April 27, 2011

Madame Nhu passes away

Madame Nhu has died. The sister-in-law of former South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem, Madame Nhu has been called many colorful and uncomplimentary epithets—"dragon lady," "an oriental Lucrezia Borgia"—because of the influence she wielded and the style with which she did it. (Somehow men being powerful or power-hungry is not so reprehensible.) Raised Buddhist, she converted to Catholicism when she married. Her exile was spent largely in Paris then Rome. She is survived by two sons and a daughter.

Madame Nhu was famous for her colorful sayings, such as "Total power is totally wonderful," and, of the self-immolating monk Quang Duc, "If the Buddhists wish to have another barbecue, I will be glad to supply the gasoline and a match."

Amy Davidson writes about her for the New Yorker and brings up the Afghanistan parallel. The Guardian's take includes this nugget: "She later accused monks of lacking patriotism for setting themselves alight with imported petrol."

The United States's support for South Vietnam is not our proudest moment, and it's one that still cannot be discussed with anything approaching equanimity, and the reason is obvious: We're now supporting another embattled and illegitimate government, this time in Afghanistan. The parallels, while often derided by the war's supporters, are obvious enough. The war in Afghanistan seems to be an unspoken secret in our society. Every day we kill civilians and send our soldiers into harm's way to support a corrupt government that wants us out of their country and to achieve other vague goals that no one can quite articulate. How far we've come since Madame Nhu's heyday!

Madame Nhu

(Photograph: John Loengard/Time & Life Pictures. Appeared in the Guardian.)

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Philip Ryan's picture

Thank you, Vicki. This is very important to keep in mind, and I don't mean to downplay it. We all remember Jodi Bieber's famous photo of Ayesha, the Afghan woman who had her nose cut off by (I think) the Taliban. It was used as the cover of TIME magazine—as an argument for staying in Afghanistan. (Amazingly, Ayesha has since gotten a new nose thanks to plastic surgeons in California.) The story of Afghan girls going to school for the first time over the last decade is indeed inspiring, and the alternative extremely depressing, but this is not why wars are fought (though this may be one of the dozens of arguments interventionists, intent on the endless projection of American power, use—they'll say whatever they think you want to hear. I'm not implying this is your motive, Vicki!)

We are there, we are fighting a hopeless, losing war with no strategy and no hope of victory (by which, generally speaking, we mean democracy), and the government we are both bankrolling and dying to defend is corrupt and illegitimate. It is an endless, hopeless quest. We can be romantic and look at the good it has done, and it is extremely moving, but I would argue we could do more engaging with the international community peacefully than by continuing to bomb mountain villages in Afghanistan killing "friend" and "foe" alike, while keeping a small section of the country safe for democracy. No one seems to have any solution, but there are so many reasons why we must stay. It was the same in Vietnam: How can we abandon these people? They depend on us. So we stayed until the bitter end, and boy was it bitter.

I'm tired of hearing excuses for continuing this war—but if we're staying, can we at least acknowledge it? The war is virtually in a news blackout. Why? because we can't quite bring ourselves to look at it directly.

paul6316's picture

We could bring ourselves to look at it directly when there was a Republican in the White House. The media talked of little else. I wonder where the outrage has gone: Code Pink, "Bush Lied, People Died," Cindy Sheehan? I wonder.

Philip Ryan's picture

Thanks, paul6316. Paritsan politics may play a part. Republicans haven't protested military action since Clinton ordered missiles fired at what the administration called terrorist targets in the 90s. And even in the Bush years, the cost of war was always carefully hidden. Yes, Afghanistan and Iraq each dominated the news cycle for a time, and there were, very properly in my opinion, vociferous protests. But now people seem to have accepted the war. Democrats are reluctant to criticize Obama, and Republicans simply don't criticize US military action, whatever they may think of the president. So it is a perfect storm of indifference. Someone should create a big sign to carry around Washington DC saying "Ignore the War!" Because that's what's happening.

vickijo45's picture

I have several Afghan friends here in the States who say they will be forever grateful to America for saving the lives of Afghan women. At least for a few years, Afghan women have not been thrown into holes or stoned in soccer stadiums. Uncounted schools and hospitals have been built in Afghanistan and Iraq, and hundreds of thousands of young girls are back in school after decades of deprivation. It is an immoral argument to say that because the U.S. cannot go into every country, ergo, we should not be involved there, rectifying any human rights abuses. Please see the Persian movie, “Osama,” about a girl living in Afghanistan under the Taliban. It’s the first movie to be filmed in Afghanistan since the Taliban banned the creation of all films in 1996. "Reading Lolita in Tehran" speaks for Iranian women on the same level. Much metta to you, Vicki