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Reflections on a War

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Nguyen Ba Chung Nguyen Ba Chung is a writer, poet and translator. His essays and translations have appeared in Boston Review, Vietnam Forum, New Asia Review, Compost, Nation, Manoa, and other journals. He is the co-translator of Thoi Xa Vang (A Time Far Past), the groundbreaking novel by Vietnamese writer Le Luu, and the author of poetry collections including Co Noi (Field Grass) in 1995, Mua Ngan (Distant Rain) in 1996, and Ngo Hanh (Gate of Kindness) in 1997. He is the co-editor of Mountain River: Vietnamese Poetry From The Wars. Nguyen has taught at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and been an associate at the William Joiner Center For The Study of War and Social Consequences.


by Nguyen Ba Chung

For a Vietnamese to write about the Vietnam war is to write about one's self-definition: the war touched every aspect of one's reality -- personal, communal, philosophical, political, religious, and cultural. The problem with this self-definition is that it isn't so much self-definition as picking a position that's already defined -- left, right, middle, pro, con, or indifferent. There is no position on the war that hasn't been already discussed, analyzed, praised, or condemned. Yet neither is there a position that takes into account all aspects of Vietnam's two thousand year history of hard-fought existence. And that, I believe, is the essence of the Vietnam tragedy.

I still remember vividly the exodus from our village in the North to Saigon in 1955. I was 6 years old. My family was a sort of middle-level landlords -- not rich, but with enough land to have hired hands. My father was killed in 1948, before I was born, in one of those periodic sweeps French troops made to villages in the Red River delta. One of my maternal uncles, who worked for the Resistance, sent word that we should consider leaving because we owned too much land and would have problems in the coming land reform campaign. So my mother and her father's family, all supporters of the struggle against the French, fled to the South, together with about a million others, the majority of whom sided with the French.

We settled down in the suburbs of Saigon, then called Gia Dinh province. I grew up in the South, graduated from high school, and went to college. In this milieu of schools, books, public discussion, I believed wholeheartedly in the causes of South Vietnam -- the struggle for freedom and democracy against the "devilish" and "anti-nationalist" North Vietnamese. I was as gung-ho an anti-Communist as any American conservative.

As I was an only child, I was exempt from the draft, but not from the turbulence of the war. The Buddhist uprising against Ngo Dinh Diem raised the first doubt in my mind about South Vietnam. It didn't make sense that a country of about 80% Buddhists, with a religious history stretching to the first century, had a Catholic president who had no faith in his Buddhist brethren. It perhaps made sense when the French created Ordinance #10, which legally recognized Christianity, but not Buddhism, as a religion. The French were, after all, well aware of the potential power of a Buddhist challenge. But it made absolutely no sense at all when either out of arrogance or the most incredible political ineptitude, Ngo Dinh Diem kept that Ordinance in effect for the nine years he was in power. There was something deeply wrong in the make-up of South Vietnam. I still remember the tremendous joy in Saigon when Diem was overthrown in 1963. I went into the streets, watching the city exploding into a spontaneous celebration.

Later on, I also began to pay attention to how the South's American allies ignored Vietnamese history. Vietnam is an ancient country, with a culture so vibrant that it could withstand a thousand years of Chinese rule, and still come out intact when the Chinese were overthrown in 938 A.D. Yet the foundation of the U.S. efforts in South Vietnam was a nation-building program, as if Vietnam were some kind of recently discovered Paleolithic tribe.

In December 1971 I left South Vietnam to study American literature at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. It was in America that I finally had access to scholarly works on Vietnam, especially its recent history. I started to look at the war differently -- and understood it even more when I returned to my village in Vietnam in the mid-eighties.

It was an unforgettable trip. What struck me the most was the inexplicable feeling that somehow I had never left. Such was the power of that village. Such was the power of that culture. And such was the power of that people. For the first time, I saw another side of Vietnam, a side that even I, born and bred in Vietnam, never knew: the Vietnam of the village -- its traditions, its hardships. and its way of life that has endured through centuries. There were people in my village, which was about 50 miles from Hanoi, who had never visited the provincial capital, barely 7 miles away. The rhythm of life, except for the Communist-imposed agrarian reform, appeared unchanged from time immemorial.

Although I was born in the village, I spent most of my life, up until 1971, in the city of Saigon, the beneficiary of an uninterrupted flow of generous U.S. aid. During the entire war, I neither knew nor understood how the majority of the Vietnamese peasants lived, thought, and hoped. I was unknowingly a member of the urban elite, which unfortunately comprised less than 15% of the population. It is no wonder, then, that the actions of the South Vietnamese government, also a part of this urban elite, always antagonized the peasants.

I believe the U.S. had noble aims in Vietnam -- freedom and democracy. But because it aligned itself with a group of Vietnamese who carried heavy colonial baggage, and for the most part had already betrayed Vietnamese history -- that two-thousand year history -- it could not succeed. Similarly, Ho Chi Minh had all the righteous causes -- independence, unification and social justice -- but because none of the Western powers supported decolonialization, Ho and his revolutionaries had to ally themselves with Communism, a doctrine whose basic features -- class warfare, dictatorship of the proletariat, and utopia -- ran against the very grain of Vietnamese culture, a culture that had endured for thousands of years.

When a great country makes a mistake, it has great consequences. A great country, however, also has the capacity to remedy its mistake. The Vietnam war was a tragedy of the gravest order. We who were, and continue to be, witnesses to that tragedy, owe those who suffered and continue to suffer horribly from its consequences through no fault of their own, an unspoken debt. It's the debt of our own humanity.


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