a Lovely Little War is about Truong’s family and his childhood. The son of a South Vietnamese diplomat/translator/journalist and a French woman, Truong spent a few years in Saigon in the early 1960s and his book weaves his family’s history into the events that transpired in Vietnam at that time.
As was the case with many Vietnamese families, the members of Truong’s family chose different paths in those years, and as a result, he is fully aware of the many different views and beliefs that Vietnamese hold about the war. While his nuclear family is at the center of his novel, and therefore, we can definitely see the past from the perspective of a family that was associated with the South Vietnamese government, Truong has done a wonderful job in this book of finding ways to bring together many opposing and contradictory viewpoints.
The result is that this book is a wonderful read. For people who know nothing about the Vietnam War, this book can teach them the basics. For people who already know a lot, there is still much that they can find of interest in this work, especially in the way that it ponders over the similarities and differences between North and South in those years – a pondering that like the recent articles by “post-war” historians in the New York Times, is made at a distance from the events of the past, and therefore, carries a degree of rationality and objectivity that is refreshing.