“The whole Xi Mang area (Xi Mang – Tam Bac – Ha Ly – Thuong Ly) was the Kham Thien of Haiphong. It was a workers’ residential area so thousands of people were dead after one night.”
The comment came across my mind as I rode my motorbike around the Ha Ly – Thuong Ly area of Haiphong, a coastal city more than 100 kilometers from the capital city of Hanoi. My anticipation of a physical structure marking the U.S B-52 bombing of Haiphong on April 16, 1972, claimed by the above-quoted netizen to be equivalent to the notorious bombing raid of Kham Thien, Hanoi in December 1972, was such that it desensitized me to the suffocating heat of the northern summer. Yet the heat soon managed to make itself perceptible, since the farther I travelled the more convinced I became of the commemorative emptiness of this area. Forty-nine years ago, this area was a landscape of sheer terror: rubble, corpses, carriages of corpses, blown-up raid shelters, runaway survivors. Today, it is a landscape of busy normality mixed with ambitious forward-lookingness: well-paved roads, revamped shophouses, modern buildings, bustling service spots, hurrying commuters, and, unsurprisingly, a Vingroup residential complex. Staring at a plaque announcing the presence of swans in the lake below the bridge where I parked my motorbike, which could as well have been a mnemonic object of the bombing, I was at once disappointed and curious about the lack of remembrance for an event that has been compared to the tragic, well-commemorated bombing of Kham Thien. What do absences tell us about a historical event and the politics surrounding it?
Motivated by the above question, this study examines the official commemoration in relation to private memories of the U.S bombing of Haiphong on April 16, 1972. As part of Operation Linebacker, which is commonly referred to as “war of destruction” (chiến tranh phá hoại) in Vietnamese historiography, President Nixon ordered the B-52 bombardment of Hanoi and Haiphong, an industrial powerhouse, with the aim of destroying the cement and petroleum factories responsible for producing vital supplies for the war effort in South Vietnam. The bombing on April 16, 1972 is viewed as the first phase of the three-stage war of destruction that the Nixon administration waged against Haiphong. It is documented that the U.S Air Force, intent on undermining the potential for economic growth and public security of Haiphong and causing a crisis of morale, deployed nine B-52 bombers to destroy transportation, military, economic production, and residence targets in Thuong Ly – Ha Ly, So Dau, Xi Mang, and Phuc Loc. One day before that, city officials were warned of the bombardment by the General Staff of the Vietnamese People’s Army (Bộ Tổng tham mưu) and successfully evacuated more than 10,000 people living in targeted areas to the outskirts. However, according to the interviewed survivors, a number of residents did not evacuate for personal reasons including work and the discomfort of travelling long distances at night. As the purpose officially stated—and believed by the interviewees—purpose of the bombing raid was dismantling the engines of North Vietnam’s resistance efforts in South Vietnam, civilian casualties are interpreted by most survivors as either accidents or the result of American pilots’ attempts to use up the assigned bombs. Although the death toll is unspecified, ranging from a few hundred to a thousand, there is general agreement that the bombing killed many civilians who had not been evacuated, particularly those living in the proximity of cement and petroleum facilities located in Thuong Ly and So Dau.
This paper aims to answer these questions: What does the official commemoration of the bombing look like? What are survivors’ memories of the bombing? What is the relationship between official practices of remembrance and individual experiences of the bombing? How do survivors feel about official commemoration? As the bombing impacted a wide range of stakeholders, it is important to interrogate how each stakeholder—the state and the individual citizen—remembers and engages with the bombing in post-war contexts, which provides insights into the absences and tensions that can be overlooked if the focus is on either official commemoration or private memories.
Memory and commemoration are interrelated yet different concepts. Michael Crawford points out that memory is based on firsthand experience of an event and, quoting Susan Engel, involves centering the past on the self. Similarly, Hiro Saito emphasizes the experientiality of memory by contrasting it with “historical knowledge,” the result of learning about an event secondhand. Thinking of memory as a multilayered notion, Andrew Frayn and Terry Phillips define memory as the act of representing an event using different rhetorical devices; the re-consideration of that event, in relation to present-day contexts, to oneself and others; and the effort to link the event to the present via reconstruction. Following this literature, examining (private) memories of the bombing of Haiphong—a focal interest of this paper—means investigating the images and sounds that survivors recall about the bombing, which they directly participated in, as well as their contemporary understandings of the bombing and the events ensuing it. Commemoration, on the other hand, refers to the official collectivization of individual memories to establish a sense of community that traverses temporal boundaries, with the past interpreted in such a way as to “lend depth of meaning to the present” and “negotiate hospitable avenues into the future.” Inspired by Maurice Halbwachs’ theory of collective memory, Saito conceptualizes commemoration as “a ritual that transforms “historical knowledge” into “collective memory,”” the process by which those without direct experience of an event are emotionally linked to those with firsthand experience in order to form a group identity. In this paper, official commemoration is understood as the physical structures and practices initiated by Haiphong authorities to remind the citizenry of the bombing and forge a coherent post-war identity that binds the community together.
