«'What the Fuck is a Vietnam?': Touristic Phantasms and the Popcolonization of (the) Vietnam (War) Victor Alneng Critique of Anthropology 2002; 22; ...»
Some play at being VCs and GIs with photoﬂashes as special effects.
Coming up all are excited as if on a funfair joyride. Anh calls this tunnel a ‘symbol’, as he does the kitchen and the operation room next to be visited. At the kitchen ‘VC tea’ (herb tea) and ‘VC food’ (manioc with salt and peanuts) are served. Next on the tour are two VC-manikins to pose for photos with. The ﬁnal stop is a caged bear, which Lonely Planet views as ‘perhaps the most disturbing part of the entire Cu Chi Tunnels tour’ (Florence and Storey, 2001: 504), and a souvenir shop with war-tourism trinkets.
The tunnel tour – dubbed ‘Vietnam’s answer to Disneyland’ and ‘Disney and Fellini do Nam’ by visitors – is organized to have tourists makebelieve they are heroic VCs; they crawl in the tunnels, eat ‘VC food’ and join the VC-dolls for photos. Some tours include the opportunity to dress up in VC pyjamas and for target practice with M-16s and AK-47s for US $1 per bullet. Those who are successful are awarded with medals or VC scarves.
The overwhelming majority of participants are males. Some confess to being true GI-wannabes with a hedonistic repertoire of boozing, drugging and whoring. Adding to this their proclivity for war memorabilia, they present themselves as not too far from the stereotype of wartime GIs.
For the Department of Culture and Sports, which administers this former combat zone, the intention of focusing on active participation from a NLF perspective, rather than passive sightseeing, is undeniably ideological. This message, however, is received in an ironic theme park context.
The insurgents are thus transformed from the intended heroes into kitschy icons of a phantasmic war. The predilection for the term ‘Viet Cong’ in international tourism and movies is conspicuous here. The term was
initially a propaganda creation of the southern Diem regime and later adopted by the Americans. It ignores the ideological diversity among those who opposed the South Vietnamese regime, lumping them all together as communist (cong, short for cong san, means communist in Vietnamese).
Although the communists gradually gained power in the south, the NLF was established by South Vietnamese insurgents largely independent of the communist party in the North. One of the founders, Truong Nhu Tang,
... the South Vietnamese nationalists were driven to action by [Diem’s] contempt for the principles of independence and social progress in which they believed.... Most [members of the NLF] were not Lao Dong (‘Workers’ Party’ – the ofﬁcial name of the Vietnamese Communist Party) members; many
scarcely thought of themselves as political, at least in any ideological way. (1986:
68) The term ‘Viet Cong’ is therefore grossly delusive. That said, however, it should be recognized that the communists were also ideologically diverse (they still are) and that the term only reaches its full pejorative meaning when joined by McCarthyism. Most tourists I met were ignorant of these ideological differentiations and instead adhered to Cold War paranoia and Hollywood mythologization of a monolithic evil communist foe. In this context, Anh’s introductory instructions on the deceiving Vietnamese government foment the phantasmic reality in which the movies are as real as Vietnam is fake. Anh’s tragic experience of the battle at Hamburger Hill is cut loose from reality, as many tourists know this battle as the movie with the same name. On the way to Cu Chi, the bus passes a war cemetery. Many brush aside the sight of the vast number of graves, calling it communist propaganda. Again Anh’s recommendations points to an escape route to the familiar Cold War truth saying communists are not to be trusted. At the end of the tour, the dominant version of Vietnam’s history and signiﬁcance, as brought to Vietnam embedded in phantasms, is relatively unchallenged, despite the ideological organization of the tour. Below I will discuss another Vietnamese representation of the war that might be presumed to challenge Western approaches.
The War Figment Museum The War Remnants Museum, situated a mere US $1 cyclo ride from Pham Ngu Lao Street, is ‘the most popular museum in Saigon with western tourists’ (Florence and Storey, 2001: 457) according to Lonely Planet. This description attracts a continuing stream of visitors. While the Cu Chi tunnels highlight the heroism of the Viet Cong, the museum focuses on the Americans, here depicted as bloodthirsty imperialists. The role of the ARVN is downplayed. At Cu Chi, the Viet Cong’s primitive weaponry is shown which, in contrast to the sophisticated American war technology shown at the museum, gives a picture of a David and Goliath battle. While Downloaded from http://coa.sagepub.com at Stockholms Universitet on October 10, 2007 © 2002 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.
