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 What people are saying about Haunting Legacy

"What a terrific book!"

Lesley Stahl, correspondent for 60 Minutes

"This is great narrative history and biography combined to create informative case studies."

Walter Isaacson, president and CEO of the Aspen Institute

"Marvin Kalb and Deborah Kalb’s account of this phenomenon is studiously researched, vividly narrated, and, above all, highly readable. It will stand as a major contribution to the subject."

Stanley Karnow, author of Vietnam: A History and winner of the Pulitzer Prize


To read more reviews of Haunting Legacy, click here.


Q&A with author Howard Means

Howard Means is the author of the new book 67 Shots: Kent State and the End of American Innocence. His other books include Johnny Appleseed and Money and Power. He is a former senior editor of Washingtonian magazine, and he lives in Virginia.

Q: Why did you decide to write about the Kent State shootings, and how did you research the book?

A: It’s just something that stuck with me for a long time. I was a high school teacher in May 1970 at St. Albans in Washington, I was two or three years older and the students were [a little younger] than the people involved. The event ripped me apart when it happened...

I was trying to find a subject that allowed me to write about the ‘60s. This happened in 1970, but seemed to be the concluding act of the ‘60s.

I found an amazing cache of oral histories in the university archives. I thought, this is a way to tell the story holistically. I found the story…hadn’t been told at book length in a long time. The documentary work on it was through the same set of four, five, or six eyes.

In a way, I wanted to rescue it and write a book [without a single point of view]. I started with Vietnam, honoring the memory of the people who died in the other war.

Q: What do you think are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about the Kent State shootings?

A: There’s a woman quoted in the book—she said she was leading kids on a tour in 1990 and telling them what happened. One kid said, I thought kids were partying and were shot.

One [other] misperception is that the students were rioting and out of control. They weren’t. A few were behaving badly, but they weren’t rioting and out of control.

I went to the 45th commemoration of the shootings. A lot of people were convinced it was a conspiracy, that Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover were behind it. It carries all that weight of the ‘60s.

When you break it down, you can look at it as a Harvard Business School case study, there was horrible mismanagement on all fronts, absentee stakeholders, stakeholders without elasticity in their positions.

People forget how tied up it was in [Ohio governor] Jim Rhodes’s political ambitions. Rhodes was one of those people who was a baleful figure from the late ‘60s. On one level it was about his political ambitions. You can lay a lot at his feet.

The misperceptions are many. The biggest is that this was about the Vietnam war. It was not about Vietnam [on that day] but about the militarization on the Kent State campus.

That’s how the book has contemporary value—we militarize [a given situation, for example] in Ferguson, you bring in people like Jedi warriors behind shields with semiautomatics. It becomes about you vs. them, not about the person who was shot…

Even I had forgotten that [it was about militarization]. That emerges so powerfully in the oral histories, what it was like living with helicopters circling overhead. Everybody was on edge. You can’t separate it from the hideous decade that preceded it.

Another thing that surprised me was the reaction afterwards, how cruel it was. I had forgotten that, how ugly it was when you had long hair…

Q: Yes, you mentioned the militarization--I was going to ask you about the contemporary issues and the legacy of the shootings. Could you say more about that?

A: I think there are a lot of lessons still to be learned. Disproportionate firepower does not always ensure the safety of anyone. At Kent State, the guardsmen were equipped with battle rifles to do crowd control.

The police need protection, but they are doing crowd control with weapons developed for door-to-door combat in Kabul. It changes the reality in front of them, and creates a new reality. I don’t think we’ve learned that lesson at all.

We can say, at least the National Guard was never sent on campus carrying live ammunition to do crowd control [again]. I guess there’s something to be said there.

The last thing we saw was the World Trade Organization and IMF protests. In contrast to Kent State, we see an absence of involvement, and I don’t think that’s good. It’s partly a legacy of the volunteer army.

I thought [at first] it was a wonderful idea but now [do not]. There’s no stake on college campuses with what happens in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan. You don’t want Kent State repeated, but you want engagement with serious issues. That’s been a big change, and not a good change…

Another thing that horrified me when I was writing the book…the Urban Outfitter Kent State shirt came out, the blood-stained one. [The company] would say that’s the way the colors worked out.

It is so obscene. I said, I’ve got to do this book the right way. That’s the absence of memory…when things aren’t taught, and when commerce takes the lead in [teaching about] the past.

Q: Your subtitle is “Kent State and the end of American innocence.” Why do you think this is the case?

A: I don’t think it’s an exaggerated claim. Up until the Kent State shootings, there still was a sense that rebellious youth were in control.

Sixteen months before Kent State, I went to the counter-inaugural ball. A tent was set up on the Mall. You walked into the tent, and there was dope everywhere. [The tent] was surrounded by Park Police. The feeling was that you could do anything, the future was yours.