It is worth addressing the complex relationship between commemoration and identity. As aforementioned, commemoration is leveraged by political leaders to consolidate a shared identity. While attention has been given to the identity of a community, the identity of a city is no less relevant as an analytical concept. Daniel D. Arreola theorizes that city identity is indissolubly linked with landscape, which can be “real” or “ideal” as it involves both physical structures and concepts such as the function of a city. A related concept is “city branding,” defined by Meiling Han et al. as the promotion of a city’s positive facets as part of a strategy to attract long-term engagement and collaboration. Paul Kendall compares city brands to “synecdoches” as they represent “a simplified representation of a complex whole.” In his article about commemorating and forgetting in Kaili, China, he observes that a city can be branded in different ways, and the prioritization of a brand over others determines commemorative structures in the city, which in turn strengthen that brand/identity. Much as commemoration reinforces a shared identity, concerns over identity paradoxically lead to a divisive politics of commemoration, with relevant stakeholders enmeshed in unequal power relations contesting over who and how to remember. Acknowledging that actors self-identify differently, Saito stresses the contradictory potential of commemoration to generate both solidarity and conflict. Indeed, Paul Ricoeur sees competing narratives as not only inevitable but also desirable as long as discursive conflicts do not descend into violence. This can be considered the conceptual basis of counter-monumentality in the West. James E. Young is the first to suggest the idea of counter-monuments in Germany, which he conceptualizes as those that challenge traditional Holocaust memorialization in terms of “forms and reasons.” While arguing that counter-monuments can be “anti-monumental” or “dialogic,” Quentin Stevens et al., quoting A. Causey, assert that “what all counter-monumental practices acknowledge is that ‘there is a debate that must be engaged with.”’ However, it has been argued that counter-monumentality—or the debate it entails—is not universal, despite the fact that ideological disagreements about identity and commemoration always exist. In his study of the cult of the red martyr in post-war China, Chang tai-Hung contends that commemorative practices are completely controlled by the Propaganda Department of the Chinese Communist Party, ruling out the possibility of debate and resistance in the form of, for example, counter-monuments. When commemoration falls within the purview of a dominant party such as the authoritarian state, the exclusion of certain narratives from the grand narrative choreographed to serve political purposes is expected. Noting the erasure of certain incidents from the monuments to a past conflict, Sara McDowell and Catherine Switzer argue that remembrance and forgetting are inextricably linked in commemoration.
While resistance to exclusion from collective memory occurs in the form of counter-monuments in Western countries, there is a lack of research into resistance in authoritarian regimes where the state wields unchallenged power, which renders counter-monuments unfeasible and necessitates subtler forms of resistance. This study fills this gap by shedding light on the inhabitation of alternative realities as a non-confrontational means of resisting the lack of official recognition and remembrance. Reflecting James C. Scott’s concept of everyday resistance—“quiet, disguised, anonymous, often undeclared forms of resisting claims imposed by claimants who have superior access to force and to public power,” this form of resistance allows excluded individuals to transcend the reality of oblivion without disrupting official practices of remembrance. Above all, this study enriches the existing literature on post-war commemoration by examining the nexus between identity, commemoration, and resistance: it explores the changes in city identity, links it to official commemorative practices, and demonstrates the tension between these practices and individuals’ perceptions of their roles in the commemorated event.
This paper argues that official commemoration of the bombing on April 16, 1972 is a practice of curation and exclusion that takes into account both the wartime identity and modern-day identity of Haiphong, and this practice is counterbalanced by excluded individuals’ inhabitation of alternative realities in which they are recognized and remembered. While official commemoration centers heroic fatal sacrifices and industrial workers’ deaths in line with the wartime identity of Haiphong, it excludes non-fatal sacrifices and civilian deaths, the forgetting of which is facilitated by spatial configurations driven by the post-war identity of the city. Forgotten individuals challenge the lack of recognition from local authorities by either taking civilians’ acknowledgment of them as reality or constructing another reality in which their experiences are remembered through spatial interventions.
To support this argument, this paper starts by portraying how official commemoration in Haiphong is tailored to the wartime identity and post-war identity of the city. Secondly, it investigates the individual experiences excluded from official commemoration. Finally, it illuminates forgotten individuals’ strategies of resisting the absence of official recognition and remembrance—namely, switching to another existing reality and constructing a new one in which their experiences are remembered. All information about the occurrences on April 16, 1972 is obtained from oral history interviews with survivors of the bombing unless indicated otherwise.
Official commemoration of the bombing in present-day Haiphong
The wartime identity of Haiphong
During the Second Indochina War, each city in Vietnam was imagined differently. Hanoi, for example, was the capital that must be defended at all costs for its political and cultural importance. The songs mourning the U.S bombardment of Hanoi in December 1972 are testimony to popular imaginations of the city as a land of romance that should be spared the ferocity of war. “That winter/Sounds of the piano in the demolished house/Why is the bell echoing while the afternoon Mass is over,” writes musician Phu Quang in Em ơi Hà Nội phố, a famous song composed upon the B-52 destruction of the musician’s childhood home and the death of his close friend. The lyrics, although laden with sadness, can hardly hide the musician’s—and possibly anyone’s—admiration for the poetic beauty of the capital.
Another target of B-52 bombers in 1972, the city of Haiphong, home to the first cement factory in Vietnam and major petroleum storage facilities, was associated with a tougher identity: a hub of heroic confrontation with the U.S Air Force and industrial production. Although Haiphong was not one of the battlefields during the Second Indochina War, the Nixon administration’s policy of bombing Northern cities as part of Operation Linebacker required defenders of Haiphong, including soldiers and police officers, to be prepared to resist airstrikes and minimize civilian casualties.
Meeting with the Haiphong leadership in February 1970 to discuss the resistance to the U.S war of destruction in North Vietnam, General Vo Nguyen Giap encouraged city leaders to “understand and closely combine the two major tasks that are production and fighting.” Likewise, in a letter commending the armed forces and civilians of Haiphong for shooting down 200 U.S bombers in 1968, President Ho Chi Minh highlighted “effective production” and “brave fighting” as the two foremost goals of the Haiphong people. It is obvious from these remarks that the historical mission of Haiphong was maintaining the unflinching resistance to U.S airstrikes and constant production of petroleum and cement supplies for the war effort in South Vietnam. Expecting Haiphong to be a resilient “battlefield” pulsating with the perpetual motion of industrial engines and, in the event of U.S air attacks, the roar of surface-to-air missiles entails the acceptance of civilian casualties, for it must have been predictable that the Nixon administration would not miss any opportunity to destroy the facilities responsible for producing tools of resistance for the North Vietnamese army.
