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.”
When the soldiers leave, enchanted, one of them who had studied economic planning before the war bursts out, “That’s the way to live! What a peaceful, happy oasis. My lecturers with all their Marxist theories will pour in and ruin all this if we win. I’m horrified to think of what will happen to that couple. They’ll soon learn what the new political order means.”
Duong Thu Huong’s Novel Without a Name also begins in a terrible place ridden with spirits: the Gorge of Lost Souls. In both books the soldiers kill and eat an orangutan as if carrying out a rite. In Bao’s book, it looks “like a fat woman with ulcerous skin, the eyes, half-white, half-grey, still rolling.” In Novel Without a Name the creature is minced into salad and boiled into soup; its hands look like a child’s, and taste, or so Duong imagines, like human flesh.
Like Bao Ninh, Duong Thu Huong spent seven years at the front in a Communist Youth Brigade; she is one of three survivors of a unit of forty men and women. Her novels, once popular, are now difficult to obtain in Hanoi. In recent years she has spent months in prison for sending “state secrets” abroad, and has been expelled from the Party.
Her central character is platoon leader Quan, who has been in the field for ten years and spends a brief home leave deep in disillusion. When Quan and his friends went off to war, “drunk on our youth,…marching toward a glorious future,” the mothers in his village wept. Vietnam had been chosen by History, the young recruits imagined, and would become humanity’s paradise when the war ended. “The deeper we plunged into the war, the more the memory of that first day haunted us. The more we were tortured by the consciousness of appalling indifference… We had renounced everything for glory. It was this guilt that bound us to one another.” Ten years later he admits to himself, “I had been defeated from the beginning…I had never really committed myself to war.”
It is common in the West to ascribe the stubbornness of the Vietnamese, their ability to just keep coming, to their long history of opposing foreign invaders, beginning with the elephant-riding Truong sisters, who fought the Han armies almost two thousand years ago. This is indeed a long tradition, and some historians note that nationalism was present in Vietnam before it appeared anywhere else. But a cynical comrade of Quan’s looks at past heroes differently:
We country folk have gagged ourselves, our stomachs and our mouths, even our penises. But when it comes to the generals, they know how to take advantage of a situation. Wherever they go…they make sure they have plenty of women. In the old days they had concubines; now they call them “mission comrades.”…For so long, it’s just been misery, suffering, and more suffering. How many have died since the great De Tham, Phan, and Nguyen Thai Hoc—how many lives were sacrificed to gain independence? The colonialists had only just left Vietnamese soil and these little yellow despots already had a foothold.
In Hanoi on leave, Quan listens to two members of the official elite chatting on a train. One, a highly placed intellectual, describes real power: “All you need to do is mount a podium perched above a sea of rippling banners. Bayonets sparkling around you. Cannons booming. Now that’s the ultimate gratification: the gratification of power. Money. Love.”
His companion is shocked at this cynicism. The intellectual goes on: ” ‘We demolished the temples and emptied the pagodas so we could hang up portraits of Marx, enthrone a new divinity for the masses…. But just for a laugh, do you know what kind of a man Karl Marx was in real life? Well, he was a debauched little dwarf….’ The two men doubled over laughing.”
Confronted by a military officer who accuses them of defaming Marx, they show him their identity cards and send him away. The intellectual winks at his companion: “Well? Did you see that? A nation of imbeciles. They need a religion to guide them and a whip to educate them.”
In Duong Thu Huong’s novel we find hints of how the experienced North Vietnamese soldiers, whose time in the field—until they were killed—greatly exceeded their enemy’s, managed to win. Quan remembers that in the jungle, as the opposing forces crept near each other. “We found one another by smell…we opened fire like madmen…toward the place where the wind carried a foreign scent, the smell of the enemy.” Equally revealing are the stories of fatal errors. The previous year a North Vietnamese unit had been detected “because instead of pissing into the bushes one guy had done it into a wild-flower that camouflaged an American sensor.” In his book on soldiering, About Face: The Odyssey of an American Warrior, Colonel David H. Hackworth writes that he ordered his soldiers in Vietnam not to smoke or to use aftershave, thus preventing telltale smells from giving the enemy an advantage. But Quan also speaks more than once of “equilibrium in extermination…the supreme art of war. One of ours for seven of theirs.” This is puzzling when we consider who actually lost more men. After a particularly bloody engagement, when his unit took heavy losses. Quan says, “We knew from experience that we had to redress the balance… Annihilation had to be evenly distributed. This insane thirst had taken hold of everyone without exception.”
Duong Thu Huong’s most famous novel, Paradise of the Blind, was published in Hanoi in 1988. Set in the Soviet Union and Vietnam in the Eighties, its central character, Hang, is a “guest worker” in a Russian factory, where she works to support her mother, a Hanoi street peddler, who has sacrificed her health and most of her money to advance her brother’s career. He is now a corrupt bureaucrat. The author has said in interviews that the man is modeled on a well-known official, and she hopes he has read her book.
