The Gift Horse of War by Julie Thi Underhill

Editor Staff, Editor's Choice, March 26th, 2013

War was never something “left behind” in another land and in another time.

gift horse of war by julie thi underhill

Freshly graduated from a small liberal arts college an hour away from Seattle, I moved to the city to find a job after college. During the last year of my degree at Evergreen, I’d studied documentary film and video. For my final project, in the spring of 2000, I began a family history documentary focusing on the American war in Việt Nam, interviewing both my refugee mother and my US Army combat helicopter pilot stepfather, reading everything I could get my hands on, realizing the difficulty of making a film about an open wound of ongoing unfinished business. Even my classmates pitied me for needing to do work on the war in Việt Nam. Beside their self-aggrandizing music videos and abstract experimental films, my work was far too raw, too serious. The more sympathetic of these classmates would pat me on the arm and say, their voices leaden with gravity, sorry you have to do this. Thirteen years ago, the American war in Việt Nam was in the past, too far behind us to be real anymore. My young college classmates saw my interest in Việt Nam as a relic of something they could barely comprehend, having no direct memory of that era themselves. And the other veterans’ kids sometimes quietly thanked me for the work, but no one lingered to engage it.

As I neared graduation I realized that this project would be an unwieldy way to introduce myself to potential employers in Seattle, where I would soon move. I feared if they knew too much about this project, they wouldn’t know what to do with my work’s emphasis on war or even with my own personal connection to war, as the daughter of a refugee from Việt Nam and an American civilian contractor working in Việt Nam after the withdrawal of US troops, who evacuated together during the Fall of Sài Gòn. Raised also by my stepfather, the six-year US Army combat helicopter pilot in Việt Nam and Cambodia, war was never something “left behind” in another land and in another time. War literally came home to roost, with maps of bombing missions and arrogantly armed intentions to “save” Việt Nam coming to life and argued beneath our patterned plates at the dinner table, at the family altar, in our nightmares. My close friends knew about this upbringing. Yet at age 24, I was new at navigating the tensions between private withholding and public revelation. As I relayed an “inedible” story about the reverberations of war, while screening my film Spoils the spring of 2000, I asked my audience about the transmission of such life histories—“where does it go when it leaves you? Who—what—happens to it?”

Within a couple of months of making my video diary Spoils, I sensed that my deep connection to war, and interest in Việt Nam, could be a potential liability as I searched for a job as a new college graduate. So in my cover letter and resume, I didn’t go into the content of my recent work but emphasized those skills and techniques I’d learned in the film/video program at Evergreen. Yet I left out that emphasis on Việt Nam, on war, to be more marketable to employers, as entry-level film and video jobs were hard to come by in Seattle. I approached this dilemma not just as a new college graduate, but as someone accustomed to having my body and life history sometimes “read” by others in invasive and condescending ways, so it seemed that the less potential employers knew about my personal background and connection to Việt Nam, the better.

After cutting negative for a while—real negative, on a hot press bench with cement—and after doing some production assistance for a music video company, I finally found a job as a stock footage librarian in a documentary production company in north Seattle. I quickly began editing video, though, without being paid for that part of my job description. They’d call themselves makers of “natural history documentaries,” and their many state and national park documentaries attested to that. Yet their documentaries about some of those state and national parks also addressed the Native American inhabitants of that land in the most exoticizing and demeaning way possible. As it turns out, the company made most of their money off these sorts of “Indian” documentaries. All my training in school on reflexive ethnography—on the ethics of documentary—had preemptively critiqued the very work I would be doing the next year. And as a co-creator of these images, I felt complicit in their offensiveness, which stirred a moral conflict within. It was difficult to complain, however, during an economic downturn in the film industry in Seattle, and with so many other college grads searching for work. Since work was so hard to come by, I tried to swallow how it felt to return every morning to those dimly lit and cold editing rooms, doing work I could hardly respect.

Despite the company’s stated intentions, cultural sensitivity was in short supply around those parts. While working on a Chaco Canyon project one day, I transferred digital video interviews with Zuni, Hopi, and Pueblo elders. After doing painstaking graphic design reconstructions of Chaco Canyon’s most prominent structures, I was excited to finally hear the voices of descendants of the people who had traded in this important prehistoric site in New Mexico. The production company’s owner, Gray, complained that I took too long making sure each entire interview had been captured. “You can just cut them off,” Gray growled. “It’s not like they can answer the question that you ask anyway, without going on and on about nothing.” I was stunned that Gray didn’t realize that he’d asked them the most problematic questions possible while interviewing them, including, “Do you think white people should be allowed in Chaco Canyon?” Sadly, the elders had to talk around the fact that it didn’t truly matter what they thought about white folks visiting (or filming) Chaco Canyon—white people had taken over all the sacred sites in Native America, not just this one. They could not reply, We have no choice, and must pretend to be inclusive of ethnic tourism of our ancestors’ architectural wonders and holy places. Gray retorted and laughed that Native Americans “have pretty much been our problem to begin with.” By “our” he meant white America.

