No Trumpets, No Drums

The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam

by Bao Ninh, translated by Phan Thanh Hao
Pantheon, 233 pp., $21.00

Novel Without a Name

by Duong Thu Huong, translated by Phan Huy Duong and Nina McPherson
Morrow, 292 pp., $23.00

Paradise of the Blind

by Duong Thu Huong, translated by Phan Huy Duong and Nina McPherson
Penguin, 270 pp., $9.95 (paper)

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…

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