Such A Lovely Little War

Artfully crafted in both the illustrations and trilingual narration (French, Vietnamese, and English), Truong’s text recounts an uncommon tale of the Việt Nam War—that of a multiracial family living in the seemingly Norman Rockwell-esque U.S. and travelling back to Việt Nam as the American war there escalates. Truong’s father, a Vietnamese diplomat and cultural counselor, and his French mother, took him and his siblings to Việt Nam. It is through this journey that Truong elegantly weaves complex histories with his own childhood memories.

The Truong family in particular occupies a tenuous position in this shifting space of the U.S. in 1961. They are, to put it simply, too American to be French, and too French to be Vietnamese. Truong illustrates how his family’s occupation of this liminal position is charged with racial and political danger. What is compelling is how Truong focalizes these large-scale conflicts through the lens of his childhood self. For instance, within the span of just the first few panels of the book, the idyllic American setting—represented by the White House, “Cherry pie, corner-shop et Coca-cola” (9)—is always already punctuated by conflict.

…While from under the luxury of my reading blanket, I found it fun to read in my three languages (French, Vietnamese, and English), the encounter of these tongues in the book often articulates the confrontation of histories of colonialism. The multilingual narration and dialogue underscores the fact that the war was not simply a matter between the U.S. and Việt Nam, but a global (hi)story. This is important because it is through language that we know what we know and how we know, so reading histories in multiple languages can open up possibilities of understanding. In my hopes that Une Si Jolie Petite Guerre will soon be translated into English to make Truong’s story available to a wider audience, I am curious to see how the translation shifts certain meanings and understandings of this history.

Truong’s oscillations between the public and private manifestations of violence make the sliver of gutter space between the panels brim with the understanding of how the socio-political impacts the individual, how a world at war shapes the imagination of children who experience it. Most evident of this are his deft turns from depictions of seemingly ordinary child’s play to representations of the larger scale violence, sometimes right outside their windows.

Further fostering his childhood point of view as one of the voices in the narration, Truong generously includes his actual childhood drawings in a few panels, which testify to the experience of war from a child’s eyes, as well as the author’s nascent artistic inclinations. It is these moments of a child’s optics, so full of fascination and awe, that I find most precious, in that it is a matter of taking the time to look and think and wonder about things. As we get older, we are trained, and train ourselves, not to look because it is not acceptable or we just don’t have time to open ourselves up and let it all in.

…Of course, many of these glimpses of war are not what Truong himself experienced firsthand. The narration very much elucidates a process of remembering, of going back to fill in the gaps and flesh out the larger context for individual recollections. In addition to researched facts about political initiatives and historical events, Truong incorporates documents such as nationalist propaganda as well as personal letters exchanged by family members. This methodology of (re)navigating history in conversation with personal memory also allows Truong to attend to who often gets left out of historical narratives, showing the diversity of those involved in the war:  his mixed family, divisions within the Communist party, women’s roles ranging from traditional to revolutionary, and “la crise Bouddhiste” (227). Valuing Truong’s work as an artistic, literary process spotlights the importance of how we construct and narrate history. The anastomotic relationship between research and the self in Une Si Jolie Petite Guerre is useful not only for readers who may not have, and may be looking for, a historical breadth in their understanding of the war in Việt Nam, but also for those seeking an example of productive methodology to draw history and memory, the world and the self, into meaningful conversation.

In 1963, with the Buddhist revolt in Huế and Thích Quảng Đức’s immolation, the situation nationally and privately becomes unbearable. Marcelino’s father is named counselor to the embassy in London and the Truong family leaves Sài Gòn. They would watch the assassinations of Diệm and Kennedy from London.

The novel focuses on the three years of the Vietnamese-American war under Kennedy. The 50 years since speed by in a succession of panels of iconic scenes in an epilogue that finishes with Marcelino adult with his parents on the beach in St Malo. Through trilingual dialogue and crisp narrative, Marcelino Truong tells a story the French readership has yet to hear, that of the Republic of Vietnam (1955-75). In the forthcoming part 2, Ly Lan Dill meets with Marcelino Truong and discusses his groundbreaking graphic novel.

Born in 1957 in the Philippines, Marcelino Truong was named after the street in Manila where his Vietnamese father and French mother used to live – la calle San Marcelino. Marcelino earned degrees in law at Sciences Po and English literature at the Sorbonne, before deciding to become an artist at the late age of 25.

Much of Marcelino’s work—but not all—deals with Asia and especially Vietnam. He is currently working on a new graphic novel. This new project explores the battle of Điện Biên Phủ, whose 60th anniversary will be marked in 2014.

