by Khanh Truong
translated by Nguyen Ba Chung
I joined the army very early, when I was still a teenager, ready to assume all the rights and duties of a citizen. Although my army jaunt lasted only seven years, it left permanent, ineradicable marks on me.
In my first venture out with my unit in a "leopard spot," or Viet Cong-infiltrated, area outside the city of Dong Ha, I was accompanied by two paratroopers. When we reached the bend of the foot path, we sighted an enemy. With the automatic reflex of "trained" fighters, all three of us raised our guns, aimed and fired. The man was hit, falling headlong onto the grass; his body went into paroxysm. We ran forward. The wounded soldier's eyes grew wide open, his mouth twisted. Blood oozed from the chest, and his arms and legs jerked about in shock.
"Big find, brothers!" one paratrooper exclaimed. He immediately dropped to his knees beside the wounded man, trying to extract the gold ring from the man's finger. The finger, however, was too big, and the ring refused to come off. The wounded soldier was still alive, his eyes still open, his limbs still jerking helplessly, and blood still pouring out, soaking his shirt. The paratrooper became angered, cursing repeatedly. He pulled the camp knife from the top of his knapsack, put the man's ring finger on a tree root nearby, and, without hesitation, cut off the finger.
During the Lam Son 719 campaign at A Luoi base in Lower Laos, I witnessed hundreds of deaths -- deaths that were tragic and unjust. With our troops surrounded, our commanders decided to withdraw along the path of a spring, hoping to get back to Route 9 and Dong Ha. Bordered on two sides by walls of mountain rock, the spring became our death march. Guessing our move, the enemy had placed a heavy machine gun above, aiming at our path. We knew that we'd suffer high casualties, but didn't have a choice. The alternative would be the wiping out of complete units. Soldiers elbowed each other, pushing and stepping on each other to rush forward, under the barrage of machine gun fire. Screams. Cries. Sounds of bodies tumbling into the water. Fallen bodies piled on top of each other. The spring ran with blood.
At about the same time, on the hills of A Luoi, the enemy had overrun us, and artillery was called to fire on our own position. Men seriously wounded were left behind, becoming targets for artillery fire. The lightly-wounded rushed to open ground, waiting for airlift by helicopters. There were too many soldiers; they fought each other to get onto the helicopter, to hold onto the skids. When the helicopter reached altitude, men fell to the ground like ripe fruits.
These images sometimes re-appear in my dreams.
I hate war.
I detest war.
I hate and detest those minds calcified by hatred, both inside and outside Vietnam. The war ended 22 years ago: why do they still want to skin each other?
That's the reason why for the last seven years, despite all the hardship, I have tried to keep alive Hop Luu journal. It is a forum for the Vietnamese without distinction of "inside" and "outside." It is a meeting place of minds who have overcome hatred, who, one small brick at a time, help rebuild a country that has gone through too much war, poverty, and backwardness.