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The Trauma of the Vietnam War


The Vietnam War, which took place from 1955 to 1957, has been the subject of many artworks of different forms, ranging from movies to paintings and literary works. While many of them focus on the experiences and heroism of soldiers, a Vietnamese-American writer Le Thi Diem Thuy focused on the impact of the war on ordinary people. In her novel entitled The Gangster We Are All Looking For, she describes fragmented memories of a family of refugees who fled from the Vietnam War to the US. The family consists of the unnamed narrator and her parents, who are referred to as Ma, meaning “mother,” and Ba, meaning “father,” with their names not being mentioned. Throughout the novel, the members of the family are dealing with the consequences of severe mental trauma related to the war. They try to cope with their forced escape from the homeland, the loss of the narrator’s older brother, and violent images of war imprinted in their memories. Le Thi Diem Thuy shows that the repression of this trauma separates family members from each other as they try to conceal their feelings from the others.

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Haunting Memories of the War

The Vietnam War has not passed without leaving a trace for any member of this family. Each of them is haunted by memories of war, and, perhaps, the father is the most affected person because he was directly involved in warfare. During the war, he “jumped out of airplanes and disappeared for weeks into the jungles and hill towns. His friends fell around him, first during the war and then after the war, but somehow he alone managed to crawl here, on his hands and knees, to this life” (Le 77). These images of the battlefield and the dead bodies of his fellows haunted him throughout his life, making him cry at night and disturbing his sleep.

Ma was less affected by the images of war, but she remembered her dreams about the war’s ending. She recalled her dreams about “foods she’d eat,” “songs she’d make up and sing,” and “dances she’d dance” (Le 60). However, the narrator’s mother was deeply affected by the trauma caused by her son’s drowning in the Vietnam waters. The impact of this shock was so immense that the woman refused to talk about this tragedy or lost her temper when the narrator mentioned her older brother. For example, once, thinking of her brother who, as she thought, was still in Vietnam, the narrator asked her mother, “If the sky and the sea can follow us here, why can’t people?” (Le 67). In response to this question, the mother said nothing, which implied that she suppressed her trauma and did not want to elicit it from the depths of her mind.

As for the narrator, who was a child when she migrated to America with her father, she was affected by the memories of her father’s suffering from war experiences and by the absence of her brother. Although her father did not share his painful experiences with his family, the narrator could make inferences from her childhood experiences. As she recalled, “My first memory of my father’s face is framed by the coiling barbed wire of a military camp in South Vietnam” (Le 61). Her first memories of her father are related to war, which is not a normal experience that a child should have. The narrator also shared that “early memories of my father are always of his leaving. He didn’t live with us, was only … visiting” (Le 78). So, the narrator was affected by her father’s scanty presence in her childhood.

In addition, the narrator was haunted by the memories of her older brother, who, as she believed, had stayed in Vietnam. The memory of her brother was “the only thing [she] couldn’t drive away” as she often felt as if he were right beside her (Le 87). While her mother tried to escape the image of her deceased son, the narrator found comfort in remembering her brother.

The Effect of the Trauma on the Characters’ Lives in America

The memories that haunted each member of the family had a significant impact on their lives in America. Haunted by the memories of war, the father could not watch the news without linking them to his past experiences. Once he saw a woman in the news pointing at the ground, and he thought that she “was pointing to bodies, unseen bodies, under the grass” (Le 110). In order to forget his painful experiences, he began “getting drunk every week” (Le 68). However, even getting drunk did not seem to alleviate his pain as he climbed onto the roof at night and stayed there, “rolling and crying” (Le 70). His son’s death also affected his life after the immigration because he started to avoid shores. When the narrator asked her father why their landlord did not take them to the beach, Ba replied, “No. Not possible. There’s no reason for us to go there” (Le 13). Thus, the memories of war forced the father to search for an escape from the pain, but even alcohol did not provide him with relief.

As a result of her haunting memories of her homeland and her dead son, the mother became attracted to water. This is particularly evident from her attraction to the swimming pool in one of the apartments in which they lived in America. For the mother, the swimming pool “wasn’t the sea but it was nice to open the door and have some water” (Le 40). The symbol of water frequently appears in the novel, and it might suggest the association with the homeland because, in the Vietnamese language, the words “water” and “nation” sound the same. The proximity to some water was so important for the mother that when the pool was cemented, she complained about it to her husband, saying that it was “ugly. What is there to look at now?” (Le 42). Perhaps, having some water around was important for her so that she could remember her homeland and her son, who died in the waters of her homeland.

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The narrator’s life in America was also influenced by the images of the Vietnam War. The most striking example of this impact is the way she played with her peers. For the children of the Vietnamese refugees, the peaceful pictures in the church booklets were “more unbelievable than the warriors [they] saw flying in the kung fu movies” (Le 28). The child play, in which the narrator was involved, reflected such a worldview of refugees. The children tried to imitate the peaceful life of the Kingdom of God but soon were tired and began to mimic war. They explained to the younger children, who struggled with imitating death, what dying looked like. This episode shows that, for refugees, war felt more natural than peace because this was the experience they were familiar with back in Vietnam.

The Impact of War Experiences on Interactions Within the Family

War experiences took a toll on the relationships among the family members as they became more distant from each other, trying to suppress their own pain. The interaction between the narrator’s parents worsened as they often “would start off trying to have fun and end up tearing the house apart” (Le 50). The narrator thought that their fights were “about nothing,” but one may assume that they stemmed from the painful experiences that were silenced and never openly shared within the family (Le 50). Sometimes, the father became so violent that he punched the walls with his hands until they bled. In order to hide from the parents’ conflicts, the narrator went to the bathroom, filled the tub, and sank into the water with her head. It helped her to calm down and not hear the parents’ screams.

One may think that, if it were not for the repressed war experiences, the family members would get along well with each other because they had a love for each other. For example, the mother cared for her daughter, which was manifested by her constant warnings aimed at protecting her from troubles. Further, although the daughter saw that her father did not cope well with his suffering, she did not blame him for this weakness. Instead, she thought, “When I grow up I am going to be the gangster we are all looking for” (Le 69). By this decision, she showed a close connection to her father and the desire to overcome the war experiences in the future.


The Vietnam War was a disturbing experience for the Vietnamese people. The novel The Gangster We Are All Looking For describes the impact of this experience on the life of a family of Vietnamese refugees who migrated to America. War experiences forced the members of the family to repress their feelings of grief and pain, causing mutual alienation among the mother, the father, and the child.

Work Cited

Le, Thi Diem Thuy. The Gangster We Are All Looking For. Anchor Books, 2004.

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