In a similar vein, Gray later remarked that “some Indians” had complained because he’d used the same ghost footage of an improperly attired Native American in all of his films. By ghost footage I mean that my boss had asked a Native American man to dress up in the old fashion of his tribe, before filming that man in front of a blue screen. He then had one of his editors remove the blue screen and reduce opacity on the man’s footage to turn him into a “ghost.” Gray then put that same man digging up something out of the ground in his continuous films, one after the other, no matter which part of the country that man’s people was supposed to have lived. The man’s translucence—and reduced opacity—made him a ghost image, in film terms, yet I meditated on the double meaning of ghost. He was, in fact, the descendant of people who had been slaughtered during the process of settler colonialism, during the various wars and extermination policies that made “manifest destiny” a cornerstone of European conquest of North America. And yet this man’s generic quality and translucent figure as a “ghost” image, in the context of a documentary film, made him part of the cultural imagination which had long failed to distinguish between different Native American peoples, and which failed to see how these “mysterious” peoples’ disappearance had anything to do with white people.

One day, Gray even tried to convince me to dress up as a Native American woman so he could film me in front of that same blue screen, to make me into a ghost image. My boss intended to have me remove the blue screen and shrink myself down in postproduction, to make myself walk around Chaco Canyon as the impostor ghost of a former inhabitant of the ancient settlement. “Oh, I get it,” I replied wryly. “You take someone who is sorta brown and make them small enough, so they look like other sorta brown people.” Oblivious to my sarcasm or sense of irony, Gray laughed heartily and said, “I hadn’t thought about it that way before, Julie, but I guess you’re right!” The next day a cardboard box appeared in the hallway, with the words “INDIAN KIT” writ large in uppercase black block letters. I looked inside to see a burlap sack, a matted and gnarled black wig with a grey stripe—no doubt from a Halloween witch’s costume—and a conch shell and various pottery and basketware items, none truly indigenous or even hinting at authenticity. The tattered burlap sack—my “Indian” clothing—was particularly problematic. I held it up, noticing that its prior occupants were potatoes, not Native Americans. Great, I thought. The ethnically indistinct brownish girl gets to reenact the cultural stereotypes of a white man who secretly believes that Native Americans have been “our problem” to begin with, but who actually capitalizes off of the disappearance of these “mysterious” people. And by letting him film me, I would be further complicit in his representational violence. My sarcastic reply must have saved me, however, since he never pushed filming me, even though he brought the kit. I never knew, though, when he would ask again. The “INDIAN KIT” box loomed large in the hallway, threatening me every day.

While I was growing up my refugee mother had always told me that we, the Chăm ethnic minority, are the equivalent in Việt Nam to the Native Americans here. “We were the original inhabitants before the Vietnamese,” she had explained. Yet at that job in Seattle, where cultural sensitivity was already in short supply, I’d managed to keep my own identity somewhat vague. Gray and his wife, Dale, the office manager, never asked me much about my life, my studies, or my interests. They knew that my mother was from Việt Nam and my dad was an American man from the United States, but that was about it. Then halfway through my year working at the production company, I’d begun collaborating with a Việt Nam veteran on a documentary project that would bring together Vietnamese and Salvadoran women for postwar reconstruction talks. Finally, I thought, I am returning to the real work. I let my employers know that I would be reducing my hours a bit in order to work on this project. During my last semester in college, that family history documentary had opened up so many unanswered questions for me—about history, about healing—and I was desperate to have these questions addressed by working on relevant films. So I returned to the war work and began conducting interviews with people who might illuminate the conflict in El Salvador, which I knew next to nothing about, at the time. An NPR reporter friend of mine living in Mexico, Gerry Hadden, introduced me by email to someone who’d worked for the Truth Commission for the war in El Salvador, and during one spring weekend I flew stand-by to Mexico City to visit with Gerry and to do further research.

The following Tuesday I was at work again in Seattle, at the production company, where Dale, the office manager, inquired about my trip to Mexico. I told her about the documentary project, bringing together women survivors of the wars in Việt Nam and El Salvador for postwar reconstruction talks. Vaguely bored, she replied, “Exactly how did war affect your family again?” I took a breath, met her gaze, and considered my options. When people ask me a question like this, I have to carefully assess their interest and commitment before responding. Does someone ask such questions to truly understand the situation better? Or to put me on some sort of mental map of scales of victimization and regret? To peg me as a symbol of the failures of US intervention, in a war the US could never proudly claim to have “won”? Yet this woman I worked for was asking how war affected my family. Despite my fears about revealing too much to employers who might not understand, I gave Dale the benefit of the doubt, too generously, it would turn out.

