Review of Asian Studies

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Quan Manh Ha

The University of Montana

The Vietnamese communist regime united the long-divided country in April of 1975. Under its laws, history written by Vietnamese historians must comply with the government’s guiding criteria, which include criticizing French colonialism and American imperialism; lavishing encomia upon the leadership of the Communist Party and its governance; imbuing the Vietnamese people with the belief that communist victory and national unification brought justice, equality, freedom, and happiness throughout the country. Or as Christina Schwenkel observes, “Official history in Vietnam has selectively silenced certain pasts that fall outside the dominant paradigm of revolutionary history”—for example, it denies any validity to the historical perspectives articulated by those who had allied themselves with the former Saigon government.1 Vietnamese historians who suggest positions contradictory to these directives will be silenced and probably prosecuted for expressing “reactionary” opinions and manifesting insubordinate behavior because, as Pham Van Dong, former Prime Minister of Vietnam, affirmed in his 1975 Independence Day speech: “[t]he victory of the revolutionary cause of our people is also a victory of the great doctrine of Marxism-Leninism, the peak of human wisdom, which has lighted our revolutionary path full of glorious victories.”2 Discussing major characteristics of Vietnamese literature sanctioned under communism, Nguyen Hung Quoc, a Vietnamese Australian scholar, concludes:

Vietnamese communist literature is under one leadership: that of the Communist Party; writers must be members of one organization: the Vietnamese Authors Association; they share one ideology: Marxism and Leninism; they follow one approach to literature: socialist realism; they have one writing style: simplicity; they aim at one goal: to acknowledge the absolute power and righteousness leadership of the Communist Party, and to praise communist leaders and socialism; all published literary texts have one characteristic: politics.3 (my translation)

The United States, since 1975, consistently has placed Vietnam on its list of countries that violate human rights, and particularly in regard to freedom of speech.4 Due to the Vietnamese government’s strict censorship of verbal and written expression, the darker aspects of social life during the postwar period in southern Vietnam rarely are recorded in the history books that are published or legally accessed in Vietnam. If incidents embarrassing to the Communist Party are mentioned at all by Vietnamese historians, they are described only in subtle, tactful ways in order to circumvent proscription by the state-controlled publishing houses.

It is Vietnamese refugees living abroad (primarily anticommunist partisans and victims of repressive communist policies prior to their exodus) who openly discuss the communists’ power abuses. Thus, in an asylum-granting country, the refugee-historians draw attention to the suffering of the Vietnamese people in their homeland, on the one hand, and they register general condemnation of Vietnamese communism for its inhumane and barbarous practices, on the other. In this article, I argue that many first-generation Vietnamese American writers of non-fiction use the battered human body, and what Foucault describes as undemocratic space,5 to criticize the Vietnamese communist government’s violation of human rights and expose the regime’s unacceptable treatment of those who had affiliated themselves politically or militarily either with the United States and/or the former Saigon government. In addition, the physical body is also used by victims as an object of negotiation to obtain assistance or freedom from the communists in power. Schwendel states:

There is a long historical relationship between U.S. human rights discourses and challenges to sovereignty [...]. Representations of ‘savage’ communists with no value for human life or respect for freedom justified military intervention and attempts to ‘save’ the country [Vietnam] from communism.6

Human beings generally are not indifferent to the pain of others, and they certainly are not indifferent to their own pain, suffering, and violation of their human rights; in Arne Johan Vetlessen’s words, most people “call for an explanation” after hearing stories about violations of individuals’ physical beings.7 Those former victims who give voice to discussing and recording such abuses generally are attempting to garner support from Western readerships and governments for their concern for human rights violations in Vietnam or justification for their own decisions (and the decisions of others like them) to flee Vietnam and resettle in Western countries as political refugees. Outside Vietnam, they often attempt to use violations of human rights in the homeland to vindicate the Vietnam War as a just cause—i.e., a war fought to prevent the spread of communism and to establish democracy in South Vietnam. Nevertheless, human rights violations in postwar Vietnam are an issue of international concern.

Fiction generally is a less reliable source for the factual detail required in the study of the actual physical abuses of those accused of harboring anticommunist sentiments. Therefore, the memoir, a non-fiction genre, is the focus in this study. Vietnamese American memoirs treated here are written as first-hand, eye-witness accounts by those who actually experienced and suffered or personally observed the hardships, injustice, and prejudicial treatment imposed upon its victims by the communist regime or the authorities it placed in power.

A goodly number of memoirs, autobiographies, and life narratives about post-1975 life under Vietnamese communism have been written in English and published in the United States. They share similar thematic treatments of their subjects: their authors portray a postwar Vietnam in which citizens continue to suffer severe discrimination under communism, and they express a very human yearning for the justice, freedom, and equality that are proclaimed in the theories but rarely realized in practice by the communist government among the Vietnamese people under its authority. These negative realities of life are addressed mostly by former pro-Saigon regime southerners, while most northerners celebrated the unification of the country and Vietnam’s transformation into an independent, socialist nation under one government and one flag.

I will concentrate here upon Jade Ngoc Quang Huynh’s South Wind Changing (1994) and Kien Nguyen’s The Unwanted (2001) because they well describe the tragic experiences of thousands of victims mistreated under the communist regime.8 South Wind Changing is a memoir that records the author’s experience in communist reeducation camps, and The Unwanted relates the author’s childhood experience as an Amerasian in postwar Vietnam. It should be noted that these texts remain suppressed in Vietnam because they do not conform to the government’s censorial criteria noted above. Thus, according to the communist government, they voice the opinions of the betrayers of the nation, or they represent the voices of the puppets and lackeys of the Americans, most of whom departed Vietnam to seek political asylum in the United States or elsewhere.

While Asian American literature generally focuses on issues related to ethnicity, race, biculturalism, assimilation, and identity crises experienced in the United States, early Vietnamese American texts generally treat different concerns: they concentrate, for example, on post-1975 life under the communist regime and the enforcement of its policies, and on the imperatives that forced them to flee from the hostile political environment in Vietnam. Such texts can be classified under the rubric “survival literature,” a term coined by Kali Tal to describe works that most often are published at least ten years after the “traumatic experience in question” by the survivors who feel a need to examine a “trauma victim’s notion of self and community.”9 In her controversial article “Denationalization Reconsidered: Asian American Cultural Criticism at the Theoretical Crossroads,” Sau-ling C. Wong distinguishes diasporic literature from domestic literature as follows:

A diasporic perspective emphasizes Asian Americans as one element in the global scattering of peoples of Asian origin, in contrast to what I call a domestic perspective that stresses the status of Asian Americans as an ethnic/racial minority within the national boundaries of the United States.10

Applying Tal’s useful concept and Wong’s dichotomy to the subject-works examined in this article, it becomes more obvious that early Vietnamese American literature represents the diasporic perspective. The realities portrayed in the two early texts selected for analysis here help explain important formative and determining factors in the backgrounds, social status, and anticommunist points of view of first- or sometimes second-generation Vietnamese Americans. Nguyen Hung Quoc has classified early Vietnamese literature produced outside the boundaries of Vietnam under the category of “literature in exile.” Despite controversy concerning his use of this terminology, the literature it categorizes does express the condemnation of Vietnamese communist political power, opposition to communist ideology and propaganda, and the expression of a basic human desire for human freedom that define the Vietnamese American exile point of view.11

Reeducation Camps, the Condemned Body, and Politics

Many early Vietnamese American authors describe their painful experiences in the communist reeducation camps or their tragic experiences as “boat people”—experiences that define their identities as political refugees, haunt their thoughts and memories, and remain present always in the peripheral vision of their consciousness. Most of the memoirs describing life in the postwar reeducation camps are quite similar in their treatment of their recurrent themes: they expose how they, as inmates, were dehumanized, humiliated, tortured, punished, and brainwashed by the communist cadres and camp guards. Soon after Vietnam was reunified in April 1975, partisans who had supported the South Vietnamese government and/or allied themselves with the American military mission were requested to file reports at local police stations on their previous political allegiances, professional activities, and family connections. However, the local authorities had blatantly lied to them, saying that if they told the truth and wrote a detailed, honest self-criticism, they would be granted amnesty for the “crimes” that they had committed during the national revolutionary war against the American invaders and the Saigon government they had supported. They were asked to prepare enough food and pack enough clothing for a short reeducation session, but actually they were transferred almost immediately to remote, deserted areas of the country to suffer forced labor and corporal punishment for long periods of time—from one to twelve years, depending on how their offenses were defined and classified.

