The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam
Novel Without a Name
Paradise of the Blind
Reading these novels makes one raise a long-neglected question: How did the North Vietnamese win the war? If Robert McNamara has read them he must be even more baffled; he says in his recent memoir that he realized almost from the beginning that few Americans, including himself, knew much about the Vietnamese. His critics have condemned him for this, noting how just when the war started the White House and State Department scorned journalists like Bernard Fall and Jean Lacouture, who had come to know the country during the French War, or academic specialists like George Kahin and David Marr, who had studied Vietnamese nationalism. Nor did the military listen to its own experts, like Colonel David Hackworth or John Vann, who had fought the North Vietnamese and warned that unless the Americans adopted the tactics and perhaps the strategy of their enemy they would lose the war.
Dean Rusk admitted he had underestimated what he called the enemy’s “tenacity”—they endured the equivalent of ten million American dead, he told his son—but he insisted that the cause had been just. North Vietnam’s General Giap, in his own writings and in interviews with foreigners, including the American journalist Morley Safer, spoke of his soldiers’ enormous sacrifices. Asked if these bothered him, Giap literally brushed the question aside as if he were brushing away a fly. Others on the American side, such as General Westmoreland, continue to insist that all the Americans needed was the will to win and no betrayals back home.
Maybe McNamara was right. The novels under review deepen the mystery of how the Vietnamese stuck it out and won. Here is a song North Vietnamese soldiers were singing in 1974, when the war was nearly over, which goes:
Oh, this is war without end,
War without end.
Tomorrow or today,
Today or tomorrow.
Tell me my fate,
When will I die.
That same year, Bao Ninh, the soldier-author of The Sorrow of War, wrote, “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.”
In the late eighteenth century, the official history of the Chinese Emperor Qianlong described the Vietnamese as an “unreliable people,” always keen to fight invaders. In 1874, Paulin Vial, a French observer of the colonial war, described bands of Vietnamese appearing as if from nowhere to attack local officials and suddenly disappearing.
Understanding the tenacious character of the Vietnamese remains just as elusive as ever. I became aware of this again this past May when I talked to Hong Kong officials in charge of what they call “the orderly repatriation” of the over 20,000 Vietnamese boat people, of the original 40,000, who are still in the colony’s detention camps. The repatriations are anything but orderly. In April 1994 those to be flown back to Hanoi resisted so vigorously that more than 200 of them were gassed or beaten badly enough to require hospital care—the authorities admitted this only after a local newspaper published the extent of the injuries—and ever since it has been usual for the security men and women to carry some of the repatriated Vietnamese kicking and shouting onto the planes. Not long ago when the plane landed in Hanoi the passengers resisted so hard that the Vietnamese authorities nearly refused to accept them.
On May 20 and 21, 1995, well over 2,000 Hong Kong police and Correctional Services officers entered the Whitehead Detention Centre to move 1,500 Vietnamese, mostly women and children, to another center before flying them to Hanoi. They suddenly found themselves attacked by 6,000 inmates, many from other, supposedly sealed-off sections of the camp, who had cut wires and burrowed under fences and were armed with home-made spears and clubs. They injured over 130 officers. The Vietnamese were subjected to more than 3,000 rounds of gas; the repatriation efforts had to be called off for the night and began again the next morning.
The inmates’ resistance was blamed on their knowing that the American Congress was considering legislation to permit more boat people to enter the US. The deputy secretary for security in Hong Kong said the Congress was “raising false hopes.” He was asked repeatedly how the Vietnamese had made the weapons or cut the wires or organized their forces in a well-supervised and patrolled camp. He said he didn’t know.
I suggested to the deputy secretary that after many years of supervising the Vietnamese and repeated encounters with their resistance, the government seemed to know very little about them. His briefing reminded me, I said, of the Saigon briefings by the Americans during the war, called the “Five o’Clock Follies,” in which the briefers confessed incredulity that yet another of their well-planned operations had failed. When I asked him if he or his colleagues had bothered to read anything about the Vietnamese and their surprising capacity to keep resisting and to be what Qianlong’s historian had called “unreliable,” the deputy secretary told me he had no time for such questions.
We do not get much closer to the answer in these books. Instead what we find is the fear, desperation, disillusion, and comradeship that one often meets among combat soldiers, together with the corruption and hypocrisy among the commanders and officials back home that are equally familiar.