As with the American war in Vietnam, Điện Biên Phủ has already been portrayed many times over in several media. The task he has set for himself is daunting, especially as his intention, as with Une si jolie petite guerre, is to portray the mythical battle through the eyes of the Vietnamese, both the combatants of the People’s Army of Vietnam and those forgotten Indochinese soldiers who fought alongside the French. The latter were already unjustly dubbed puppets by their communist counterparts, who were themselves too often dismissed as fanatical “termites” or indoctrinated “red ants.

In 1957, Truong was born in the Philippines to a Vietnamese father and French mother. His father served as interpreter for President Ngô Đình Diệm’s English-speaking visitors, while his mother was a housewife who struggled with manic depression. Truong’s memories of his childhood in Viet Nam form the core of his groundbreaking and engrossing graphic novel Une Si Jolie Petite Guerre (Such A Lovely Little War) in which the Truong family’s stories are intertwined with the history of Viet Nam in the early 1960s, as twisted policies were implemented by a government motivated by a range of imperatives—nationalism, anticolonialism, and fascination with America. In this graphic novel, Truong focuses on life in Sài Gòn from 1961 to 1963.

The ubiquitous scene of phở with its exotic scent of cinnamon and ginger is the cultural marker of an “ethnic” Vietnamese work in the landscape of American literature on diasporas and refugees. A hallmark of Vietnamese-American autobiography, the bowl of soup is often the fulcrum between the personal story set inside and yet apart from the larger national story. The irony of interviewing one of the very few francophone authors of a Vietnamese autobiography over a bowl of phở was perceptible.

I had been trying to puzzle out why Marcelino Truong’s novel works. The majority of autobiographies situated during the American war in Vietnam have always seemed rather earnest. The balance leans either towards overwhelmingly didactic concerning the historical details of the war (or wars) or deeply personal when depicting family life. Was it the format of a graphic novel? Was it the conciseness due to the genre? Or to the details  you can choose to notice in each panel?

As I listened to his stories, it struck me that the answer lay in this honesty, in his desire to say things straight, to find a reason for events that made no sense to a young boy growing up in the 1960s. He could have been talking about the mayhem of family life or about the senseless war. The stakes of losing a nation and the compromise of Agent Orange dovetails seamlessly into losing the appearance of a normal family and enabling the dysfunctions of a parent.

Throughout nearly 300 pages, Marcelino gives each side a fair reading, naming, excavating often awkward truths. His father sidesteps the issue of Agent Orange; but we are privy to his battle to remain a patriot to the end. The Americans are criticized for using obscene amounts of technology; but the choice is framed in an understandable effort to spare their troops. The NLF soldiers are shown as combat hardened enemies with a clear, inspiring goal of “sanctified martyrdom”. They fought for a purpose. Nonetheless, the VNCP errors committed after 1975 are not overlooked.

The very graphic depictions of wartime violence, bombings, and death are defused when seen through the eyes of the Truong children. The horror of their chauffeur, chú Ba, selling his blood to earn money for his family is offset by little Marcelino’s quip that he too wants to sell his blood so he can buy a toy tank. The unimaginable juxtaposition of both worlds forces the reader to accept all sides to every event.

Their innocence is tempered and framed within panels of steel gray and blue of adult views, film clips, newspaper stories. We are caught up in the unnamed fears of childhood, their helplessness even as our adult hindsight foretells their future against the backdrop of the well-known series of events: the rise of Diệm and his family, military blunders and unrest, Huế, the Buddhist monks, Agent Orange, the American pull-out, the fall of Sài Gòn….

When Marcelino began to talk about wanting to write a graphic novel about the Vietnam war years, both his father and a close uncle – a former undercover agent of the NLF) – shared a typically conservative, Vietnamese stance: “Who could still be interested in these stories?”

The interest lies in the telling of the story. Few fictional accounts have provided the emotional space required to grasp the political complexity and avoid the political cleavages that propelled Vietnam from “such a nice little war” into a war that would not be named. The irony of the title gives the measure of the distance needed to start identifying the chaos and begin to grasp the reasons behind it.

What you have written is a mixture of history and memory and this makes me wonder what comes from memory and what doesn’t. So how much research did you do for this book? And, if you did conduct research, what did you need to learn about?

Yes, my graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War is indeed a hodgepodge of memory and history.

Because I was so young when I lived in Saigon, in the early 60s, there were many things that I couldn’t remember. I was only 6 when we left Saigon for London. I did have some clear memories, but it was a bit like when you wake up from a dream, you remember perhaps one tenth of the story. Luckily, my French mother was a great letter writer. She would give news to her parents back in France almost every week, when we were abroad. And luckily, my grandparents kept all her letters, in their stamped AirMail envelopes, sky blue pages covered with Mum’s clear handwriting in ballpoint, along with photos and drawings by us, the children, that she would slip in.

