Book Review: Nothing Ever Dies

Nothing Ever Dies – Vietnam and the Memory of War, by Viet Thanh Nguyen.

A scholarly exploration of memory and the Vietnam War from an author “born in Vietnam but made in America.”

While the writer focuses on the Vietnam War, the war that most intimately affected his Vietnamese family, his fine reflections on how to treat and preserve the memory of war “justly” extends to other neighbouring wars, such as those in Cambodia, Laos, Korea, the Philippines, and elsewhere.

The “ethics of remembering” is complicated, as the author explains while walking readers through specific parts of Vietnam, because it involves not just grieving one’s nearest and dearest — e.g., visiting cemeteries of fallen family members — but feeling compassion for others, as the moving, reflective black wall of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., elicits beautifully.

Nguyen stresses the importance of recognising that we are not only the victims of a horrible tragedy but also the perpetrators: “Reminding ourselves that being human also means being inhuman is important simply because it is so easy to forget our inhumanity or to displace it onto other humans.”

The author also explores the “memory industries,” such as Hollywood movies that cater to “young men’s erotic fascination with pure sex and war movies.” He looks at many examples of war memorials in Vietnam and Korea that attempt to bring the memory into the present, while books, especially novels by Vietnamese-Americans, convey senses of affirmation and redemption and allow the ghosts, literally, to speak.

Grasping our essential inhumanity through art, Nguyen affirms, is one way to resist the “memory industry,” the ultimate goal of which is to “reproduce power and inequality.” Finally, there is the role of “just” forgetting, which allows people to go on and live as well as to forgive.

Essentially a critical study, Nguyen’s work is a powerful reflection on how we choose to remember and forget.