Mai Elliott is an independent scholar and author of “The Sacred Willow: Four Generations in the Life of a Vietnamese Family,” a personal and family memoir which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She is also the author of, “RAND in Southeast Asia: A History of the Vietnam War Era,” which chronicles this think tank’s research about the Vietnam War. Born in Vietnam and grew up in Hanoi and Saigon, she graduated from Georgetown University in Washington D.C. and now resides in Los Angeles. Elliot is one of nearly 100 people featured in The Vietnam War, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s ten-part, 18-hour documentary series, which will premiere September 17, 2017 on PBS. She talked with New America Media editor, Andrew Lam.
What are your hopes that the documentary, the Vietnam War, will reveal about the past?
Past is prologue. The past influences the present because the present is formed by threads of history as well as by the current forces shaping societies and countries. By scrutinizing the past, we can understand why we are where we are today. As Ken Burns and Lynn Novick have pointed out, in the United States the seeds of distrust of government, the disunity, the rancor, the lack of civil discourse, germinated during the Vietnam War era. In Vietnam, the war explains the social changes and the system of government that exist today.
The film reveals the mistakes that led to tragedy. To paraphrase a saying by George Santayana which has often been invoked, “those who don’t know the past are doomed to repeat it,” so it is important for us to understand what happened in Vietnam and why, and to learn from those mistakes. The scale of the tragedy of the Vietnam War makes it imperative for us to learn what happened and avoid falling in the same traps in the future.
My other big hope is that by revisiting the war and its horrors, the documentary will act like a catharsis for individuals and families on all sides of the conflict. By showing and reminding us that everyone who was caught in it suffered and suffered sometimes horribly, I hope the film will evoke understanding, sympathy, and empathy for those who fought on the opposite divide of the war. Like removing a bandage to let air heal a wound, I hope that the documentary will allow those gashes caused by the war – if they still lurk below the surface - to scar and close.
In this age of perpetual war, the film is a worthwhile reminder that war is a scourge and should only be fought as a last resort.
You were interviewed extensively in the Ken Burns production. How do you feel about the fairness of the claim that it is trying to represent all sides?
I was interviewed for two hours for the film by Lynn Novick. She and I ranged over many topics to capture as many facets of the war and of my experience and my family’s experience as possible. I think she and the rest of the team tried hard to delve deep into the aspects of the war. I was one of 100 people they interviewed. They did this because they wanted to capture as many perspectives as possible. As Ken Burns has put it, his goal is not to “put his thumb on the scale of history” but to present the “many truths” of the war. I believe he and Lynn Novick, his co-director, and Geoffrey Ward, their script writer, have succeeded. The film gives voice to people on all sides and allows them to tell their own stories – including voices rarely heard like those of ordinary Vietnamese, North and South, and in particular Viet Cong and North Vietnamese combatants. I believe that it is the dramatic presence and the moving voices of the Vietnamese of all political persuasions that enrich the film and differentiate it from scores of documentaries about the Vietnam War that present only the stories of American youths being sent off to fight and returning home to struggle to adjust and/or to protest.
It is this inclusiveness of the documentary that makes it riveting and moving. It creates a canvas of many hues and makes it fascinating.
What do you think is still missing about the film? What is it about Vietnam that most Americans don’t know or really understand?
Even at 18 hours, the documentary is not encyclopedic. It’s made no claim to be an encyclopedia of the war. Its aim is more to tell the story of the war through the lenses of personal experiences, from participants and eye witnesses. It eschews interviewing leaders and elaborating on policies and strategies, or charting the statistics of the war. So, you can say that in these regards it is not comprehensive. But again, it is not the film makers’ goal to capture the history of the war from A to Z. Their goal is rather to capture the human experiences and what the war did to America and American society.
For most Americans, when they think of Vietnam, if they think about it at all, they think of the war. And even when they think of the war, they tend to think mostly, if not only, of the role America played there and the cost in lives and treasure the war exacted from the United States. They think of the war as mainly an American experience. So, I hope that the documentary will remedy some of this lack of knowledge and understanding of why Vietnamese on both sides fought so hard and the sacrifices the war demanded of them and their families.
