Vietnam

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Book Review: Footprints of War: Militarized Landscapes in Vietnam by David Biggs

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 21/03/2022 - 10:16pm in

Footprints of War by David Biggs offers readers an intriguing new perspective on the long history of military conflict and occupation in central Vietnam by integrating environmental perspectives with more traditional military and political histories. The book is a welcome contribution to creating a richer local history of central Vietnam in the context of the wider Wars for Indochina and is an inspiring application of robust historical research to solving modern environmental problems caused by war, writes Jon Formella.

This book review is published by the LSE Southeast Asia blog and LSE Review of Books blog as part of a collaborative series focusing on timely and important social science books from and about Southeast Asia.

Footprints of War: Militarized Landscapes in Vietnam. David Biggs. University of Washington Press. 2018. 

In recent years, the historiography of the Vietnam War has undergone a brilliant rejuvenation with fresh input from a new generation of scholars. One such work, Footprints of War: Militarized Landscapes in Vietnam by David Biggs, provides a new perspective on the history of conflict in Vietnam from the angle of environmental history by recognising the lasting impact of successive layers of military occupation upon the Vietnamese landscape. Utilising rich sources ranging from Vietnamese provincial library archives to US aerial intelligence and Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping, Biggs provides a valuable addition to the study of Vietnamese history in pursuing a multidimensional understanding of the legacy of successive conflicts’ ‘creative destruction’ in central Vietnam. While not devoid of certain controversial interpretations and methodological limitations, this book provides an inspiration for how robust historical research may be applied to solving modern issues caused by the scars of war.

The longue durée perspective provided in the opening chapters of this work helps readers to position the more well-known French and American military operations in the long history of conflict and occupation in central Vietnam, centring on what is now the modern city Huế. In engaging with the history of central Vietnam from the early settlement of the Bronze Age Đông Sơn culture through the Nguyễn Dynasty (1802 to 1884) to the present Vietnamese regime, Biggs demonstrates how technological adaptations in combination with outside geopolitical forces both aided and frustrated attempts to exert military force on what is now central Vietnam. For instance, Biggs compellingly illustrates how the Vietnamese adaption of Ming China’s gunpowder technology and later Portuguese tactics enabled militaristic forays into previously impenetrable central Vietnamese territories by the Nguyễn lords starting from the 1400s.

Huế, Vietnam

Photo by Xiaofen P on Unsplash

While narrating successive attempts to pacify the region, Biggs also convincingly demonstrates remarkable historical continuities in the limits of military and political exertion due to the region’s unique environment and cultural resistance. Due to frustrated attempts at external control by the Nguyễn lords, for instance, the area around Huế became labelled by the Nguyễn as Ô Châu, or the ‘Terrible Lands’. Just as French, Republic of Vietnam and US forces would discover centuries later, military occupation of central Vietnam did not necessarily enable rulers such as the Nguyễn lords to remould the inhabitants of the region to their visions of civilised modernity. Sent by the Nguyễn court to spread state-sponsored Buddhism and thereby help to tame the peoples of Ô Châu, Chinese Buddhist monk Thích Đại Sán frustratingly remarked, ‘In some remote lands due to the isolation of high mountains and unfathomable seas, the greatest king could not send his troops to wipe out local conflicts […] As a result, residents […] ignored moral-cultural values.’ Such frustrated attempts at pacification would also be echoed by the later Saigon regime in its struggles to stifle insurgency through its strategic hamlet programme, as Biggs demonstrates. In this way, Biggs positions later French, Republic of Vietnam and US attempts to tame central Vietnam in a much longer history of frustrated governance.

Entering the modern era, Biggs’s examination of central Vietnam from the perspective of environmental and local history provides a highly welcome addition to the established historiography of the First and Second Indochina Wars. While macro-histories of the First Indochina War such as Fredrik Logevall’s Embers of War understandably examine the conflict by centring major campaigns in Tonkin, Biggs provides a valuable localised history of French military operations and Viet Minh resistance amidst the rugged landscape of central Vietnam. Especially helpful in understanding the First Indochina War from a wider perspective is Biggs’s application of French military intelligence and Viet Minh records to detail the 1953 French military’s Operation Camargue launched from the sea. Utilising aerial footage and GIS technology to complement familiar historical sources such as Bernard Fall’s Street Without Joy and Mai Nam Tràn’s The Narrow Strip of Land, Biggs provides an enriching new perspective to classic accounts of the First Indochina War and brings the reader to a grittier understanding of the French-Viet Minh conflict in the local environmental contours of central Vietnam.