The Sorrow of War is the best-known of the recent novels from Hanoi about the war, and the author, Bao Ninh, has every reason to have written bitterly about it. In 1967 he was one of the five hundred soldiers of the Glorious 27th Youth Brigade, of whom ten survived the war. This is his first novel and he has explained in interviews with foreigners that although the book has sold well in Vietnam, he has had an uneasy relationship with the authorities because of it.
No wonder: much of the book is about the grim experiences of Kien, an infantry officer who in 1975 goes back to the battlefield to find and bury the dead. We also learn about his growing up in Hanoi and then, after the war, his attempts to write a novel about what he has seen. The parts about his difficulties as a writer become tedious, but the rest of the book has considerable imaginative power.
This is particularly striking when we read of Kien’s experiences on B3 battlefield in the Central Highlands as his Missing in Action Remains-Gathering Team enters the Jungle of Screaming Souls. Kien had been there before. “It was here at the end of the dry season of 1969, that his 27th Battalion was surrounded and almost totally wiped out. Ten men survived from the Lost Battalion after fierce, horrible, barbarous fighting.” The men were sprayed with napalm and clustered together terrified. Some went mad; others were blown to bits or were shot one by one from helicopters. The frantic battalion commander blew his brains out in front of Kien, after yelling, “Better to die than surrender, my brothers! Better to die!”
Western readers will then find themselves in a Vietnamese spirit world that is probably wholly unfamiliar to them. The destroyed battalion, Bao writes, was never mentioned again, “though numerous souls of ghosts and devils were born in that deadly defeat…refusing to depart for the Other World.” Sobbing and whispering filled the nights in what came to be called the Jungle of Screaming Souls. The burial group—secretly—built an altar and burned incense. Bitterly, Kien remembers the propaganda of the time: “We won, the enemy lost. The enemy will surely lose. The North had a good harvest, a bumper harvest. The people will rise up and welcome you. Those who don’t just lack awareness.”
The soldiers were happy only when away from the front, playing cards, talking about sex, and painting mustaches on one another with lampblack. But at any minute a card player could be called away and “burned alive in a T54 tank, his body turned to ash. No grave or tomb for them to throw the cards onto.” Desertions were common, “as though soldiers were being vomited out, emptying the insides of whole platoons.” The soldiers “had created an almost invincible fighting force because of their peasant nature, by volunteering to sacrifice their lives. They had simple, gentle, ethical outlooks on life…. yet they never had a say in deciding the course of the war.”
Even the capture of Saigon, a brief moment of exhilaration for Kien, was marked by his comrades with drunkenness, looting, destruction. The victorious troops enjoyed “their greatest prize: sleep.”
Then comes an episode that for most American readers will seem both unexpected and familiar. When the soldiers returned to Hanoi after their victory, most of them had been years in the field; the trip home was the happiest moment of their years in the army. But they immediately found
a common emotion of bitterness. There had been no trumpets for the victorious soldiers, no drums, no music. That might have been tolerated, but not the disrespect shown them. The general population just didn’t care about them. Nor did their own authorities.
An army driver harangues Kien. The dead, he said, had died for a corrupt society. “This kind of peace? In this kind of peace it seems people have unmasked themselves and revealed their true, horrible selves. So much blood, so many lives sacrificed—for what?” In addition to the known dead, there are 300,000 North Vietnamese MIAs, in contrast with the famous 2,000 still-missing Americans.
The returned soldiers were exhorted to avoid reconciliation with the South. This we have read before, in the memoirs of former NLF leaders like Truong Nhu Tang, author of Journal of a Vietcong, who described how their part in the war was ignored. The northern soldiers were warned, writes Bao Ninh, “to guard against the idea of the South having fought valiantly or been meritorious in any way.” So much for the assurances to antiwar Americans from the North Vietnamese during the war that the Southern struggle was simply being aided by the North, and that a regime based on a southern coalition headed by the Vietcong would take over.
In fact, the only idyllic moment in The Sorrow of War takes place in the South. In the midst of terrible fighting, Kien’s unit stumbles into a remote coffee plantation in the Central Highlands, a pretty place with a house on stilts surrounded by flowers. The soldiers are dirty and sweaty, and are offered a meal and coffee by the owner and his wife, Northerners who had come south.
The owner tells them, “We just live a simple life, growing coffee, sugarcane, and flowers…. Thanks to Heaven, thanks to the land and the trees and nature, and thanks to our hands…we are self-sufficient. We don’t need help from any government…. You are Communists…. You’re human too. You want peace and a calm life, families of your own.”