What Governor Jim Rhodes said when he went to Kent on Sunday [before the shootings] was, we are no longer gong to treat the symptoms, but eradicate the problem—it sent a message that the grownups were in charge.

[Afterwards] there were elements of the 82nd…[in the Old Executive Office Building in D.C. The area] was ringed by DC Transit buses. The circles had Jeeps with heavily armored people. The roofs of the Smithsonian were lined with sharpshooters…

I think that changed the equation, the psychology of the country. I don’t think we ever have gone back to that point since. You talk to people, they said, That’s it, I’m through with activism…

[In terms of writing the book,] I was looking for a break point in history. The other reason I did the book is that I always thought I’d written one perfect poem. I wrote a sonnet that night [about the events]…It was a deeply meaningful moment to me. I was glad to have the time to revisit it.

Q: Are you working on another book?

A: I’m trying to figure it out. There’s nothing specific at the moment. I’m trying to find another moment like this. I would like it to be within my own lifetime.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’ve done a lot of books. I’ve found this more emotionally powerful for me and the audience. I always seem to find someone who was there. I get emails from people telling me their own stories, and some rip me apart.

One is a guy who had been a guardsman on the other side of Taylor Hall. They had practice with the M-1s [soon after the events] and the major in charge said, Great shooting—if you had practice before last Monday, you could have gotten 40 of the sons of bitches.[The guardsman] was stunned, he said it was as if someone socked us in the stomach.

It just devastated me. People say, their parents say they should have shot them all. I can’t imagine that…


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This Q&A also appears on


Q&A with professor and novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen

Viet Thanh Nguyen, photo by BeBe JacobsViet Thanh Nguyen is the author of the new book Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War. He just won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Sympathizer. He also has written the book Race and Resistance, and his work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Best New American Voices and TriQuarterly. He is associate professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California.

Q: In your new book Nothing Ever Dies, you write, “I was born in Vietnam but made in America.” How did you come up with the idea for this book, and what does its title signify for you?

A: I began writing this book in 2003, and it was meant to address how the United States has failed to remember the Vietnam War adequately. For all the thousands of books and films that the U.S. has produced about this war, there’s a strikingly limited amount that addresses how the Vietnamese of all sides experienced what the victorious Vietnamese called the American War.

As I delved deeper into researching and thinking about this war, however, the more it became clear to me that simply doing a comparative work about how both Americans and Vietnamese have remembered the war would not be enough. The war spilled over into Cambodia and Laos. The United States and Vietnam were both responsible for that, and neither one wants to remember that.

So the book kept expanding to take into account what happened to Cambodia and Laos, and the creation of Southeast Asian diasporas in the United States because of the enormous numbers of refugees that fled. That’s one reason why the book took 12 years to write.

The other reason is that I was writing short stories and a novel during that time. That experience transformed me as a writer, inasmuch as researching Nothing Ever Dies transformed me as a scholar.

I aimed to bring everything I knew about fiction writing—its use of emotion, passion, feeling, narrative, theme, and character—into Nothing Ever Dies. What I thought of initially as a rather limited academic study has now become a vast cultural history, aimed at the general reader as well as the scholarly one.

As for the title, it comes from Toni Morrison’s Beloved and her concept of rememory. A rememory never dies. Slavery is a rememory. War is a rememory. That nothing ever dies is terrifying, but it’s also potentially hopeful. Perhaps we are perpetually haunted if war never dies in our memory. But if nothing ever dies, we can also remember in order to work against a repetition of the past.

Q: You note that wars take on identities, with World War II as “the Good War” and Vietnam as “the bad war.” What would you say is the legacy of the Vietnam War today, both in the U.S. and in Vietnam?

A: For the United States, there are two basic lessons, the positive and the negative. The negative lesson is that the U.S. should never engage in this type of criminal war again, one that involved occupying another country and compromising morality. This is the motivation of the antiwar movement, and while it remains visible, its power seems to be fading.

The positive lesson is the opposite. Those who have absorbed this lesson believe the war was noble and just, but flawed in its execution. They blame the media, the government, the antiwar movement, and military policy for the failure, and have crafted various strategies to prevent that failure from happening again.

The belief here is that wars after this one can be conducted more successfully if we learn from this war’s failure. This is the lesson put forth by both generals and politicians, including every president of both parties since the end of the war.

It is the basis for the continual expansion of American power globally, the increase in American military bases all over the world, the ever greater expenditure of treasure on the military budget, the detachment of the American military from American society, and the increasing entrenchment of the military-industrial complex. All of these factors practically guarantee our engagement in perpetual war of both high and low intensity.

