The Role of the Past in the Present

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All nations have a national memory enshrined in official history as “the past.” Yet collective memory of a nation is always selective in that it involves the pub�lic remembrance of certain events and experiences, and the active forgetfulness of others. In 1882, Ernest Renan made an important observation about the nation as a type of spiritual family united not by a common language, religion, or race, but by “a rich legacy of memories” of past triumphs, regrets and sacrifices (1990 [1882]:19). Memories of mutual suffering, in particular, form the bedrock of a nation and its collective history that is communicated through textbooks, national holidays, war monuments, and museums. On account of its selectivity, national history is neither unchanging nor uncontested, as external forces refute and rework its dominant narratives and messages conveyed. These narratives not only transmit particular historical truths, but also important cultural and moral principles upon which the nation is founded. Knowing one’s national history, such as singing the words to the national anthem, is thus a performative act of identification that signifies inclusion and participation in a national community. National history is didactic; it draws upon stories of the past to teach the populace (especially youth) the normative ethics and values needed to become upstanding citizens—disciplined, loyal, and productive members of society.

In Vietnam, the state regularly invokes national memories of past wars to commemorate and keep the spirit of the revolution alive. With the aim of communicating the ideals of the revolution to postwar generations, the state has a vested interest in emphasizing triumphant achievements and acts of solidarity that helped to secure the nation’s historical victories. Take, for example, museums, which are sites of pedagogical power in which the state produces moral and educated citizen-subjects through the management and discipline of history and memory (Bennett 1995). In an interview, the director of the Museum of the Vietnamese Revolution, in Hanoi, emphasized to me the critical role museums play in imparting revolutionary values such as sacrifice, valor, and gratitude: “It is important to know about history. This museum is about Vietnamese freedom, unification, and independence. If the young people do not learn about this past, they will not have a proper understanding of the present, and they will not be able to build and modernize our country for the future” (Schwenkel 2009:150). Knowledge of the past thus serves as an anchor in the present period of rapid socioeconomic change and a building block for future nation-building efforts. Similarly, we can look at postmemory, knowledge and memory of past traumatic events that youth did not directly experience but are intimately and deeply connected to (Hirsch 1997). Family photographs, and the painful stories of loss that accompany them, have been central to the transmission of Holocaust memory to the children of survivors. As a tool of remembrance and self-representation, photography mediates between personal memory and public history; the stories told through images of everyday life that survived the Holocaust have contributed to (re)constituting both family histories and national memory (ibid). In Vietnam, postmemory among youth is similarly informed by photographs and oral histories of war. The young adults I interviewed in Hanoi—some of whom came from the capital city, others from poorer rural provinces to attend university, secure employment, or enroll in the military—grew up hearing songs and stories about the war and revolution from their parents and grandparents.

Lien, a college student born in 1979 in the central province of Nghe An, recalled her strongest childhood memories: I remember playing ball games with friends during the day and listening to stories about the war at night from my grandparents. They always told me about the hardships they endured, and the difficult living conditions with little food. Both of my grandfathers fought against the French and my father is a veteran of the American War. My mother worked in a factory. When I was young she used to sing us love songs about waiting for a soldier to return from the battlefield. My grandmother worked to provide food for the soldiers. Even in the worst of times, she tried to remain optimistic. She told me many stories, but the one I remember most was about 1972, when the Americans dropped so many bombs on Vinh City that everything was destroyed. She went from one village to the next looking for safety and shelter, often hiding underground to escape the bombs. The youth I interviewed did not grow up with collections of family photographs to illustrate life during the war years, as private ownership of cameras at that time was rare. Rather, as Lien’s words show, the transfer of traumatic memory to postwar generations occurred primarily through personal recollection and oral testimony. Cameras were, however, present on the battlefield with photojournalists who in an official capacity produced a large repertoire of iconic images that today offer a detailed visual history.

Like photography of the Vietnam War in the United States, these images have important postwar meaning and currency, and continue to circulate and shape national memory. In Vietnam, photographs from the war are considered an important means for reproducing and transmitting historical knowledge, and also for motivating and inspiring postwar youth. In an interview, a battlefield photographer who exhibited his work at the Military History Museum in Hanoi in 1999 emphasized to me the national and moral values conveyed through his images: “Photographs from the war carry meaning about the past. I want students who come to my exhibit to learn to hate war, but they should also learn about the brave deaths of those who sacrificed their lives. When they see these pictures, they will understand the need to continue the work to build and develop the country” (Schwenkel 2009:62). Photography is thus imagined to bridge the widening gaps between self-denying generations who experienced the trauma of revolution and war and pleasure-seeking generations born in the aftermath whose consumption activities seem to have displaced national values and history from contemporary society.

 

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