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Exploring the landscape and history of Vietnam with David Biggs

November 8, 2017

David Biggs, Associate Professor of History at UC Riverside, will be speaking at 12:30 this afternoon in Thomson 101 about his forthcoming book, War in the Land: History and the Militarized Landscape in Vietnam, and on November 11th about the Mekong River as part of the Seattle Art Museum’s Saturday University speaker series.  Ahead of these appearances, our Assistant Director Shannon Bush interviewed Dr. Biggs to learn more about his formative experience as a volunteer English teacher in Vietnam that steered him to UW’s PhD program in History and his take on US representations of the Vietnam War.


SB:  Your talk at UW will focus on the scars ingrained upon Vietnam’s landscape from military conflict over generations, up to and including the U.S. War in Vietnam.  I believe your first experience in Vietnam was as a volunteer English teacher with the organization Volunteers in Asia (VIA).  Where were you posted and were there traces of war readily apparent to you then, whether in the environment or social realm?

DB:  Vietnam in 1993 was still like a land frozen—in terms of urban and rural landscapes–in 1975.  Evidence of the war found me in a number of ways.

My first impression of traces of war in the landscapes of Vietnam came on July 4, 1993 when my plane made the approach over the rice fields at Noi Bai Airfield near Hanoi. Looking out the window, I saw so many perfectly round fishponds randomly dotting the square patchwork of rice fields. Right away I knew that those were bomb craters. When the plane landed, it taxied to a stop on the runway in front of a tiny, concrete terminal that looked like it was a movie set from the 1960s. When I walked the streets of the old quarter, every once in a while I encountered an old lady who might yell something at me—and one who even threw vegetable peels at me.  I realized they recognized that I was American and were probably angry from the war.

I spent three months in a crash Vietnamese language course and had an amazing, unforgettable time. Two other VIA volunteers and I stayed at the foreigner guest house at the Foreign Language College in what was then a village-like suburb of Hanoi (now it’s mostly covered in tall buildings). Walking to class past the quad on our first day, college students were performing their required two weeks of military service, putting together and taking apart AK-47s. I remember walking with a cold Sprite in my hand, sweating in the morning sun, when a girl about my age pointed her AK47 at me and said, “You, American!” but with a big grin on her face.

My teaching post was at the Economics College in Ho Chi Minh City. I had a little bit of ESL training, but the college asked me to teach “English for Economics” to students who’d grown up with a Socialist education. Most of them already spoke English well, but things got tricky when I had to explain “marginal rate of return” and “inelastic demand.”

I recall landing in Ho Chi Minh City on a Russian-made Tupelov 134 aircraft, a tank-like plane with porthole windows. As the plane taxied into the slightly larger concrete terminal building of Tan Son Nhat, we passed row upon row of revetments, the concrete bays that once housed American jets. Walls still showed pockmarks from rocket shrapnel, and at old concrete watchtowers along the road into town, I recall seeing the yellow-star flag of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam painted thinly over the older, South Vietnamese three-bar flag.

I think I was by then very aware of how the vestiges of war were all around me, but at the same time I was 23, romantic and mainly just up for adventure. I, as I think do a lot of historians, look back on these “young” experiences and wish I’d had the knowledge and experience from graduate training to interview many of the seniors who were leading figures in the war. Being an American foreigner was still novel enough, in 1993, that celebrities such as Vo Nguyen Giap or Nguyen Thi Dinh might stop to chat. Foreign volunteers, in particular, enjoyed unusual access in those “old” days.


SB:  One of your former UW professors, Christoph Giebel, has organized the second in a series of panel discussions about the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary, “The Vietnam War,” which will take place Tuesday evening.  Does it seem to you that the US is entering a period of renewed attention to the Vietnam War?  If so, do you sense any shift in attitudes or public perceptions? 

