An Excerpt from “A Messenger of Ill Tidings”

Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis

Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc immolates himself in a crowded Saigon intersection. Nine-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc runs naked down a road near Trang Bang. All at once: Saigon and Trang Bang are one stage, 1963 and 1972 the inhale and exhale of one long breath. She runs from his fire. He draws her napalm burns onto himself. This is how collective memory—not personal memory, but a bad symphony of personal memory—works. We sequence the images neither side-by-side nor top-to-bottom; we superimpose them one over the other.

Along with the ubiquitous photographs of helicopters touching down, lifting off, and carrying American troops to safety, the photos of Thich Quang Duc and Phan Thi Kim Phuc give us the enduring images of the Vietnam War.

Historian David Halberstam witnessed Thich Quang Duc’s immolation firsthand and was, by his own report, forever changed. (His account for the New York Times, buoyed by the infamy of the photo, won a Pulitzer and the George Polk Award.) A string of Americans followed Thich Quang Duc’s example on American soil: Alice Herz in Detroit, Norman Harrison in front of the Pentagon, Roger LaPorte in New York City, Florence Beaumont outside the Federal Building in Los Angeles, and George Winne Jr. on the campus of the University of California–San Diego.

As for Phan Thi Kim Phuc, today the phrase “the girl in the picture” still evokes her image for an entire generation of Americans. Shortly after the photo’s mass publication, Nixon was caught on audiotape doubting its authenticity, wondering whether it might have been “fixed.” Phan Thi Kim Phuc herself collaborated on the 1999 book The Girl in the Picture, which provides an extended account of her harrowing journey as an adult from Vietnam to Cuba to Canada, plus, for good measure, a reckoning of the photo’s role in the war.

All of this is but a fraction of the contextual surround. The Vietnam War in toto has inspired a corpus of literature of such obscene breadth and depth one hardly knows where it begins and ends. Vietnam War novels and memoirs form their own distinct genres, with identifiable subgenres and, if one inspects carefully enough, likely sub-subgenres as well. The catalog of history books, not counting those written in languages other than English, is even more staggering: in the course of working on a novel, I cursorily scanned Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and the shelves of my university library and came away with a provisional list several hundred titles long.

Of the war generation, one realizes—all of this matériel is distinctly of the war generation, created and consumed by that generation. Other generations perhaps read bits and pieces, and much of it is easily accessible online or in the recesses of academic libraries. But almost all of that vast body of information no longer resides in the center of collective memory but far out on the periphery and sliding away fast. Only images endure.

Do we have a responsibility to that information? A responsibility to haul up the past, in some if not all of its detail, again and again? Of course. Milan Kundera famously decried forgetting—“the struggle of man against power,” as he put it, “is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” Cultural and historical amnesia, in other words, are the building blocks of totalitarianism. Don DeLillo’s 1991 novel, Mao II, covered similar ground, as did, in a fashion, his 2002 New Yorker short story “Baader-Meinhof,” titled after a radical German group of which most Americans under the age of forty have never heard. But we always forget, whatever the injunctions to remember. Whatever we may want to happen, contexts get stripped away, nonetheless, and we must honor that, if one can call it honoring, in a certain way, too. I mean we must attend not only to those contexts—and why we’ve stripped them—but to what images want, to borrow the phrase from W. J. T. Mitchell. Images allow themselves, will themselves to be stripped. They take on new lives.

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