Art and Architecture, History, Reviews

Artistry of the Viet Cong

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Arts and culture blog posted a review last week of Sherry Buchanan’s recent book, Mekong Diaries: Viet Cong Drawings and Stories, 1964-1975—a collection of work by ten Vietnamese soldier-artists that, as truthdig contributor Christian G. Appy notes, offers the western world new insight into the experiences of those on the other side of the Vietnam War and the resilience of those soldiers in the face of the much better equipped U. S. military. Appy’s article begins by quoting a Chicago novelist:

“We lost the war because the Vietnamese just flat out beat us. And we lost the war because we didn’t understand that they were poets.” I was offered this Delphic explanation of American defeat in Vietnam by Larry Heinemann, a novelist who survived some of the war’s fiercest fighting in 1967 and 1968 as a soldier with the 25th Infantry Division near the Cambodian border in Tay Ninh province.… But how could poetry, or any kind of art, help explain one of history’s most astonishing victories? I think what Heinemann meant was that the Communist-led cause in Vietnam mobilized not just bodies, but souls.…
To maintain morale, the government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) deployed hundreds of artists, writers, actors, singers, photographers, puppeteers and dancers. These members of the “Literature and Arts” section of the military (Van Nghe) did not just visit combat troops, or lecture to them; they lived with them, moved with them, camped with them, and sometimes fought along with them. They were military artists in residence, only the residence was a war zone, not a campus. When combat was imminent they might move to the rear, but, when necessary, they picked up arms and fought, and died.…
Sherry Buchanan’s new book, Mekong Diaries: Viet Cong Drawings & Stories, 1964-1975, gives us a stunning look at some of the wartime art produced by the Vietnamese soldier-artists who served in the “American War” to drive out the U.S., topple the American-backed government in Saigon and reunite Vietnam. The book’s title is a bit misleading. This is not a collection of diaries. There are a few scraps of moving wartime correspondence and some wartime poems by Nguyen Duy, but this is, primarily, a collection of watercolors and sketches created during the war by soldier-artists.

And you can preview a selection of these watercolors and sketches in PDF format here , or continue reading Christian Appy’s article on Mekong Diaries on the truthdig blog.