“Well, my mother was the wife and then widow of a commanding officer in the South Vietnamese Army. She was basically in the army herself. She snuck supplies through enemy checkpoints, she identified dead soldiers’ bodies, and she eventually brought her husband home as a skeleton after he was killed in action, after 13 years of marriage. She lived during constant warfare, since she was born during the French Indochina War. She was always under attack, for 30 years. Female family members were also raped during and after war.” In the tone perfected from years of trying to make my story easier on people, palatable even, to avoid the compassion fatigue of glassy eyes and pat-pat-pat on the arm just before a quick escape, I continued my story as casually as possible. Yet I also told the truth, as had been requested. “Our family was impoverished by constant warfare, and then disrupted by the evacuation. My mother was separated from her eldest children for 16 years. During that time, one of my sisters was given lethal injection by government doctors, on account of her mixed race identity. And everyone in the family still suffers from PTSD and depression, including secondary trauma to the children born here.”

Although I’d tried to keep the story factual and not emotional, Dale stared hard at me, resentment gleaming in her eyes. “Well, Julie. You’re going to have to remember, if it wasn’t for war, you wouldn’t be here.” Her final four words were heavy with spite and condemnation. In her glare, I was just my mother’s daughter, with the US nation-state an unwilling rectifier of the problems associated with spilling not only blood, but also seed, in a quagmire of a nightmare of a memory. In that moment I realized that my boss’s wife looked at me and saw bar girls gyrating, US soldiers patronizing prostitutes, the shame of having one’s unsolved problems coming home to roost. She didn’t even bother finding out how her preconception aligned with my own story, if at all, with that eyebrow-raised smirk, “So, how did your parents meet?” She’d already decided against something honorable, even tolerable. In her eyes, I was evidence of unwarranted compassion for my mother and her home country, whose erasure was evident in Dale’s words, “if it wasn’t for war, you wouldn’t be here.” Here, here, home of the free and brave, not including us. Apparently, my family and I did not deserve the asylum granted us.

Now it was my turn to have glassy eyes. I was too stunned to answer her. I somehow excused myself and escaped back into the cold darkness of the editing suite.

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The following day Henry, my half-time coworker, came to the editing suite. Henry was in his 40s, with a cousin who’d been MIA in Việt Nam since during the war. Henry and I had talked before about the war, and we shared a similar political outlook. I sensed he’d have some compassion, so I decided to relay the previous day’s discussion with him. “Henry,” I whispered, “I have to tell you something, but you can’t say anything to anyone.” Dale was just down the hall in the front office, and could walk by the post-production suite at any time. I told the story in hushed tones, in one long breath, hoping to get it all out before she walked past us to hear.

As I told him the previous day’s events, I noticed Henry’s face getting red. He is naturally quite fair in his complexion, so the crimson hue surprised me. And then he did something which I could have never imagined or predicted. He threw his head back to scream, “Thank god for Henry Kissinger!”

“Shhhhhhhh, Henry!” I whispered fiercely. Yet he put up his finger, interrupting my interruption.

“Thank god for Richard Nixon!” he screamed even more loudly, echoing down the hall, reverberating throughout the production company, past the “INDIAN KIT” box in the hallway. Henry finished with his loudest pronouncement yet. “You wouldn’t want to stare the gift horse of WAR in the mouth!”

I felt dizzy, my blood draining, my intestines knotting. But amidst my fear and horror I also realized—with increasing clarity, as the years pass—that his sarcastic angry protest defended my right to live, as a child of that “contentious” war, in this country. And true to the historical amnesia in the front office, Henry’s compassionate insurrectionist outburst was never addressed. The gift horse of war galloped past Dale without even stopping—it was never intended for her, was it? She never confronted me, nor did her husband, over Henry’s yelled defense of me. And yet I knew, without a doubt, that this whole episode signaled an end for me at the production company in north Seattle, even more than the “INDIAN KIT” had.

I quit that job within a few months, after saving up enough money to do a postwar study tour throughout Việt Nam, my second trip to my mother’s homeland. This journey was my perfect send off—the most fitting way to say farewell to that dimly lit editing suite. On the postwar study tour through Việt Nam, traveling with veterans and protesters and historians, I wasn’t a ghost likeness when I knelt in ceremony within a tower in Mỹ Sơn, built by my Chăm ancestors in 200AD, the longest continuously occupied temple complex in Southeast Asia. That day I promised those ancestors I would never forget that I am still here, despite five hundred years of conquest and assimilation by the Vietnamese who settled the Chăm kingdom, despite a century of warfare in Indochina by colonial French and imperial US powers, despite the postwar displacement of my family, and despite successive houses of amnesia upholding the conqueror’s rationale that they had to destroy the entire village in order to “save” it.

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julie thi underhill essay nailed magazineJulie Thi Underhill is a writer, photographer, artist, filmmaker, and historian with work in Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace, Embodying Asian/American Sexualities, Takin’ It to the Streets: A Sixties Reader, ColorLines, Hayden’s Ferry Review, positions: asia critique, and Southeast Asian Women in the Diaspora: Troubling the Borders of Literature and Art. She has received fellowships from University of Massachusetts Boston/Rockefeller Foundation, and UC Berkeley’s Chancellor. Julie attended The Evergreen State College (B.A.) and UC Berkeley (M.A.), where she is currently a doctoral student.



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