For Vietnam, the lesson is that the Communist Party must do whatever it can to control the memory of this war as a heroic, revolutionary effort that was worth the sacrifice of one million soldiers and two million civilians.

This war was fought to unify and liberate the country, and also to bring to the people both freedom and equality. But while the country is unified and independent, the people are neither equal nor free. Class inequality is great and growing, and while some few become rich, and while a middle-class is expanding, the majority of people struggle.

The irony of living in an unequal communist society is exacerbated by the fact that the country is a de facto crony capitalist economy, run by a corrupt Communist Party. Everyone knows this to be true, but no one is allowed to say so in public.

This corruption, inequality, and hypocrisy is a betrayal of those three million lives, and so the Communist Party continually repeats the idea that the war was worth all the blood because if it wasn’t, the basis of the Communist Party’s moral and political legitimacy would be completely eroded.

Q: The book delves into many areas, including memorials, films, and literature. How did you research it, and was there anything that particularly surprised you in the course of your research?

A: I read a lot of books and watched a lot of films. I also traveled to memorials, museums, battlefields, and cemeteries all over Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and to Seoul, South Korea, which is also included in this cultural history.

Most people aren’t even aware that America’s largest ally during the war was South Korea, which was paid well for the use of its 300,000 troops. These payments, plus the American contracts offered to South Korean chaebol like Hyundai and Daewoo, helped to boost South Korea from being a country poorer than South Vietnam in the 1960s to the global powerhouse it is today. Learning about this was a big surprise for me. 

The greatest surprise for me, however, had to do with my thinking on the question of memory and war. The book is not only about this particular war. It’s about how we remember and forget war in general.

I didn’t anticipate the book’s conclusion when I set out to write the book. My conclusion is that the basic dynamic of memory and forgetting when it comes to war is that most people want to remember their humanity and forget their inhumanity. Conversely, people want to forget the humanity of their enemies and others, and remember their inhumanity.

And this basic dynamic is one important reason why societies keep going to war. By forgetting the inhumanity that is latent in all of us, we fool ourselves into thinking that any war we fight will be a just one, and that if it isn’t, it is the fault of our enemies and others.

Q: Toward the end of the book, you write, “Too much remembering and too much forgetting are both fatal…” What would you say is the right amount of remembering and forgetting, especially regarding the Vietnam War?

A: Some people say that there can be too much remembering, and that if we do not forget, we will always be stuck in the past, unable to move on. My stance on this is that remembering and forgetting do not take place in isolation and cannot be discussed as if they are ideal processes that only happen in the mind, or for the individual.

Even arguing that memories are collective is not enough to get at how memory is something that takes place both inside and outside of the individual. Memories are not only individual and collective; they are also corporate and industrial.

Thus, the reason why we are often stuck in the past when it comes to difficult events like war, genocide, slavery, and the like, is that the legacies of these horrors remain embedded in our everyday lives. These terrible things are not simply injustices of the past; they become the injustices of the present by leading to continuing conditions of economic, social, and political inequality.

Part of how this mnemonic legacy manifests itself is that the very means of memory in the present are themselves unequal. Powerful groups that have benefitted from the terrors of the past control the means of memory in the present.

Those groups that have suffered in the past do not usually have equal access to these means of memory, because they are also excluded from economic privilege and the ownership of the means of production in general.

If there is no economic equality, then how can we expect mnemonic equality? In short, there are such things as industries of memory, including publishing, film-making, news media, punditry, scholarship, and political discourses, and they amplify the memories and the voices of the powerful.

In the United States, what this means is that the military-industrial complex is matched by an industry of memory that serves it. They share technology, ideology, culture, and history.

This is why after the actual Vietnam War a second war was waged in memory by the Hollywood cinema-industrial complex. The United States lost the war in fact but won the war in memory all over the world, outside of Vietnam. In short, this is the first war where the losers got to write the history.

Until there is equality in the memories of industry, which means equality in general, there will never be a proper balance of remembering and forgetting when it comes to war, trauma, conflict. All the arguments about people remembering too much or forgetting too much miss this basic point.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am revising a short story collection that I will deliver to my publisher at the end of the summer. I’ve also written 50 pages of the sequel to The Sympathizer. An excerpt will appear in a forthcoming issue of Ploughshares edited by Claire Messud and James Wood.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I really do believe that a work of cultural history like this, if written in the right way, can be read by anyone with an interest and an open mind. That was the challenge I set for myself, as a scholar who is also a novelist, and as a reader who has faith in the intelligence of readers.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This Q&A also appears on For a previous Q&A with Viet Thanh Nguyen, please click here


Q&A with journalist Michael Putzel

Michael Putzel is the author of the book The Price They Paid: Enduring Wounds of War. It focuses on the life of Jim Newman, a helicopter commander in the Vietnam War, and the impact of the war on him and those who served with him. Putzel covered the war for the Associated Press. His journalism career included serving as Washington bureau chief for The Boston Globe. He lives in Washington, D.C.

