«'What the Fuck is a Vietnam?': Touristic Phantasms and the Popcolonization of (the) Vietnam (War) Victor Alneng Critique of Anthropology 2002; 22; ...»
hollow space, the sounding board in these words – refers to the totality of the war and suggests how the war’s outcome also alters the enduring signiﬁcance it holds for us. The meaning says, so to speak, the winner keeps the war in hand, it leaves the hand of the loser; it says the winner conquers the war for himself, makes it his own property, the loser no longer possesses it and must live without it. And he must live not only without the war per se but without every one of its slightest ups and downs, every subtlest one of its chess moves, every one of its remotest actions. To win or lose a war reaches so deeply, if we follow the language, into the fabric of our existence that our whole lives become that much richer or poorer in symbols, images, and sources. (Walter Benjamin in Berg, 1990: 41) In the second manifest meaning, Cu Chi is still a war site. In this sense there is a new war in Vietnam – a war of ideological napalm and propaganda booby-traps. This new war is a meta-war. A metamorphosis – the death of Vietnam as a country and resurrection of Vietnam as a War, it is about who will tell who what to remember about that other war. Since ‘[t]o be without a memory is to risk being without identity’ (McQuire, 1998: 168), the metawar is also about what Vietnam will be in the global arena. It thus becomes clear that this new war is in fact the old war in a new guise, a new phase/face of the war.
Good morning, Vietnam!
You see it everywhere, this the favourite trope of self-styled Vietnam ‘experts’ – in commercials for Western products, in guidebooks, brochures and in books, but mostly on souvenir T-shirts worn by tourists. It reads like a statement. But what does it mean? That night when I bought The Beach, I was sitting in a restaurant in the Pham Ngu Lao area called, yes, you guessed it, Good Morning, Vietnam! And just like Richard, the anti-hero in The Beach, whose war-movie-drenched phantasm ﬁnally choked his sense of time and space, I get confused. Exactly where and when was it I bought that book?
In contemporary Ho Chi Minh City?... or in the cinematic wartime Saigon?
Most obviously it’s a wake up call – good morning, Vietnam! As such, it’s also an invitation. But to what? Remember the movie? Co-producer Larr y Brezner had a dream ‘to make [it] as a metaphor of the war’ (quoted in Gilman, 1991: 235). ‘[S]et in the early, “innocent” days of American involvement’ (Williams, 1991: 124), it’s also a metaphor for the obscurity present now, in the ‘innocent’ days of tourism. Adrian Cronauer, played by Robin Williams, had his gaze focused ‘on an ethereal white-clad Vietnamese woman [whose] “other” side is her Vietcong terrorist brother. The remaining women are hookers’ (1991: 128). The 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.
480 Critique of Anthropology 22(4) imperialistic/cinematic/touristic Others are objects of aesthetic evaluation, penetration and/or moral negation.
‘There’s a lot of fucking going on here, but I guess it encourages the war effort’, the American ambassador Ellsworth Bunker reportedly commented. The R&R programme, commonly referred to as ‘I&I’ (Intoxication and Intercourse) by the troops, played a decisive role in promoting sex-tourism in Southeast Asia. In 1967 US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara signed the R&R contract with Thailand. It grew into a $16 million industry and, four years later, McNamara, by then Head of the World Bank, recommended the development of mass tourism in Thailand.
With numerous HIV cases in Thailand, Vietnam is now considered a safer ‘lay’. Male tourists who won’t stop at penetrating the everyday life of the Other can get their inclinations satisﬁed at the Apocalypse Now bars, and in the Pham Ngu Lao area – the ‘budget traveller haven’ – three out of four shoeshine boys have been sexually abused according to ECPAT (End Child Prostitution, Pornography and Trafﬁcking). Perhaps Wintle’s claim is not so farfetched: ‘There’s no fucking end to it. I mean there won’t be an end to war until there’s an end to fucking’ (1992: 348). ‘Then’ merges with ‘now’ – the body-count is resumed and Saigon is once again earning its wartime nickname Whore City.8 Remember how Cronauer in Good Morning, Vietnam! taught the Vietnamese to speak American slang? How he invited Them to be a little bit more like Us (read ‘the US’)? A little bit, but not entirely – white-clad, but not white. A recent book on doi moi is called Vietnam Joins the World (Morley and Nishihara, 1997). It echoes the GI terminology where Vietnam was ‘In Country’ and any place outside Vietnam (read ‘the War’) was ‘the World’.
