Huy Duc’s The Winning Side: ‘old wine in a new bottle’?

Huy Duc has described his book, “The Winning Side”, as “a true history of Vietnam,” of which has earned praises for being an “honest book” with fresh insights that no scholars interested in the reunification era Vietnam can ignore. In this three-part series, diaCRITICS provides three different views on the significance of  “The Winning Side”by the author himself, by Nguyễn Vạn Phú, managing editor of the Saigon Times, and by Long Le, Director of International Initiatives for Global Studies at the University of Houston. This article has been translated and published in the BBC-Vietnamese

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Before assessing Huy Duc’s The Winning Side, let me note that I am on the “losing” side whose family escaped by boat in late 1981, and who still have relatives in Vietnam that are treated as “second class” citizens because they were on the wrong side of the war. In fact, I have deliberately chosen to research and teach the non-communist Vietnamese perspectivesbefore, during, and after the Vietnam War. My reason for doing so is because the experience of South Vietnam has continued to be “displaced” from official discourse under the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. In the U.S., the history of South Vietnam has been marginalized because of the overwhelming emphasis on the “lessons” of the “American Experience” during the war; though there is an effort to “Vietnamize” the study of the Vietnam Wars, such effort has yet been able to bridge or go beyond the “orthodox” or “revisionist” view of the war. Moreover, many Vietnamese American scholars of my generation are transforming Vietnamese American studies in which a key goal is to move beyond the older generation’s “anti-communist obsession” with the war, as well as  rejecting “the righteousness of rescuing projects” by the U.S. and negotiating just memory by  “recalling one’s own and recalling others.” For me, the frustration is that there are many insightful works by “elite” and “ordinary” Vietnamese associated with South Vietnam that will never be used in U.S. high school and college classrooms; whose works go beyond the stories of South Vietnam as only democratic and free, North Vietnam as only ruthless, and the U.S. as only benevolent.

Please subscribe or donate. Related to this frustration is that when works associated with the winning side are published, like Bui Tin1995 and 2002) and Huy Duc, there is no re-assessment of the valuable works by non-communist Vietnamese who lived and experienced the early post-1975 Vietnam. For example, Bui Tin’s argument that real prosperity and stability for Vietnam will only come from democracy and Huy Duc’s call for current leaders to learn (or admit) the “errors” of its Party during the liberation period are essentially endorsing the core ideology and aspirations of the non-communist Vietnamese side. The question then becomes whether the novelty of Bui Tin and Huy Duc goes beyond their contribution as “insiders” who may only serve to reinforce what “outsiders” already know about the winning side. And whether Bui Tin and Huy Duc can have an impact in the debate on responsible leadership (i.e., officials who should not be afraid to look, record, and present the facts for the common good) when their publication is linked to their current residency in Paris and Boston. Is The Winning Side about citizens transforming the socio-political discourse? In attempting to objectively assess Huy Duc’s book, I decided to review Huy’s narration through the framework of citizen journalism, whose emphasis is on putting forth the truth; thus, citizen journalism can impact the field of history and politics. That is, with the emergence of a political civil society and globalized online technologies, citizen journalism in Vietnam has inspired people to debate and to act in connection with socio-political activities. In recent years, these activities have included the sovereignty of the fatherland, labor rights, land rights, pro-democracy, and good governance to reduce corruption and arbitrary power. Though the party leadership still determines the ebbs and flows of citizen journalism. With the above context, perhaps the strengths and weaknesses of Huy Duc’s book can be analyzed more objectively.  For me, Huy Duc’s innovation and freshness come from his journalistic ability to narrate a political event that comes off as “credible” and “trustworthy,” relying on available historical facts, reportage, memories, and interviews. Eschewing sound journalistic principles, Huy Duc discloses why he is writing the book and seems to be independent in thought and open to critiques. Importantly, Huy Duc’s work publicizes views, experiences, and truths that have been lacking in Vietnamese government’s public discourse, such as highlighting South Vietnam’s generals who committed suicide to a nationalistic cause they believed in; experiences of the “losers” who had to endured re-education camps, campaigns against compradore capitalism, and eradication of Saigon’s cultural identity; and tragic lives that were lost from escaping by boat along with women who were raped by sea pirates.

