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Saturday, Feb. 19, 2005


Decades of peace have yet to heal Vietnam's wounds

VIET NAM AT PEACE, by Philip Jones Griffiths. London: Trolley, 2005, 312 pp., £39.95 (cloth).

This is the final volume in Philip Jones Griffiths' epoch trilogy on Vietnam spanning 40 years. His classic "Vietnam, Inc" (1971) and "Agent Orange" (2003) focus on war and its consequences. Here, we are given penetrating glimpses of a society coping with war trauma and getting on with life that demonstrate the care and skill of a renowned photographer who has sustained a sharp and luminous focus on a single society.

His work is an object lesson to the packs of photo-journalists who flit from one disaster to the next, hit-and-run specialists who market images short on empathy with and understanding of the moments in time they capture.

John Pilger, who also first arrived in Vietnam in 1966, writes of the "Goya-like faces and the subversive quality of each image." Griffiths, he remarks, portrays "Viet Nam as a country, not a war."

The photos in this lavishly produced volume are presented in 15 sections with brief introductions and captions. The legacies of war loom large, but Griffiths helps us get inside society and its ongoing problems and transformations.

Certainly, the war's devastating toll (5 million Vietnamese dead), the United States' refusal to honor its promise of reconstruction aid as well as its spiteful sanctions have indelibly scarred the people and hampered development.

We encounter the deformed babies affected by Agent Orange, faces scarred by napalm, wheelchair bound vets and amputees. And there are children, so many children from the postwar baby boom, going to ramshackle schools that feature grim classrooms and playgrounds scarred with trenches.

From the 1980s we see some Amerasians, generally well accepted except for the offspring of black Americans, who face racial prejudice. Only a tiny fraction of all these children have been contacted by their fathers, another debit in the balance sheet of the forgotten war.

Among the images of the boat people there is a haunting photo of a woman surrounded by her children in a refugee camp in Hong Kong, staring off with a sad dignity amid cramped squalor. Life was miserable in these detention centers as the world turned its back on the exodus of those who had aligned themselves with the losing cause of the U.S.

Griffiths also challenges war memories, castigating the MIA/POW (missing in action/prisoner of war) myth that hijacked U.S. policy toward Vietnam. He speaks of the "flimflam absurdity" of claims that Vietnam held POWs long after the war ended, arguing that this deliberate deception permitted the continuation of callous indifference to the suffering the U.S. had inflicted on Vietnam.

A form of truth, the first casualty of war, is being perpetuated, Griffiths tells us, in Vietnam's war museums, which cater to tourists by sanitizing the horrors endured. He asserts that younger Vietnamese are now challenging this reconciliation-first history propagated by their elders, the beginning of a revision process that is shedding a harsher light on U.S. involvement and negligence.

There is a rich montage of everyday Vietnamese at weddings, funerals, attending religious ceremonies, working their fields and resting from their labors. Some of the most beautiful images portray life along the waterways, people fishing, rowing, poling, swimming and raising families on houseboats.

We are taken beyond the tourist snaps of the majestic Ha Long Bay to see the gritty-faced miners who work nearby, loading barges with coal-laden straw baskets they carry on their heads.

Worlds away, the impact of globalization is evident in urban centers where slick billboards loom above ramshackle waterfront huts, defacing office blocks. In a culture that prizes austerity and silence, designer goods and mobile phones have become ubiquitous accouterments.

Griffiths laments a spreading mass consumerism that he satirizes in its sheer tastelessness and excess. As elsewhere, the poor gain naught from this "good life," their abject conditions a telling rebuke. Here we see them gazing upon what they are excluded from and there is no averting our gaze from the stark contrast that prevails and the misery of those who have been left behind.

In depicting the children of the "victors" working in multinational sneaker factories, modeling swimsuits, selling brand-name goods and embracing capitalism, Griffiths puts us in the shoes of the veterans whose minds must boggle at the resounding ironies.

The book closes, appropriately, where the trilogy began, with U.S. Marines landing in Danang, but now coming without hostile intentions, making a beeline for the nearest bar.

Jeff Kingston teaches history at Temple University Japan.

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