Daring Rescues, Dead Babies, and ‘Another Vietnam’ 3

A big thank you to Warren Emerson and The Literary Table for welcoming me. I’m excited to be joining the interdisciplinary fun on this blog. The following is cross-posted from Legal Lacuna:

As Americans debate the recent “humanitarian” intervention in Libya, I am reminded of an NPR feature that aired last year. In the fall of 2010, NPR’s All Things Considered told the story of the U.S.S. Kirk, a small U.S. naval ship that, at the end of the Vietnam War, conducted an unusual humanitarian mission.

On April 29, 1975, as Saigon fell, the Kirk and its astonished crew were sent to retrieve thousands of refugees who were fleeing South Vietnam by boat and helicopter. The next day, the Kirk returned to “rescue . . . the remnants of the South Vietnamese navy,” about thirty ships that constituted the last sovereign South Vietnamese territory. The “rescue” of the navy was effected by lowering the South Vietnamese flag and raising the U.S. flag on each ship, transforming it into sovereign U.S. territory. Anthems were sung. Tears were shed. A Vietnamese baby who died of fever was mourned by all aboard the Kirk. All ended well, with the refugees resettled in the U.S. and elsewhere.

The story, explicitly a redemption narrative, says a lot about Americans’ view of themselves as citizens of a military superpower, particularly in relation to the “Orient.” NPR resurrects and rewrites that other Vietnam narrative, the one usually characterized by destruction, grief, and moral failure, into a tearful rescue. The story contains all the ingredients for an American comeback on the world stage: grateful Asian refugees, brave (and hitherto unsung) American heroes, and the distinctly harmonious, shared mourning of a Vietnamese baby—an innocent, civilian “other” who dies not because of U.S. violence, but in spite of U.S. medics’ efforts to save him from illness.

It is significant that this story appeared at a time when the U.S. was engaged in two seemingly interminable, geographically vague conflicts in the Middle East/western Asia. For most of the last decade, Americans have been haunted by a discursive ghost, that nagging refrain: “We don’t want another Vietnam,” an expensive, bloody, ideologically-motivated conflict against an enemy whose low-tech warfare somehow overwhelms the U.S.’ “modern” might. This was even before the “Arab Spring” came with its tech-savvy hopefulness and its double edge of democracy and violence; we were tired of the same, old War on Terror.

NPR, in fact, gave listeners “another Vietnam,” much better than the one we remembered. Foregrounding the U.S. military’s humanitarian functions, the story of the Kirk momentarily absolves the U.S. of its other actions. The story serves as a palliative to widespread American anxieties about war, territory, immigration, and imperialism. It enables a transformation of grief caused by human conflict into grief for the lost child, who functions as a cipher for innocence and the will of God. As we cry with nostalgia and pride at the raising of U.S. flags over South Vietnamese navy ships, we are also reassured that there is such a thing as colonialism by consent.

We live in a murky world where military action causes more violence, even as it saves lives. As listeners to the NPR story, we glimpse ourselves among the refugees, rescued from the horror of real war, seeking shelter aboard the Kirk.

Mai-Linh K. Hong is pursuing a Ph.D. in English at the University of Virginia and holds a J.D. from the U.Va. School of Law. She tweets from @FleursduMai and @LegalLacuna.

3 comments

  1. Welcome Mai-Linh. This was an exquisitely moving reflection on the necessary yet troubling and unavoidable intertwining of the personal and political, a reality from which some turn a blind eye whilst others have no choice but to face its darkest effects.

    I learned of the Vietnam War during my childhood in Irving, Texas, and my parents were consistent supporters of President Johnson and the government’s domestic and foreign policies (the former taking the form of the ‘war on poverty’). It’s hard to express the sense of betrayal and disappointment I felt when, having arrived at the age of reason, I discovered what it meant to learn of how our country continued the colonialist adventurism of the French, albeit with a horrifying degree of technological and military brutalism befitting our status as the world’s most powerful nation-state. From that day forward I have been haunted, angered, provoked, and perplexed by the “meaning” of this war and by extension the resort to violence in general to “resolve” political conflicts (mind you, I’m still not a pacifist).

    The Vietnam War affected my views in myriad ways over time, as did the civil rights movement, indeed, these two historical moments have provided the psychological and political backdrop of my deepest dreams, my secret hopes, my bewitching desires. They speak to much of what motivates my academic work, such as it is, to my intellectual pursuits, to my moral values and political beliefs, to my sense of who I am as a person. They account for my abiding interest in Asian worldviews and my perhaps “Orientalist” fascination with all-things-Vietnamese. They explain my devotion to all forms of justice on the one hand, and my conviction that much of moral value or spiritual worth falls outside its reach and makes even more arduous individual and collective demand on us: witness the capacity of the Vietnamese people to reconcile with their one-time enemies and to welcome Americans into their country in the spirit of warmth and forgiveness, transcending the anger and bitterness that to this day lingers among many Americans in one way or another.

    Thanks again for posting this: I hope readers will pardon the largely selfish orientation of my comments in response (perhaps my age prompts indulgence in this sort of ‘looking backwards’).

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