The lesson American documentary film makers have yet to learn about Vietnam is that Vietnam is not fourteen years old. Barbara Sonneborn's film "Regret to Inform" is no exception, writes PNS editor Andrew Lam, who found the film bore little resemblance to his own Vietnamese memory of the war. Lam, a commentator for National Public
Radio, writes short stories and reports for New California Media, PNS' ethnic media web site at www.ncmonline.com.
As a long time but wary viewer of Vietnam War flicks, I've developed a useful adage -- to be moved by a piece of work is not necessarily the same as to be illuminated by it. Alas, I found myself applying that adage as I watched "Regret to Inform," a documentary about Vietnam war widows by Barbara Sonneborn.
While I was moved to tears by some of the testimonies and images of the film, I found little in the documentary that jibed with my own Vietnamese memory, that of a country deeply divided by a civil war, where North and South were at each other's throat long before the Americans arrived. In my memory, my eldest uncle on my mother's side joined Ho
Chi Minh's army in the North while his two younger brothers joined the South Vietnamese Army, later becoming bomber pilots who dropped B-52 bombs on their older brother and his troops.
It is a memory, that is to say, of Vietnamese killing Vietnamese in a bloody and senseless theater where Americans were mere side actors, giving ammunition to the South Vietnamese Army, urging them on, and leaving them hanging out to dry in the middle of a raging battlefield.
That America plays the central role in Sonneborn's documentary is no surprise. After all, Vietnam was a complicated, three-sided war, a difficult narrative that often gets reduced to two sides -- America versus all Vietnamese.
From that perspective, we see Americans as perpetrators of violence and Vietnamese as innocents in conical hats, waiting to be murdered. We are told this not so much in words but in the footage of American planes dropping bombs and napalm onto the tropical landscape. We are shown Vietnamese being herded and tied up like oxen by American GIs or
beaten by the butts of their M-16s. Not once do we see a Vietnamese holding a gun. Not once do we see a Vietnamese in army uniform, be it a Viet Cong or ARVN soldier. Only Americans have that privilege, as GIs, as wielders of history.
Vietnamese, so the images suggest, were passive victims of their fate -- which of course does not explain America's defeat.
What I want to tell Sonneborn and all American filmmakers who ever made movies regarding Vietnam is this: Vietnam is not fourteen years old. Vietnam's story does not begin when the first American helicopter landed in the rice fields, and it does not end when the last helicopter left the rooftop of the American embassy in Saigon. In the 20th
century alone Vietnamese fought, besides the Vietnam war, the French, the Japanese and the Chinese, and then went on to occupy Cambodia for ten years, and never lost a war -- not counting South Vietnam's defeat.
Ours is a tragedy that started when the first French gunship sailed into the Perfume River almost 200 years ago and divided and conquered the country, exploiting differences between North and South to detrimental effect. And it's a tragedy that has not yet ended, as Hanoi continues to rule over Saigon and the South with a dead-end communist
ideology that in the last 25 years has hindered and hurt more than it has helped.
"What is the legacy of war?" Sonneborn asked in her film, "and what happens after the troops go home?"
What happened when the American troops went home is that Hanoi -- America's victim-turned-victor -- immediately enforced a vindictive policy in the defeated South, putting nearly a million South Vietnamese men in re-education camps and forcing hundreds of thousands of middle-class South Vietnamese families to survive in malaria-infested New
Economic Zones while confiscating their properties. More than two million Vietnamese risked death at sea as boat people to escape.
Where, I wonder, are the voices of the widows whose husbands starved to death in re-education camps? Where are the voices of those forced to escape Vietnam by boat to end up in refugee camps while waiting to be accepted by the West?
Why, I wonder, is it easier for filmmakers to fly thousands of miles across the ocean to Hanoi to interview communist officials and film scenes of exotic limestone mountains or sparkling rivers than it is to drive a few hundred miles to San Jose or Los Angeles or Dallas to interview the million or so Vietnamese Americans? Is it because their epic
story might somehow dislodge Americans' own narcissistic sense of guilt?
If that is the case, the answer to Sonneborn's other question regarding the legacy of war is this: War and its aftermath are always bad, but it is worse when its history is simplified and its many voices muffled. The result of such misinformation is always ignorance.
Copyright by Pacific News Services