Q: Why did you decide to write about Jim Newman?

A: The decision really caught me by surprise. I had long thought about Newman as an incredible natural-born leader. After I covered Newman as a war correspondent, I was in Washington covering Watergate and other stories, I was in Moscow, I’d reflect back on Newman as a leader, an uncanny person, but not as a book prospect.

Only at his funeral did my interest in profiling him [for a story] turn into, I’ve got to answer some questions. I was asked to make remarks at the gravesite. We all were collecting in the administration building at Arlington. A guy approached me, and said, I know who you are, and not everybody is happy with the way the service is being conducted.

I was nonplussed. Newman was a certified war hero, and he certainly would have expected full military honors. What’s not to like about [the ceremony]?

I looked at the guy very quizzically, and he said, My name is Roger Newman, and I’m Major Newman’s eldest son…they won’t give me the flag.

I didn’t know Roger existed. He also has a younger brother born before the war. Newman was a legend—he would never leave anybody behind when he was in command. He came home from the war and left his wife and two boys behind when they were 15 and 17, and never spoke to them again.

It seemed an incredible contradiction to the man I had known. I had to find out what happened. In the course of that search, I talked to his first and second families, and then I started on the people I had known.

A dozen of his officers came to the funeral. They still worshipped him. I was asking the wrong questions: What was it about Newman? I began to get an inkling it wasn’t just Newman. They had their own problems. I began to ask the right questions.

One characteristic of combat veterans is they don’t talk about it. They know nobody would understand. Many of them told their stories to me for the first time.

Q: How much of Newman’s story is unique to him, and how much is it representative of others who served in combat in Vietnam?

A: It’s very hard to say. Certainly Newman as a leader was very unusual in my own personal experience. Of the people I knew in the field in Vietnam…he really was an unusual commander.

He didn’t look like a commander, he wasn’t an imposing physical presence, but he had a sense of how to make a decision in a hurry…how to keep [his people] going. He kept doing what he saw as his job…

His behavior after the war—I can’t really explain it. I can say what the family said, that Vietnam changed him. It was something about Vietnam.

Though he never as far as I know was evaluated for PTSD, he would never have applied for disability for PTSD--he had 100 percent disability for other things. He did get disability benefits, but never thought of applying as a victim of PTSD.

Q: Looking at the impact of PTSD, was he aware of the effect it had on him?

A: He certainly understood the impact it had on some of his people. He was sympathetic in that way. Even when he was dying of cancer, he found one of the pilots he had rescued—he was living in a one-room shack—[and tried to help him].

He was still devoted to these guys, and very proud of his service. He didn’t question that people had bad experiences after the war, but I don’t think he applied that to himself.

One of the book’s disappointments [is that] he had not told me about his first family. It’s one of the endless frustrations.

Q: How did you research the book, and how did his family react to it?

A: I was a reporter for almost 40 years. I started out the way I would report [a story]—what I know and didn’t know. When Roger approached me at the funeral, it didn’t take me very long to call him and ask to see him.

I spoke to him, his mother, his brother Ronald. I met members of Newman’s family, and interviewed the people around him. His stepson. His youngest son, born after the war, was very helpful. He worships his father. I went around interviewing these people, and then the people who flew for him. Stories began pouring out.

It turned out the people you never would have expected to have problems after the war—career military officers, dedicated soldiers, still waving the flag, proud of the duties they performed, at first it would never occur to me to ask them.

I’d ask a few questions: What are you doing now? Then I began to realize even guys who seemed so immune were anything but…My conclusion was that no one is immune.

Q: What did the family members think of the book?

A: Roger never saw the book, sadly, he was dying of complications from diabetes. His mother told me he was very near the end…FedEx lost the package [with the book I had sent him], and it arrived the day after he died. He was totally devoted to what I was doing.

Flora, Newman’s first wife, was hugely grateful for getting the story told, the true story…she and Ronald were hugely appreciative, and a number of other people.

Jay Newman, the youngest son, has not spoken to me [since the book came out]. We used to have regular visits—he would come visit his father’s grave, and I would go with him or meet him in Virginia. He was tremendously helpful during the process...

Q: In the book, you describe how, at his funeral, the mourners were divided in three groups. How did each group view him?

A: The group of former officers who flew for him still worshipped him and knew nothing of [his actions toward his family]…some knew he’d been divorced, but didn’t know the details. They were still grateful.

The first family had known him before the war, and some of his siblings, one who he’d broken all ties with, they knew Jimmy Newman, the one they’d grown up with, who lied to get into the Army at 16. They were the group who’d known him before.