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However, I don’t see Huy Duc’s work as history per se, since it does not deal primarily with the concerns of the past — revising, correcting, or recreating the past as it really was.  Instead, Huy Duc appears to be selective and creative in the use of the past to illustrate contemporary concerns. This includes addressing post-1975 tragic events in a way so that the country can avoid future mistakes; to possibly reconcile with the “losing” side by seeking the truths; and to unify Vietnamese by “memorizing” Hoang Sa and Truong Sa along with the liberation of the Pol Pot regime. Yet because Huy Duc’s work is not about writing history in a traditional sense, it is exactly why I think the book is a “sensation.” By publishing the book online without any major publisher behind it, Vietnamese can decide whether Huy Duc’s work is relevant in terms of the country’s socio-political discourse. Who “liberated” who? If the strength of Huy Duc’s narration of reunification era Vietnam is in “ pushing the line but not crossing the line,” it is also, I believe, the weakness of the book. For example, an implicit underlying thesis of Huy Duc’s work appears to be that of “a great man theory” in which officials like Nguyen Van Linh, Vo Van Kiet, and Le Dang Doanh had utilized their political influence to provide a path of reform from “error” into “correct” thinking.  The problem, here, is that records show that Nguyen Van Linh and Vo Van Kiet were installed and did pursue to eliminate southern capitalism and American neo-colonial culture.  There is a degree of hypocrisy when those who most energetically demonstrated their past errors, as did Linh and Kiet, could then reclaim leadership as facilitators of “doi moi” reforms as the new truth.  Yet, in general, both Linh and Kiet dared to speak the truth only when they were seeking power or were no longer holding power. An ironic twist.

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Based on earlier works that used accounts from Saigon Giai PhongNhan Dan, and Tuoi Tre, the likelier truth is that citizens’ activities of non-compliance in many localities are the reasons for a systematic shift in national orientation; these works include Nguyen Van Canh’sVietnam Under Communism, 1975-1982 (1983) and Philip Taylor ‘s Fragments of the Present: Searching for Modernity in Vietnam’s South (2001).  As such, I believe that Vietnamese citizens who dared not to comply with policies they deemed “flawed” from 1975-1986 are the ones who have really saved the country from further disasters; my concern is not so much whether party leadership can admit “historical errors,” rather that the party will ritually admit “errors” in order to do nothing about them. Another shortcoming is Huy Duc’s narration of the liberation of the Pol Pot regime, which does not account for the perspectives of Cambodian refugees. But from what I have read, Cambodian refugees are more likely to see Vietnam’s military intervention in Cambodia as “offensive,” “opportunistic,” or “draconian savior.”  For Cambodian American scholars, some have acknowledged that Vietnam’s military takeover in Cambodia can be seen as “liberation,” rather than an “invasion.”   However, for such scholars, the “liberation” of Khmer Rouge came with “historical costs” that Cambodia had to pay and they continue to live its legacy. Notwithstanding, I think whether Huy Duc’s book is ‘old wine in a new bottle’ remains open for question.  That is, will the government allow Huy Duc to continue his aspirations in Vietnam after his fellowship at Harvard? Will his colleagues in Vietnam help get his book on the bookstore’s shelves? Will progressive history teachers/professors in Vietnam use Huy’s book in their classroom? And will Vietnamese citizens in Vietnam begin to blog about their individual or family experiences during reunification era? For me, if some of the answers to the above are yes, then Huy Duc’s approach in narrating The Winning Side can be seen as transformative.

  

Long Le is Assistant Clinical Professor and Director of International Initiatives for Global Studies in the Bauer College of Business. Dr. Le initiates Bauer partnerships with area high schools, K-12 teachers, business, and media, so as to promote the understanding of globalization and interests in global issues. Each summer he directs study abroad programs to give students an opportunity to learn about local business practices “on the ground.” He is also the co-founder and lecturer of Vietnamese Studies Courses at the university. His current research focuses on the politics of change (including the role of transnational communities) in Southeast Asia. He has published in various academic journals and in Vietnamese language media, including the BBC-Vietnamese, Voice of America-Vietnamese, and Free Radio Asia-Vietnamese.

huy-duc-1_369x291Huy Duc is a seasoned journalist who worked for several major Vietnamese newspapers but is better-known for his Osin blog where he offered an original and more critical look at government policies and current events. With “The Winning Side”,which remains on the best-seller lists of both Smashword and Amazon, he has pioneered the idea of online publishing in Vietnam to avoid censorship. He is now a fellow at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard.

                                                                                                                                                         

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