Just as Biggs uses the local history of central Vietnam to expand the Tonkin-dominated historiography of the First Indochina War, another especially fascinating section of the book explores the history of central Vietnam as the newfound Republic of Vietnam (RVN) under the ruthless Ngô Đình Cấn attempts to pacify the region following the 1954 Geneva Accords. While much of the historiography of the ill-fated Republic of Vietnam (1954-75) regime centres on the rule of Ngô Đình Diệm and Nguyễn Văn Thiệu from the halls of power in Saigon, Biggs’s examination of Ngô Đình Cấn’s brutal attempts to establish a footing in the power vacuum in central Vietnam following both French and Viet Minh withdrawal in 1954 is a highlight of this work. Biggs’s detailing of Ngô Đình Cấn’s bloody stratagems to forge a regional empire through tenuous alliances among anti-communist and anti-French elements and through brutal purges amongst the chaotic landscape of central Vietnam is an especially enriching addition to the post-1954 history of Vietnam which often centres the rival power bases in Saigon and Hanoi. In this section, Biggs combines an explanation of local political forces with a layered presentation of local features such as a repurposed French bunker system through detailed maps to transport readers to the sites where brutal arrests, interrogations and executions of undesirables were carried out as a part of this network of repression.

Though Biggs’s study of interrelationship between the central Vietnamese landscape and attempts to exert governance rightly details both the violence and environmental brutality of pro-Saigon and US forces, it would seem that later sections of the book overlook essential nuances such as the unsavoury tactics on the part of communist forces in the region, especially during the 1968 Battle of Huế. While the detailed narration of the environmental destruction and violence is highly convincing, the author’s unbalanced attention away from the Viet Minh and communist forces suggests a subtle bias in positioning these as unbending defenders of both the people and the environment of central Vietnam. An especially problematic characterisation by Biggs states that the 1968 assault on Huế resulted in the ‘inadvertent killing of many civilians’. The author’s use of ‘inadvertent’ in this section mischaracterises events established by historical records from multiple sides witnessing the battle during which besieged communist forces willfully executed defenceless prisoners characterised as ‘lackeys’ by going house to house and killing males of military age. Despite citing evidence from Nhã Ca’s firsthand account of the Battle of Huế, Biggs’s one-sided characterisation of the battle and emphasis on civilian assistance to communist forces fail to highlight the antagonism and outright fear many local Vietnamese felt towards the communist forces articulated in Nhã Ca’s account as communist forces committed war crimes. This unbalanced examination towards the factions vying for control of the region in this later section is this work’s greatest flaw.

While the author’s repeated emphasis on the ‘aerial perspective’ from the powers seeking to control the region is convincing from the position of the French and US forces, the assertion that this ‘aerial perspective’ was formative in Vietnamese nationalist conceptualisations of the Vietnamese environment in the modern history of Vietnam is not convincingly backed by supporting primary source evidence in the book. While the term ‘aerial perspective’ is useful to describe the aerial intelligence collected by external forces and in a modern scholarly context, this terminology does not seem to be found among the Vietnamese nationalist actors mentioned in the work, communist or otherwise.

Overall, however, this new work by David Biggs is a great addition to the study of conflict in Vietnam, not only for its environmental history perspective but especially in telling the localised history of a region often de-centred in the historiography. Especially inspiring is Biggs’s application of his research and GIS toolkit not only to broaden understandings of history, but also to partner with locals and the Vietnamese government in removing harmful traces of the war such as chemical waste sites. Combining sturdy local history research with a layered environmental perspective and a strong altruistic component, this book will help readers understand both Vietnam and the possibilities for applied historical study from a fresh perspective.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, the Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asia Centre or of the London School of Economics and Political Science. 

 

Translating Vô Trị - An Interview With Mèo Mun

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 06/03/2022 - 10:05am in

image/png iconcover-image.png

We are honoured to present this interview with Mèo Mun, an anarchist group who focus specifically on archiving, translating, and disseminating anarchist texts. You can find their work on Libcom, the Southeast Asian Anarchist Library, and follow them on Twitter. In July, we published one of their pieces on LGBT+ liberation and the fight for partial freedom in Vietnam. Credits for the banner art go to u/anarchist_snufkin on Reddit.

Vietnam’s so-called ‘socialism’ is state capitalism in a coat of red. The State dangles a communist haven before the oppressed, while politicians and capitalists work the people to their bones and call it ‘socialism’ so no one would think of the pitchforks.

Mèo Mun

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Translating Vô Trị - An Interview With Mèo Mun

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 06/03/2022 - 10:04am in

image/png iconcover-image.png

We are honoured to present this interview with Mèo Mun, an anarchist group who focus specifically on archiving, translating, and disseminating anarchist texts. You can find their work on Libcom, the Southeast Asian Anarchist Library, and follow them on Twitter. In July, we published one of their pieces on LGBT+ liberation and the fight for partial freedom in Vietnam. Credits for the banner art go to u/anarchist_snufkin on Reddit.

Vietnam’s so-called ‘socialism’ is state capitalism in a coat of red. The State dangles a communist haven before the oppressed, while politicians and capitalists work the people to their bones and call it ‘socialism’ so no one would think of the pitchforks.

Mèo Mun

read more

What does Gallipoli mean to us, and who says?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 20/04/2021 - 5:31pm in

[First published in BWD magazine, autumn 2021, Braidwood NSW.]