The modern-day identity of Haiphong
Contingent upon ever-changing national, regional, and global socio-political climates, the identity of a city is subjected to constant variations. While it has traditionally been viewed as an industrial powerhouse typified by unrefined landscapes of mammoth containers converging on reddish-brown sediment-laden rivers, the post-war city of Haiphong, propelled by the increasing modernization of Vietnam, has embarked on a fast-tracked journey towards urbanization and international integration. The city leadership strives to develop Haiphong into a “modern, civilized, sustainable industrial city” (thành phố công nghiệp hiện đại, văn minh, bền vững) by 2030, meaning that attention is given to not only economic activities, but also the formation of new neighborhoods reflective of the “civility and modernity” (văn minh, hiện đại) of Haiphong. The urbanization of Haiphong is obvious from its present-day landscape.
From the plain horizon, hitherto occupied by unassuming low buildings, have surfaced a number of high-rise hotels and shopping malls that symbolize the gradual transformation of the industrial city into a paradise for the burgeoning middle-class, forming contradictory landscapes of ostentatious towers lying smugly next to decaying residences. The 97,000-follower Facebook page named Hải Phòng Projects & Developments which posts regular updates about new spatial interventions in Haiphong reinforces the impression that the city is entering into the next phase of existence characterized by sophisticated urbanism and improved living standards. A prominent symbol of the transfiguration of Haiphong is the forty-five story Vinpearl Hotel Imperia Haiphong (Figure 2), a modernist luxury tower gazing down upon Vinhomes Imperia Haiphong (Figure 3), a guarded residential community where high-income families lead idyllic lives inside the neighborhoods named after the world’s most romanticized urban dwellings—Manhattan, Paris, Venice, and Monaco.
The urbanizing processes in Haiphong are concurrent with the growth of diplomatic relations and international investments in the city. Haiphong has so far attracted more than four hundred FDI projects in collaboration with investors from twenty-nine nations. Although direct U.S investment in Haiphong remains limited, the Haiphong leadership has recently met with the U.S ambassador to Vietnam to discuss an oil and gas partnership. Along with its wartime identity, the post-war identity of Haiphong—a growingly elite city shrouded in the aspirational atmosphere of urbanization and international integration—is a major determinant of how official commemoration of the bombing in 1972 is designed.
Official commemoration as co-determined by wartime identity and modern-day identity
Upholding the wartime identity of the city while remaining sensitive to its modern-day identity as a budding hub of urban lifestyles and international integration, official commemoration of the bombing in Haiphong is both selective and inconspicuous. On the one hand, considering the wartime identity of Haiphong as a site of heroic confrontation with the U.S Air Force and an industrial powerhouse, official commemoration is limited to the heroic deaths of those who either sacrificed themselves in preventing airstrike-induced civilian casualties or died in persisting with industrial production despite the airstrike. Given that death itself is an irreversible experience that entails a permanent rupture in normal relations, these two types of death are not only narratively relevant but also emotionally powerful. The remembrance of Mr. Nguyen Hong Quan, the chief police officer of the heavily bombed Thuong Ly neighborhood who perished in saving civilians’ lives, exemplifies the commemorative emphasis on the former kind of death. On the night of April 15, 1972, Mr. Quan was in charge of directing the residents who had not evacuated to safe raid shelters and instructing them how to protect themselves. Before midnight, he went on a tour around the neighborhood to check up on remaining residents and order a warehouse equipped with a large collective raid shelter to be made accessible to the residents. When the raid commenced, he let an unprotected four-person family use his raid shelter and died on the morning of April 16. Mr. Quan’s death illustrates the heroic act of sacrificing oneself to minimize the sufferings of innocent civilians. Recognized as a martyr, he is now worshiped at the Temple of Hong Bang Martyrs where ceremonies wishing for the spiritual liberation of the deceased are regularly organized, his uniform once displayed at the Museum of Haiphong as a symbol of the bombing. Given Mr. Quan’s heroic death along with his track record in accomplishing revolutionary missions, Former President of Vietnam Tran Dai Quang, the incarnation of unparalleled executive power, once visited Mr. Quan’s home and reverently bowed before his altar. Officials working for the Department of Public Security of Haiphong pay biannual visits to his house to burn incense for him and hear out his family’s concerns. The excessive posthumous recognition for Nguyen Hong Quan illustrates city officials’ tendency to commemorate the bombing along the lines of heroic martyrdom.
Meanwhile, the commemoration of industrial workers’ heroic deaths is exemplified by the monumentalization of those who died while constructing a petroleum storage facility in So Dau. At the end of a narrow residential alley roughly opposite the present-day Haiphong Petroleum Factory, one of the key targets of the bombing in 1972, stands a stone stela (Figure 4). The content of the stela is as follows:
On this site, on April 16, 1972 […] U.S bombers conducted a carpet bombing, killing 27 workers and 02 children (including 04 visiting staff members and 02 pregnant women) working for construction site H27, [which was under the control of] the Department of basic construction, Ministry of Supplies (which is now Petrolimex Construction JSC – 1, Vietnam National Petroleum Group, Ministry of Industry and Trade).
[They were] performing their duty of constructing the petroleum depot in Thuong Ly, Haiphong.
Haiphong, July 28, 2011.
What is striking about this stela is that it contextualizes these civilians’ deaths in terms of their contributions to the production of petroleum in wartime Haiphong. Although there is no explicit reference to heroism, the formality of the stela and the ritualistic care afforded to it—which can be seen from the vases of daisies flanking the stela, the candle presumably lit on special days, the white wine traditionally used to spray on graves as a tribute to the deceased, and the fruits and paper money arranged neatly on the surface—demonstrate posterity’s perception of the victims as heroes worthy of monumentalization. Indeed, “heroes of labor” (anh hùng lao động) is one of the most prestigious titles of honor awarded by the Vietnamese government to distinguished individuals and collectives. Along with the remembrance of Nguyen Hong Quan, the memorialization of H27 victims proves the tailoring of post-war commemoration to the wartime identity of Haiphong.
