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Echoes of Tragedy

A Q&A with author Viet Thanh Nguyen about the spectacle and memory of war.

Photo by BeBe Jacobs

Growing up as a child of refugees from the Vietnam War, Viet Thanh Nguyen was struck by the difference in how his community remembers the conflict versus how other Americans do. This prompted the University of Southern California professor (and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Sympathizer ) to write Nothing Ever Dies , in which he explores how media and cultural symbols mold a nation's memory of war.

How do memorials influence thinking about the past? How should they?

The real process of remembering takes place in the conversations about how we should shape a memorial. Once you've put something in stone, it's possible that the process ceases for many people. The memorial gives us a story that we can simply take without interpretation. War memorials are usually implicit or explicit endorsements of nationalist or patriotic feeling. I think an approach that acknowledges the suffering, humanity, and inhumanity on all sides, as the Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum does, is absolutely fundamental to any kind of memorial that genuinely tries to do justice to the past.

How does entertainment complicate our memory and understanding of war?

Americans are very good at making war a spectacle, whether it's through Hollywood or CNN. People can look back on history rationally and think about how terrible war is, but when a moment of crisis hits, it's very easy for us to be persuaded that war is necessary. Fear and pleasure can be manipulated by people who want to lead us into war—and people who make entertainment are trying to stimulate similar kinds of emotion. A movie like Apocalypse Now sends a mixed message: It seems to show an antiwar story, but it does so in a way that is pleasurable for a lot of people. It doesn't give us a clear resolution because war is both exciting and terrible.

You argue that we need a "just memory" to reverse inequality. What does this mean for the U.S. today?

We have to remember adequately, because without that, we can't address the economic and structural inequities that have ensued from the past. Memories of slavery, for example, have been distorted in certain ways, partially because African-Americans have not had equal access to tell stories about the experience. It's a catch-22. Unequal conditions produce unequal memories.