06 June 2010


Neil L. Jamieson, Understanding Vietnam. Berkley, CA: University of California, 1994, 428 pages.

Four decades of oppression by a brutal communist regime have not erased Vietnam’s rich literary history. From the oldest written record of Vietnamese creation myths to the underground poetry smuggled out of the country through embassies and emigrants , literature has marked the troubled history of Vietnam. In Understanding Vietnam, Neil L. Jamieson combines his extensive knowledge of this rich literary history with personal insights gained during over four years of work as a civilian advisor in Vietnam during and after the war to provide a rare look at Vietnam from Vietnamese perspectives. The book begins with the dawn of Vietnam’s quoc ngu--anglicized written Vietnamese--literary history (at the beginning of the French colonial period) and concludes at the beginning of the 1990s. But beyond being a history, Understanding Vietnam also provides a unique window into how the Vietnamese saw and still see the world.

Jamieson contends that the Vietnamese have framed every conflict in their history in the context of this world view . The tides of insurgency and liberalism marked the waxing and waning of yin (the feminine, informal, and chaotic) and yang (the masculine, formal, and ordered) in nature’s attempt to balance the Tao. The governments of North and South--and the individual’s obligation to each--were seen in the context of filial obligation (hieu), class-based right behavior (nghia), and the centrality of the village. The arrival of the French and Western values called all of these values into question. Jamieson describes both the French Indochinese War and the subsequent American war in Vietnam as, ultimately, foreign intervention in the internal conflict between competing Vietnamese “super-villages” (competing ideological camps ) to reset the “thermostat” of the Vietnamese value system.

If one could find any fault with Understanding Vietanm, it would be in its heavy-reliance, to the near-exclusion of all other media , on quoc ngu literature. The pre-quoc ngu history he describes was told by people who lived in the shadow of French colonists. Surely this influenced what history was told or lost, which works were translated or not from the older, pictographic, Sinic Vietnamese. Likewise, Jamieson touches briefly on Vietnam War-era television, but completely excludes film or radio sources. These mass-media sources might paint a much different picture of the Vietnamese public’s perceptions, North and South, especially during the war.

These are minor complaints about an otherwise exemplary book. Understanding Vietnam eschews the common intellectual short-hand about causes for the Vietnam War--Cold War clich├ęs and dogmatic comments on counter-insurgency or international relations. In fact, this book eschews assigning cause at all. Instead, as he concludes, Jamieson masterfully ties the ancient concept of the Tao, yin and yang, to modern systems theory to reveal that, rather than an effect of some discreet cause, the Vietnam War was an emergent phenomenon that existed in an “evolving context,” the context of the Vietnamese world view.

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