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Chapter Twenty-Two

When do Wars End?

Lê Thanh Dũng: After many conversations with Trần Văn Thủy, in which I listened to his stories about his experiences with the overseas Vietnamese in the United States, I realized that, with national reunification now achieved, the matter that most occupied his thoughts was concord and reconciliation. In the final analysis, this is but an aspect of human destiny, which is the central concern of all his films, but it is a peculiarly urgent, concrete, and burning issue. While reconciliation with the Americans as the former enemy has largely succeeded, the hatred between the two Vietnamese sides remains, after forty years, an open wound for both sides.

We as a people have exhausted our spiritual and material resources in a long fratricidal war. The country has been reunited, but the souls of people are still divided; we have not been able to free ourselves from hatreds, prejudices, and outmoded concepts; we have not escaped from the chains with which we have put ourselves in bondage as prisoners of the past.

To paraphrase Ambassador to Vietnam Pete Peterson, wars don’t end when the guns go silent. They don’t end when the survivors go home. They end only at the moment of reconciliation.

In 1990 when I visited Germany, I met Rugerd again, the man who had parked his car by the Botanical Garden so that I could stealthily drop a copy of The Story of Kindness into it, and then had it secretly delivered to the 1988 Leipzig Film Festival. I recalled that episode to Rugerd and thanked him for what he had done. He made no response at first. The second time I thanked him, he looked a bit annoyed. When, in the course of further conversation, Thủy thanked him a third time, Rugard grew angry and said bluntly, “I did it neither for Trần Văn Thủy nor for Vietnam—I did it for Germany.”

This conversation took place just when Germany was about to be reunited. Rugerd was in a gloomy mood, because he would soon be out of work, and he had no idea what the future might hold for him. But he said, “I believe that Germany will have a better future and become more developed.”

I thought of Angela Merkel, the current prime minister of Germany, one of the outstanding prime ministers of Europe, and a person considered as one of the most powerful women in the world. Before the unification of Germany, she, like almost all other East German students, had been a member of the Free German Youth, a communist organization, and had later become a member of a district Youth committee, and then the Youth Secretary in charge of mobilization and propaganda in the Academy of Science in the (former) Democratic Republic of Germany.

From this we can see that a nation which regards all talented people as national human assets is a nation with a high culture and good prospects for development. Reconciliation is a natural process coming from the heart, not a policy or strategy. A capacity for reconciliation exists already in all people of conscience; when people have the will to engage in it, there will be reconciliation.

I have the intention, whenever I meet Rugerd again, to ask him the following: “you Germans don’t have the popular sayings that we Vietnamese have, such as, ‘The red silk fabric wraps the framed mirror; compatriots of one nation must love each other,’1 and ‘Talents are the true genesis of a nation…’, yet how are you able to do such a fine job?”2

When the Vietnamese-American Conference at Kim Bôi, Hòa Bình concluded (June 2010), I granted an interview to RFI (Radio France Internationale) in which I made a clear statement of my views on reconciliation. The final part of the transcript is as follows:

When will reconciliation occur between the Vietnamese and the Vietnamese?

Nobody wants war, but now that war has come and gone, people on opposite sides have become friends. American veterans have come to Vietnam to participate in charitable activities, to visit Vietnamese friends in their homes, and to take part in funerals and weddings in Vietnam, treating us with sincerity as good friends.

In view of all this, a huge question naturally arises. How about reconciliation between Vietnamese and Vietnamese—who were previously on opposite sides?

My dear young friends: in the conference that we are holding here today, a great many of you are students in the literature department of the Hanoi University of Culture. You young people are the future. Allow me then to converse with the future. None of the presentations up to now have mentioned you. What I wish to say to you is that the reconciliation between the Americans and the Vietnamese may be regarded as over; it has had a good ending. But the heavy burden of reconciliation and concord between Vietnamese and Vietnamese entails a great many tasks that remain to be performed by your generation. But given my encounters and my understanding, I believe we must set forth some principles and guidelines for reconciliation and concord between Vietnamese inside and outside the country, and even among Vietnamese inside the country itself, if we are to make progress toward this goal. Only in this way can reconciliation actually be achieved.

It is possible that people may have different paradigms in mind: those of people overseas, those of people living at home, those of people in power, those of people without power, those of common folk, and those of intellectuals… But there are perhaps two key principles to be observed if we are to achieve reconciliation and concord:

The first is: Accept and respect differences.

The second is: Be fair and transparent about the past.

If we do not accept and respect differences, we will never ever achieve reconciliation and live in harmony. This is a scientific and philosophical issue that has nothing to do with ideology or political stance.

As for the second principle, the experience of quick reconciliation between East and West Germany, and the slow reconciliation (taking over 50 years) after the American Civil War of 1861–1865 allows us to see the importance of being fair and transparent about the past.

If we know enough to accept and respect differences, but are not fair and transparent about the past, then we will surely be unable to move toward real and durable reconciliation. These are the most fundamental tenets that I believe and that I have presented in this conference.

And finally I would like to repeat something I said to my young friends during the conference:

The soul of a human being is a hundred times heavier than his body, and therefore we must place weight on spiritual life, especially the spiritual life of a nation.

1. In former times, mirrors were precious and so were often framed and covered by a red silk fabric for décor and protection from dust. This symbolically indicates mutual love and protection. (translators)
2. Thuy’s implication is that the Germans, even though they do not have such sayings to set a national tome, are to be admired for doing a better job of achieving national reunification through reconciliation and appreciation of talents then the Vietnamese, who supposedly already possess such cultural ideals.

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