Of course, I did a great amount of reading, to check the facts, and to fill in some gaps. But this reading about the history of Vietnam, I have been doing for years. Ever since I was a child in fact. My father was something of an erudite, and we have loads of books on Vietnam at home. He had known or met many of the authors of these books.

And I had countless conversations with my parents, and also many Vietnamese uncles and aunts, and other relations who remembered those days, sometimes reluctantly. As Michael Herr – the author of Dispatches – said: “Those who remember the Vietnam should forget, and those who forget Vietnam should remember.”

As I’m sure you know, there are many different perspectives on the period of Vietnamese history that you cover in the book. How did you try to deal with those different perspectives? Did you have a plan or a philosophy for that?

In Such a Lovely Little War, I assumed that few readers would be familiar with the background of the Vietnam War, and therefore I had to supply them with the basics.

In doing so, I tried to be objective and balanced, not taking sides, and rendering the different points of view of the belligerent parties.

This was made easier for me, because these different standpoints exist within my own extended Vietnamese family.

Whilst my father, after some hesitation, had chosen the Nationalist side, a brother of his and several cousins followed and supported the Revolution. It seems obvious to me that each and everyone’s opinion must be presented, as I had met all these people, and that they deserved respect. The narration of the Vietnam War has always been a very political thing. Both sides claimed to be the liberators.

The narration of the Vietnamese 20th Century wars of independence was and still is a real can of worms!

However, although I strive to be balanced, I often found myself rather naturally speaking out for the Nationalist side.

That is where I come from.

Sometimes I looked away from the Nationalist side, wanting to hear what the other side had to say, but in the end, that is the coterie I feel the most related to. I must say, however, that I mostly witnessed the Nationalist camp through my father’s personality. My father – Truong Buu Khanh – was a reflective, quietly-spoken, cultured man, who had been to a good catholic school in Huê (L’Institut de la Providence) before setting off for France in 1948, with a scholarship.

…The non-Communist Vietnamese have all too often been ignored or caricatured.

They were eclipsed by the towering American Armada. Some, like my father and many others, did try to promote some sort of democracy, along Western lines, but their endeavors were overlooked, despised, or got drowned in the smoke of war. They were all too often sneered at and looked down upon as “puppets,” the term used by their communist opponents to depict them. Western progressives often took up this pejorative term of “puppet” and chose to prefer their communist counterparts in North Vietnam, although that regime, hiding behind the Bamboo Curtain, was far more opaque than the Republic of Vietnam, invariably dubbed “the Saigon regime.”

By the way, we nationalists also saw our communist opponents as marionettes of puppet master Mao Zedong of China.

As an illustrator who wrote a book about the past, and a past that you yourself experienced, what did you want to convey through your illustrations?

the illustrations also have to convey the violence and the sorrow of war.

Some people have said that I was quite graphic sometimes, showing horrible wounds, beheadings, limbs torn off. . . Well, that is war.

But I also wanted to show the atmosphere of Saigon and the Vietnam, in those days. Saigon was a charming city where Vietnamese and French architecture mingled. Oriental and Western fashions shared the sidewalk.

But an illustration can also tell another tale.

I love to look at the way people are dressed. The clothes that leaders wear tell you something of their politics.

One of the strengths of our communist adversaries was that baggy peasant work-clothes or frog-green uniforms with a distinctive sun-helmet looked Asian and national, whereas the kaki fatigues and US steel helmets of the slim ARVN soldiers made them look like boys, dressed in foreign imperialist hand-me-downs.

The tiger suits worn by the elite units in the South Vietnamese army also gave the wrong signal to Western progressive eyes. The tiger suit was the outfit of the counter-insurgency forces already during the French Indochina war (1945-54) and even more so in Algeria (1954-62), at the same time. So we, the noncommunist Vietnamese, came out as nasty, reactionary and fascist torturers, whereas our communist foes could pose as the goodies, the heroic rebels, the romantic revolutionaries. . .

All this imagery weighed heavily in those days. They helped Western radicals form what seems to me a very idealized, Orientalist and romantic view of the Vietnamese communists. Ironically, today, the elite troops in the regular Peoples’ Army of Vietnam all parade in tiger suits.

This may be too direct of a question, but what was your purpose in producing this book? It’s both very personal and very educational. Is there something that you wanted to achieve by combining a personal story with the history of a particular time and place?

