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«'What the Fuck is a Vietnam?': Touristic Phantasms and the Popcolonization of (the) Vietnam (War) Victor Alneng Critique of Anthropology 2002; 22; ...»

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Having lost the war, the strategic attempts of Domino theorists to retrieve and recast the war for their own (new) ends have been sporadically recognized, but are still left relatively unchallenged. A reviewer loathes McNamara’s remorse claiming it comes ‘58,000 lives too late’ (www.amazon.co.uk). Indeed, the ethnocentric debate that followed the publishing of McNamara’s remorse has almost entirely focused on how much can be blamed on the alleged Soviet/China-dependent Vietnamese and whether the fiasco of US intervention was a betrayal of American values or a failure to fulfil the same. That is, the fiasco is questioned but not the logic behind the intervention, leaving American values per se unscrutinized (cf. Spanos, 2000: 131); hence when Oliver Stone and other homespun radicals criticize the inability of their elected leaders to live up to American ideals, while leaving the ideals themselves unscrutinized, these flag-wavers end up ratifying the Free World logic that put the Americans in Vietnam in the first place. Few have been willing and/or able to tiptoe around this trap of compliant critique.

So what has tourism – not innately good or evil – to do with all this? To be able to love Vietnam as a war indicates the dominion of presumably innocent phantasms, a dominion we acquire when we endorse them.

Contrary to the beliefs of the nostalgic faction of postmodernism, phantasms are not empty and their seductive powers and ideological persuasiveness lie precisely in their accumulating substance; the more meaning we invest them with, the more we desire them, and vice versa. As mentioned above, it is becoming increasingly difficult to separate tourism from other social practices. This evaporation of tourism as a distinct set of practices goes hand in hand with the emergence of ‘imagination’ as ‘an organized field of social practices... and a form of negotiation between sites of 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.

484 Critique of Anthropology 22(4) agency (individuals) and globally defined fields of possibility’. Appadurai argues that this ‘unleashing of the imagination links the play of pastiche (in some settings) to the terror and coercion of states and their competitors’ (1996: 31). The construction of entire cinematographic dream worlds of wartime GIs, the framing of Vietnam as a (psychedelic) war in movies and books, the omnipresent references to Disneyland and cinematic events among war-tourists, and the phantasmic Vietnam rhetoric of American politicians are not accidental, and imply that we should take the fun and games dead seriously.

I suggest that the contradictory logic of the ‘tourism-as-civil-right’ ideology, which demands worldwide tourism access for Westerners while the pleasure-periphery Others – whether immigrants, refugees, tourists or exporters – are confined by xenophobic protectionism, is structurally affiliated with the Free World logic that once introduced the Domino Theory. In his excellent study, Mark Bradley (2000) shows how pre-war American policy makers – informed by the global discourse and practices of colonialism, racism and modernism – fashioned an imagined Vietnam that included the deprecating conviction that the country should be remade in America’s image, a conviction that still remains. In its structural design, the phantasmic Vietnam of contemporary tourists shares too much with the imagined Vietnam of the embryonic American warlords to be brushed aside. Although ‘[t]he stridency with which many tourists have been willing to assert, or just assume, their right to experience the Other at any time and place resonates with an imperiousness that is almost militant’ (Phipps, 1999: 75), tourists will obviously not start any wars. But there are other agonizing issues to consider here.

By the turn of the century tourism has become not only the world’s largest industry but something far more complex than ‘the single largest peaceful movement of people across cultural boundaries’, as appointed by anthropologist James Lett (cited in Hutnyk, 1996: 138). ‘Low-budget’ we call these tourists – it sounds so much more authentic that way – but in a global context it takes a relatively gigantic purchasing power to go countryhopping for months on end. Far from being simpletons duped by a cunning industry, backpackers enjoy a zealous agency that they put to use to sanction a pre-existing glossy pamphlet Vietnam (War) with surplus entertainment value. On the affluent side of the world, all natives are potential tourists. For Us natives-turned-tourists value for money is paying US$1, not US$1.50, for a cyclo ride from Pham Ngu Lao to the War Museum, and value for money is to read the narrative of the museum as phantasmic. By ignoring how the freedom of one might be the confinement of an Other, and by exploiting an epistemological authority of ‘been there’ experience and authenticity, tourism, especially in its backpacking variety, is an alternative instrument in the ratification of the international geopolitical hierarchy (see Hutnyk, 1996). Becoming a tourist, then, is inevitably a political act.