The third group, Jay and the grandchildren, Jay’s family and some cousins and others—they basically knew him afterwards. They went off by themselves [at the funeral] as well.

Q: What do you see as Jim Newman’s legacy today?

A: Certainly he was a man who believed in duty, honor, his view of the military and what it was capable of was unquestioning loyalty to the Army and his country.

I think when you say, How did he leave things for the people who followed him, it’s hard to answer. The people in Army aviation, what’s remembered is the first part, the amazing leadership. They don’t deny what happened afterwards, but they celebrate what happened before.

One of the things that surprised me about the book—I thought the market for the book would be Vietnam veterans and families who understood. I believe that’s still a large market for the book, and the people in it and the people they know, but the market I did not know to explore was the military community itself, particularly retired leaders.

I’ve given several talks, in which three-star generals are coming up and saying they’d read this book and got to get it to this person or that person. They are tremendously receptive of the book because it tells the whole story. They are not denying it—they’re concerned about it too.

I viscerally expected more opposition, and I have not encountered it, I’m pleased to say.

Q: Are you working on another book?

A: I’ve been married more than 40 years. My wife [journalist Ann Blackman] wrote four biographies in less time than it took me to write this! I promised her there would be time for sailing when the book was done.

Last summer I started sailing with her [many] afternoons, and I will do more before I decide what’s next. She’s been enormously patient and helpful…

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: For me, the turning point was realizing I was writing the wrong book—a biography of Jim Newman—and realizing it was a bigger book…While in one sense, it was a mistake to not realize it earlier, it made it a more important book: [that’s] why it goes in other directions and deals with families and legacy.

Robert Howard’s story, and how [the war] affected his life—those are things that are just as important or more important than the extraordinary heroics people focus on…

People throw around a lot of statistics about the prevalence of PTSD among military people, but those numbers mean little because they include combatants, rear-echelon troops and all sorts of military experiences that vary widely, even among those sent to war.

The Price They Paid shows that in at least one unit that went through intense enemy fire and numerous losses of its own day after day, week after week, all those I found—and some who chose not to be found—were changed by the war in ways they never expected. For those warriors, the price for doing what their country asked of them is measured in lifetimes. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This Q&A can also be seen on



Q&A with photographer Catherine Karnow

Catherine Karnow is the author of the new book Vietnam 25 Years: Documenting a Changing Country. A photographer, her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including National Geographic Traveler and Smithsonian. Born in Hong Kong, she is based in the San Francisco area.

Q: How would you describe your relationship with Vietnam?

A: Vietnam has been in my life as long as I can remember. Growing up in Hong Kong, with a reporter father (Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History) who covered the Vietnam War, it was a subject very close to me. As a child I thought it was just a war, and didn’t even realize that it was a country until I was a bit older.

As a professional photographer, I first went in July of 1990 and fell immediately in love. Sometimes I wonder, is Vietnam my spiritual home? I have such a strong sense of belonging there.

Let me elaborate. I was born and grew up in Hong Kong. Leaving at the age of 10 was wrenchingly difficult for me. I was being pulled away from my home, a that place I loved, a place that felt just right. Leaving defined the rest of my life in every way.

After we left, I yearned for Hong Kong. Though I returned back on many occasions, I never found what was missing. My sense of loss was one-sided. Around me, Hong Kong didn’t care, life went on, I felt alone. It was no longer the place I had belonged.

Somehow, Vietnam nurtured me, and I found there what was missing in Hong Kong. It is complicated to define how or why. Perhaps it is the Vietnamese people.

The people embrace me the way they embrace foreigners in general. They are a very nostalgic people; they find beauty in sorrow. They pause to reflect; they stop to listen. They are comfortable with emotion.

There is something else about Vietnam, which is a sentiment shared by many people, especially foreigners who live or work there. Vietnam nourishes you. It can bring out your best self.

Vietnam gets under your skin. For example, a close friend of mine went to Vietnam when she lost her husband suddenly. She found in Vietnam a people who had lost their country many times at war, yet remained cheerful and forward-looking. She thought, "If the Vietnamese can bear such terrible burdens and stay positive, then I can too."

For me, being in Vietnam is the best kind of therapy. If I’m feeling rudderless, that goes away when I land in Vietnam. There are always projects to get involved in, fascinating issues to discuss, a spirit of change and progress.

Because I’ve been going there so long, I notice all the changes, even something tiny: there’s a convenience store next to the hotel! Or an air-conditioned supermarket with shopping carts!

Q: You mentioned changes in Vietnam. What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen over the 25 years you’ve been going back and forth?

A: Pico Iyer said of Vietnam in the early '90s: “Vietnam, at present, is a pretty girl with her face pressed up against the window of the dance hall, waiting to be invited in..."

