December 9, 2011 — Who were the aggressors and who were the victims of the Vietnam War? When she studied the films, photographs and news images from the era, Sylvia Shin Huey Chong of the University of Virginia found that the answer was a moving target.
An associate professor of English in the College of Arts & Sciences, Chong explores America's changing reactions to the Vietnam War in a new book, "The Oriental Obscene: Violence and Racial Fantasies in the Vietnam Era," published by Duke University Press.
Chong, who specializes in film and Asian American studies and also teaches in the American Studies program, weaves interpretations of how Americans understood violence and race relations between 1968 and 1985 through films about the war and martial arts, as well as news coverage of not only the Vietnam War, but also civil unrest at home.
Only a few scholars in Asian American studies have discussed the Vietnam War and what its controversial, violent images convey about race during that period, she said. Chong said Eddie Adams' Pulitzer Prize-winning photo, "Saigon Execution," led her to write the book, because of its depiction of Asian-on-Asian violence.
In the photo, taken Feb. 1, 1968, Brig. Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan of the South Vietnamese Army executes an unnamed Viet Cong suspect, shooting him in the head on the street in front of journalists and civilians. Even though the photo doesn't involve U.S. soldiers, it brought the war into American homes and forced viewers to confront its violence.
On an unconscious, visceral level, people process such images differently than words, Chong said. "Pictures create a kind of understanding through association and identification," she said. "They structure the way we see the world and what we think we understand."
"Paradoxically, although the racial otherness of the figures in this scenario seemed to allow Americans to distance themselves from this event, the ubiquity of the image brought this execution closer to home, opening up a larger contemplation of the meaning of death in discourses of war," she writes in her book.
Violent images over the course of the war and in later films depict the shifting roles of perpetrators and victims, she said, especially as the course of the war changed.
Movies about the Vietnam War, such as "The Deer Hunter" and "Apocalypse Now," which began to come out in the late '70s, portrayed how the war traumatized American soldiers just like it did the Vietnamese people. This equation was powerful for anti-war activists, but it was also very troubling for ethnic activists, she said.
Another genre focused on individual physical mastery and attempts to resolve the war hero's trauma. In "First Blood" (1982), Sylvester Stallone played John Rambo, an unstable and traumatized Vietnam veteran who is abused by local police, which triggers post-traumatic stress disorder, a new diagnosis for describing emotional reactions to war and violence. Two years later, Chuck Norris played Col. James Braddock in "Missing in Action," portraying a heroic soldier who investigates whether Americans are still being held as prisoners of war.
These movies are fraught with complicated and sometimes conflicting meanings, Chong said. Rambo, the former decorated Vietnam soldier and prisoner of war, ends up fighting American police and blames his violence on his war experiences. Norris' movies re-assert North Vietnamese as villains terrorizing American POWs, as the "era of neoconservative multiculturalism" countered earlier celebrations of Vietnamese communists, Chong said.
Chong uses the term "Oriental" in the book title in the sense that the literary scholar Edward Said used the term "Orientalism" – to criticize how cultures, including Asian and African, were contrasted with and excluded from Western civilization, she said.
The word "Oriental" was once used to describe people of Asian descent, but students and other activists in late '60s and '70s began banding together as "Asian-Americans," using the term for political solidarity and analysis, thinking that would help bring attention to the growing presence of and discrimination against Asians in the U.S., as well as in the Vietnam War, she said.
Photos of anti-war protests and black civil rights unrest, as well as of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians, have implications for whether these groups and those associated with them were perceived to be part of American society, or outside it.
"Saigon Execution" is one of several photos often described among "the pictures that lost the war." Another revealed American soldiers' violence against South Vietnamese civilians in the My Lai massacre. A group of soldiers, led by Lt. William Calley, killed more than 300 Vietnamese villagers, mostly old men, women and children in March 1968, but the story – and accompanying images – didn't surface until late 1969, most notably in Life magazine.
Although soldiers repeatedly said it was impossible to know who was an innocent civilian and who was a Viet Cong collaborator, photographers depicted over and over again the suffering of the Vietnamese at the hands of American soldiers. These images symbolized what was going wrong with the war and fanned anti-war sentiments.
The images from the My Lai incident reflect a change in the perspective on violence: Whereas "Saigon Execution" showed the Vietnamese as perpetrators and victims of violence, the My Lai photos show the U.S. soldiers as perpetrators. They implicated the U.S. and all of America, producing not only moral outrage but also collective guilt, Chong said.
Chong's "The Oriental Obscene" shows the power of "the visual contents of collective memory" and how they continue to reappear from late 20th-century history into the present day.