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University of California Press
Body Counts: The Vietnam War and Militarized Refugees / Edition 1

Body Counts: The Vietnam War and Militarized Refugees / Edition 1

by Yen Le Espiritu
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Body Counts: The Vietnam War and Militarized Refuge(es) examines how the Vietnam War has continued to serve as a stage for the shoring up of American imperialist adventure and for the (re)production of American and Vietnamese American identities. Focusing on the politics of war memory and commemoration, this book retheorizes the connections among history, memory, and power and refashions the fields of American studies, Asian American studies, and refugee studies not around the narratives of American exceptionalism, immigration, and transnationalism but around the crucial issues of war, race, and violence—and the history and memories that are forged in the aftermath of war. At the same time, the book moves decisively away from the “damage-centered” approach that pathologizes loss and trauma by detailing how first- and second-generation Vietnamese have created alternative memories and epistemologies that challenge the established public narratives of the Vietnam War and Vietnamese people. Explicitly interdisciplinary, Body Counts moves between the humanities and social sciences, drawing on historical, ethnographic, cultural, and virtual evidence in order to illuminate the places where Vietnamese refugees have managed to conjure up social, public, and collective remembering.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520277717
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 08/23/2014
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 264
Sales rank: 788,433
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Yen Le Espiritu is Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, San Diego. She is the author of the award-winning Home Bound: Filipino American Lives across Cultures, Communities, and Countries (UC Press, 2003).

Read an Excerpt

Body Counts

The Vietnam War and Militarized Refuge(Es)

By Yen Lê Espiritu


Copyright © 2014 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95900-2


Critical Refuge(e) Studies

There were things about us Mel never knew or remembered. He didn't remember that we hadn't come running through the door he opened but, rather, had walked, keeping close together and moving very slowly, as people often do when they have no idea what they're walking towards or what they're walking from.

lê thi diem thúy, The Gangster We Are All Looking For

At this moment of reinvigorated U.S. imperialism and globalized militarization, it is important to interrogate anew public recollections of the U.S. war in Vietnam—"the war with the difficult memory." As a "controversial, morally questionable and unsuccessful" war, the Vietnam War has the potential to unsettle the master narratives of World War II—in which the United States rescued desperate people from tyrannical governments and reformed them "into free and advanced citizens of the postwar democratic world." It is this "good war" master narrative of World War II, in which the United States is depicted as triumphant and moral, that legitimizes and valorizes U.S. militaristic intervention around the world then and now. This book thus asks: how has the United States dealt with the "difficult memory" of the Vietnam War—a war that left it as neither victor nor liberator? Having lost the Vietnam War, the United States had no "liberated" country or people to showcase, and, as such, the Vietnam War appears to offer an antidote to the "rescue and liberation" myths and memories. Yet, in the absence of a liberated Vietnam and people, the U.S. government, academy, and mainstream media have produced a substitute: the freed and reformed Vietnamese refugees.

Calling attention to the link between the trope of the "good refugee" and the myth of "the nation of refuge," this book argues that the figure of the Vietnamese refugee, the purported grateful beneficiary of the U.S. "gift of freedom," has been key to the (re)cuperation of American identities and the shoring up of U.S. militarism in the post–Vietnam War era. As I will show, Vietnamese refugees, whose war sufferings remain unmentionable and unmourned in most U.S. public discussions of Vietnam, have ironically become the featured evidence of the appropriateness of U.S. actions in Vietnam: that the war, no matter the cost, was ultimately necessary, just, and successful. Having been deployed to "rescue" the Vietnam War for Americans, Vietnamese refugees thus constitute a solution, rather than a problem, for the United States, as often argued. The conjoined term "refuge(es)" is meant to encapsulate this symbiotic relationship: that refuge and refugees are co-constitutive, and that both are the (by)product of U.S. militarism—what I term "militarized refuge(es)."

