Like clouds floating in the sky, the war was already there when I was born. I did not have to get to know it; instead, it had to come to terms with me. Every day for 15 years, I looked up to see the war floating slowly by.
I was not an unlucky child. Born and raised in northern Vietnam during the 1960s and 1970s, I experienced the war as a natural part of life. It remained this way even when bombs were dropping on nearby evacuation areas, and even when my friends lost arms and legs. As a child, it seemed to me as if the war might continue forever, like the clouds in the sky.
But with the “liberation” of Buon Ma Thuot by the North Vietnamese army in mid-March 1975, the war did finally begin to wind down. Starting that day, our morning lessons in the North began with a student affixing a small red flag with a single yellow star to the map of our country, right at the spot of the most recent liberation. Hue: March 26; Da Nang: March 29; Xuan Loc: April 21. The color of red was overwhelming; it swept through the South so quickly that I worried I would not get my turn. But I did. On April 27, holding a paper-and-toothpick flag poised over Ba Ria, I cried like everyone else. But mine were not tears of victory; they were tears of farewell. The war had known me. Now it was my turn to get used to its departure. What would replace it? What would remain after the war?
The first postwar decade was marked by a continuation of the wartime subsidy system, the regimentation of daily living and the same hard-line ideology that had reigned during the war. In the South, people were imprisoned, property was seized, intellectuals were purged. Careers -- and lives -- were ended. This period was also marked by military conflict on the western border with Cambodia and on the northern border with China. Our newly achieved national independence turned into international isolation and transformed our recently unified country into a territory riddled with poverty, backwardness and repression. I lived in Hanoi in those years, working as an archivist at the Institute for Religion. They were hard years; only after a decade was the “Doi Moi” policy of economic liberalization introduced.
In 1994, the U.S. embargo on Vietnam was lifted and the normalization process between Vietnam and the United States began to accelerate. Today, for most Americans, the Vietnam War belongs to history. It is rarely raised, and usually only as a point of comparison with other wars the U.S. is fighting or ones it probably will fight in the future.
But I belong to a small group of people -- a minority most likely -- who cannot so easily forget the past. Thirty years after the war, the small paper-and-toothpick flag feels heavier in my hand than ever. Yes, the deaths of 4 million people and 1 million soldiers belong to history, as do the plight of several million orphans and widows; the 20 million gallons of chemical poison and the 13 million tons of bombs and bullets. I do not want to dwell on these numbers, but I cannot forget them either.
The Vietnam War was a complete victory for the communists. The war was the mother’s milk, the school and the testing ground of Vietnamese communism. It provided historical justification for the leadership of the Communist Party, endowing it with the “Mandate of Heaven.” To this day, the legitimacy earned 30 years ago is constantly reiterated, reaffirmed, validated and deified. War-era heroes continue to monopolize peacetime authority; war-era military leadership has been reborn as totalitarian control. The party knows that although many things can change, the myth of its “Mandate of Heaven” must remain intact because every other element of its ideology has been betrayed or revealed as bankrupt.
Thirty years after the war, all of our foundational cultural values have lost their validity, and the noblest ideas of communist ideology have become a joke. No space has emerged for basic Western democratic values or for the positive dimensions of modern globalization. Instead, we face corruption, violation of the rule of law, perversion of morality and dignity, the collapse of our medical and educational systems, dizzyingly rapid increases in social inequality, the time bomb of ethnic and religious conflict, a destroyed and polluted environment, the impoverishment of spiritual life, a crisis of belief and of hope. Vietnam’s totalitarian system long ago showed that it does not have the authority to solve these problems. It is easy to say that the war wound has begun to heal, but it is not a wound. It is a tumor for which time is not a cure.
Thirty years on, the darkest shadows of the Vietnam War are still with us. They will continue to float slowly and unceasingly, like clouds in the sky. Until something changes.