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Reflections on a War

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  The Vietnam War: Remember in Order to Forget Previous
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Pham Tien Duat During the war, Pham Tien Duat served in the army protecting the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Probably the best-known war-era poet in Vietnam, he also worked as a journalist. Among his published works are two books of poems: Tho Mot Chang Duong (Poems for Part of a Journey) and Vang Trang Va Nhung Quang Lua (The Moon and the Circles of Fire), along with a novella, Cau Chuyen Quanh Noi Cao Voi (Stories Around a Pot of Elephant Ointment). Pham currently works on the staff of Van Nghe (Journal of Arts and Literature) in Vietnam.

by Pham Tien Duat
translated by Nguyen Ba Chung

In the eary days of 1997, I made a visit to Thai Binh, a province about 100 kilometers northeast of Hanoi. There I discovered a surprising phenomenon -- the many woman-veterans who had decided to live the rest of their lives in temples and pagodas. In over twenty pagodas, I ran across more than thirty nuns who were former members of the army or Vanguard Youth on the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the 1965-75 period.

Why do they choose to be nuns? The reason is shocking in its simplicity: they were wounded by bombs or chemicals during the war, or were too old to get married at the end of the war. To get away from numerous complications in civil society, they find it best to dedicate what remains of their lives to the religious calling. Before, there was a war, and the war took place on the battlefield; now there is still a war, and it smoulders at the feet of the Buddha.

The women, too, want to put the war behind them, to forget it, but they can't. How can those hundreds of thousands of wives forget when their husbands were killed before they could ever have their first child, and now live the rest of their still young lives as widows? How can those thousands of children born deformed at birth forget? How can thousands of invalid veterans forget?

And yet, to open a new and bright chapter between the U.S. and Vietnam, it seems best if both sides close the door of the past. And rightly so, for hatred is neither good for others, nor for oneself. That sorrowful door to the past needs to be shut. But, in order to close a door, it's worthwhile to understand what it is that we close. Sadly, after over twenty years have passed since the war ended, many can still only vaguely see the contour of that door as if looking through a veil of mist.

I am a writer who fought during the war. With me, hundreds of other writers, journalists, film directors, etc. -- Americans and Vietnamese -- have tried to write about the war, to describe and analyze it, but it still doesn't seem enough. It is as if I were standing in the midst of a crowd and calling out, but the noise makes it impossible for my friends to hear. There is therefore no choice but to call out once again, even if the voice becomes hoarse, until it is heard.

Perhaps in order to really forget something, we first have to know fully what it is that we want to forget. And it is a difficult thing: there is a limit to how much we can remember. When I asked the name and age of a nun in Thai Binh province, she went rummaging through her old papers and things to find a piece of paper with my own handwriting on it. Only then did I recognize her as a beautiful soldier I knew during the war. If it is that difficult to remember a person's face, how much more difficult it will be to remember the face of a war.

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