But Vietnam, with or without war, with or without doi moi, has been part of the world for thousands of years. Only with a ‘We are the world/West is the world’-hubris can one ever claim otherwise and annul the workings of embargoes and diplomatic conﬁnement. This hubris permeates many studies of doi moi in which Vietnam is recast as a virgin to be lawfully penetrated by an aroused Western market – Nike sweatshops come to mind.
A new war will open soon at a theatre near you!
Ideological napalm and propaganda booby traps; the ethereal white-clad Vietnamese woman and her Viet Cong terrorist brother; contemporary Ho Chi Minh City and the cinematic wartime Saigon; the West and the rest – same-same but different. But is it really well directed, that wake up call?
What is Vietnam supposed to wake up to? And who is really sleeping?...
and dreaming?... daydreaming about Vietnam? Good morning, West!
When the ‘(t)here’ and the ‘there’ are not the same, where does one travel?
And what time is it when the past lies in the future?... contemporary Ho Chi Minh City or the cinematic wartime Saigon?
When a country is a war that is a phantasm, its people get relegated from humanness to Otherness, one step from nothingness. The American
war-strategy of the ‘body-count’ is an obvious case in point here, and this dehumanizing tabulation of death prevails (Spanos, 2000: 155).
By the time the United States finally left South Vietnam in 1973, we had lost over 58,000 men and women; our economy had been damaged by years of heavy and improperly financed war spending; and the political unity of our society had been shattered, not to be restored for decades. Were such high costs justified?
This is how Robert McNamara opens the ﬁnal chapter of his highly acclaimed In Retrospect (1995: 319, my italics). For McNamara the high costs were not justiﬁed, and he has learnt this lesson the hard way. As wartime Secretary of Defense he knows the war from personal experience, not from movies. Still, in his view, only 58,000 of the 3 million causalities were human; in his view, the high costs were not justiﬁed because the war was lost, not because it was wrong in any moral or ideological sense.
Few writers, even those who oppose the war, disobey the norm of both equating Vietnam with war and forgetting the losses of Vietnam-theCountry. Olson and Roberts end their exposé saying, ‘Vietnam was the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time for the wrong reasons... And the end of the Vietnam War is a black wall in Washington with 58,175 names, an epitaph to a loss that is every American’s’ (1991: 283; my emphasis). Stanley Karnow argues that the Cold War experience stimulated Asians to ‘recover their identity and to shape fresh goals’. An innocent enough claim, but then Karnow’s ethnocentrism sets in as he concludes that, ‘[the Cold War experience] sowed the seeds of a struggle that was to culminate in the inscription of nearly ﬁfty-eight thousand American names on a granite memorial in Washington’ (1984: 46; my emphasis). If you don’t own the war, your losses don’t count. What is most alarming here is not Karnow’s amnesia, but its contagiousness – his book is possibly the most authoritative and, complemented with a 13 hour TV-series, certainly the most popularized book on Vietnam’s history.
Though bound to our bodies, our heads ﬂoat freely in a universe of fancies we claim are real enough to live, die or kill for. President Reagan, the former actor who called the war in Vietnam a ‘noble cause’, ‘prepared the nation for the possibility of military intervention in the Middle East by commenting: “Boy, I saw Rambo last night; now I know what to do next time” ’ (Klein, 1990: 23). His successor, George Bush, later claimed to have cured America of the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ by crushing Iraq in a TVblitzkrieg that brought myopic perception and destruction even closer together. Following Spanos (2000: 142), the ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ encompasses the view of massive war protests as symptoms of ‘national neurosis’ in inexorable need of recuperative and conciliatory forgetting. With the Gulf War spilling over in space and time to act as a band-aid for the infected wounds of the Vietnam ﬁasco, Bush could assist the amnesiac process. By the way, Bush Senior also believed tourism would speed up the peace 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.
