Revisiting Vietnam: Memoirs, Memorials, Museums
Emmanuel, S. M., Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)
Revisiting Vietnam: Memoirs, Memorials, Museums Julia Bleakney. New York: Routledge, 2006.
Bleakney's study examines contemporary attempts to memorialize the Vietnam War. She is not interested in the historical facts per se, but rather in "the processes that create new meanings of it." Her task, more specifically, is "to call attention to the ways the war is continually reconstructed and reimagined in the present" (2-3).
There is more to understanding these creative processes than meets the eye. There is, for example, the political aspect: various veterans groups narrate different stories for different reasons. Furthermore, "because these processes evolve over time, understanding how, where, and why they occur is as important as the meanings produced" (3). To complicate matters even more, cultural memory shapes our social understandings of the war "as much if not more than published history" (3). Indeed, Bleakney proceeds on the premise that "memory increasingly is validated as the authentic representation of the war," even as she attempts to "problematize the notion of authenticity," as well as the cultural practice that privileges the personal experience of veterans.
Despite the complexity of the subject, Bleakney's exploration of memory and meaning yields some worthwhile insights. In what is perhaps the best chapter in the book, "Returning to Vietnam," she shows how the returning veteran's experience is shaped by the flow of capitalist investment into that segment of the Vietnamese economy that caters to American tourists trying to reconnect to the past.
As a piece of scholarship, however, this study poses significant difficulties for the reader. The discussion ranges breathlessly over a broad and constantly redefined terrain. Too many secondary sources are gratuitously quoted without any depth of critical engagement; and the boundaries between individual and corporate memory, as well as between memory, fiction, and history, are all destabilized to some extent.
The main problem is that Bleakney's methodological approach is not clearly defined. She moves in and out of theoretical perspectives from various disciplines, but commits to none of them. In fact, she spends an inordinate amount of space problematizing her analysis-a tendency that is signaled early in the book:
To position memoirs in the larger cultural context of public war memorializing, I observed visitors at museums and replica walls in the United States and Vietnam; read postings at online memorial sites and publications from memorials, museums, and tourist agencies in both countries; talked to museum staff; and took photographs. …