Reading Bill Hayton’s enlightening and persuasive narrative about postwar Vietnam I wondered, as I have before in these pages, how the Vietnamese won their long wars against the French and the United States. After Dean Rusk retired as secretary of state during much of the war, his son, Richard, asked him, “Short of blowing them off the face of the earth how could we have defeated such a people? Why did they keep coming? Who were these people? Why did they try so hard?” Rusk replied, “I really don’t have much to answer on that, Rich.”1
Or take Bao Ninh, one of North Vietnam’s brilliant novelists about the war, and a veteran, who in his The Sorrow of War writes:
Victory after victory, withdrawal after withdrawal. The path of war seemed endless, desperate and leading nowhere. The soldiers waited in fear, hoping they would not be ordered in as support forces, to hurl themselves into the arena to almost certain death.2
But they did, again and again.
According to Bill Hayton, who in 2006 and 2007 reported for the BBC from Vietnam until his visa was withdrawn for reporting on dissidents, nowadays in Hanoi
many Vietnamese who fought the war find themselves trapped in voiceless rage. They know why they fought, they know what they and their fellows suffered, they know how unjust it felt—but they’re banned from expressing any of it in public because the Party has decided that the country needs the support and resources of the United States.
Mai Elliott, the author of RAND in Southeast Asia: A History of the Vietnam War Era, has written to me that “the war veterans feel that they have made horrendous sacrifices only to see themselves marginalized and to see the Party and military elite enrich themselves.”
Here is one of Hayton’s most telling points. The Vietnamese are forbidden to mention the “sheer monstrosity of the war: the industrial-scale killing….” But it remains alive for Americans. “No other country name has the same resonance: ‘the lesson of Vietnam,’ ‘the ghost of Vietnam,’ ‘another Vietnam’—we know instantly all that these phrases imply.” The “lessons of Vietnam” in Iraq or Afghanistan are regularly argued. Hayton emphasizes that things are different in Vietnam itself, where the war is a taboo subject, although, as he recalls near the end of his book, the Americans did vast and brutal damage to the country and its people.
Living in Vietnam, he claims (puzzlingly as one reads his book), “moved and inspired me…until I was told to leave.” He observes that foreigners find there is something secretive about Vietnam “until…
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