On the surface, the image of thousands of Vietnamese risking death in order to escape "communism" and resettle in the United States appears to affirm U.S. uncontested status as a nation of refuge. Yet, as Vietnamese American writer lê thi diem thúy reminds us in the epigraph, not all Vietnamese came running through the door that the United States allegedly opened. Rather, many moved very slowly, with much confusion, ambivalence, and even misgivings, uncertain about what they were walking toward or what they were walking from. And a few, in fact, travelled in the opposite direction, away from the United States. In other words, the refugee flight-to-resettlement process was full of detours and snags, characterized "by chaos at the end of the war, confusion, and the stark absence of choice for many of those who had 'evacuated.'" The messiness, contingency, and precarious nature of refugee life means that refugees, like all people, are beset by contradiction: neither damaged victims nor model minorities, they—their stories, actions, and inactions—simultaneously trouble and affirm regimes of power.

During the Vietnam War, the U.S. Army employed "body counts"—the number of confirmed Vietnamese kills—to chart U.S. progress in the war. Accordingly, I use this very term, body counts, as the book's title in order to expose the war's costs borne by the Vietnamese and to insist that bodies—Vietnamese bodies—should count. Focusing on the politics of war memory and commemoration, Body Counts examines the connections between history, memory, and power, and it refashions the fields of American studies, Asian American studies, and refugee studies not around the narratives of American exceptionalism, and immigration, and transnationalism but around the crucial issues of war, race, and violence—and of the history and memories that are forged from the thereafter. Explicitly interdisciplinary, Body Counts moves between various disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, drawing on historical, ethnographic, cultural, and virtual evidence in order to trace not only what has disappeared but also what has remained—to look for the places where Vietnamese refugees have managed to conjure up social, public, and collective remembering.

Although this book recounts the wounds of social life caused by the violence both before and after the Vietnam War, its primary objective is to reveal the social practices that have emerged to attend to these wounds. Body Counts thus moves decisively away from the "damage-centered" approach so prevalent in the field of refugee studies and focuses instead on how first- and second-generation Vietnamese have created alternative memories and epistemologies that unsettle but at times also confirm the established public narratives of the Vietnam War and Vietnamese people. Emphasizing the range of Vietnamese perspectives both before and after the war, it critically examines the relationship between history and memory, not as facts but as narratives. Like other communities in exile, Vietnamese in the United States feel keenly the urgency to forge unified histories, identities, and memories. Against such moral weight of "the community," Body Counts asks what happens to events that cannot be narrated. What lies just underneath the surface? Which memories are erased, forgotten, or postponed and archived for future release? Where and how then do these "nonevents" fit into the narration of history? In sum, how would refugees, not as an object of investigation but as a site of social critique, "articulate the incomprehensible or heretofore unspeakable"?


In the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, reporters, politicians, and media commentators used the term "refugee" to describe the tens of thousands of storm victims, many of them poor African Americans, who were uprooted from their homes along the Gulf coast and forced to flee in search of refuge. Almost immediately, prominent African American leaders, including Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, charged that the use of refugee to refer to Katrina survivors was "racially biased," contending that the term implies second-class citizens—or even non-Americans. For these critics, "refugeeness" connotes "otherness," summoning the image of "people in a Third World country" who "carried the scraps of their lives in plastic trash bags," wore "donated clothes," and slept "on the floor of overpopulated shelters." In this context, calling U.S.-born African Americans refugees was tantamount to stripping them of their citizenship—"their right to be part of the national order of things."

As the Katrina controversy reveals, and as the following review makes clear, the term "refugee" triggers associations with highly charged images of Third World poverty, foreignness, and statelessness. These associations reflect the transnationally circulated representations of refugees as incapacitated objects of rescue, fleeing impoverished, war-torn, or corrupt states—an unwanted problem for asylum and resettlement countries. As "refugeeism" has become a prominent feature of our times, Trinh T. Minh-ha urges us to "empty it, get rid of it, or else let it drift"—to prevent the word "refugee" from "being reduced to yet another harmless catchword." Trinh tells us that words have always been effective weapons to assert order and win political combats but that, when we scrutinize their assertions, "they reveal themselves, above all, as awkward posturing, as they often tend to blot out the very reality they purport to convey." This section scrutinizes the assertions of the word "refugee," as propagated in the social sciences, especially in the discipline of sociology, in order to empty it of its power. In reviewing the literature on Vietnamese refugees, I pay close attention to its role in interpellating and producing the Vietnamese subject, in naturalizing certain understandings of their resettlement in the United States, and in reinforcing specific ideologies about the U.S. role before and after the Vietnam War. In particular, I am interested in how and why the term "refugee"—not as a legal classification but as an idea —continues to circumscribe American understanding of the Vietnamese, even when Vietnamese in the United States now constitute multiple migrant categories, from political exiles to immigrants to transmigrants, as well as a large number of native-born.

