Mr Christopher's bag of bones

America has restored diplomatic relations with Vietnam, but it still cannot draw a line under the war

Share
Related Topics
I see that when the US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, exchanged letters of diplomatic recognition with his Vietnamese counterpart, Nyuyen Manh Cam, on Saturday in Hanoi, Mr Christopher "was presented with the remains of Americans who died in the Vietnam war as part of efforts to account for those still missing". What the news item did not say was whether the Secretary of State had anything to offer in return.

There were something over 2,000 American MIAs (missing in action) in Vietnam, as a result of the war. There were 300,000 MIAs on the North Vietnamese/Vietcong side. While the form of the Saturday ceremonial was doubtless chosen with extreme care and tact, it does seem to have been the wrong way around. Vietnam comes across as saying, in the old catch- phrase from the war, "Sorry 'bout that." No doubt Mr Christopher was careful not to sound too wimpish in reply.

This giving of bones, this presentation of relics more than 20 years after the event (America disentangled its own troops in 1973, two years before the fall of Saigon), this homage to hurt feelings that are probably unassuageable - this will not "close the file". Not for minds that have fed upon defeat and injury, made it into a myth, made the myth into a creed, repeated the creed until its words are drained of sense.

I was reminded by Richard West's recent book, War and Peace in Vietnam, of the question asked by Rambo at the start of his Indochina mission to rescue MIAs: "Do we get to win this time?" Some people have a mentality that is stuck on the redress of past wrongs and mistakes, as if the war were on a tape which could be wound back and - interactively - altered, so that the wrong turning could be avoided, the gooks shot down as they poured through the perimeter fence, victory secured, honour preserved.

"Do we get to win this time?" Well, the first requirement for this replay is: we must have an excuse for getting back to Vietnam, and what better pretext could there be than that one has left thousands of one's fellow soldiers behind, in prison camps? It is a feeling that is bound to go deep: every US soldier who fought in Vietnam and survived would indeed have left comrades behind, in the sense that they were dead. Even if, as was normally the case, their physical bodies were shipped back home, in some sense, in the mind, they would still be lying on the battlefield.

So the lure of the myth came from its way of whispering in the veteran's ear: those dead comrades of yours, they're not dead after all. That was good news to the injured psyche. Then the voice continued seductively: not only are they not dead - you can actually do something for them, you can save them.

And this voice, so far, is speaking only to what is good and generous in the character - the impulse that makes people rush back into a burning building, at risk of life and limb. Or, if this impulse is not exactly good and generous, but more one of despair, the voice can be equally seductive. It tells you to go back into the burning building, there to die - because it would be better to die than to live with the fact of having abandoned, say, your children. Many people do in fact die, do kill themselves, because they are ashamed to have survived such an event, and it is found that such a shame at having survived may catch up with you at any moment of your life.

But there is a third thing that the voice might whisper in your ear, a thing of a rather different character. That old enemy of yours, it says, that old Charlie Cong - you could kill him again if you wanted. You could have another go at him, finish him off properly this time. This time, my friend, you might even "get to win".

This is the lure of the Rambo myth: you can go back to the war, it says, and you can redeem your honour and rescue your lost comrades, and, look! there's even a hidden reward. You will get to kill Charlie Cong again. You will wipe the smile off his lips for ever.

It is notorious that the issue of the American MIAs held up the normalisation of relations between the United States and Vietnam, the process that has now formally been completed. What is not true, however, is that diplomatic recognition was withheld out of respect for the feelings of the Vietnam vets. After all, if respect for the feelings of the vets were so powerful, other things would have been done for them; they would have been much better treated.

No, the Rambo myth was not designed exclusively for consumption by bona fide veterans. It was a piece of popular culture. It appealed to the vicious wishes of a non-combatant mentality - a mentality that can often be more bloodthirsty than that of the professional soldier. Sadism masquerading as concern for mythical POWs - there is a good deal of that in the Rambo culture: how vicious I would be (it says) if I were ever let loose on the battlefield (which, I am happy to say, I won't be).

Some people thought it ironic that Sylvester Stallone, Rambo himself, had spent part of the war years as a ski instructor in Switzerland. I thought it entirely appropriate, a perfect preparation for the character.

One might think that 20 years is a long time for a nation to remain vindictive towards a nation it has wronged and been defeated by. Then one remembers that the Korean war is still officially and in fact unresolved. And one thinks of the current battles in the Balkans, and the way they are elucidated by reference to the Second World War, the Ottoman Empire and beyond. Perhaps after all 20 years is rather a short time in politics.

What's impressive, though, is the different timescales on which people have been working. While those august relations between Washington and Hanoi have been waiting to thaw, actual Vietnamese families have lived through oppression, decided to flee, been picked up in the South China Sea and taken to the States, established themselves in exile, made contact afresh with the folk back home, begun regular remittances, become full US citizens, returned to Vietnam on vacation, set about finding their own "missing in action" family members - in short, created their own diaspora and got on with living. One might think of them as people with a legitimate grievance, but they do not act that way. It is Mr Christopher who acts like a man with a grievance, receiving his sad little tribute of bones in Hanoi.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Manager

£32000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Manager is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

£25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Newspaper stands have been criticised by the Child Eyes campaign  

There were more reader complaints this year – but, then again, there were more readers

Will Gore
 

People drink to shut out pain and stress. Arresting them won’t help

Deborah Coughlin
A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?