In English, the term reeducation euphemistically carries positive nuances of meaning: the word education contained within it signifies the enrichment of one’s knowledge or the improvement of one’s skills. In the Introduction to To Be Made Over: Tales of Socialist Reeducation in Vietnam, Huynh Sanh Thong clarifies the significance of the equivalent of the English term reeducation in Vietnamese:

The term ‘reeducation,’ with its pedagogical overtones, does not quite convey the quasi-mystical resonance of cải-tạo in Vietnamese. Cải (‘to transform’) and tạo (‘to create’) combine to literally mean an attempt at ‘recreation,’ at ‘making over’ sinful or incomplete individuals. Born again as ‘Socialist men and women’ (con người xã-hội chủ-nghĩa), they will supposedly pave the way to the Communist millennium.12

Huynh Sanh Thong is but one among many commentators who are critical of the use of the term reeducation in reference to the internment camps where victims were detained. According to Neil L. Jamieson, in his Understanding Vietnam, the population of southern Vietnam after the war was around twenty million people, and one million of those citizens of the former Republic of Vietnam were required by the communist regime to register for reeducation. The targeted individuals were intellectuals, politicians, religious leaders, police and military officers, artists, journalists, and writers of the old regime. In order to transform the detainees into citizens useful in a new, “liberated” Vietnam, the communist government set up camps that were neither schools nor prisons. They were “psychological [and] spiritual ‘boot camps’” in which people were indoctrinated into communist dogma, Ho Chi Minh’s ideology, and socialist ideals.13 In other words, the camps were centers for brainwashing the detainees, who were forced to listen daily to homilies about the evils of imperialism and capitalism and the virtues of socialism and communism, and they were centers for the corporeal punishment of the “wrong-doers.”

Politics and the Human Body, edited by Jean Bethke Elshtain and J. Timothy Cloyd, emphasizes that torture as an instrument of coercion is very often closely associated with the enforcement of political agendas; it is pain impressed upon the human body that adjusts one’s understanding of political goals, power relations, and democratic spheres of influence,14 concepts that are fully elaborated upon by Foucault in Discipline and Punish. Cloyd, in his chapter on “Torture, Human Rights, and the Body” distinguishes significant differences between discipline, punishment, and torture, and these distinctions are useful in the discussion below. Discipline entails a set of actions aiming toward integrating a person into an established or expected system of behavioral uniformity. Punishment is used when an individual violates this established uniformity, but “its goals remain within the notion of integration.” To the contrary, however, torture does not serve the purpose of integration: it aims only to “inflict severe pain as a means of punishment, or coercion,” and the individual bears the physical, psychological, and emotional scars of its degradation.15

In South Wind Changing, Huynh describes scenes that illustrate uses and abuses of the human body to bend the will of people, and both subdue and humiliate them. Immediately after the communist takeover of South Vietnam, Huynh witnessed a young, handsome man (who could have been a southern colonel or a general’s son, as the author speculates) being handcuffed, blindfolded, and led to a public scaffold where he was asked to state his last request. He was executed for his refusal to acknowledge the victory of the communists and for his loyalty to the Republic of Vietnam: “The guards held their guns up, aimed at the young men [the young officer and other prisoners], and shot them. I saw blood sprinkle all over as their bodies shook while their heads fell to one side and they died.”16 The purpose of such public executions was to make other people realize that the slightest offence would likely receive corporeal or capital punishment and that detainees should in no way challenge the communists’ own feelings of terror and paranoia.

In the reeducation camps, Huynh and other inmates subjected to hard labor, limited access to tools, and a hostile working environment, were ordered to convert an airfield into a garden; they worked until their hands blistered and “turned numb,” but they were not allowed to stop.17 Based on the circumstances that prevail in the general exercise of discipline, punishment, and torture, as Cloyd has explained, the camp guards were not attempting to integrate inmates into uniformity with Communist Party ideals because the labor that the detainees were forced to provide passed beyond the rubrics of discipline and punishment and fell under the category of torture.