482 Critique of Anthropology 22(4) process in the Middle East (Goldstone, 2001: 155). With Bush Junior, however, there has so far been a general decline in tourism (read peace).
This popcolonization ‘function[s] less as an absence of the real than a multiplication of its indices and a rearrangement of its signs in conformity with a world picture in which “embodied” and “disembodied” perception have become radically interchangeable’ (McQuire, 1998: 207).
When we say that information is getting globally accessible and the world is getting smaller, it’s just as much our phantasms that are getting bigger.
In the Western image gallery of Vietnam, cinematic images dominate.
These images of napalmed Philippine and Thai jungles show, not the complexity of what was but, rather, what We must remember in order to remain what We and They are. Initially I asserted that this article would be about neither Vietnam nor the war. In the wake of tourists, ﬁlm-makers, war veterans, academics, journalists, Hawks and Doves, I have pretty much steered clear of them both. However crude and empty, the GI’s comment I have taken as the heading – ‘What the fuck is a Vietnam?’ – has been the most epistemologically sane statement about Vietnam, leaving the door open for the possibilities of other approaches as it does. While the war left Vietnam economically devastated, the meta-war has turned Vietnam into the poorest country in the world in terms of identity, for an identity based on well-knownness is the most shallow of all – it’s narcissistic, only the narcissism is not one of Vietnam. It’s Ours! We said it! We wanted it! And indeed We got it; Our phantasmic reality; Our domesticated Vietnam;
Vietnam-the-War. And blessed are We for the ‘(t)here’ is already here, there and everywhere. Vietnam is Our worldwide wet dream come true.
Yes, indeed We do love you. We love you in order to love Ourselves... long time!
Vietnam, we love you long time ‘To perceive the aura of an object we look at means to invest it with the ability to look at us in return’ (Benjamin, 1973: 148). Tourism is not all about sightseeing and consumption, it’s also about being seen and tourists also invest in the Other. Through these and previous investments, We have turned Vietnam into a mirror – a place without a place. Gazing at Vietnam, We see Ourselves where We are not – a self-afﬁrmation deceivingly disguised as an ego-escape. As Our gazes fail to reach beyond Ourselves the myth of Western superiority prevails, not because Vietnam is a subordinate country, but because Vietnam is not a country at all. Can anyone ever really win a war? When the refusal to fulﬁl Nixon’s secret Paris Peace Agreement clause of US $4.7 billion in reconstructive aid, and the post-war embargo and support of the Khmer Rouge, are set alongside Clinton’s politically correct visit in November 2000, during which he could recuperate his lack of wartime ‘been there’ authority by urging his hosts to account for the 1,498 American MIAs while he had little to say about the 300,000 Vietnamese MIAs, the continuousness of the war crystallizes itself. Its lethality
is evident in infants deformed by 30-year-old Agent Orange, and thousands of civilians blown apart by left behind ordnance.
Rather than accepting guilt, the Free World (i.e. the home of international tourism) habitually singles out communist mismanagement as the sole root of Vietnam’s economic deprivation, which points to the efﬁciency with which phantasms have erased the material consequences of a US $352 billion war and 20 years of post-war embargo. Thailand – the not-fallen domino and supreme resort in Asia – is frequently applauded as a regional counter-example with a democratic market economy.9 However, dependent on traveller’s cheques, the Thai government has until recently been reluctant to acknowledge the shattering problems that tourism has entailed. This denial has engendered a foul affair where the economic costs of sex-tourism (whose origins and current practice are linked to the Vietnam War), in terms of an HIV epidemic, are rapidly running through the economic beneﬁts of tourism. To this should be added the costs in terms of human suffering. Communist Vietnam has conversely faced these problems with straightforwardness, only to be criticized for infringing on the ‘civil right’ of tourism access.