I initiated this book project in part because I was troubled by what Eve Tuck calls damaging and "damage-centered" social science research that reinforces and reinscribes a one-dimensional notion of racialized communities as "depleted, ruined, and hopeless." Emphasizing the traumas of war, flight, and exile, social scientists have constructed Vietnamese refugees as "only lives to be saved," a people "incapacitated by grief and therefore in need of care." As a people fleeing from the only war that the United States had lost, Vietnamese refugees have been subject to intense scholarly interest—an "overdocumented" yet ironically un-visible population when compared to other U.S. immigrant groups. Indeed, the 1975 cohort, as state-sponsored refugees, may be the most studied arrival cohort in U.S. immigration history.

Soon after Vietnamese refugees arrived in the United States in 1975, the federal government, in collaboration with social scientists, initiated a series of needs assessment surveys to generate knowledge on what was widely touted as a "refugee resettlement crisis." Viewing the newly arrived refugees as coming from "a society so markedly different from that of America," government officials and scholars alike regarded the accumulation of data on Vietnamese economic and sociocultural adaptation essential to "protect[ing] the interests of the American public." Other substantial data sets on Vietnamese refugee adaptation followed: from the Bureau of Social Science Research Survey, the Institute for Social Research Survey, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Developmen (NICHD) funded survey, and other government records, including the 1980 U.S. Census. Constituting the primary data sources on Vietnamese and other Southeast Asians from the mid-1970s and throughout the 1980s, these large-scale surveys, which cumulatively portrayed the refugees as a problem to be solved, delimited and conceptually underpinned future scholarly studies and popular representations of these communities in the United States. This hyper-focus on the refugees' needs and achievements has located theproblem within the bodies and minds of the refugees rather than in the global historical conditions that produce massive displacements and movements of refugees to the United States and elsewhere.

Prescribing assimilation as the solution to the "refugee problem," subsequent studies have imposed a generalized narrative of immigration on Vietnamese refugees, thereby reducing the specificities of their flight to a conventional story of ethnic assimilation. The assimilation narrative constructs Vietnamese as the "good refugee" who enthusiastically and uncritically embrace and live the "American Dream." Christine Finnan's 1981 study of the occupational assimilation of Vietnamese in Santa Clara County provides a telling example. In Finnan's account, the oft-exploitative electronics industry becomes a "symbol of opportunity" in which Vietnamese technicians "are eager to work as many hours of overtime as possible." Even while praising the hardworking and enterprising Vietnamese, Finnan discursively distances them from normative American workers by reporting that "occupations that may seem undesirable to us may be perfectly suited to [the refugees'] current needs" and that Vietnamese become technicians "because they are patient and can memorize things easily." Finnan also contends that Vietnamese, even those who were the elite in Vietnam, prefer working as electronics technicians in the United States to working in Vietnam "because there is more potential for advancement here." In the same way, Nathan Caplan and colleagues optimistically characterize Vietnamese economic pursuits as "conspicuously successful" even while reporting that the overwhelming majority (71 percent) held "low-level, low-paying, dead-end jobs" and that slightly more than half (55 percent) were employed in the periphery rather than in the core economic sector.