476 Critique of Anthropology 22(4) the VC-manikins at Cu Chi have a backdrop of a tranquil eucalyptus forest, the museum displays a GI-doll with a backdrop showing ruthless destruction of dead VCs and bomb craters. At Cu Chi the VC-dolls are displayed in a way that enables tourists to pose with them for photos and the tour invites tourists to participate instead of looking, to ‘join’ the Viet Cong. The GIdoll at the museum, conversely, is located in an exhibition case that limits tourists to a distant gaze. With the objectiﬁed GIs and the heroic, yet kitschy, VCs, the contrasting organizations of the Cu Chi tunnels and the War Museum merge in an all too familiar dramaturgy – an ideological reversal of the movies.
Apart from pictures, visitors are confronted with war statistics:
7,850,000 tons of bombs were dropped (nearly four times more than during the Second World War); 75,000,000 litres of defoliants were sprayed over South Vietnam; the US spent $352 billion on the war; around 3 million Vietnamese were killed and over 4 million were injured. The death rate of the Americans – around 58,000 – although huge in itself, appears relatively small in comparison. For many visitors, these facts are hard to comprehend.
The shock is not so much the uneven numbers of casualties, but that 3 million Vietnamese people were killed – in the movies there were only gooks, VCs and hookers. The War Museum deliberately tells a one-sided story which clashes with the Hollywood perspective. The propaganda aside, the museum ‘reveals’ the fact that war is not enjoyable – it’s far too real to be – but from a touristic perspective that is debatable. Even though this asymmetrical arrangement of perspectives constitutes a potential for change, the phantasm of Vietnam is a mixture of ﬁctional and realistic information prior to the tourists’ arrival. While in Vietnam, tourists are continuously gulping that very same formula.
The most horriﬁc sight at the museum is the formalin jars with foetuses damaged by Agent Orange. The intention of showing these is clearly to pressure the USA to acknowledge the high percentage of foetus abnormalities and cancer among inhabitants of defoliated areas as caused by herbicide toxins. This strategy backﬁres badly; many tourists feel their holiday experiences have been infringed on and dismiss the museum as pure communist propaganda. This approach is further enforced by ex-ARVN cyclo drivers hired as guides. Once the horrors have been dealt with, the real war can be enjoyed as phantasmic. Claiming she enjoyed her visit to the museum, a backpacker laughingly dismissed a picture of some GIs showing off some decapitated Vietnamese with the comment: ‘It’s funny really, this government propaganda, I mean, the Americans never did things like that.’ ‘[L]ike a photograph, a “fact” must be seen from somewhere, [it must have] a duration, a context, a conﬁguration in time and space’ (McQuire, 1998: 167). To many visitors the museum version of the war has no realistic duration, context or conﬁguration in time and space simply because Vietnam, as they know it and enjoy it, lacks a realistic duration, context and conﬁguration in time and space. As receivers of the ideological message of
the Vietnamese tourism authorities, tourists ‘have a residual freedom: the freedom to read it in a different way’, different as in chosen, not mistaken (Eco, 1986: 138; author’s emphasis). The war pictures can thus be stirred into a prefab potpourri; the picture of napalmed Kim Phuc merges with its movie replica in A Bright Shining Lie; the photos of the My Lai massacre intermingle perfectly with an analogous scene in Platoon; the picture of a VC refusing to answer questions and thus being thrown off a ﬂying helicopter blends well with its simulation in Heaven and Earth – a scene solely the product of Stone’s imagination; it is not to be found in Hayslip’s book – and so on. The cinematic images are enjoyable while the real ones are horrendous, but, blended together, the former lose their imaginary quality while the latter are deprived of their connection with reality. With phantasms as mediators the realistic and the ﬁctional can be both real and entertaining, really entertaining. Herr compares the irresistible yet guilt-laying
seduction of war pictures to that of porn:
I remember now the shame I felt, like looking at ﬁrst porn, all the porn in the world. I could have looked until my lamps went out and I still wouldn’t have accepted the connection between a detached leg and the rest of a body...