As a further example of this principle of punishment passing into the actual torture of a physical body, each group of inmates in the camp had to practice self-criticism; members of each group also had to point out the laziest individual among them, who would be forced into a small metal box formerly used by the Americans for ammunitions: “The metal box was oven-hot during the day and freezing at night; everyone had to taste this torture at least once during our time at the camp. You were lucky to be let out in two days, and fortunate to be alive if they put you in the box for a week.”18

Descriptions of malnutrition and eventual starvation, back-breaking labor, dehumanizing treatment, preventable disease, and painful death pervade almost every page of Huynh’s memoir, as well as the pages of all Vietnamese American narratives about the reeducation camps. Humiliation, rather than reeducation, was the rule because humiliation, according to the communists, was the most effective means by which to awaken a detainee to the noble socialist precept that “labor is glory.” Foucault states that crime and punishment are always related and that the latter often expresses itself as atrocity, which is not “the result of some obscurely accepted law of retaliation.” He emphasizes that “[humiliation] was the effect, in the rites of punishment, of a certain mechanism of power: of a power that not only did not hesitate to exert itself directly on bodies, but was exalted and strengthened by its visible manifestations.”19 The two forms of power abuses that the communists most often accused detainees of committing were of harboring an uncooperative attitude toward the national revolution and of advocating the justice of the U.S. presence in Vietnam during the war. Huynh affirms that one of the primary purposes behind the communist guards’ maltreatment of inmates was to deprive inmates of energy and vitality so that they would “die slowly” and not revolt: “They forced our labor and kept us busy so we would never have any time to scheme against them. If someone provoked them, they would punish all and shoot that person in front of us as if they were telling us, ‘I’ll shoot anyone I want.’”20

A study by Elaine Scarry concludes that belief and body are both directly and indirectly associated because either “the belief belongs to a person other than the person whose body is used to confirm it,” or “the belief belongs to the person whose body is used in its confirmation.”21 Scarry’s concept is illustrated in Huynh’s own situation. He was arrested and sent to a camp without having committed a crime, merely because he looked like, and indeed was, a student—a representative of the intellectual class. Similarly, Huynh describes another inmate wearing glasses, who was considered to represent a dangerous threat to the regime because, according to the camp guards’ assertion, he must belong to the intelligentsia, and thus must be too well-educated to be indoctrinated into communist agendas, and therefore would, in all probability, refuse to join the communists in their on-going revolution against the American cause. In actuality, this particular inmate was simply a near-sighted mechanic. Both situations, that of the body of Huynh and that of the mechanic, fall into the second category that Scarry mentions—in which the belief derives from the stereotyping vision of the police who arrested Huynh and of the morally myopic camp guard who interrogated the near-sighted mechanic.

In almost all instances, the human body, as might be expected, becomes the primary target of psychological and physical abuse in the reeducation camps, and it enters into the discourse of survivors on the imposition of physical mastery by the communist liberators of Vietnam. Foucault, too, affirms that systems of punishment aim at the human body and that they reveal the power relations in a society.22 Foucault’s conclusion is confirmed by the circumstances that prevailed in postwar Vietnam and that have been recorded in the memoirs studied here. The character Son, who conducted the interrogation of the near-sighted mechanic mentioned above, dehumanized his victim, treating him “like a dog obeying his master [...], dragging him in the dirt [with a rope] like an animal.”23 After one of Huynh’s friends, Hung, was caught after attempting to escape and then returned to the camp, he looked like a “dead ghost” without energy to survive, after having been tortured in a closed barrel of water: “His eyes were sunken beneath messed-up hair [...]. He looked like an old man when he walked, his back hunched. I could imagine all his bones broken to pieces.”24

In both cases, the camp guards represent the powerful, and the detainees the powerless, and the power relationships are sanctioned to impress the agenda of the regime in power upon the people that it governed. The guards are the masters, and the detainees are the mastered. Huynh also criticizes the communist regime for the revenge and disrespect it inflicted upon the dead. If camp guards saw any valuable item on an inmate’s dead body, they would “confiscate” it. Huynh saw a guard “cut the finger off and [pocket] the ring” of the corpse of a man who had died after torture in one of his camps.25

After 1975, communist bulldozers were used to destroy at least one cemetery where former southern soldiers had been buried, and analyzing such post-mortem abuse, Elshtain states, “Bodily identity is one essential dimension of the human person. To harm a dead body/person, is to assault the fabric of the human community.”26 Not even in death were those identified as partisans or potential partisans, those who had opposed or might have opposed the communist agenda, allowed to rest in peace. The program of subjugation and humiliation of the psychological and physical beings of prisoners detained in the camps was unrestrained and unrelenting. It was designed to bend the bodies and minds of detainees to the persuasion of the regime in power.