–  –  –

War-as-usual In this context the marriage between tourism and war bears a seductive child indeed (see Diller and Scofidio, 1994). ‘Alternative’ tourists – beneficiaries of age-old institutionalized global asymmetries they claim to be able to sidestep – for whom Vietnam is a cinema-stuffed thing called war, set out not to ‘get away from it all’ but to ‘get into it’. Add to that an international industry promoting former war sites while simultaneously portraying a country ‘bombed back into the Stone Age’ as ‘unspoilt’, and the popcolonization can reach its fullest potential. This ‘Vietnamization with a vengeance’ constitutes extraterritorial corroborations of Western ‘truths’ through the filters of the indigenous and the naïve complacent authority of the dodgy old ‘been there, done that’ shibboleth.10 The last century was the bloodiest in the history of humankind. In this century, veiled under the slogan ‘Enduring Freedom’, we seem to be entering a state of chronic deterritorialized civil war – the business potential of war-tourism is without doubt monstrous. As they take the media packaged Vietnam-as-war out travelling and return it home safe, strengthened with new levels of authenticity, backpacking war-tourists dwell in an incongruous space between the Free World logic that justified the intervention in Vietnam and the genocidal practices that realized that logic. In this sense, peacetime war-tourism adheres to a belligerent dogma – a ‘Pax Americana’ to go along with Spanos (2000) – that hides war in peace in an effort to smokescreen its continuing violent practices. A world made safe for war-tourism puts us in the quagmire of ‘an occurent landscape’ (Crang, 1999: 246) where every war – past, present and future – promises entertainment and enticing self-ratification for well-heeled leisure vagrants – the ultimate playground for trigger-happy hegemonists.





Hardly a homogeneous horde, some tourists are clearly infatuated by war while others have the ‘war’ prefix more reluctantly attached – if Vietnam is War then all visitors are war-tourists, like it or not. Just as most film-directors (nowadays) claim to oppose war, so do most war-tourists. My aim, however, has not been to represent war-tourists, but to examine the global representations they, among others, circulate and the ideology that sanctions this. In dissecting the contradictions of war-tourism, what worries me is not the ostensible banality of tourism-as-usual, but its malicious other half – the comfortable numb state of war-as-usual in which the odd genocide barely provokes a raised eyebrow (cf. Bibby, 1999: 155; Phipps, 1999). Long ago, Hans Magnus Enzensberger identified the tourism-asusual ideology, but rather than falling into its entailing trap of ‘touristic shame’, he concluded that ‘critique of tourism... belongs in truth to

tourism itself.... The disillusionment with which the critic reacts to it corresponds to the illusions which he shares with tourism’ (cited in Frow, 1997:

95). I suspect that something similar applies to war – the disillusionment of war-as-usual shares its illusions with the ideology of war.

Tourism does not begin with the act of touring, but with the construction of a world picture that renders the world ‘tourable’. To fully understand 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.