On the other hand, the modern-day identity of Haiphong—an urbanizing city that has increasingly attracted international investments—is a factor contributing to the inconspicuousness of commemorative practices. Rather than locating commemorative structures and rituals in highly discernible public places such as parks and squares, urban planners confine most practices of remembrance to indoor spaces out of the public eye, a strategy to keep war memories from impeding the cooperation between Haiphong and its international partners, especially those from the U.S. The Temple of Hong Bang Martyrs (Figure 5) is a salient example of these indoor places of commemoration. Situated behind a traditional Vietnamese three-gate entrance (cổng tam quan) leading to a yard outfitted with carefully designed trees lining up on both sides, the Temple is a pagoda-like structure that worships Nguyen Hong Quan and other martyrs. On important occasions, such as Vietnam’s War Invalids and Martyrs Day on July 27, city officials visit the Temple to attend the ceremonies whose purposes are demonstrating gratitude for the deceased heroes and praying for their spiritual liberation.
By the look of it, however, it is impossible to know that the Temple is associated with the deadly bombing, unless one is knowledgeable about the event or informed by local residents. Although it explicitly refers to the bombing, the stela commemorating H27 construction workers is similarly unknown to the general public because it is located inside an unnoticeable alley unlikely visited by anyone except for local dwellers and accompanied by no signposts serving to inform strangers. The unmarked existence of both the Temple and the stela, coupled with the fact that they are situated faraway from the city center, inscribes no visible traces of the bombing and the lives it cost on the urban landscape of Haiphong. In this way, it is thought that foreign corporate entities, particularly those from the U.S, can proceed with their investments in the city without being awkwardly reminded of the heavy history between Haiphong and the U.S. This interpretation is supported by Mr. Nguyen Minh Tri, a local architect representing the urban planners of Haiphong. Mr. Tri opined that considering a host of factors including diplomatic relations, the location of monuments and memorials in the public space is rather “insensitive”:
The Americans have a strong intention of investing in Vietnam and Haiphong. For example, if they travel around the city and see a stela of deep hatred (bia căm thù), they will feel dissatisfied […] Because the crime in Kham Thien was heinous, they were compelled to build [a memorial] there. And it’s a symbol…I think it’s enough in terms of sociological and historical research. In other places, [commemoration] happens in museums for people to learn about history, in places entitled “The nation remembers the deeds” (Tổ quốc ghi công). Situating [commemorative structures] in the public space is a bit insensitive. Because in this age of peace, people don’t want hatred to be aroused. Hatred should be limited.
Thus, confining commemoration of the bombing to places of limited public visibility satisfies the need for post-war remembrance, which plays a crucial role in reinforcing solidarity among city residents, without obstructing the cooperation between Haiphong and its potential U.S partners. Along with the restriction of commemoration to particular heroic figures, the carefully manipulated emplacement of commemorative structures and rituals reflects the impact of city identity on post-war remembrance.
Excluded individual experiences
In foregrounding fatal sacrifices such as that of Mr. Quan and industrial workers’ deaths like those of H27 construction workers, present-day official commemoration of the bombing excludes less impactful sacrifices and deaths that do not fall into these categories—namely, non-fatal sacrifices and civilian deaths. To illustrate these excluded individual experiences, the cases of three women who survived the bombing—two retired police officers based in Thuong Ly and a civilian based in So Dau, a neighborhood close to Thuong Ly—are examined. I will also show how the limited visibility of official commemoration indirectly contributes to the forgetting of these excluded individual experiences.
The exclusion of non-fatal sacrifices
Although they embody praiseworthy selflessness as do the commemorated deaths, non-fatal sacrifices on the day of the bombing are consigned to oblivion. Compared to heroic deaths such as that of Mr. Quan, the sacrifices resulting in non-fatal physical injuries or no physical injuries at all are perceived as less emotionally impactful and thus unable to highlight the wartime identity of Haiphong as a city of heroic resistance. This is first exemplified by the case of Ms. Pham Thi Canh, an invalid with life-sustaining injuries who has received little recognition from modern-day authorities despite her contributions. On the night of April 16, 1972, Ms. Canh, then a police officer under the management of Mr. Quan, remained in the police station to take telephone calls from senior leaders. When B-52 bombs were dropped onto the neighborhood, Ms. Canh ceded her personal raid shelter to a nurse and was severely wounded as she squeezed herself against the wall in a vain effort to hide from the bombs. Stuck among the rubble, Ms. Canh fainted due to the excessive loss of blood, her left jaw totally broken and her ankle punctured by a splinter half the size of a palm that can still be felt beneath her skin. After multiple operations, Ms. Canh is now categorized as a second-degree invalid, which indicates that at least 41% of the body is impaired. It is clear that Ms. Canh made the same sacrifice as Mr. Quan on the day of the bombing: they both ceded their raid shelter to unprotected civilians—Ms. Canh to a nurse and Mr. Quan to a family, an act that demonstrates their commendable courage and selflessness. However, while Mr. Quan’s sacrifice led to his death and paradoxically immortalized him as a paragon of heroism, Ms. Canh’s sacrifice left her permanently disabled without earning her any official acknowledgement apart from the “invalid” title. In Vietnam, there is a tradition of local authorities building “houses of affection” (nhà tình nghĩa) for invalids and martyrs’ family members as a form of tribute to their services to the nation. Despite being an invalid, Ms. Canh’s request for a house of affection was denied by the officials of Thuong Ly, whereas Mr. Quan’s family was financially supported to build one. Although Ms. Canh was featured in a few news reports and book chapters shortly after the bombing, these publications fail to make her known among the modern-day public because most of them are dated and internally circulated. The differentiated treatment of police officers’ contributions exemplifies the politics of commemoration in post-war Haiphong, where practices of remembrance are tailored to historico-political imaginations to maintain narratival coherence. Given the need to choose the most powerful stories for official commemoration, non-fatal sacrifices such as that of Ms. Canh are eclipsed by the heroic deaths of martyrs like Mr. Quan and have therefore gone unrecognized.