Nope, it’s not too direct of a question.

At first, I think I just wanted to tell a good story. The most exciting period of my youth, those heady Saigon days seemed to me.

Then, it developed into something else, after the book came out.

In gatherings, conferences and signings, it emerged that I was becoming a self-elected spokesman for the non-communist Vietnamese, the losers of the war. I was going to have a go at telling our story. Our voice was drowned during the war. Our powerful American ally stole the scene. Its powerful media flooded the world with images and stories of the boys from Wisconsin and Ohio fighting it out in Vietnam.

We South Vietnamese became the walk-on parts of our own war.

The Vietnam war has often been told either by gung-ho hawks, or by antiwar intellectuals and activists, and nothing much in between.

In the universities of the western world, the history of the Vietnam War was mostly based on material supplied or written by academics who were for the most opposed to the war, and sometimes sympathetic to the Hanoi side.

I can fully understand why so many Americans were against the war, especially after 1968, that turning point in the conflict. This was not their war. They had no reason to be maimed or killed in this foreign land.

However, when one is against a war, or all wars, need one take sides?

It so happened that in their haste to end the war, many pacifists thought it fit to give the other side a helping hand, and felt it proper to paint us black. Uncle Ho Chi Minh was near idolized, while his antagonists Presidents Diem and Thieu usually were demonized.

Certainly many mistakes were made in the South, but this was done under the full glare of Western spotlights, while many blunders were committed in the communist North, but these were given much less publicity.

The Vietnam War was like a match in which almost all the referees are whistling fouls on one side of the pitch, while it’s a field day for the other side, with little or no international supervision.

It has often been said that the Vietnam War was in asymmetrical one. In many ways it was. David against Goliath? Probably so.

However, the war of images was certainly asymmetrical.

In the South, during the whole duration of the war (1959-75), we had hundreds of foreign reporters roaming freely and full-time all over the country. Meanwhile, up north, Hanoi would only now and then let in a treacle of carefully screened progressive-minded journalists, committed or at least favorable to their Cause.

Many of the foreign reporters hacking it out in the South were opposed to the war, and were trying to bring it to an end, by producing horrific clichés. And horror galore it was. But no such thing was taking place in the propaganda-minded communist armies. Photographers there were soldiers, and the camera was their weapon. Their pictures were designed to help the struggle, to extol the heroics of the People’s Army, and certainly not to display the real suffering and sorrow caused by its blows.

This perspective of the war appears in several parts of the book, and it is voiced on page 98 by a South Vietnamese Airborne officer, speaking to an American reporter (I had Neil Sheehan in mind, but it could have been almost any other), out in the boonies.

The rookie reporter has followed an Airborne unit on an operation in the delta. He has witnessed an interrogation scene during which a Vietcong suspect dies under torture. This he has not dared to photograph.

Here are the seasoned para’s words to the stunned and mute photo-reporter in Such a Lovely Little War:

Now you know! The war against insurrection isn’t pretty. But in two or three hours you’ll take a shower, smoke some weed, pick up a cute little Vietnamese whore who will get you off. . . And next time, take the pictures you didn’t take today. We’ll let you do it. Your photos will hurt our cause. But that’s the difference between us and the other side.

Luckily, things seem to be changing. There seems to be a refreshing current in the academic world, in the West at least, regarding the narration of the Vietnamese wars of independence, and also of its colonial past. This is not revisionism – as some may snicker -, but rather a more balanced and less politicized view of Vietnamese history that is slowly emerging.

Historians like Liam Kelley, Christopher Goscha, Keith Taylor, Olga Dror and others, in Canada and the USA, along with François Guillemot and others in France, are offering a less anti-imperialist and anti-war approach, in which the Nationalist view is also given.

The official standpoint in Vietnam, even today, is that all the Vietnamese were with Ho Chi Minh in the struggle for independence, and that those Vietnamese who were not on his side were just traitors and puppets of the Western imperialists (France, USA, etc. . .). Thus, according to the communists, the Indochina wars were not civil wars. All the People were fighting against foreign aggression, under the leadership of Uncle Ho.

Well, I find that very simplistic, and moreover, false.

I would venture that from 1945 onwards, the Vietnamese elites (I don’t know about the People) were dreaming of Independence – an irresistible dream!-, but were divided from the very beginning as to the nature of this independence.

Would it be a red, pink, light blue or dark blue independence?

All these political affiliations existed in Vietnam. There was not just the one single current, although powerful, of the Vietnamese communists.

I hope this message will spread. It’s about time.

“The truth is rarely pure and is never simple,” Oscar Wilde said. This could apply to Vietnamese history.

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