On Teaching Vietnam
We have read Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War
and now we’re watching a film called Regret To Inform,
a documentary inspired by Barbara Sonneborn’s
personal quest, twenty years after the fact,
to come to terms with her husband’s death in Vietnam,
to go there to that country, to try to understand
where, how, and why her husband died.
The film becomes a kind of oral history that studies
the perspectives of war widows on both sides,
American and Vietnamese.
Most of my students
sit in stunned silence for 75 minutes
as the stories of these women are unveiled,
coupled with images from the war of villages burning,
bombs dropping, planes spraying defoliant,
children abandoned, injured or dead,
women weeping among the rubble,
prisoners beaten, mothers cradling their
babies and hiding in the underbrush
as the helicopters hover above them,
all of this accompanied by a haunting
piano score interwoven with
traditional Vietnamese instruments and singing,
mournful, every note full of anguish and deep suffering.
In the end, Barbara Sonneborn is having tea
with a Vietnamese woman who fought
with the Viet Cong in the area where
her husband was killed twenty years ago.
It is possible, Barbara’s voice
is telling us, that this woman might have
led the attack that killed her husband.
And yet, they have tea, light incense,
and the Vietnamese woman expresses her
hope that their meeting will be shared
in Barbara’s home country,
that the film will play a part toward
healing the wounds of war in Vietnam.
We’re on the road, Barbara says.
When the closing credits roll,
the class remains silent for a long time,
listening to the music, reflecting, I hope,
on the darkness of war in the dark
safety of their suburban classroom.
And when the lights come on,
a student says to me, as a result
of our study of the Vietnam conflict
and this film, that now–she hates war.
And I say, in all seriousness,
but coming close to the only kind
of joy that can come out of this difficult work: