Aid workers reflect on Vietnam War
Lady Borton's After Sorrow (Viking, 1995) is the story of the Vietnamese against whom Americans fought. Borton's first book, Sensing The Enemy (Doubleday, 1984), is the only account in English or Vietnamese written from inside the Boat People exodus. Lady has worked as a Vietnam consultant for "60 Minutes," written for the New York Times, and been a commentator on National Public Radio. Her children's book, Junk Pile, is published by Philomel/Putnam & Grosset.
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 stagged 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.
Terry Farish worked for the Red Cross in Vietnam in 1969-70. She was with the 25th Infantry Division in Cu Chi and the U.S.A. Support Command in Qui Nhon. Since Vietnam her jobs have included working in a children's home in Denver, teaching E.S.L. to Cambodian students in Lowell, MA, and teaching college courses. She wrote a novel about Red Cross workers in Vietnam called Flower Shadows and a novel about the experience of a Cambodian refugee in America, If The Tiger . She has also written novels for children.
I went to Vietnam because it was so much a part of the culture I lived in. I went to a women's college in Texas not far from the primary helicopter school at Fort Wolters. Angel, my friend, married a W.O.C., a warrant officer candidate. The W.O.C. I dated was later killed.
I went, also, because of my mother. Her brother brought home his war buddy — who became my father — from World War II. They had both won Purple Hearts and from that time my mother held military service in esteem. My most vivid childhood memory is of my mother crying in pride for Eisenhower at the Republican National Convention. The band's patriotic music gave her chills of excitement and passion. I remember the woman with the powerful voice who began the roll call of the states, and my mother said "Alabama" the way the woman said "Alabama." Later sometimes my mother would say the names of various states in the woman's voice when she was trying not to be sad.
My mother and my father tell his war stories together. My father says, "I was in Northern Africa in the war." And my mother says, "He was with Patton. You remember him." My mother thinks of war in conjunction with its protocols, the Geneva Convention and the respective roles of combatants and noncombatants.
When I said I was going to Vietnam, my father said he hoped I wasn't going to be hanging around with the officers like the Donut Dollies did in World War II. He grinned. When I left they were proud. They were the only parents in Houston they knew who could say their daughter was in Vietnam.
I went with my mother's passion for serving. I was at Cu Chi in an eight-girl unit and we took recreation programs out to fire support bases. I couldn't work enough. I took any run they'd give me, even Sunday runs if a unit called and said they had men in. We worked in pairs, traveling by chopper since the roads weren't secure, and were often stranded in a place because there was contact -- fighting -- or heavy rain and a chopper couldn't come back for us.
We spent so much time in the field. When I was brand new in country, I stayed ten hours on Meade, a fire support base in the center of an A.R.V.N. base camp (Armed Forces of Vietnam). It was all artillery. There were seven men to a gun and every guy had a dog or a monkey. We moved from gun to gun talking. One of the soldiers told me he was twenty-one that day. It wasn't uncommon to turn twenty-one over there, but I told the mess sergeant and he dug up a stubby candle and put it in a piece of cake and when the soldier came through the mess line we sang happy birthday to him. Soon I'd be seeing men we programmed to in 12th EVAC, the hospital, but it always took a while to remember which fire support base I knew him from, and which guy with the monkey or the puppy he was.
I learned the men's war, hanging out with them waiting for choppers. I listened to war stories. We girls seemed innocent to the soldiers and they were chivalrous and offered us their bunkers and candles if the choppers never came. Some men hated us for being there, we didn't have any business in this place. Some men were grateful. A lot of them wanted to talk. They were angry. They said they were only there as targets to bring Charlie out. And when Charlie came out they'd bring down artillery on him for the body count. I heard about fragging.
Later I got so angry. I didn't like General's Mess when we were required to get dressed up to go to on Sunday nights. My father didn't have to worry about my hanging out with the officers. The bravado over body count at General's Mess rang false to me, though the general was kind to us and talked about his family.
On Sunday mornings we had staff meetings. We'd still be in our bathrobes and our hair in curlers and we'd sit under the umbrella we ordered from Sears and sometimes we'd have to wait for a chopper to stop hovering above us to go on with the meeting. I remember hoping a unit would call and we could get clearance and go out.
The protocols of war were liquid in Vietnam. It wasn't my mother's war. It felt amorphous. It rained and rained. I didn't know at 21 what could happen to the W.O.C.s I'd dated back home in Texas, or how sorrow, for so many, could endure.