That’s how it was in the beginning of my time there. There was a sense of hopefulness and eagerness. From 1990 to 2015, the door opened little by little, and now it’s wide open. The bright, almost harsh, light is flooding the place. Vietnam is wide open to the world.

On the surface, a lot of the texture of intrigue and darkness is gone. Visually many old structures have been torn down, and the street life is diminishing. To some extent, when you’re in Saigon, you feel as if it could be any major city in Asia.

Along with those changes, one of the biggest is in the urban youth. To some degree, the urban youth of Vietnam resemble youth anywhere, with their knowledge of pop culture, music, movies, apps, technology, software, Facebook—they’re just as current as any young person in our global world.

But what is fascinating about Vietnam is the palpable generation gap. Out of a population of 92 million, roughly 2/3 of the population is under 45. Two-thirds of the population has never known war.

It’s completely different from the older generation, because they have only known war.

Another major change is the influx of the Viet Kieu, or Overseas Vietnamese. Perhaps this is one upside of the war. If there hadn’t been the exodus of all those people, you would not now have the return. And they are returning in droves, bringing with them a whole new Vietnam: in fashion, technology, business, hospitality and a new way of thinking.

For example, Vietnam has always been a Confucian country. Now the new youth are learning, and are being encouraged by Viet Kieu bosses, to think outside the box and to challenge authority. Because of these factors, the youth of Vietnam are changing the face of Vietnam.

Vietnamese culture is a copycat culture, but it’s starting to change - apps, video, fashion, software - people are starting to create individual, unique products, and it’s exciting.

Finally, there are big changes with LBGT rights. Previously, the Vietnamese government looked the other way, but now gay marriage is even on the horizon. The new gay U.S. ambassador, Ted Osius, is married with children and does quite a bit to encourage gay rights, and marriage equality.

Q: In the book, you include photographs dealing with the effects of Agent Orange. How did you get involved with this issue?

A: When I first went in 1990, I covered the legacy of the U.S. war: Amerasians and Agent Orange. Most people do not realize that there are millions of people in Vietnam affected by diseases associated with Agent Orange, that toxic herbicide the US military sprayed over parts of Vietnam during the war. Now we know that these diseases are passed down genetically.

Back to 1990. In the Tu Du maternity hospital in Saigon, there was a Dr. Nguyen Thi Phuong Tan. She was an obstetrician, and one of the first to notice that many of the babies she was delivering were deformed, and that women were carrying horribly malformed fetuses, which would not make it to birth. 

I photographed Dr. Phuong with a pair of Siamese twins she had just delivered.  In the back room of the hospital were dozens of jars of deformed fetuses. When I was first shown to this room, I was so shocked, I could not shoot. Although I had a tight schedule, I had to postpone this shoot for a couple weeks. It was the most ghastly thing I had even seen. Agent Orange fetuses.

Instead that day, I spent time with a pair of twins – Viet and Duc Nguyen - who had just been separated in a historic operation funded by the Japanese.

While Duc was a sort of a prodigy, able to play on his little piano any tune he had just heard, Viet lay like a vegetable, unable to comprehend anything. I will add that Duc went on to marry and have twins of his own, while Viet died some years later.

It was my first exposure to Agent Orange. It was very powerful. I meant to return to Vietnam and seriously photograph that subject.

In 2010 that I was asked by Charles Bailey of the Ford Foundation to be one of a dozen journalists to shoot a project of our choice on Agent Orange.

I decided to team up with National Geographic photographer and filmmaker Ed Kashi and to shoot a multi-media piece in Danang, a “hot spot” for Agent Orange. He shot video and I did the stills. I did the groundwork to find the families. We focused on two families, one that was well served with a lot of support and one that received little support, to show how support can make a difference. A very simple message.

We spent about 10 days covering the two families in Danang. My still photographs would go on to win awards; they were shown everywhere and made a huge difference. 

A U.S. senator actually visited one of the families. It was the first time someone so prominent in the U.S. government would openly acknowledge the humanitarian issue. These Agent Orange families need help. In all fairness, the U.S. has embarked on a couple environmental projects to clean up these “hot spots,” but I think they are ignoring more important problems.

Recently, I raised $27,000 on a crowd-funding site, to do a small multimedia project to raise awareness, to then do a larger project with bigger funding. I will be shooting this in 2017. I will again concentrate on the families.

Q: I know a lot of people will want to find out more about how your family connections to Vietnam have affected your relationship with the country.

A: I think it’s contributed to my sense of belonging. It’s curious and unusual to go to a foreign country where everybody knows, and admires, your father.

With my father not alive any more, I welcome and cherish any mention of my father, and my mother too. I treasure any memory, anecdote and recognition of my father, and it happens all the time in Vietnam.