Images of blood and death pervade Huynh’s memoir. The author himself often thanked fate or destiny for maintaining his life amid the dehumanizing circumstances in the camps, in which he witnessed sadistic acts and tragic deaths occurring on an hourly basis. For example, due to the limited food rations available in the camps, prisoners clandestinely had to eat insects that they found while working in the field. Huynh depicts how inmates were tortured when caught eating non-rationed foodstuff:

If the guards saw you, you would find yourself at the “guillotine center” [...]. The guard tied the thumb of your left hand to your right toe and the right thumb to your left toe and let you stay at the guillotine center for a few hours, donating blood to mosquitoes. If the guard wanted to kill you he would leave you there all night. You would die in horror, your face sunken, pale as a banana leaf from loss of blood, your mouth wide open.27

While many anticommunist Vietnamese people in the South accuse the communists of their atrocities and violations of human rights, they rarely address the similar practices by the former Saigon government, with which they had allied themselves. Elshtain notes in the Introduction to her book that psychological and physical torture are used routinely as a means of “political coercion and control in regimes we describe as anti-democratic.”28 The image of the suffering body and of the torturers who inflict the suffering are emblematic of the extent to which the regime that inflicts physical pain upon the people it detains will go to hold a population in check. Scarry articulates this same concept in memorable phrasing: “The physical pain is so incontestably real that it seems to confer its quality of ‘incontestable reality’ on that power that has brought it into being. It is, of course, precisely because the reality of that power is so highly contestable, the regime so unstable, that torture is being used.”29 Almost in confirmation of the conclusions drawn by Scarry, Elshtain, Foucault, and others who examine the mechanisms of subjugation through inflicting physical pain upon the subdued, Huynh presents the battered body effectively in his denunciation of the tyranny exercised by the victorious communists as that of a dictatorship that permits no opposition.

In a poignant formulation, Scarry captures such horror in the use of torture upon real or potential opponents to a regime in power as described by Huynh: “To have pain is to have certainty; to hear about pain is to have doubt.” Thus, in a situation in which “some central idea or ideology or cultural construct has ceased to elicit a population’s belief […] the sheer material factualness of the human body will be borrowed to lend that cultural construct the aura of ‘realness’ and ‘certainty.’”30 This powerful observation holds true also when a new regime establishes a new belief system upon a population that earlier had affirmed other values, as when the communists imposed their rule over the former South Vietnam. By way of interpreting Scarry’s philosophically charged observation, we may note that, in making it, she implies a variation on the source of certainty that René Descartes discerned during the Thirty Years’ War of the seventeenth century in his attempt to discover philosophical certainty—but in Scarry’s case, amid the horrors of warfare in the twentieth century. Descartes’s philosophical formulation “I think, therefore I am” becomes for those whom Huynh sees tortured the psychological and physical “my body suffers, therefore I am”—at least until the suffering becomes so intense that the sufferer ceases to exist, first in its own body and then, eventually, even in the minds of those around them.

Charles E. Scott, like Scarry, also places the suffering of the body within a large tradition of Western thought. In his discussion of “democratic space,” he states, “Our western inheritances make inevitable our desire to bring together intelligent action and right values, and North American inheritance makes inevitable our hope for an order of justice that belies other convictions concerning the inevitable meanness and foolishness of our lives.”31 Huynh’s memoir targets, of course, the Western readerships’ long-attested concern for democracy, and he contextualizes the infliction of a range of severe pain and suffering within those abuses of power—issues that serve the interests of “the West, particularly the United States,” who celebrates an “individual’s uniqueness and unique story, and his or her individual rights,” as Kay Schaffer and Sidone Smith point out in their discussion of the relationship between life narratives about suffering and survival and the Western literary market.32

In addition to the subhuman living conditions and brutal treatment imposed upon prisoners, the camps often were located in malaria-infested jungles in which inmates constantly faced the threat of heat-stroke and such preventable infectious diseases as dysentery. Detainees repeatedly were transferred from one camp to another in animal-transport vehicles, and they were not informed of their next destination until they reached it. Those who lived through these incomprehensible experiences claim that life in the camps literally was “hell on earth.” Even after their release, the former detainees and their families were forced to resettle in newly established economic zones, where they were deprived of electricity, farming tools, or the basic necessities of life, so that they would suffer the hardships that the northern Vietnamese and the Vietcong had experienced during their struggle to achieve Vietnam’s reunification. As is said to be true for souls in hell, life for many detainees was lived in a state of continuous despair.

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