Another example of the exclusion of non-fatal sacrifices from official remembrance is the forgetting of Ms. Nguyen Thi Hop, another retired police officer based in Thuong Ly who painstakingly “handled the consequences” (xử lý hậu quả) of the bombing despite the threat of new bombings, harsh weather conditions, and her own fear. The case of Ms. Hop shows that non-fatal sacrifices involving no visible injuries, which reduces their psychological impact on the audience and thus disqualifies them for official commemoration, are likely to fall into oblivion. A few hours after the bombing on April 16, Ms. Hop volunteered to deal with the situation in Thuong Ly, a sun-drenched neighborhood parched by the lingering heat of B-52 bombs. Regardless of the unendurable weather and the new round of bombing that almost killed her, Ms. Hop persisted with her task, which involved wrapping malformed corpses in nylon because there were not enough coffins, naming the corpses on behalf of their relatives who had been evacuated, and carrying them with her own hands to places where the urban environment company of Haiphong could pick them up and drive them to a cemetery. The arduous process exposed the exhausted twenty-year-old woman to a halved body hanging from the beams of her house by her long hair, the shredded bodies of five children placed on a sleeping mat outside their poor father’s home, the remains of an unborn baby forced out of the mother-to-be’s body, and charred corpses. Although she was consumed with fear and hunger, Ms. Hop only returned to the police station after completing her task. Indeed, this experience later subjected Ms. Hop to prolonged psychological trauma: for an extended period, her hair shedded excessively and she struggled to sleep alone at night. Ms. Hop’s sacrifice lies in her perseverance with her task despite the risk of death, the intense discomfort of working in the burning heat without being fed, and the distress of witnessing misshapen dead bodies. But for her work, many victims could have gone missing and many families could never have found their deceased relatives after the war. However, to her disappointment, Ms. Hop’s contributions have been denied due recognition. Her senior, who had assigned her to handle the consequences in Thuong Ly on the day of the bombing, was unaware of her selfless work. While one of her colleagues was awarded certificates of merit for “simply” helping an injured elderly man bandage himself up, Ms. Hop’s important role in the handling of the bombing fell into obscurity. Although she lived in close proximity to the police station of Thuong Ly, none from the Department of Public Security bothered to invite her to the ceremony marking the second bestowment of the “heroic unit” (đơn vị anh hùng) title upon the Thuong Ly police force. Compared to Ms. Canh, who was at least mentioned in several publications, Ms. Hop has been given much less recognition partly because she suffered from invisible mental injuries rather than visible physical injuries. The case of Ms. Hop proves that undramatic sacrifices involving no physical injuries stand the risk of being forgotten as they do not support the wartime identity of Haiphong as immediately and powerfully as deaths, whose irreversible nature tends to make a profound impact on the audience.
The exclusion of civilian deaths
The official commemoration of martyrs and industrial workers also excludes civilian deaths associated with neither heroic sacrifices in confronting the U.S Air Force nor industrial production. The mentality that civilian deaths are an inevitable part of the war is demonstrated by many survivors who, in retrospect, recognize that the loss of family members was common in wartime. Ms. Tran Thi Hoa, a survivor based in the previously bombed Cau Tre neighborhood, said: “It was common to everyone. Whichever place was bombed was unfortunate.” This comment shows that while people could not foresee the specific targets of bombardment, they did expect civilian deaths. Having witnessed and undergone different wars, these survivors, like most people, are accustomed to the conceptual association between war and death. The normalization of civilian casualties, coupled with the fact that these deaths do not lend credence to the wartime identity of Haiphong, drives their exclusion from official commemoration. The case of Ms. Bui Thi Mai, a civilian living in the So Dau neighborhood where petroleum storage facilities were heavily targeted by B-52 bombers, is a prominent example. In the wee hours of April 16, 1972, the fifteen-year-old Mai and her family were asleep when the bombing occurred. Seven of her family members—her grandfather, mother, uncle, sister, and three brothers—hid inside a raid shelter, while she shared another shelter with her grandmother, a brother, and two neighbors. At dawn, when her father returned from the cement factory where he had worked on a night shift, they found out that everyone hiding in the other shelter had been killed, their headless and disfigured bodies thrown around the homestead. Within just a few hours, Ms. Mai had lost seven family members. After a heart-wrenching photograph of Ms. Mai and her father sitting among the rubble, helplessly staring at their dismembered loved ones (Figure 7) was published a newspaper, the Hanoi-based war crimes commission (Uỷ ban điều tra tội ác) sent her on a months-long trip to Nordic countries where she, categorized as a “living witness” (nhân chứng sống), was asked to narrate her traumatic experiences in press conferences organized to denounce the war crimes committed by U.S forces.
It must be noted that the attention given to the tragedy of Ms. Mai’s family served not to support her family, but rather to advance the state’s goal of garnering international support for the resistance war against the U.S. After fulfilling her mission of leveraging her family’s story to sharpen the state’s political advantages, Ms. Mai returned to Vietnam. Ever since the trip, she has neither been contacted by local authorities nor received any financial support from them despite her insurmountable hardships. The story of Ms. Mai represents the precarious situation that many—mostly unknown—local families deprived of their loved ones have fallen into: although the deaths of their significant others are no less tragic and financially detrimental to their post-war life, these deaths do not earn them the recognition and support afforded to martyrs’ families. As they are considered natural consequences that do not bolster the wartime identity of Haiphong as a site of heroic resistance to airstrikes and industrial production, these civilian deaths are excluded from official commemoration.
The impact of the limited visibility of official commemoration
Not only are the experiences of those like Ms. Canh, Ms. Hop, and Ms. Mai excluded from official commemoration, but the limited visibility of official commemorative structures and rituals—which, as explained above, is a response to the modern-day identity of Haiphong—also facilitates the forgetting of these individual experiences. Although they do not represent the forgotten experiences, it is largely through these structures and practices that the present-day general public, consisting of those born after the war, knows about the bombing. As long as the public is well-aware of the bombing, the likelihood that they learn about the excluded individual experiences, in one way or another, is increased. Public awareness is often achieved by situating monuments and memorials in highly discernible public spaces, thus attracting the attention of those without experience and knowledge of the event. By contrast, confining official commemoration of the bombing to closed spaces such as the Temple of Hong Bang Martyrs, which are likely known about and visited only by martyrs’ family members, local residents with lived experience/knowledge of the bombing, and authorities, limits the public consciousness of the event. Once the bombing itself is little known, there is almost no chance of the excluded individual experiences receiving attention. The limited visibility of commemoration, which contributes to the unfamiliarity of the bombing itself in contemporary life, aggravates the public ignorance of the personal experiences already excluded from official practices of remembrance.
Resistance to the lack of official recognition
Although, as Hung argues, commemoration of historical events in authoritarian regimes is under the government’s absolute control, this does not mean that there is no reaction whatsoever from the individuals disadvantaged by official commemorative decisions. Indeed, those excluded from official commemoration of the bombing in Haiphong—Ms. Canh, Ms. Hop, and Ms. Mai, among others—challenge their obscurity by either inhabiting an existing alternative reality or constructing a new one in which their historical roles and experiences are recognized and remembered.
Switching to another existing reality
A method that the forgotten survivors employ to resist the lack of official recognition is inhabiting an alternative reality in which they are recognized and remembered—which, in this case, is the reality of local residents’ affections for them. While these individuals are not officially remembered, they take pride in being loved and respected by the civilians who live near them and have witnessed their exemplary behavior over the years. Local residents’ appreciation for their contributions to community well-being constitute a reality that counterbalances the saddening reality of their being excluded from official remembrance. Ms. Canh and Ms. Hop, the two forgotten ex-police officers, exemplify the inhabitation of this existing reality. Ms. Canh repeatedly emphasized that every member of the Thuong Ly neighborhood is acquainted with her, and she linked her popularity to her uprightness and kindness. For example, she offered an impoverished bereaved father sand and bricks, then used for the reconstruction of the Thuong Ly police station, so that he could rebuild his home after the bombing. She later instructed one of his sons to organize a decent funeral for him and donated rice so that he could cook a proper worship meal for his father. Ms. Canh happily summarized how she is acknowledged by Thuong Ly residents:
Everyone knows about me when I live here. Many civilians are aware of my loyalty and they hold me in high esteem. That’s why when my wedding took place, some residents told me: “I would have attended [your wedding] even if you hadn’t invited me. I’m happy for you.”
From Ms. Canh’s perspective, her integrity, bravery, and benevolence as a police officer has earned her the residents’ affections, even if she receives little recognition from local authorities for her selflessness in the bombing. Ms. Canh’s repeated reference to local people’s fondness for her demonstrates that she chooses to inhabit the reality of community acknowledgement rather than that of official neglect. Thanks to inhabiting this reality, Ms. Canh nonchalantly accepts the fact that modern-day authorities cannot understand her wartime contributions and thus ignore them.
Similarly, Ms. Hop switches to the reality of local residents’ gratitude as a remedy for her disappointment at the lack of official recognition. She also attributed Thuong Ly residents’ affections for her to her praiseworthy conduct as a police officer. According to Ms. Hop, local children never fail to greet her, their arms obediently folded, even if they are busy fighting each other. As Ms. Hop used to give criminals sincere advice about remaking their life rather than reprimanding or insulting them, many ex-prisoners in Thuong Ly hold her in high regard, referring to her as “sister” and offering to pay for her meals. She further stresses that not only the elderly dwelling in Thuong Ly during her stint as a police officer but also their children and children-in-law attended her parents’ funerals, which proves their ultimate respect for her. An intriguing experience related to the bombing is that whenever Ms. Hop passes the primary school where she handled the corpses in 1972, she feels exhausted. Ms. Hop cited some residents’ interpretation that the spirits of the dead, grateful to her for taking care of their bodies, are elated to see her passing by, which is why she often feels their energy and gets exhausted. Her emphasis on this eerie experience reveals that Ms. Hop, like Ms. Canh, dwells in the reality where they are remembered and appreciated by local people for their contributions. In switching to this reality, they refuse to be entrapped in the reality where they are excluded from official practices of commemoration.
Constructing a new reality
Apart from inhabiting another existing reality, a strategy to resist oblivion is constructing a new reality in which one’s excluded experiences are recognized and commemorated. This construction of reality can be mental or behavioral, meaning that it can be an idea or an action actually taken by an individual. One of the reactions of Ms. Hop, the retired police officer who has been shown to inhabit the existing reality of civilians’ affections, is an example of the mental construction of an alternative reality. Much as she seeks solace in local residents’ remembrance of her contributions, Ms. Hop remains dissatisfied with present-day authorities’ indifference to her wartime services. The ongoing desire for recognition may have led her to conceive of a dream, in which she is dead and has been cremated. Finding herself at the cemetery of the police force, she sees a roll of honor (bảng vàng danh dự) and a policeman scattering her ashes over the incense burners dedicated to her deceased colleagues. When she expresses surprise at this posthumous recognition, the policeman encourages her to “keep the momentum” as there is still room for her progress. This dream can be seen as a reality that Ms. Hop mentally constructs out of the longing to be recognized and remembered for her role in the bombing. Although this is only a one-time dream, that Ms. Hop declared it as a portent of her future death reveals that she sees the dream, in which she is deeply honored, as an emerging reality which may actually unfold after her departure. Simultaneously inhabiting the reality of local residents’ affections for her and forming a dream-reality in which she is posthumously remembered is Ms. Hop’s strategy to escape the reality of authorities’ disregard for her wartime contributions.