Most people don’t know this, but my mother lived in Saigon in the 1950s. It’s pure coincidence. But the Vietnamese will say that nothing is a coincidence.

It’s all wrapped up with—I can’t call it my spiritual home, but something more mysterious is at work with my belonging, my presence, my relationship with Vietnam. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A:  I had been giving my very successful Umbria Workshop ( for four years when I decided to design a Vietnam Photo Workshop, which launched last October. It took 25 years of experience in that country, three years of thinking about it, a year of intense planning, and a fantastic team to help me put it together.

I was ready for things to go wrong, from the weather to people backing out of appointments to things being shut when we turned up.

And yet it went better than I could have imagined. Again, it was almost bizarre - as if, again, I am blessed by a larger presence in Vietnam.

There are many photo workshops, tours and trips given to Vietnam, but nothing even comes close to mine. I offer great photo experiences and visits with fascinating people who can tell us their stories and educate us on history, economy, photography and art, and culture. 

Our experiences include a possible dinner at the ambassador’s residence; offering respects at General Giap’s home, a tour of his offices, and tea with his family; shooting a fashion show with deaf models; dinner in my gallerist’s art-filled house; an exclusive visit at a non-touristy pagoda and a private audience with the head monk; a life-changing afternoon with Agent Orange families, amongst many more.

Plus we have class time and photo critiques both one on one and as a group. This workshop is totally unique.

In Vietnam, something deeper is happening. It’s an enigma that keeps me coming back. I have an endless number of ideas and projects and so much more to explore. 

I self-published this book as a catalog to accompany my grand exhibition in Hanoi in April of this year, at the Art Vietnam Gallery. The show was a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam-U.S. War. The catalog quickly became a 235-page book filled with not only photographs but beautifully written introductions by the writer Andrew Lam, and my gallerist, Suzanne Lecht, and many anecdotes and remarkable stories of my years in Vietnam.

The book can be bought at the following places:

Art Vietnam Gallery, Hanoi

The Caravelle Hotel, Saigon

L’Usine, Saigon

BookPassage, Corte Madera, California

Arcana: Books on the Arts, Los Angeles

By contacting Catherine directly:

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This Q&A also appears at, including photographs from the book.




Q&A with Professor Harriet F. Senie

Harriet F. Senie is the author of the new book Memorials to Shattered Myths: Vietnam to 9/11. Her other books include Critical Issues in Public Art and The Tilted Arc Controversy. She directs the M.A. Program in Art History and Art Museum Studies at City College, and teaches at the CUNY Graduate Center.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Memorials to Shattered Myths?

A: It didn’t come to me all together at once. I was thinking about Vietnam for a while—I went to the Vietnam memorial…I began to be very interested in how engaged everybody was with the wall, the objects they left there. That led me to the second chapter, with the spontaneous memorials. That was chapter 1 and 2.

In thinking about Vietnam and the placement of the memorial, it was such a contentious war that almost split the country apart and continues to do so, and we’ve sited it in the midst of the national identity, on the Mall between Washington and Lincoln.

I started thinking about myths of national identity, about Oklahoma City, about Columbine, and the memorials to the victims. They weren’t heroes. As the daughter of parents whose lives were altered by the Holocaust, the construction made no sense to me. With 9/11, it seemed to form a continuum in my mind.

The notion of unintentionally embedding strategies of division and denial has to do with the way the country doesn’t own up to its potential implication in these events. It was piecemeal, and it started with the Wall.

Q: What you’re saying brings me to a quote from the book, where  you write, “Understandably, [the memorials] avoided the toughest question of all: What did these people die for?” Do you think there would be a way for the monuments to address that more directly?

A: I think there is a way…in the way that museums are so focused on interacting. There could be a way to have a place where people could reflect, where questions could be posed, and alluded to what led to these events.

I’m thinking of reading rooms in museums—that’s a fairly common practice, or where there are comment books in museums. If memorials could truly be educational centers, and they allowed for space for thoughtful contemplation and perhaps guided [discussions].

At the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, when you book a tour there, it ends in a room in an old-fashioned kitchen with chairs. I have taken students there. One of the ways the [guides] raise issues is to say, Where were your clothes made? It’s a pretty neutral question. Everybody’s looking at their labels. You can have another kind of contemplation…

Now we are expecting multi-part memorials. There could be a spiritual place, a room apart, for quiet spiritual contemplation with the option for guided contemplation.

There is not any other way because museums impose a narrative, with a sledgehammer. You might be able to build [such a room], in future memorials, if you have that as part of the mission statement.

Q: So you wouldn’t directly throw that question at people.

A: Exactly, not in that space where people are having a traumatic experience. You could have a conversation about why you think the people are heroes.

