In pursuit of a "just memory"
Born in Vietnam, Nguyen and his family moved to the United States in 1975 as refugees of the Vietnam War. He was just four years old. Growing up in San Jose, California, he was deeply influenced by the post-war cultural rhetoric of the following decades — a pervasive, misleading rhetoric that he addresses explicitly in Nothing Ever Dies.
The biggest lie in the public memory of the Vietnam War, said Nguyen last Friday, was "that it was a war of symmetry — that Americans had to do what they had to do." The popularized view of war, he added, suggests implicitly "that wars only affect soldiers," when in fact "they kill so many civilians, women, kids — innocents."
Nguyen asked skeptics to look at the numbers: 53,000 U.S. soldiers killed compared to 3 million Vietnamese. And yet "people in America really believe that everyone suffered equally," he said. "That's untrue — one side bombed, one side was bombed."
In response to this unbalanced perspective of the war and its ethics, Nothing Ever Dies revolves around the pursuit of what Nguyen terms "just memory."
"What I look for and argue for ... is a just memory that strives both to remember one's own and others, while at the same time drawing attention to the life cycle of memories and their industrial production, how they are fashioned and forgotten, how they evolve and change," he writes.
Since "[m]emories are signs and products of power, and in turn, they service power," it follows that "just as countries and peoples are not economically at the same level, neither are their memories."
"One sign of this inequality," he adds, "is that while the United States lost the war in fact, it won the war in memory on most of the world's cultural fronts outside of Vietnam, dominating as it does moviemaking, book publishing, fine art and the production of historical archives."
Nguyen calls for inclusion of Vietnamese loss in the American war narrative, but also cautions against treating victims "as objects of pity," which may eclipse any other aspect of victims' identities and only contributes to the "dramas of self-flagellation" that can define American anti-war sentiment.
Rather, he advocates for the expiry of "othering" altogether, proposing instead "an ethics of recalling others" defined "by acknowledging that those we consider to be others are neither other nor ideal. Instead, as much as we consider ourselves to be subjects, these others... are subjects as well."