(1978: 17–18) Just like Richard got confused by the paedophilic eroticism imposed on the napalmed Vietnamese girl, many visitors are confounded, not knowing whether the war was real enough to be obscene or if it’s ﬁctitious enough to be enjoyed. While a few come out of the museum crying, others pose smilingly for photos by the American armoured vehicles. Some do both.
Then they jump back up on hired cyclos, heading for other touristic adventures. What has happened is that they have made what Eco calls a ‘discordant interpretation’ where the messages are ‘sent out from the Source and arrive in [a] distinct sociological [context], where different codes operate’ (1986: 141). Tourists rely on phantasmic operating codes and, although made unconsciously, their interpretation sometimes spills over; leaking through to the conscious, it leaves a bad taste – a feeling that something is wrong without knowing what it is.
Vietnamization with a vengeance: how to win a war
‘You tricked me!’ ‘How? What did I ever offer you? What did I ever say I’d provide?’ ‘You...’ ‘I never offered you anything but Vietnam, and only because you asked for it. It so happens you wanted the beach too. But if you could have had Vietnam and kept the beach, it wouldn’t have been Vietnam.’ ‘I didn’t know that! You never told me!’ ‘Exactly.’ Mister Duck beamed. ‘That was the beauty of it. You not knowing Downloaded from http://coa.sagepub.com at Stockholms Universitet on October 10, 2007 © 2002 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.
478 Critique of Anthropology 22(4) was Vietnam too. Not knowing what was going on, not knowing when to give up, stuck in a struggle that was lost before it started. It’s incredible really. It all works out.’ ‘But I didn’t want that Vietnam!’ I began. ‘I didn’t want that kind! I wan...’ Then I stopped. ‘All?... Wait, you’re saying it all works out?’ ‘All. Right to the bitter end.’ He rubbed his hands together. ‘You know, Rich, I always thought euthanasia was a kindness. But I never dreamed it could be so much fun.’ (Garland, 1996: 379–80) Richard ﬁnally becomes doubtful about wanting the kind of Vietnam where euthanasia comes in jest. The passage above is the climax in Garland’s book.
It’s where ‘the Beach’ is unveiled as a metaphor. The Beach was not a place but a utopian dream of escape, inseparable from Richard’s phantasm of Vietnam-as-War. Those put together were equally inseparable from a reality where lives were expendable. With a lead character displaying a borderline personality and a jargon of the stereotypical GI, Garland’s book implies that the peacetime travel culture is a metaphor of war. Richard’s taking refuge in a phantasmic Vietnam War, as his real situation turns desperately threatening, implies the media-packaged war as a safe, sound and necessary retreat. In the end, Richard ﬂees a bloodstained Southeast Asian exparadise and returns home to a business-as-usual – playing videogames, smoking dope and proudly sporting a few scars – as if the whole gory beachadventure never took place.
So far I have deliberately kept the analysis open-ended. Now it’s time to tie the threads together, and I will take as my starting-point the suggestion that Garland’s ﬁctitious story echoes a real one.
Vietnam is dead, long live Vietnam!
‘Vietnam, a country made famous by a war’ (Florence and Storey, 2001: 11).
An ethnocentric truism at best; it’s not really Vietnam-the-Country that is famous, only in the Boorstinian sense – known for its ‘well-knownness’ (1992: 46–8). This well-knownness does not include the Vietnamese, who are conspicuously absent in the movies. Instead it’s the War – the one the Americans lost. But no need to spell it out like that. Just say ‘Vietnam’, even ‘Nam’ will do, and everybody knows. ‘Vietnam, a country made famous as a war’ seems a more accurate declaration.
An eager tourism industry assures us that ‘the Vietnam of today is a country of peace’ (Florence and Storey, 2001: 11). Innocently turning former battleﬁelds into tourist attractions is a message of peace; these sites will never be war sites again in the same manner. In this sense, Vietnam can boast of being the only nation to have defeated the US, while Lonely Planet
can claim to promote peace. But here we must ask ourselves:
... [W]hat does it mean to win or lose a war? How striking the double meaning is in both the words! The ﬁrst, manifest meaning, certainly refers to the outcome of the war, but the second meaning – which creates that peculiar