Most people seem relieved to have that [question raised and] articulated. One woman said, My brother-in-law was just a banker [and family members] are under pressure to recreate him as a hero.

I think these people should be honored, of course. Their families, I can’t begin to imagine the grief. [But] in a national memorial, the conflation [between victims and heroes] is not healthy.

Q: You write, “It is useful to define the memorial process as tri-partite: immediate, interim, and permanent.” What value does each of these phases have?

A: I think we see how important the immediate ones are. You see how often people create them. After 9/11, people needed to express themselves…we need to do something, whatever that is. I started teaching memorial classes after 9/11; I hadn’t before.

They serve a purpose in the immediate shock of the events—to be together, to share our dismay and express ourselves. That’s really important.

Interim memorials are also important. They may be more important to the people who lost somebody. I came to the notion of interim memorials from two directions.

One was the Tribute in Light [for 9/11]. That seemed to help so many people. There was something between the event and the time the memorial was finished. Something where people can think about it…

From the other, from my perception, asking people who just lost somebody to design a permanent memorial is not a good thing. When you’re in grief—my husband died three years ago; it’s a fresh experience in my mind—long-range planning is not something you’re able to do. But it’s good to have something to do.

[Families should be consulted but] building memorials requires a professional background to know what’s possible, how you want something to be different from one memorial or similar to another.

I don’t think, emotionally or professionally, that’s the best way to construct a committee to build a memorial or build a proposal…That was where the interim [idea] came from. I thought, what could they do? It’s good to be together and to have something to do. They should tell us what they need.

It could take many forms—a work of art like the Tribute in Light, maybe a place to gather. Suddenly that seemed to me to solve a lot of problems…I believed that the permanent museum should be largely a professional undertaking…

Q: You look at memorials to the Vietnam War, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Columbine school shooting, and 9/11. What themes do you see running through these memorials?

A: Kirk Savage was the first person to write about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial as a therapeutic memorial. It’s become the model for everything else. It set a new way of thinking about memorials. Before, they were never thought about as therapy, but to honor or celebrate…

With Vietnam it’s arguable, but they all conflate heroes and victims. If it were only Vietnam, I wouldn’t say that, but in a way you can consider people killed in the war victims of government policy. I could make that case. I would say at the very least they are conflated….

The seeds of that [conflation] are there in every memorial—it’s obvious and misguided. People who went to work or school that day may have behaved heroically, but were victims of that time and place. To create memorials that honor them as heroes is a disservice. It’s a disservice to what really happened, to the truth, so it is a real problem.

The other thing that comes about as a result is by defining victims as heroes, in the end we define ourself as a nation of victims, and that’s the opposite of what was intended.

One more thing beneath the surface is the Holocaust. The Holocaust is related to every one of these. I wasn’t expecting to find this. The [Vietnam] memorial and the [Holocaust] museum were approved by Congress at the same time.

With Oklahoma City, the man who wrote a book about the Holocaust Museum and a book about Oklahoma City said [the Oklahoma City memorial] is based on the Holocaust Museum. Edward Linenthal. That’s the direct link. When I was in Oklahoma City for the 10th anniversary, the Holocaust was linked to it. Holocaust survivors began the ceremony.

Columbine was on the anniversary of Hitler’s death. The director of the 9/11 Museum was previously the director of the Holocaust Museum. That’s fewer than six degrees of separation.

I just mention this in the introduction—it strikes me as resonant. The Holocaust victims stand as the quintessential victims in Western European history, in the 20th century. It’s lying there.

Q: So you see this issue of conflation relating back to the Holocaust.

A: It does for me. I grew up among Holocaust survivors. Growing up, they got together, families stayed close together, [they] celebrated. Children are very quick to pick up on tone, if this were a depressed crowd, and they were not. “Oh my God, what did I lose”—I never heard that, and my mother lost plenty.

I was having one of those “what” moments. It’s not to dishonor the families and their grief, or those who died tragically, but they were not heroes. Many behaved heroically during the Holocaust, and during these events, but they were not heroes as a group, except on Flight 93. There could have been other things like that, possibly, but we don’t know.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m co-editing a huge anthology for Wiley Blackwell, The Companion to Public Art. I have an essay on the conflation of heroes and victims.

I tried to articulate why I think that’s possible, going back to the ‘60s and the inversion of values and new types of movie stars like Dustin Hoffman and new music stars like Dylan. It was an inversion of what we thought of as stars. It gave me the opportunity to push that theme more strongly and contextualize it in a cultural way.

Also, an anthology on the relationship between museums and public art. That has less of a broader cultural reach. It’s more of an art-world thing.

And long-range, I’m working on the theme of the road in American art. We have road literature, road movies—there’s also road art. Art is always marginalized in general. I have started work on that—that’s going to be fun.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This Q&A also appears on