by Lady Borton
Mine was a lowly job. Working in wartime Quang Ngai, I held the lofty title of Assistant Director for the American Friends Service Committee's Viet Nam program, but in truth, I was merely a glorified errand-runner. While my western medical colleagues fit war-wounded Vietnamese with artificial limbs, I made runs to the American base to pick up mail, fetched supplies, and transported patients, stopping along dusty village paths to chat, listen, and watch. In this way, I saw crucial details that American military leaders, G.I.s, and journalists failed to grasp. I became aware of hidden roles Vietnamese women played in the war.
Strange to say, as a woman and a foreigner, I never felt afraid in a land at war. Unarmed, I knew I posed no threat. But I also knew to be watchful. One day in 1970, not long after I'd taken the first American journalist to the site of the My Lai massacre, I went to fetch a patient, Nguyen Van Kim, who lived near the My Lai Road. Ten years old, he had stepped on a mine while tending water buffalo and lost the lower part of one leg. I drove the truck as far I could and, parking it, started walking down a dirt track suitable only for ox carts. As an American woman walking alone, I was like the circus come to town. Two boys spotted me. "Ba My! Ba My! -- American woman! American woman!" they taunted, racing after me. Other children followed, shouting obscenities.
I turned, hunkered down on the dirt, and engaged the kids in chitchat. As we talked, a woman my age approached and stopped beside us; the boys became silent, watchful. The woman was barefoot, her hair pulled back into the traditional nape knot. On her shoulder, she carried a bamboo yoke with two baskets of rau muong, leafy vegetables grown in irrigation sluices. "How old are you?" she asked, her tone neutral. Her baskets hung level with my eyes. They seemed to bend her yoke more than the load of vegetables warranted. I wondered what she'd hidden under the rau muong. Rice? Medicine? Ammunition?
"I'm twenty-eight, Older Sister," I answered in Vietnamese. I rose and bowed. I knew we'd begun a risky game of "Twenty Questions." I'd always figured I was protected from Viet Cong arrest by two qualities: First, I considered no Vietnamese my enemy, and second, I spoke Vietnamese. However, I also figured that if I were questioned by the Viet Cong, I'd have a limited number of answers to plead my case. Here, I'd already used one reply, with no points gained.
"How many children do you have?" the woman asked. "None," I answered. "I'm not married. How could I have children?!" The woman giggled. One point gained, I thought, but two answers used.
"Which army base do you work at?" Her tone changed now, from noncommittal to ominous. She set down her baskets, freeing her hands. My last chance, I thought. "I have no connection with the military," I said. "I work for a peace organization. We help war-wounded on all sides." I described Quaker Service work in Quang Ngai, our assistance to North Viet Nam, and to areas of South Viet Nam controlled by the Viet Cong, or Provisional Revolutionary Government, as it was officially known. The woman straightened. "We are grateful to you Americans," she announced, "for saving us from the cruelly vicious, wicked, imperialist Viet Cong."
I relaxed: I'd won my reprieve. I assumed then, as I always did whenever I heard such overblown gratitude that the speaker sympathized with the V.C. This wasn't a taxing deduction, for 95% of the Vietnamese in Quang Ngai province supported the revolutionaries.
Our conversation soon eased into talk about our families, the nutritional value of rau muong, and the U.S. peace movement. For a few moments, where we each had intended to travel that afternoon, what we'd intended to do, did not matter. We were simply two women talking, despite the war.
Later that afternoon, I swung by the American army compound to pick up the mail, entering the base as the Vietnamese cleaning women left it. I'd often chatted with these women and knew that many of them lived near the My Lai Road. The maids flirted unabashedly as the M.P.s checked their empty baskets for contraband. What fools those M.P.s are, I thought. Doesn't it occur to the them that the contraband these women carry is information hidden inside their heads? Don't the M.P.s realize that their flirtatious cleaning maids probably pace off warehouse measurements while they sweep, memorize shipments they unload, and note details of any unusual activity? In the years since, I've checked out my guesses, and learned that I was right. Women formed the core of the North Vietnamese/Viet Cong spy, liaison, and distribution networks. Basket by yoked basket, women slipped supplies into locations dangerously close to American bases. Mental picture by mental picture, overheard conversation by overheard conversation, they absorbed information about the enemy and carried it away. The woman I met on the My Lai road, the women who cleaned the American military base, and thousands of other women served the cause of revolution as valiantly as their male counterparts. Yet even today, more than twenty years after the war's end, their contribution remains largely unrecognized.