The word Gallipoli evokes one of our most potent cultural stories, but in truth it is not one story but many. There are stories of sacrifice and national identity, but there are also stories of folly and destruction, and stories overlooked. We all, presumably, want to honour the fallen but there are those who, wittingly or otherwise, exploit the stories for other purposes. Can we have a conversation about these stories? Can we talk about which stories to keep, whether some might be corrected or discarded and others picked up?

On an obscure beach in Turkey many of our young men died in a battle that ended in disastrous defeat and withdrawal. More of our young men went on to fight and die in the trenches in Europe. They distinguished themselves as soldiers.

There were those in Australia who proclaimed those events to signify the birth of a nation, a uniting of the former colonies and perhaps a necessary ‘blooding’ to baptise us into the company of nations. That was the Anzac story I grew up with, but I never thought it rang true.

Behind that story was a fear of being seen as inferior colonials and of needing to erase the ‘convict stain’. There were also those who sought to advance themselves by serving British commercial interests.

In truth our young men were ‘good’ soldiers because of the country they grew up in, well fed and strong, with less class repression and free enough to develop initiative.

The story of that country is much richer and more enriching than one futile battle. It is a story of the inventiveness and perseverance of many people, and of the foresight, persistence and not a little wisdom of leaders in bringing several colonies together peacefully to create a vigorous and innovative nation. In 1913 Australia was already a distinctive presence among nations, leading (with the Kiwis) in giving the vote to all men, then women, in advocating a fair go for all and in providing a social safety net. Blacks, though, were not invited.

Many in the new nation still felt a strong loyalty to the mother country, but that was neither universal nor unqualified. Prime Minister Billie Hughes was a much more divisive figure than his predecessor, the steady Andrew Fisher. Twice he held referenda to authorise sending conscripts overseas and twice the proposal was rejected, amid bitter and divisive debate. Hughes was prominent in promoting the claim that Australia came of age on the beach at Gallipoli.

At the opening of the Australian War Memorial in 1941 the Governor General Lord Gowrie said the Memorial would be ‘… not only a record of the splendid achievements of the men who fought and fell … but also a reminder to future generations of the barbarity and futility of modern war’.

Australia suffered heavy casualties and incurred heavy debt in the Great War, both of which weighed heavily for decades. The shock and trauma smashed the optimistic and progressive pre-war mood. There followed the Great Depression then another great war. Since then have been various smaller wars and invasions of debatable merit.

Only in the second great war was Australia directly threatened. Prime Minister Curtin had to defy Churchill and Roosevelt to being our troops home to defend us. Churchill  and Roosevelt would have left us to our fate, perhaps to be liberated later from a potential invasion that would have been severely traumatic, as invasions are. We need to be careful about the faith we place in allies.

Since then our involvements in overseas wars have been questionable. The need to fight in Vietnam was vigorously debated, and anyway it was another disaster and defeat. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were based on a lie about weapons of mass destruction, with the functional goal being US military dominance and capture of oil fields. We were involved primarily to curry favour with the US, but the invasions were highly counter-productive and the reliability of the US as an ally is even more debatable.

We have lost soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, but more of them have died by their own hand after returning home. Now we have revelations of alleged atrocities committed by our own ‘special forces’. Such is the moral quagmire we and our soldiers can be placed in if the cause they fight for is not very clear, and clearly justified – if it ever can be.

The Government is now spending half a billion dollars to expand the War Memorial to include depictions of those dubious wars. They are accepting sponsorship from arms manufacturers, merchants of death. Can that be reconciled with the AWM’s role of reminding us of the ‘barbarity and futility of modern war’?

The Government spent around $400 million over four years ‘commemorating’ many centenaries of the Great War. How much of that was genuine honouring of the fallen? How much did the Government speak of barbarity? Of futility? They have spun a new fiction, that we fought alongside the US for democracy and freedom, when in fact we fought for empire and believed in White, especially British, superiority. How much of the Government’s message was thinly disguised glorification, or at least inuring us to yet more wars? Still following Uncle Sam, we now rattle our little sabres at Iran and China.

This Anzac Day, can we separate honouring the fallen from militarism? Do we need soldiers marching up the street and warplanes flying overhead?

What of those overlooked? Hundreds of women from across Europe and even from Australia courageously defied their governments and dominant public opinion to convene in The Hague in 1915 to devise strategies to stop the slaughter of their men. They formed the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. They influenced the formation of the League of Nations and thence the United Nations. They continue today. Do we acknowledge them and support their efforts to stop the futile barbarism? Do we have a statue of them in the main street?

Then there are those who fought to defend Australia from actual invasion. Yes, the First Australians. They are here. We, the settlers, are here. Are we big enough, yet, to acknowledge what our forebears did to their forebears, to acknowledge their bravery and sacrifice?

We can travel freely to Turkey, Germany, Japan, North Vietnam (or could, pre-pandemic). The bitter animosities are gone, if not entirely forgotten. What was the point?

The post What does Gallipoli mean to us, and who says? first appeared on BetterNature Books.