Raising Vietnamese: War and Youth in the South in the Early 1970s
Dror, Olga, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies
Assigned to write about the preferred branch of the armed forces in which to enlist, a student turned in a blank sheet of paper, explaining the lack of an answer to the enraged teacher: 'I hear that in several years there will be peace, so I think by the age of eighteen I will be free from going into the army.' (1) This joke appeared in a Saigon youth magazine in 1972 during the war between North and South Vietnam. Intended to provoke a laugh, this 'joke' derives its humour from an acknowledgement that young people could not only lack a desire to fight in the war, but could also express this. Such a joke would not have been funny, or even possible, in the North. It reveals that, unlike in the North, some Southern young people were raised to express their own thoughts and were not socialised to subordinate themselves to an officially approved point of view.
The twenty-year-struggle between North and South Vietnam (1955-75) was enmeshed in the global struggle between a fraying Sino-Soviet alliance and countries that relied upon the leadership of the United States. Numerous works have appeared about various aspects of the military and socio-political realities of this struggle; but this was also a struggle between different visions that the Vietnamese themselves had about the kind of society they wanted to bequeath to their younger generation. Ironically, youth have been left out of academic analyses of the war. Filling this lacuna will add to our understanding of the divided Vietnamese societies and their separate identities.
By youth, I am referring to children in their late primary and secondary school years. Thieu Nhi, one of the two magazines discussed in this essay, explicitly identifies the age of its audience as nine-to-sixteen years; Thang Bom, the other magazine, appears to have the same age group in mind. While cultures variously define the ages of children, adolescents, teenagers, and young adults, the nine-to-sixteen year target group of these publications has a definite basis in wartime South Vietnamese society. In general, childhood ended rather earlier and adulthood began rather sooner than is typical in some other cultures. However categorised, the scholarly study of youth, as was the case until recently with women, has tended to be relegated to the margins; and very few scholars have focused exclusively on Vietnamese youth. (2)
Yet youth are important in any society, and their role, even if unacknowledged, increases when a society is under great stress; although living under conditions created by their parents' generation, it is the children who will make the future. In the words of a Cambodian specialist in children literature, Roderick McGills, 'Real children, that is, persons who have not lived long and breathed the air of social action, can no more avoid the politics of experience than adults can.' (3) The British author Jacqueline Rose observes that adults create an identity for 'childhood' as projections of their own self-perceptions, and that they explain the world to their children in terms of the differences and similarities that are important to them. (4) The interconnection between 'adulthood' and 'childhood' is accordingly a critical indication of how adults think about the future, for the future that they want for their children is a dream about the future that they want for themselves. Consequently, bringing children into historical analysis is a way to understand how adults envision the possibilities in their own lives.
One of the most potent vehicles for shaping identities in societies with a high degree of child literacy is through written texts. As noted by an Australian scholar, John Stephens, texts for youth are produced to socialise a target audience whose view of the world is in the process of being formed. (5) It is an obvious observation that writings for youth reveal a high level of didacticism, which tends to align them with the dominant ideology of any particular time and place. …