Meanwhile, the case of Ms. Mai, the civilian who lost seven family members in the bombing, exemplifies the willingness to actualize a reality where public awareness extends to civilian deaths. Confronted with the lack of acknowledgement and financial support from local authorities, Ms. Mai’s father once planned to write a letter to the contemporary President of Vietnam lamenting their hardships, which he, referencing the classic movie Bao Gong that portrays an upright mandarin helping marginalized peasants achieve justice, called “beat the drum to report injustices” (đánh trống kêu oan). Although Ms. Mai has never carried out her father’s wish to “beat the drum to report injustices,” she shows the intention to construct a parallel reality where her family’s forgotten experiences are acknowledged. Ms. Mai intends to build a “stela of deep hatred” (bia căm thù) at the entrance to the family’s ancestral worship house, in which deceased relatives including those killed in the bombing are worshiped (Figure 9). The stela is expected to serve the dual function of condemning the brutality of the U.S Air Force and introducing the forgotten experiences of Ms. Mai’s family to the general public. If Ms. Mai executes this plan, she is going to form a reality coeval with that of official exclusion where her individual experiences in the bombing are recognized and commemorated. Thus, Ms. Mai’s establishment of a home-based stela is a good example of the resistance to official dis-remembering through the spatial construction of a new reality.
This paper has shown that official commemoration of the B-52 bombing on April 16, 1972 is co-determined by the wartime identity and the modern-day identity of Haiphong. Given that Haiphong used to be identified as a city of heroic confrontation with the U.S Air Force and industrial production, official commemorative practices are targeted at, firstly, those who died the heroic martyr’s death in defending the city and its civilians from the airstrike and, secondly, those dying in persisting with the production of war supplies. As Haiphong is now urbanizing into an internationalized paradise for the emerging middle-class, commemorative structures and rituals occur in places of limited visibility rather than the open public space. This commemorative tendency involves the forgetting of non-fatal sacrifices and civilian deaths, whose obscurity is heightened by the inconspicuousness of official commemoration of the bombing. The individuals who made non-fatal sacrifices on the day of the bombing and victims’ family members resist the lack of official commemoration by either inhabiting another existing reality or constructing a new one, in which their personal experiences are recognized and remembered. The significance of inhabiting alternative realities as resistance lies in its being non-confrontational and parallel with official commemoration: much as it extricates the forgotten individuals from the reality of oblivion, it does not interfere with this reality.
As remarked by Ricoeur, there is always disagreement among groups in society about what/who deserves commemoration and how they should be commemorated. Whilst disagreement manifests itself as a debate between monuments and counter-monuments in Western countries, the government-citizen power disparity in authoritarian regimes precludes the possibility of explicit discursive and artistic contestation. Therefore, those who harbor divergent ideas about commemoration must resort to covert forms of resistance to cope with a reality where their lived experiences are marginalized. In the case of the bombing in Haiphong, the inhabitation of alternative realities satisfies the sidelined survivors’ desire for recognition without placing them in explicit opposition to the state. This study has thus demonstrated that the invisibility of counter-monuments does not necessarily mean there is consensus about the commemoration of past events, but rather that further investigation into subtle forms of resistance is called for. To answer my preliminary question, absences tell us about the presences expecting to be discovered by those determined to look beyond the visible, which is, more often than not, dictated by political calculation.
A limitation of this study is that I could not interview many people with lived experience of the bombing because most of them are either dead or, due to senility, have lost the mental agility to narrate their personal history. While access to more survivors could have increased the conviction of this paper, the experiences of those herein featured are valuable in their own right as a window into the relationship between official commemoration and individual experiences in post-war Haiphong. On the grounds of this study, future research may look into the official commemoration of the aforementioned excluded experiences elsewhere in Vietnam and decipher the meaning of their presence in comparison to their absence in Haiphong.
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 Polar Bear (@polar bear), comment on https://www.otofun.net/threads/otofun-16-04-1972-hai-phong-do-hien-ngang-chi-biet-ngang-dau.352827/, April 16, 2012.
 Vingroup is a powerful conglomerate in Vietnam. That Vingroup housing projects, known as Vinhomes, are found in most cities is testament to the enormous influence of this conglomerate.
 Hai lần đánh thắng chiến tranh phá hoại của Đế quốc Mỹ tại Hải Phòng (Hải Phòng: Bộ Tư lệnh Hải Phòng, 1977).
 W. Hays Parks, “Linebacker and the Law of War,” Air University Review (January-February 1983), https://biotech.law.lsu.edu/cases/nat-sec/Vietnam/Linebacker-and-the-Law-of-War.html.
 Hai lần đánh thắng chiến tranh phá hoại của Đế quốc Mỹ tại Hải Phòng, op. cit., 180.
 Ibid., 176.
 Parks, op. cit.
 Michael Crawford, “Commemoration: Where Remembering and Forgetting Meet,” in Time and Memory, ed. Jo Alyson Parker, Michael Crawford, and Paul Harris (Leiden • Boston: Brill, 2006), 225.
 Hiro Saito, “The changing culture and politics of commemoration,” in Routledge Handbook of Cultural Sociology, ed. Laura Grindstaff, Ming-Cheng M. Lo, and John R. Hall (London: Routledge, 2018), 648.
 Crawford, op. cit., 225-226.
 Saito, op. cit., 648.
 Meiling Han, Martin De Jong, Zhuqing Cui, Limin Xu, Haiyan Lu, and Baiqing Sun, “City Branding in China’s Northeastern Region: How Do Cities Reposition Themselves When Facing Industrial Decline and Ecological Modernization?” Sustainability 10, no. 1 (January 2018): 3, https://doi.org/10.3390/su10010102.