Although Ms. Duong describes herself as a writer of the second rank, hers is the best Vietnamese novel I’ve read, mainly because of its portrait of the heroine’s Aunt Tam. Just as Hang’s mother adores her brother simply because he is the family’s last male. Aunt Tam worships her niece because she carries her dead father’s blood. When they first meet, “Her wizened face, which ordinarily must have been quite severe, was ecstatic, reverent. ‘She’s a drop of his blood. My niece,’ she murmured.”
Both Hang’s mother and her aunt show their reverence for their male relatives with food, which is meticulously described. Aunt Tam makes little Hang a meal. “It was a feast worthy of a Tet banquet: steamed chicken, fried chicken, pork pâté, cinnamon pâté, spring rolls seasoned with rice powder, spicy cold salads, asparagus, vermicelli, and sautéed side dishes.”
Hang stares at her aunt’s feet. “Horrible deep, ugly furrows separated the soles of her feet into flaky layers…. At the same time, they were dainty feet, thin and elegant. Rich now, she could afford to wear imported plastic sandals from Thailand, a luxury in this village. Still, they could never hide her past.”
Aunt Tam is immensely strong. She “carried two mahogany stools. I saw the muscles and veins in her arms ripple. But she walked down the steps slowly, gingerly; the feet of the two stools didn’t even brush the ground until she placed them in the center of the courtyard. Few men could have matched her strength.”
The mother and the aunt had been victims of the Communist land reform in the late Fifties, which had “ripped through the village like a squall, devastating fields and rice paddies, sowing only chaos and misery in its wake.” For the victims, “All it took was one malicious remark to push them over the edge, to catapult them from the ranks of the innocent spectators into the pit of the accused. They knew that they were being stalked, that at any moment they could meet with humiliation, sorrow, even death.” The villagers whom the Party, in this case represented by Hang’s corrupt uncle, select to carry out this appalling campaign—which was eventually repudiated—are drawn from among the most debased and selfish local people. All they care about is getting ahead. The uncle warns Hang’s mother: “If you continue to mix with these landowners, they will denounce me to my superiors. My authority and my honor will be ruined.”
Hang watches everything closely, not just her aunt’s feet and muscles. She describes how the villagers plunge their hands into the paddy mud to test its temperature; one crack of thunder and they know they have to rush to shore up the dikes. “Devotion like this is impossible to explain. No matter, for it was this love that assured the survival of an entire way of life.” But she knows how difficult and hopeless the peasant’s world can seem. “Everywhere, an indescribable backwardness hung in the air, immaterial yet terrifyingly present: It would be like this for eternity…. cold, stubborn, a sluggish, liquid sweetness escaping all control, ready at any moment to drown those unable to rise to its surface.”
And always, as in The Sorrow of War and Novel Without a Name, we are told of the corruption of the Party. Hang’s shameless uncle comes to Moscow on an official junket, which he uses for stockpiling goods to sell when he returns to Hanoi. A Vietnamese student condemns the uncle: “Where does it come from, your need to humiliate us. In the name of what?… You say our dances are decadent. But haven’t you done some dancing yourself? Invisible dances, infinitely more decadent…. It’s the dance of the overlords….” He explains such petty officials to Hang: “Little Sister, you must understand, even if it hurts. Your uncle is like a lot of people I’ve known…. They are their own tragedy. Ours, as well.”
The officials in Hong Kong who claim the boat people in the local camps are simply “economic migrants” who must be forcibly returned to Vietnam should read Duong Thu Huong’s Paradise of the Blind, which describes life only a few years ago. The author has been banned and imprisoned for writing of her own sadness. In Paradise of the Blind, Hang says, “I saw my village, this cesspool of ambition, all the laughter and tears that had drowned in these bamboo groves.” She recalls a woman whose house was seized by a greedy local official and who then hacked him to death and hanged herself. “In the middle of a blazing inferno, I saw it again: the vision of a woman twisting from the end of a rope.”
The war has long since ended. It is time, Hang decides, to take leave of it and much else in Vietnam, if only in fantasy. “I can’t squander my life tending these faded flowers, these shadows, the legacy of past crimes…. I sat down…and dreamed of different worlds, of the cool shade of a university auditorium, of a distant port where a plane could land and take off….”
The “tenacity” of the Vietnamese is to be found not only in stories of war but in Duong Thu Huong’s persistence, under threat of prison, in writing as she does here. Perhaps it is through the work of writers and poets that we will best understand the qualities of the Vietnamese. The feelings Duong describes are close to those of the North Vietnamese soldier who wrote the following poem, which was found by the American army in 1967. It seems likely that the man had been either killed, wounded, or captured.
Today, first day of the year
I write to celebrate the Spring
I’m already weary of.
In the New Year I may have luck
But much unhappiness as well.
I have no choice but to live this new year.
Older but still trapped in this life.
I’m tired of you, new year, and you, spring.*
September 21, 1995