The War that lost America

The Sympathizer
By Viet Thanh Nguyen
384 pp. Grove Press. $16.

This book features one of the most intriguing protagonists of any book I’ve read.

The titular “Sympathizer” is both darkly funny and wryly philosophical. We quickly learn that he’s a spy, and, by quickly, I mean in the opening line. 

The backdrop of the “The Sympathizer” is the Vietnam War. That almost kept me from reading it, as that war isn’t as sexy as those good ol’ World Wars One and Two. Largely because Vietnam was a pointless war before “pointless wars” became de rigueur for America. 

There’s a good bit of action here, followed by a good bit of downtime once the protagonist gets to America, followed by a good bit of man-on-squid action, and finally a good bit of torture in the form of sleep deprivation. Ugh. As someone who recently took a 23-hour train ride from Buffalo to Atlanta and who can’t sleep on any form of public transportation I could only imagine the man’s agony in being made to stay awake for days on end.

There’s plenty of criticism here meted out to everyone – the French, the Vietnamese, and most particularly the Americans because, hell, we deserve it. Sure, on the microscopic level, John McCain behaved heroically and Donald Trump behaved like the coward he is, but the whole thing was generally worth less than a bad Civil War reenactment. 

A real case could be made that America’s “greatness” came to a genuine end with the Vietnam War. 

I mean, you tell me my fellow Americans, has there been a whole lot to be proud of since then? There’s been some righting of past wrongs (e.g. certain civil rights returned, homosexuals being allowed to marry), but nothing that many countries hadn’t done earlier. We still and likely always will remain utterly backward next to the Scandinavians. 

No no, America suffered a series of heavy, indelible blows. Native American genocide likely the biggest of these, followed in no uncertain order by slavery, Japanese internment during WWII, abandoning America’s WWII Eastern European allies under pressure from the Soviets, overthrowing various Latin American and Middle Eastern regimes, etc etc, until finally Vietnam came around. America unleashed napalm, Agent Orange, and all that other death and in doing so we dealt ourselves the final blow. Everything that’s happened since is just tantamount to the self-desecration of a corpse. 

It is funny to see the films about the Vietnam War try and make it look like America didn’t lose outright. Suuuuure. Author Viet Thanh Nguyen skewers such films here too, all the while spinning fantastic sentence after fantastic sentence … there are loads of fantastic sentences here.

Yet, somehow, America IS still alive. But its pulse is ever so weak, and the man voters have tasked with “making it great again” is the one person who never in a million years could make it so because he is the walking, golfing, obese embodiment of everything that is WRONG with America. The antipathy towards foreigners, the cowardice, the tax dodging, the treason … etc etc etc. 

Yes yes, Viet Thanh Nguyen could write a sequel to “The Sympathizer” showcasing the rotten underbelly of the American system, in particular that of its political and business class, and cast the whole thing around one Donald J. Trump, and call it “The Antipathizer”. A lot of man-on-corpse action in that one. Remember Trump’s groping of the American Flag? A good bit of patriotic snuff porn.

The Russians are busy resuscitating the legacy of Stalin and the Soviet Union, and Americans likewise are eager to rewrite Vietnam as a win. Or forget it entirely. 

As much as we all might want to, we can’t allow ourselves to fall asleep now, when sleeping would be tantamount to death.

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