 Paul Kendall, “Ruins on Ruins: Forgetting, Commemorating and Re-Forgetting the Third Front,” Contemporary China Centre Blog – Issue 5: Heritage and Memory, http://blog.westminster.ac.uk/contemporarychina/ruins-on-ruins-forgetting-commemorating-and-re-forgetting-the-third-front/.
 Saito, op. cit., 652.
 “Imagination, testimony and trust: a dialogue with Paul Ricoeur,” in Questioning Ethics: Contemporary Debates in Continental Philosophy, ed. Mark Dooley and Richard Kearney (London; New York: Routledge, 1999), 12.
 Quentin Stevens, Karen A. Franck, and Ruth Fazakerley, “Counter-monuments: the anti-monumental and the dialogic,” The Journal of Architecture 23, no. 5 (2018): 734, https://doi.org/10.1080/13602365.2018.1495914.
 Sara McDowell and Catherine Switzer, “Violence and the Vernacular: Conflict, Commemoration, and Rebuilding in the Urban Context,” Buildings & Landscapes: Journal of the Vernacular Architecture Forum 18, no. 2 (Fall 2011): 101, https://doi.org/10.5749/buildland.18.2.0082.
 Nguyễn Phú Quang, Em ơi Hà Nội phố, https://www.nhaccuatui.com/bai-hat/em-oi-ha-noi-pho-hong-nhung.iruu6WyLf6Qk.html. Translated by the author.
 “Em ơi Hà Nội phố,” Wikipedia, accessed September 7, 2021, https://vi.wikipedia.org/wiki/Em_%C6%A1i_H%C3%A0_N%E1%BB%99i_ph%E1%BB%91.
 “Xi măng Việt Nam – sự ra đời, phát triển và truyền thống đấu tranh cách mạng của công nhân ngành Xi măng,” Bộ Xây Dựng/Ministry of Construction, accessed September 7, 2021, https://moc.gov.vn/vn/tin-tuc/1184/8909/xi-mang-viet-nam—su-ra-doi–phat-trien-va-truyen-thong-dau-tranh-cach-mang-cua-cong-nhan-nganh-xi-mang.aspx.
 Hai lần đánh thắng chiến tranh phá hoại của Đế quốc Mỹ tại Hải Phòng, op. cit., 18. Translated by the author.
 Ibid. Translated by the author.
 “Đến năm 2030, Hải Phòng trở thành thành phố công nghiệp hiện đại, văn minh, bền vững,” Cổng tin tức Thành phố Hải Phòng, accessed September 7, 2021, https://thanhphohaiphong.gov.vn/den-nam-2030-hai-phong-tro-thanh-thanh-pho-cong-nghiep-hien-dai-van-minh-ben-vung.html.
 Đặng Hương, “Hải Phòng tăng tốc thu hút đầu tư FDI,” VnEconomy, March 30, 2021, https://vneconomy.vn/hai-phong-tang-toc-thu-hut-dau-tu-fdi-646321.htm.
 Thu Thảo, “Hải Phòng kì vọng đón sóng đầu tư lớn từ doanh nghiệp Mỹ,” Vietnambiz, September 30, 2020, https://vietnambiz.vn/hai-phong-ki-vong-don-song-dau-tu-lon-tu-doanh-nghiep-my-2020092922343423.htm.
 Trần Đông, “Thăm gia đình liệt sĩ Nguyễn Hồng Quân, nhớ một thời Thượng Lý cam go và anh hùng,” in Văn hoá – Văn nghệ Công an: Diễn đàn Văn học nghệ thuật của lực lượng CAND (TPHCM: Báo Nhân Dân, 2002), 15.
 Ibid., 16.
 Translated by the author.
 “Hero of Labor (Vietnam),“ Wikipedia, accessed September 7, 2021, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hero_of_Labor_(Vietnam).
 Minh Hảo, “Quận Hồng Bàng tổ chức Lễ tưởng niệm, cầu siêu các Bà mẹ Việt Nam anh hùng và các Anh hùng Liệt sỹ,” Cổng Thông tin Điện tử Thành phố Hải Phòng, July 18, 2020, https://haiphong.gov.vn/tin-tuc-su-kien/Quan-Hong-Bang-to-chuc-Le-tuong-niem-cau-sieu-cac-Ba-me-Viet-Nam-anh-hung-va-cac-Anh-hung-Liet-sy-49037.html.
 Nguyen Minh Tri, interview by the author, Haiphong, 06 July 2021. Translated by the author.
 Nguyễn Văn Đại, “Một số quy định về thương binh, bênh binh theo pháp luật hiện hành,” Tiền Phong Luật Việt, October 13, 2016, https://www.luatvietphong.vn/mot-so-quy-dinh-ve-thuong-binh,-benh-binh-theo-phap-luat-hien-hanh.html.
 Dương Sông Lam, “Cục CSMT tặng nhà tình nghĩa cho gia đình liệt sĩ,” Công an nhân dân online, July 27, 2009, https://cand.com.vn/thoi-su/Cuc-CSMT-tang-nha-tinh-nghia-cho-gia-dinh-liet-si-i148005/.
 Tran Thi Hoa, interview by the author, Haiphong, 18 July 2021. Translated by the author.
 Hung, op. cit., 303.
 Pham Thi Canh, interview by the author, Haiphong, 07 July 2021. Translated by the author.
 In ancient China, civilians would beat the drum placed outside the emperor’s palace or the residence of a mandarin to request an opportunity to report the injustices inflicted on them. See more: https://www.chuonghung.com/2017/10/dich-thuat-anh-trong-keu-oan-ra-oi-nhu.html.
 “Imagination, testimony and trust: A dialogue with Paul Ricoeur,” op. cit., 12.