486 Critique of Anthropology 22(4) war, we should examine how it makes its presence in peace – war does not begin with the act of killing, but with the construction of a peacetime world picture through which some people(s) are demarcated as ‘killable’. America never declared war and the Paris Peace Agreement was never observed – there was no war and there is no peace. Even the charade following the My Lai massacre points to this. First the massacre was denied enough to have those responsible walking free. Then, after 30 years of forgetting, the limelight was turned on Hugh Thompson and others who tried to prevent it, and they were declared American heroes, decorated with medals to prove it. With this shrewd scheme, an indiscriminate slaughter has been transformed into a triumph of American ideals while the ideology of carnage that caused it has been left intact. Now the only nation ever condemned for terrorism by an international court can claim to lead a righteous war against terrorism while doing its best to throw spanners in the works of the International Criminal Court (ICC). The establishment of the ICC should of course be criticized for sanctioning war-as-usual – with a juridical positivist demarcation of odd ‘war crimes’, most slaughters will inevitably be construed as ‘just wars’. For all the wrong reasons, American wants none of that – their wars are all just! In present-day post-ism, this New World Order of ours – where meek war critics can help America to get away with losing a war and still end up winning it – it might be wise to take heed of our conceit in order to avoid continuously having to write the history of our own obscurity with author/North Vietnamese Army-veteran Bao Ninh’s lament: ‘The future lied to us, there long ago in the past’ (1993: 42). With war-as-usual, the fact that Vietnam is a war that never was has never been truer – as if the whole gory beach-adventure never took place. Freedom is being sacrificed on the altar of the Free World.

Notes 1 The title was a GI’s comment when he received his orders to go to Vietnam (Baker, 1982: 25). Thanks to Klas Hallgren, Lena Ohre, Gudrun Dahl, Paolo Favero, Johan Lindquist, Raoul Galli, Galina Lindquist and Scott Laderman.

Special thanks to Stephen Nugent for his insightful comments and persistence.

2 The Rest and Recreation programme aimed at keeping the American troops’ morale at its ‘highest’. Soldiers were flown to cities throughout Asia to ‘rest and recreate’ at the brothels there.

3 See also the forthcoming work of Scott Laderman, University of Minnesota.

4 There is a risk of essentializing identity and reifying the subject here. But:

... [b]y decoupling the idea of experience from the vision of an ontologically prior subject who is ‘having’ it, it is possible to see in experience neither the adventures and expression of a subject nor the mechanical product of discourses of power but the workshop in which subjectivity is continually challenged and refashioned. (Gupta and Ferguson, 1997: 29 n17) 5 My scope is to examine the ‘(t)here’ rather than the ‘there’. While the ‘(t)here’ is a globalized imagined ‘elsewhere’, the ‘there’, below specified as

–  –  –

‘Vietnam-the-Country’, does not refer to an objective Cartesian reality but more democratically to the possibilities of other perspectives, a possibility that there is more to Vietnam than war.

6 FNG (Fucking New Guy) was a term used for newly arrived GIs during the war.

7 The market value of the war is generally recognized by guides. Although I see no reason to doubt Anh’s story, a common market strategy among enterprizing guides is to tell fake war stories to attract customers.

8 According to a 1993 survey, nine out of ten sex buyers are Vietnamese (Franklin, 1993). But to claim that tourists only contribute marginally to the sex industry is to fiddle with statistics. When the 669,862 foreign tourists of 1993 are put in relation with Vietnam’s population of 75 million, one out of ten is a relatively large portion. Some sex-tourism protagonists argue that prostitutes catering for international customers make more money and are therefore better off than their domestic co-workers, but this likewise points to the huge economic contribution international sex-tourists make to the industry.

9 During his speech in 1995 at the ceremony in Hanoi celebrating the normalization of diplomatic relations between the former enemies, Secretary of State of the Clinton administration Warren Christopher praised Thailand as democratic and liberal. He didn’t hide his view that a subordinate Vietnam should be moulded in the image of America (see Bradley, 2000: 188).

10 The fact that this argument, aimed at the moot ‘truth’-producing ‘been there’ authority constructed around the space between the affluent Western subject and the exotic Other, extends itself to a critique of anthropological knowledge production is old news yet ever-so critical.

References Agamben, Giorgio (1993) Stanzas: Word and Phantasm in Western Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Appadurai, Arjun (1996) Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization.

Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Baker, Mark (1982) NAM: The Vietnam War in the Words of the Men and Women Who Fought There. London: Abacus.

Bao Ninh (1993) The Sorrow of War. London: Secker and Warburg.

Benjamin, Walter (1968) Illuminations. New York: Schocken Books.

Benjamin, Walter (1973) Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism.

London: Verso.



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