What follows is a short snippet from a much longer essay I wrote this summer–the text for two talks I had been invited to give at a conference that was to take place outside Krakow, Poland, on the topic of poetry or art and remembrance of the Holocaust. (The conference was eventually cancelled, so those talks were never given).
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Just this last summer, I read an opinion piece entitled “Bob Kerrey and the ‘American Tragedy’ of Vietnam” (NY Times, July 20, 2016), by Viet Thanh Nguyen, a Vietnamese American raised in California and the author of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Sympathizer.
In the title given Viet Thanh Nguyen’s column, the expression “American tragedy” is set off by quotation marks, to call attention to how highly questionable it is for “Americans” (that is, U. S. citizens) to speak of the United States involvement in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s as though it were a tragedy especially for that nation, the United States, in disregard of the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese killed by American arms in that war. Those Vietnamese dead are no more counted in that way of speaking of the Vietnam war as an “American tragedy” than are the Iraqi dead in the Chilcot report on British participation in the 2003 Iraq war.
Viet Thanh Nguyen’s piece itself was written in response to the recent appointment of Bob Kerrey, a Vietnam war veteran, to become the chairman of the board of Fulbright University, the first “American-style” university in Vietnam. Kerrey himself had been severely wounded in the war in Vietnam, and went on after it to establish himself in politics, including becoming Governor of the state of Nebraska. However, he was also, by his own admission—one he did not spontaneously offer, but was eventually forced to make when confronted with the evidence of his guilt—the officer in charge and on hand during an episode in which troops under his command murdered a number of innocent Vietnamese women and children.
“I lived among many Vietnamese refugees,” Viet Thanh Nguyen writes in his piece occasioned by Kerrey’s recent appointment, “for which this war was a Vietnamese tragedy [my emphasis]. President Obama’s speech on the war’s 50th anniversary in 2012 focused on the deaths of over 58,000 American soldiers; I wondered why more than 200,000 South Vietnamese and more than one million North Vietnamese and Vietcong fighters were not mentioned, nor the countless thousands of civilians who perished.” A little later, he continues this way:
Some in the United States have said that Mr. Kerrey is also a victim—of an unjust war and disastrous leadership—but such a claim seems ironic, if not outright ludicrous, when one compares Mr. Kerrey’s prominence to the obscurity in which the survivors of the attack he lead and the relatives of those killed now live. His life and career have barely been impeded, except for any personal regrets. Indeed, as Mr. Kerrey was once in Vietnam as an expression of United States power, he now arrives in a different guise but still as a symbol of Western influence, this time as a leader of a university.
Many Vietnamese hope the university will deliver free-market values to a nominally Communist country eager to continue its capitalist development. But such hope must be tempered with the understanding that Western-style universities are ambivalent places when it comes to encouraging greater equality. At their best, they cultivate humane thinking. At their worst, they both practice and promote an economic inequality that supports the interests of the 1 percent: exploitation of underpaid adjunct teachers; tremendous increases in student debt; emphasizing the production of workers rather than learners.
Those closing remarks are sobering words especially for someone who has spent his whole adult life professing one thing or another in Western-style universities, but I will not dwell on that.