Nation-Building and Nature in the Mekong Delta

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Biggs, David, Quagmire: Nation-Building and Nature in the Mekong Delta, (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2010), 300 pp.

Reviewed by Royce Novak

“The quagmire metaphor suggests a means for reintegrating stories about nature – actual earth (đất) and water (nước) – into the core of popular histories that outline the contours of the nation (đất nước).”

With the above quote, David Biggs concludes Quagmire, which explores the role of the environment in nation-building projects in the Mekong Delta of southern Vietnam. The terms “quagmire” and “đát nước” both represent the coming together of land and water but from different perspectives, the former emphasizing entropy, the latter unity. By juxtoposing the commonly held perception that deltaic and wetland environments impede nation-building projects, Biggs shows how such environments, in fact, facilitated nation-building in Vietnam. Biggs situates the Mekong Delta within a historical longue durée, arguing that changes of regime, from the Nguyễn dynasty, to French colonial rule, to the U.S.-backed Republic of Vietnam, to the current Democratic Republic of Vietnam, have participated in a continuous historical process of national integration and consolidation through environmental control and transformation. Furthermore, the multi-layered contestation over the Mekong Delta illustrates how global and local actors engage in nation-building processes together through a mix of collaboration, coercion, and opposition. Biggs’s close-grained historical analysis not only advances our understanding of Vietnam, but also the role of delta and wetland environments in a global historical perspective. While deltas and wetlands are frequently posed as obstacles to development or pristine natural areas, Biggs articulates a middle ground whereby people and the delta shape one another, a more complex social and ecological image.

Biggs borrows the term “quagmire” from David Halberstom, an American journalist, who used the term in 1964 to convey the setbacks and difficulties of American efforts to engineer a shifting delta environment while fighting guerrillas whose tactics depended on it. Contraposed to seeing the region as a quagmire, the Vietnamese term đất nước juxtaposes the same mingling of land and water as a source of stability and identity. For Biggs, “quagmire” represents not only the experience of American technocrats in the Mekong delta, but all previous state-led efforts to control the delta from the 1700s onward. Accordingly, while changes in administrative and engineering technologies came with each change of regime, the goal of directing the waters of the Mekong Delta remained unchallenged. Likewise, resistance to nation-building projects in the delta has also been rooted in continuity as uncontrolled riverine environments provided rebels not only refuge, but a body of military tactics that utilized the environment and could not be countered by modern militaries equipped to fight in engineered or dry environments (such as canals, highways, cities, etc.).

Biggs’s book builds upon a number of emerging and established trends and debates in scholarship on Vietnamese history, including an increasing attentiveness to the particularites of the south, the debate on the origins of strategic hamlets, and the role of engineering projects in nation-building. Biggs adds further evidence to Li Tana’s thesis in Nguyễn Cochinchina: Southern Vietnam in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries that questions the hegemonic nationalist narrative framing Vietnam as a coherent nation, arguing that the “southward march” represented not a transplantation of Vietnamese culture from the North, but a hybridization of Northern, Khmer, and Cham cultures, agricultural technologies, and Confucian political organization. Biggs also engages with Phillip Catton’s assertion that Diệm’s strategic hamlet program was not proposed by American advisors based on British experiences in the Malay Emergency, but an autonomous counter-insurgency and defensive strategy. While Catton attributes the plan entirely to Diệm’s ideology, however, Biggs situates strategic hamlets historically, demonstrating how coerced movement and enclosed settlements had been used for centuries in the Mekong. Finally, Quagmire expands significantly upon Pierre Brocheaux’s The Mekong Delta. Brocheux’s book attributes the environmental transformation of the Mekong to French colonial policy and engineering. While Brocheaux draws mainly on French archival materials and posits the state as the central actor in a more top-down narrative of environmental transformation, Biggs makes two key interventions: first, he draws his sources mainly from Vietnamese archives as well as oral histories of local actors, which allows a collaborative perspective, revealing how the environmental transformation of the Mekong Delta was shaped by complex interactions among many actors rooted in the state, private business industries, and local communities. Second, Biggs’s narrative centers not, like Brocheaux’s narrative, on the agency of the state and its ability to impose modern infrastructure on the environment, but the on environment’s ability to shape human interaction and place limits on transformative efforts. Thus, Quagmire comes into direct dialogue with The Mekong Delta, enriching, modifying, and at times challenging Brocheux’s claims. As The Mekong Delta is commonly used in classes on Vietnamese history, Quagmire may be an appropriate book to assign in its place or alongside it.

Recently, in The Art of Not Being Governed, James Scott has called for more research on “wet zomias,” or natural aquatic environments that foster autonomous communities while posing considerable difficulty for integration into a centralized state. Throughout his narrative, Biggs emphasizes how the state competed for power, often ineffectively, with groups who integrated their political organization with the illegible natural environments of the delta. Thus, the Save the King Movement, religious sects such as the Cao Đài and Hoà Hảo, the Bình Xuyên bandits, and the National Liberation Front (NLF) all adapted their organization and tactics to the riverine environment and were able to quite effectively exist autonomously and often resist state attempts to exert control. Biggs considers the Mekong Delta in the present a synthesis of these contesting claims, simultaneously problematizing and contributing to the idea of “wet zomias.” The nuanced historical research and analysis presented in Quagmire speaks not only to the Mekong Delta region, but also provides methodoligical and conceptual tools for studying the history of delta and wetland environments in general. Thus, Biggs’s book should have a prominent place not only in courses on Southeast Asian politics or the Vietnam Wars, but also in any global environmental history class about wetlands, aquatic environments, or deltas. By situating Quagmire within discussions on how nature-society relationships shape governability, the environmental history presented takes on a global dimension attentive not only to ecology, but to the ways in which human actors interact with ecologies through processes of both state-building and resistance.         

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