By the late 1980s, scholars, along with the mass media and policy makers, had begun to depict the Vietnamese as the newest Asian American "model minority." Published in 1989, The Boat People and Achievement in America, which recounts the economic and educational success of the first-wave refugees who came to the United States during the 1970s, was among the first and most influential texts to document Vietnamese "success," likening it to the larger Asian American process of assimilation: "The refugees have now begun to share in the Asian American success stories we have become accustomed to find reported in the news media," and "The success of the Indochinese refugees are, in a broad framework, also part of the overall achievement of Asian Americans." Subsequent publications were particularly effusive about the "legendary" academic accomplishments of Vietnamese refugees' children who "came to America as boat people ... survived perilous escapes and lost one to three years in refugee camps."

Together, these studies present the United States as selfevidently the land of opportunity, which then allow the authors to conclude that, even when Vietnamese are underemployed and barely eking out a living, they are still better off in the United States than if they had remained in Vietnam. Because the word "refugee" conjures up images of a desperate people fleeing a desperate country, Vietnamese workers are presumed to be naturally suited and even grateful to work in boring, repetitive, monotonous, low-paying, and insecure jobs. Such tidy conclusions dispense with questions about U.S. power structures that continue to consign a significant number of Vietnamese Americans to unstable, minimum-wage employment, welfare dependency, and participation in the informal economy years after their arrival. Moreover, this ahistorical juxtaposition of opportunities in Vietnam and in the United States naturalizes the great economic disparity between the two countries, depicting the two economies as unconnected rather than mutually constituted. As I will elaborate in chapter 4, the production of the assimilated and grateful refugee—the "good refugee"—enables a potent narrative of America(ns) rescuing and caring for Vietnam's "runaways," which powerfully remakes the case for the rightness of the U.S. war in Vietnam.


Departing from the emphasis on refugee resettlement in sociology, some scholars in the interdisplinary field of international relations have stressed the significance of the "refugee" category, especially in the twentieth century, for the practice of statecraft. This scholarship thus conceptualizes the refugees not as a problem but, in a sense, as a solution for resettlement countries. As Nevzat Soguk muses, for all that states denounce refugee outflows as a problem, the precarious condition of "refugeeness" in fact provides "affirmative resources for statist practices," fostering a better appreciation of what it means to enjoy state protection. In Susan Carruthers's words, the refugees' insecurity is "at once a rebuke and a reminder that there's 'no place like home.'" As reviewed below, the more critical and interdisciplinary scholarship in the field of international relations undercuts the traditional social science conceptualization of refugees as a problem to be solved and scrutinizes instead the economic, cultural, and political foundations of the modern nation-state.

In her generative book on the cultural politics of international encounter, international affairs scholar Melani McAlister urges us to bring "the cultural analysis of empire into the heart of U.S. foreign policy studies." Emphasizing the complex connections between cultural and political narratives, McAlister contends that foreign policy itself is a meaning-making activity that has helped to define the nation and its interests. The more critical international relations literature on refugee policies reveals that the provision of asylum has constituted an important foreign policy tool to tout the appeal of the U.S. brand of "freedom." As such, refugee policies are active producers of meaning—a site for consolidating ideas not only about the desperate refugees but also about the desirability of the place of refuge.

The figure of the refugee, as a socio-legal object of knowledge, has been metaphorically central in the construction of U.S. global power. According to Randy Lippert, during the Cold War years, "refugeeness became a moral-political tactic," demarcating the difference between the supposed uncivilized East and the civilized West, and fostering "cohesion of the Western Alliance nations." In 1951, prodded by the United States, whose paradigmatic refugee was the East European and Soviet escapee, the U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees officially defined "refugee" as a person who "is outside the country of his nationality" and who harbors a "well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion." Although this definition focused on the plight of individuals rather than groups and emphasized the causes of flight, it unduly privileged victims of political oppression above victims of natural disaster or other types of oppression.


Excerpted from Body Counts by Yen Lê Espiritu. Copyright © 2014 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
1. Critical Refuge(e) Studies
2. Militarized Refuge(es)
3. Refugee Camps and the Politics of Living
4. The “Good Warriors” and the “Good Refugee”
5. Refugee Remembering—and Remembrance
6. Refugee Postmemories: The “Generation After”
7. “The Endings That Are Not Over”


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