The goal of the documentary is to show the war and its costs, and not to range beyond to what happened after the war ended. So, perhaps, another issue Americans don’t know or understand is the legacy of the war – how tough life became after the shooting ended – especially for those on the losing side - and what drove hundreds of thousands of people to flee the country in flimsy boats.
Americans probably understand today’s Vietnam better but only as a tourist destination.
Why is the Vietnam War important? And what lessons can still be learned from something that ended more than 40 years ago?
For the United States, the Vietnam War showed that – despite its awesome power – it cannot impose its will on another nation. The war also taught the lesson that the United States should carefully weigh its national interests and study the issues in depth before it decides to intervene in a foreign conflict. Backing the wrong side of a war can lead to disaster. Even when it backs the right side, it is almost impossible for it to impose its will and win. The Vietnam War also showed that nation building as part of the strategy to win can be treacherous when conditions on the ground can doom it to failure. So, I believe that the primary lesson for the Untied States is “look before you leap” into a conflict somewhere in the world.
For Vietnam, I believe the war demonstrated the costs entrenched positions on both sides could exact from the people. Both the Communist and non-Communist sides were intransigent and determined to fight on. They were driven by fear and, on the communist side, also by the ambition to finish their revolution and bring the entire country under their control – a task that they believed was interrupted by the Geneva Accords of 1954 which gave them only the northern region to rule. Neither side was amenable to compromise. The film did not raise “what if” questions. But one “what if” question we can ask is, “What could have happened if North and South Vietnam had been flexible and willing to negotiate in 1956 to reunify the country peacefully – as specified by the 1954 Geneva Accords -- instead of embarking on warfare?” What if there had been a compromise? Would the bloody war have been averted?
Your point of view about the north and the communists changed over time during the war. Can you explain.
My point of view about the war changed over time because I thought that unless there was peace, Vietnam and the Vietnamese peasants in the South would be chewed up even more. I had supported the war because I feared for the safety of my family if the communists won. But as the war wore on, and there seemed to be no end in sight, and the death and destruction grew, I began to wonder whether peace, even a peace under a communist rule, would be worse than what was happening especially for the peasants who were paying a dear price for the continuing warfare. I thought if the communist won, my family would suffer, but they would survive like most of my relatives who had been living in the North had survived communist rule. Life after the end of the war in 1975 turned out to be excruciating for my relatives who stayed in Vietnam. They experienced hunger. They were treated like second-class citizens by the communist government for having been on the losing side. My oldest brother was incarcerated in a re-education camp for five years.
You’ve been living away for a long time from Vietnam. What is your relationship with the country now?
Vietnam for me is still my home country, a place where I grew up, where my family lived, where my ancestors are buried, and a place that holds so many of our memories. It’s made me what I am, as much as America’s made me what I am, so I still feel attached to it. Although I’ve lived in the United States far longer than I’ve lived in my native land, Vietnam still exerts an emotional pull on me. In Vietnamese culture, the place where you were born is where you belong, and I certainly feel this way about Vietnam. However, I should point out that I sometimes feel I don’t entirely fit in when I return, because I’m part American now and Vietnam lacks many aspects of American culture and life that I’ve become accustomed to and which I cherish.
I don’t go back as often as many overseas Vietnamese I know. For them, Vietnam is pretty much a favorite destination. I go back if I have a research project to do or to get together with relatives. I don’t hold any ill will toward Vietnam. The people there are dear to me and I wish that life would get better and better for them, and that their future turns out to be bright and happy.
What are you working on now?
I’ve finished a novel which I hope would find a publisher. I’ve finished updating my family story, “The Sacred Willow,” which has just been re-issued by Oxford University Press.
I’m beginning to do research for a chapter I’m contributing to a three-volume “History of the Vietnam War” by Cambridge University Press. After that, I hope to embark on a book about a subject not related to Vietnam. I’ve been toying with some ideas but have not settled on one.
Andrew Lam is an editor at New America Media in San Francisco and the author of “Birds of Paradise Lost,” a collection of stories about Vietnamese refugees in San Francisco, “East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres,” a book of essays on East-West relations, and a memoir, “Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora.”