In Paisley Rekdal’s book The Broken Country: On Trauma, A Crime, and the Continuing Legacy of Vietnam, the broken country referred to is presumably Vietnam, the country the United States fought for many years. The war’s origins started in 1955 when the French were driven out, and ended in 1975 with America’s withdrawal. But this book’s story makes it clear that in many ways, America is also a somewhat broken country due to that war.
The impetus for the book was a knife attack in Salt Lake City. It seemed like a random act of violence. A refugee from Vietnam set about stabbing persons in a parking lot in Utah, yelling “You people killed my people.” Looking around him, he targeted white men, and severely wounded two. This crime sets Paisley Rekdal on an investigation, on delving into what motivated the perpetrator, why he expressed his angers and needs in such a horrific way. It sends her on a journey of tracing the refugees from that war who had come to the United States, settling in various parts of the country. She recounts the deeply destabilizing effects that war generally has on people, and how refugee groups adapt, as best they can, to life in societies so different from their own.
Her writing style; is so engaging that you immediately understand that Rekdal is no mere academic, but a writer who wants to engage the reader in an emotional way. This is a highly personal story, for Rekdal makes it a journey of discovery, of her biracial (Chinese/white) background, of a Chinese American uncle who served in the Vietnam war. By including herself in this way, she makes this an engaging, deeply thoughtful meditation on how a war affects entire populations, long after the last shot has been fired. Her conclusions resonate for many if not most Americans, for we are indeed a nation of immigrants, and refugees from all over the world.
Human beings are adaptable beings but we are also social creatures who grow up within communities and carry the values and mores and family traditions of that community. And when they move to another country for whatever reasons, culture clash is something they have to deal with. Studies have shown, Rekdal says, that traumas experienced are often transferred to children and other family members even though the particular traumatic experiences are never discussed or articulated. We can all understand this. Seeing it manifest in situations where a person acts out his grievances in the way this man did is understandable, but terrible in its results. “Innocent” victims bear the brunt of events that happened years ago, thousands of miles away, and we are all enmeshed in distant events that live on in the lives of many.
Rekdal has lived in Vietnam and in the United States. She spoke with many who came from Vietnam, refugees and immigrants who were escaping terrible situations and hoping to find a better life here. They do establish themselves and create lives that give them some security and stability, but many are haunted by what had happened to them and their families.
And we Americans were responsible for a great deal of that suffering, though individually we may have been against the war. So, how do we deal with today’s realities? Can mental health services realistically cope with such deep hurts? As a society, could we have helped them more? Undoubtedly, but it is doubtful that we will fully acknowledge our responsibility for all the damage that we have caused. So we’re left with picking up the pieces and hope that time will help ameliorate people’s pain.
Rekdal compares a monster sculpture in Hanoi, consisting of crashed American airplane parts war refuse: humbees, jeeps, tanks, and a large photo of a female figure on a beach pulling an airplane part with a rope, with the Maya Lin Vietnam memorial in Washington D.C. Both are tributes to the war. One is graphic, the other is abstract. And for her, both stir memories of that conflict, in visceral, dramatic ways, symbolizing the vast waste and the various costs of the war. She ends on this uncertain note, on art, but without any real conclusions about the meaning of it all. She knows that there are no easy answers.