Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Return to Vietnam: Transnational Stories of War Legacies

Mia Martin Hobbs

“A lot of guys say, ‘I almost feel like I’m coming home”, said Bill E., a former Marine from his home in Da Nang. Bill had deployed to Vietnam in 1969, serving a year as a machine gunner along the demilitarized zone. He returned to the US and was discharged four days before the National Guard opened fire on an anti-war demonstration at Kent State University in 1970. Back in his home country, he felt isolated and anxious. Every day he thought about the war: “I had this knot in my soul…I just had to untie this knot.” He began thinking about returning to Việt Nam, to find out “why Vietnam is still the ghost that it is.”

Bill finally returned in 1994, and found that being in Việt Nam brought him “a little peace of mind.” He described how in the US, the word “Vietnam” was associated with war and death, but after returning, he began to associate the word with peacetime Viêt Nam: “so, it just kinda changed the library of images that accompanied my mind.” Bill eventually moved back to Viêt Nam, running a tour agency to help other veterans come back. In a letter to a fellow Marine, Bill explained, “Some say I changed in Vietnam. I say I was born here.”

Between 1981 and 2016, thousands of American and Australian Vietnam veterans returned to Việt Nam. Return to Vietnam is the first historical study of their journeys. I interviewed over 50 veterans to find out why they returned and what happened on their journeys. I wanted to understand how veterans made sense of and lived with their war experiences, and to explore what veterans’ return journeys revealed about the Vietnam War and its legacies.

Like Bill, many veterans described a longing to return, looking for resolution, or peace, in their personal relationships to the war. They dreamed of revisiting a place of profound significance in their memories. Many expressed the idea that they were “born” in Vietnam: it is where their childhood ended, where they became men. After the war, they felt displaced and misunderstood. “Home” no longer feels like home after war. These feelings were exacerbated by enduring social, cultural, and political fractures caused by the war in Australia and the US. Veterans described returning to Việt Nam as a way to resolve the ongoing debates that swirled around “their” Vietnam War: by discovering truths, healing traumas, honoring friends, reclaiming pride, or redeeming their role in the war.

There is a basic tension in the story of veterans returning to Việt Nam. Veterans returned searching for peace, yet they expressed nostalgia for war. Many found healing in peacetime Việt Nam, but were challenged by the erasure of their wartime presence upon return. Return to Vietnam explores how veterans negotiated this conflict, enacting nostalgic wartime practices to collapse time through space and relocate their sense of belonging in Việt Nam. Through these explorations, the book unspools interconnections between pasts and presents in multiple time periods and across three countries, drawing out entangled threads of individual and collective remembering. By situating the human story of Vietnam War legacies in a transnational context, Return to Vietnam reveals relationships between Australian memories of war and American films in the 1980s, between the proliferation of pop psychology in the 1990s and the normalization of diplomatic relations between the US and Vietnam in the 1990s,  between Vietnamese villages and traditions of Australian war commemoration, and between 1960s anti-war protests and twenty-first century Vietnamese remembrance practices.

Return to Vietnam By Mia Martin Hobbs
Return to Vietnam By Mia Martin Hobbs

About The Author

Mia Martin Hobbs

Dr Mia Martin Hobbs is an Honorary Fellow in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, University of Melbourne. She has held fellowships and awards from the University of...

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