The Vietnam war ended 44 years ago. It left more than three million civilians and soldiers dead, major cities completely destroyed, and the country’s natural landscape ravaged by chemical weapons. The country largely responsible for this destruction was, of course, the United States.
The Vietnamese have every reason to hate the US for their role in the conflict. However, it is surprising that they hold little resentment towards the Americans. They love American pop culture, and Vietnamese leaders see the US as a strong military ally.
So why the shift in perception? There is no shortage of incidents that Vietnam could use to justify a negative view of the US, yet they don’t. This is quite baffling if you compare it to the current situation in other Asian countries. In East Asia, there is bitter resentment between China, Japan, and Korea stemming mainly from the second world war, which caused a tremendous amount of human suffering in Asia. However, unlike the Vietnamese, the Asian combatants are far from willing to forgive and forget. Modern-day Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans are well aware of past events, which fuels mutual hostility to this day.
Of course you cannot compare the two conflicts, but I fail to see what is intrinsically different about them that results in an amicable, modern-day relationship in one case, and continued hatred in the other. War is war and there was death and destruction on a massive scale in both cases.
But why the disparate reactions after the end of the wars?
In my view, it is not about the effect of the war itself; it is all about politics. Politicians pick and choose a certain historical event, and then form a narrative of the past to best aid them in their current political goals. This narrative is propagated to the public and eventually becomes the common feeling in that country. This process is anything but organic, which is why the appearance of these “historical victimhood” narratives are seemingly detached from the actual events that occurred.
In the world of politics, time works differently. “Political time” doesn’t forgive and forget. For some politicians, there does not seem to be a limit to how far back in time they will go to inflame a political issue, so long as it can be used to push their desired agenda. A conflict can extend indefinitely if it suits the will of the political class currently in power.
This contrived politicisation of the past is not just an Asian phenomenon. Just recently, the president of Mexico formally demanded that the King of Spain apologise for the violent actions the conquistadors committed against the native Mayan population 500 years ago.
The time scale of these events is truly baffling. Applying a 500-year timescale would be equivalent to China seeking compensation from Japan for the Nanjing massacre in the year 2438. You could go on playing this silly game indefinitely, and indeed that is what some politicians do. There are no shortages of groups of people that have had something bad done to them at some point of time, and if we, as humans, cannot find a way to forgive the sins of our fathers, we will be doomed to be in perpetual conflict.
I truly believe that, in 2019, the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean people have the ability to come to terms with the past and begin a new, amicable relationship. If the Vietnamese can do it (with a war that ended in 1975, no less), I know it is possible, at least in an ideally apolitical environment. The past is a powerful tool. If used wisely, it can show us the way forward. When weaponised however, the past can be used to pit people against each other and create a never-ending cycle of conflict.
Now, the people of China, Japan, and Korea have to ask themselves whether or not they have the will to reject “political time”. Hopefully they can decide before 2438.