What Becomes of the Memory of "Vietnam" in Light of Afghanistan?

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At a reading for the California Historical Society last week, Vietnamese-American writer Andrew Lam read an excerpt from New California Writing, an anthology of California writers published by Heyday Books. His piece, “Afghanistan Can’t Wash Away Vietnam,” asks us to think critically of the memory of Vietnam and how that memory has been shaped.

As Lam says:

Often when we mention the word Vietnam in the United States, we don’t mean Vietnam as a country. Vietnam is unfortunately not like Thailand or Malaysia or Singapore to America’s collective imagination. Its relationship to us is special: It is a vault filled with tragic metaphors for every pundit to use.

That tragic metaphor, as Lam points out, became the driving force for headlines such as “Afghanistan Haunted by Ghost of Vietnam” and “Will Obama’s War Become His Vietnam?” or “Vietnam Myths Haunt Afghanistan.&rdquo. To this day, Vietnam “continues to stoke America’s foreign policy fears. The entire country still stands for America’s loss of innocence, its legacy of defeat and failure.” And yet the country that became “America’s boogeyman” is a youthful one. Vietnam “is a country full of young people, with no direct memory of the Vietnam War.”

Who writes the memory of Vietnam? Will there ever be a day when “Vietnam” is no longer a synonym for failed foreign policy? How have these articulations of Vietnam directed or misled our relationships to the country (and other countries)? Most importantly, what is Vietnam to you?

NAM editor Andrew Lam is the author of East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres and Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora