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Reflections on a War

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Larry Heinemann Larry Heinemann served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam in 1967-68. He has published three novels, including Paco's Story which won the National Book Award. His short stories and nonfiction have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Harper's, Playboy, TriQuarterly, and numerous other magazines and journals. He has read, lectured, and taught at writers' workshops, universities, and veterans' gatherings in the U.S., Vietnam, England, China, and the former Soviet Union. Mr. Heinemann has also written a nonfiction book about train travel in contemporary Vietnam.


by Larry Heinemann

I have no pleasing memories of my war year, with one singular exception. The mountain. The Nui Ba Den.

I was drafted into the Army in 1966 and served with the 25th Division in the middle of what the French called Cochin China, assigned to a mechanized infantry battalion. We rode armored personnel carriers. A.P.C.s; "tracks," we called them. We generally rode roughshod, armed to the teeth, through the countryside around Cu Chi and Dau Tieng, Trang Bang and Gau Da Ha and Tay Ninh, the Ho Bo and Bo Loi Woods. To make a long story short, we were not pleasant people and the war was not a pleasant business. I have no doubt we radicalized more southern Vietnamese to Ho Chi Minh's national revolution than we "saved."

The part of the world we fought in is as flat as the back of your hand. And above it stands the Nui Ba Den, 996 meters high, solid stone, and visible from almost any place, as if Mount McKinley were set in the middle of Kansas. On summer days, the very top of the mountain was enwrapped with a bit of stone-white cloud, like a flat-brimmed, fraying hat.

I always tried to take the last night guard, from three or four in the morning until breakfast. Night watches were mostly pathetically interminable reveries. And there in the moonlight the Nui Ba Den would be, like a fuzzy apparition. We watched in the darkness as processions of Viet Cong made their way up and around the mountain, each man carrying a tiny perfume bottle lamp, each light not much more than the flame of a birthday candle. The mountain seemed to shimmer at such times.

And then there were those few mad, murderous nights of fighting -- "bitter fighting," as historians call it. My life's everlasting night horrors; the worst nights of my life. The killing would cease only when the sun rose, the smoke cleared, and the dew burned away. You looked up and there was nothing but meat and a wood line that looked like ruined drapes. And then you looked out across the way, and there, rising sharply above everything, was the Nui Ba Den.

Sitting guard in that last, long hour before dawn, the mountain would cut a clean silhouette from the scrub of dirty dark; soon a blunt, shadowy brunswick green; then a peculiar gray-green as the light gathered above us. The mountain was textured with the rubble of mold-stained boulders and thick stands of timber; then a transparent, seedling green; the sky all but blue. Then -- boom -- the sun rose, the world all color, and there it would be, the Nui Ba Den, vivid and entire. The green of all green.

Since coming home from the war, I have made several trips back to Vietnam, and heard a number of legends about the mountain -- all antique.

It is named for a woman named Ba Den; "ba" being a mode of respectful address to signify a matron over 40 -- "ma'am." One story goes that Ba Den's husband was killed in one of the many wars of Vietnamese history; she so grieved his loss that she climbed the mountain to be as close to heaven as she could manage, then committed suicide. Another tells that Ba Den and her soldier-husband lived at the foot of the mountain; while her husband was away fighting she was captured, raped many times, and died of shame. A third story says that she was a devout older woman, a stranger to the people who lived there, but remarkable for her spiritual simplicity. Ba Den, it is said, visited the mountain to pray and meditate.

The story I favor is this: the woman Ba Den was to marry a soldier, but on her wedding day her husband-to-be was called away to war and never returned. Yet Ba Den waited, cried so hard and long that her family thought she would lose the sight of her eyes, and, as the legend has it, she became the mountain. A pagoda shrine was built to the memory of her faithfulness and devotion.

The Nui Ba Den has always loomed large in my memory of the war; in my 30 years of dreams and nightmares; in my imagination and my writing about that time of my life. Nowadays when I visit, I ride up highway 22 toward Tay Ninh, and just north of Gau Da Ha, I see her. The Nui Ba Den, the widow who waits for her soldier's return, rises into view, and I feel I have come home.

How odd.


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