Postwar Reflections : The Art of Deconstructing Memories
By Akanksha Gopinath, Official Jaipur Literature Festival Blogger
Against the backdrop of perpetual war in our world, it is hugely important that each war is analyzed: to ascertain its moral deviations and inhuman perpetrations, and in so doing, learn enough to avoid future wars, or at the very least, mitigate against future atrocities.
In his book Nothing Ever Dies : Vietnam and the Memory of War, Viet Thanh Nguyen argues for a comprehensive reconstruction of war memories, in order to facilitate the inclusion of ‘the other’ in war narratives, and provide a neutral platform for ethical dissections of war.
Nationalism necessarily forges the exclusion of ‘the other’, and this divide is further exacerbated by war memorials, candlelit parades and other rituals to remember the fallen. It needs to be remembered that all sides suffer in war and regard each other as the enemy.
Sentimentalizing memories negates their authenticity, and nationalist propaganda has played a powerful role in the forging of collective memories. For example, America emerged victorious in its reconstruction of the Vietnam War, in great part due to its substantial power to create strong images favoring the American position, through a multitude of media outlets and powerful re-tellings. When taking into consideration the Vietamese experience of the same war, the American narrative is incomplete at best, inaccurate at worst. The Vietnamese chronicler visits the graveyards of his own country, in an inexpressible attempt to remember his own.
The unconscious ostracism of the other stems from a very human tendency to embrace without question that which appears to be a natural extension of one’s self, on the basis of kinship, patriotism and a sense of communal belonging. The dead lie silent as the narratives of their lives are written and rewritten, bestowed with heroic undertones by their own historians, and diabolical scapegoating by their adversaries. Nguyen challenges this contrived molding of complex individualities into flat facades, in order to perpetuate the identities of nationalism, religion and political advocacy.
The reckless categorization of victims and perpetrators, such as is commonly seen in war museums, is a quintessential act of isolating ‘the other’ and immortalizing one’s own. Conscious consideration and acceptance of different cultures and their art forms is needed to foster a more objective construction of collective memory, truer in its essence and more just in its recognition.
Cultures rely heavily on art to reconstruct war memories. Art enlivens and humanises the remnants of war. It offers the courtesy of reason to acts of human aggression, both by one’s own ‘side’, and by the other, subjecting everyone to the same moral scrutiny.
The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh challenges both nationalist narratives of the Vietnam War, in his uninhibited unravelling of atrocities on both sides. Depictions of the brutal gang rape of Hoa, the female guide to Vietnamese troops, by American men, and of his own girlfriend Phuong, by his own fellow soldiers, shatter the illusions of war as a man’s adventure, or either side emerging as moral victors. The book is an attestation to the sorrow and regret that accompanies post-war disillusionment, which begins with ‘For what?’
The dead from the winning side are traditionally at least awarded with heroic remembrance, whilst those from the ‘losing’ side are doomed to immortal oblivion. This phenomenon is exemplified by the disappearance of the statue of the Mourning Soldier in Saigon, which used to preside over the dead of the Southern army, and the dilapidation of the cemetery of the war dead, which is now a mere rubble of stones, with fading names and an unconstrained growth of creepers.
Inclusion of the other, in recognition of humanity and of one’s own inhumanities, can bring about the realization of the duality of our existence, the good and the bad, the human and the inhuman, the black and the white. If you dare to look closely enough, you will see a reflection of yourself in the other, and the other in you.
(c) 2016 Akanksha Gopinath
Like this blog? Find more interesting blogs about the Jaipur Literature Festival in Jaipur too! Click here.
Disclaimer: We do not endorse, support or subscribe for any statement, view or comment expressed or posted on this blog or social media page. Any view, statement or comment posted on this platform does not represent the views of Teamwork Arts, its affiliates or its employees or any person associate with Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), unless specifically stated otherwise.