From Dust to Deserts


Using Female Ethnic War Identities as a Symbol of Peace

“Good morning Vietnam” a young woman calls out to me. I go and greet her. My white fitted Vietnamese Ao Dai dress and conical hat atop of my long flowing black hair contrasts greatly with her looser Muslim attire and scarf-covered head. Together we raise a banner together that reads “No War in Iraq”. Older western male Veterans from the Vietnam War and Gulf War look on with a mix of sad nostalgia and renewed hope. We attract a lot of attention from peaceful civilians who remember such images from their TV screens, though never all at once.

A young Vietnamese woman in traditional dress is something that reminds people of past innocent war victims. A young Muslim woman by her side is something that warns people that there are new victims are about to fall prey to war. Our past male aggressors now walk behind us peacefully but with a haunted look of wisdom, gained through traumatic hindsight. Can it be only in this brief moment in time that our cultures and life histories are viewed first hand as a powerful collective symbol of peace and unity?

In the peace protests today I utilise stereotypes of young Vietnamese women in essentialist ethnic cultural attire (the white Ao Dai dress of young female students) to remind viewers of past war victims. In encourage those I know to do the same. However, there lies a greater complexity behind these images that requires some acknowledgement. It has been recognised that ‘The active involvement of women as members of militant and armed fighting forces has led to the erosion of certain essentialist stereotypes of women as peace-loving, gentle and unable to engage in violence…At the same time, wars and conflicts have led to a host of negative consequences for unarmed women civilians and dependent family members, children, the old and the infirm’ (Abeyesekera, 2003). Many women of many cultures are bonded through the many sides of war.

My own life and the Vietnam War are forever intertwined in an uncomfortable relationship that drives my desire for finding peaceful alternatives to war. I lost my entire family in the Vietnam War. I am a Bui Doi. This is a Vietnamese name for ‘child of the dust’ – that which is leftover, unwanted and brushed aside after a storm of war. War orphans from Vietnam made up the largest evacuation of foreign children entering the west for adoption in a joint military and civilian project known as Operation Baby-lift. On April 3rd, 1975 President Gerald Ford approved the airlift of thousands of orphans from Vietnam. Reports vary but it appears that at least 3,000 children were flown to the United States and approximately one thousand three hundred children were flown to Canada, Europe and Australia (Martin, 2000, Peck-Barnes, 2000). Hundred of thousands of other war orphans were leftover, unwanted and brushed aside.

I have lived a life of both displacement and opportunity in the west. Even from the dust life can grow, survive and even flourish if nurtured in time. I have since travelled back to my birthplace and reconciled with my past. From the dust of my past my attention now turns to a new looming storm of war – a new desert storm. What is different? The rice fields and jungle mists are soon to be swapped for Middle Eastern dry sandy plains. The smell of napalm in the morning is soon to be swapped for the mother of all bombs. We are also becoming more aware that we have many different subjective experiences and positions. Women at times of war have been involved in roles of aggressors and victims, soldiers and civilians. This will continue.

But what has remained the same? Iraqi infants’ cries for collaterally damaged deceased mothers and American mothers cries for their deceased soldier sons will still sound no different. There is still no ready-made pill or vaccine for post-traumatic war syndrome like there is for Anthrax. Those that make it home may also find out there’s also no vaccine for the symptoms that set in after they used the latest technology in warfare, just like the Desert Storm and Vietnam War Veterans did. The protestors will continue to take to the streets. And if war is not stopped in time, the real costs of war will painfully be realised first hand and not just on the screen. And women once again, will play a strategic and potentially powerful role in these protests.

The Vietnam War through the media and Hollywood films was dominated by images of the male soldiers and peace protestors. Vietnamese young female students in their white Ao Dais were designated to scatter the Vietnamese landscape in western representations as female objects of desire and passivity. Yet it was the Vietnamese female victims of war that still stand out as perhaps the starkest examples of why that war was wrong. Images from the My Lai massacre of women and children and the girl burnt by napalm running for her life are still ingrained in the public’s psyche. These are now testaments of why the Vietnam War remains an unpopular reminder of the real human costs behind the politics. Vietnamese women can reuse their previously familiar yet silent ethnicity to protest against future war and draw attention to parallels with their Muslim sisters. From dust to deserts, may our female ethnic identities be not only a source of particular cultural memberships and histories, but also as symbols for international peaceful resistance.


Abeyesekera, S. (2003). ‘A Women’s Human Rights Perspective on War and Conflict’. WHRNET. Accessed 14 March, 2003, from the World Wide Web:

Martin, A. (2000). ‘The Legacy of Operation Babylift’. Adoption Today. Accessed 16 June, 2002, from the World Wide Web:

Peck-Barnes, S. (2000). The War Cradle: Vietnam’s Children of War, Operation Babylift – The Untold Story. Colorado: JM Printing Co Inc.

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