DB:  I’ve just watched the entire 10-part series. As an historian who knows many of the talking heads (Mai Elliott, for example) and some of the people who consulted on the series, I think I look at the documentary and the interpretation from a more technical, nerdy perspective.  Would I have used the Ray Charles “America the Beautiful” soundtrack at the end of Chapter 8? Bao Ninh and Le Minh Khue are well-known to English-reading audiences; but what would other, less familiar Vietnamese authors have said in response—stuff like that. However, one great aspect of the series is that it provides a LOT of primary photographic and video evidence as well as MORE opinions from North Vietnamese combatants.

As someone who studies the nation-building projects of all sides, I think the series could have done a better job of explaining the spaces of revolutionary activity, their history, and why they often fell so quickly.

However, I really admire the work that went into the series, and I acknowledge the fact that its targeted for an American, PBS-watching audience. It will be a useful teaching resource, too, whether one teaches for or against it.


SB:  One criticism lodged against Nick Turse’s book, Kill Anything that Moves, was that his claim about historical amnesia was belied by the number of books, articles, and films about the Vietnam War that have been published or broadcast.  Yet in some ways it seems the discussion has not moved much beyond the narrative established by the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations.  Do you think an increasing focus on the war from the Vietnamese perspective might help change that?

DB:  Hmmm.  I guess my response to this question would be “change that for whom?”  If a scholar, for example, wishes to learn the language, visit the archives, talk to people and develop a program of study, there is no reason why one cannot write new histories of the Vietnam War. I don’t care for the documentary film about McNamara, “Fog of War,” because McNamara never just says “I’m sorry.” However, he does a good job of explaining the problem of waging war versus seeking meaning in a war after the fact.  (A simple “I’m sorry” would have been appreciated.)

I think that historians and readers of war histories often overshoot in their quests to derive essential “truths” about a war, its logics, and the ultimate reasons behind success or failure. That’s human nature, seeking answers and tidy containers for difficult, multi-plane experiences. It’s for this reason that I think literature often does a better job than history of capturing human experiences in a war versus after one.  In my new book, when I write about the Tet Offensive in Hue, for example, I find statistics of body counts and narratives of military operations flat, two-dimensional.  Instead I use stories like Nha Ca’s Mourning Headband for Hue and Trinh Cong Son’s songs about bodies strewn along the roads, on pagoda roofs, and in fields.

This is NOT to say that people IN a war do not think historically. Of course, people are constantly trying to rationalize their experiences, whether American GIs or Vietnamese guerrillas, in historical terms. And I find THAT interesting.


SB:  Finally, to end on a more uplifting note, you’re an expert now on Vietnam and fluent in the language, but having been a VIA volunteer in Indonesia, I know the constant risk of communication faux pas and cross-cultural collisions upon first arriving in a new country.  Did you have any particularly memorable incidents of misunderstanding you’re willing to share?   

DB:  I don’t think of myself so much as an “expert” but as someone, with the benefit of MANY kind mentors (including my great professors at UW), who accumulated some road wear. I actually applied to UW proposing to write an environmental history of the entire Mekong River with the idea of picking up Thai and Khmer language as well as Viet. I quickly got bogged down in just the delta and Vietnamese, slowly recognizing that taking on a language would shape much of the direction of my life.

Embarrassing situation. Easy. In July 1996, I was in Hanoi as a VIA/Ford Foundation teacher for a group of diplomats in the Central Committee of the Party. It was an amazing gig, organized in response to the development of diplomatic relations between the US and Vietnam. (The diplomats asked for a free English teacher.) For my send-off, the head of this Foreign Affairs Commission arranged a dinner that I only later learned was set in the former meeting hall for the Politburo.  I ate some of the most amazing Vietnamese cuisine I’ve ever encountered – I remember a duck curry with lotus seeds served inside a hollowed-out orange.  There was a small bowl of what looked like a clear consommé, and I put my spoon in to take a sip; but just before I got it to my mouth, one of the diplomat-students stopped me and explained that this was the water for the finger bowl.  So much for my debut with Vietnam’s upper crust!