Writers reflect on the Vietnam War
Christian Langworthy was born in Vietnam in 1967 with the birth name of Nguyen Van Phoung. He came to the United States in 1975. He has won an Academy of American Poets Prize, and a Schools of Arts Fellowship at Columbia University. His chapbook of poems, The Geography of War, won the 1993 American Chapbook Award. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including Poet Magazine, Soho Arts Magazine, Viet Nam Forum, and The Asian-American Experience, a CD-ROM anthology of poetry. He is an associate poetry editor at Mudfish.
My brother and I were the sons of my mother's clients. She never told us their names. She just said that they were both killed in the war. One father died in a helicopter accident, the other was ambushed while crossing a bridge. She told the same story to all of our neighbors, but even as a child, I sensed that she was lying. She never cried when she related these stories to anyone and seemed to enjoy each moment of the retelling. She even laughed once, recounting to a woman how she loved my brother's father more than she loved mine.
My mother's clients were all around us, on the street corners and in the pool halls. They were prison guards, truck drivers, mechanics and pilots. They were sergeants and majors, captains and corporals. My brother and I watched as they performed their military duties in the prisons, on the streets, or on the landing zones. We watched them pilot their Hueys and Chinooks, and caught bubble gum thrown from the back of deuce-and-a-halfs. They were our heroes, and we were fascinated by their weapons of war. We often imitated the way they walked and carried their rifles. We played war games on the streets with the neighborhood boys. Every military piece of trash that we found became a prized possession: belt buckles, brass shells, helmet liners, or canteens. But the most prized items were live rounds. We spent endless hours trying to fire the rounds, striking the priming caps with nails or dropping them off rooftops onto cement. We unscrewed the bullets from their brass casings and used the black powder to make crude fire-crackers which we threw as if we were throwing grenades. We wanted to be soldiers. We wanted to march on the streets with the men in the green uniforms. But what my brother and I most wanted was for one of these men to be our father, though our mother told us our fathers were dead.
My mother's clients talked to us in a language we didn't understand. They patted our shoulders, handed us candy, and the men who stayed for more than a day bought us toys like boxing gloves and battery-powered toy jets. We never saw our mother together with these men. She would leave for a day and come back late at night and, if she thought we were awake when her clients were around, we always heard whispers and hushed voices.
One afternoon though, during the height of the monsoon season, my brother and I slept in the far back of the bungalow behind a make-shift bamboo partition. It was dark in the bungalow and we awoke suddenly, disturbed from our daily nap. Through the pattering of the monsoon rain, we heard voices groaning. Being curious, we both went out to the front room which was lit by a hurricane lamp. In the center of the room on a table, an American man was on top of our mother. My brother and I, our curiosities piqued, approached the table and walked around it. Our mother told us to go back to sleep, but we ignored her and watched. She was wearing a blouse, but was naked from the waist down, and the man's green trousers hung around his ankles. His hips moved up and down. He said something and our mother yelled at us, and we ran into the far, back room where we always pretended to be asleep. Lying on floor mats, we heard the man yell at our mother and the door slam shut as he left.
Weeks passed, the monsoon season ended, and the men in the green uniforms entered and left our lives. More and more often, they were sleeping in our bungalow. One man let my brother and me drink a little whiskey after he had sex with our mother. Another man was taken away by MPs who knocked on our door in the middle of the night. Whenever we could, we slept cuddled with our mother, but her clients took most of her nights. It was only during the afternoons, when temperatures were too hot to do anything, that our mother napped with us in the cool air of the bungalow and held us in her arms.
One day, my brother and I returned from playing on the streets to take a nap. A soldier was with our mother. She told us that he was staying for a short while. My stomach felt sick. My brother went into the bungalow and laid down, but I ran back out to the streets. Something had gotten into me. I searched for a stick, a long piece of metal, anything, but all that I could find was an ice-cream stick broken in half lengthwise down the middle. Wielding the ice-cream stick in my hand like a knife, I went back to the bungalow. My mother and the soldier had come out to look for me. I confronted them near a neighbor's clotheslines where white bed sheets hung. I'll kill you, I shouted at the soldier and waved the ice-cream stick threateningly. Go away.
He did not understand what I had said, but he understood my body language. He laughed. My mother was furious. She was going to hit me, but the soldier stopped her. He pulled money from his pockets and extended his hand. I grabbed the money and ran to the nearest street vendor where I bought a pop-pistol and roamed the streets, shooting at people until it was time to go home.
Ma Van Khang
Ma Van Khang was born on December 1, 1936 in Hanoi, where he now lives. Ma worked for many years as a teacher in Vietnam's Northern Highlands; later he became a journalist. He has published numerous books of fiction, including the novels Dong Bac Trang Hoa Xoe (The White Flower-Shaped Coin) and Mua La Rung Trong Vuon (Season of Fallen Leaves) and the short story collections Nguoi Con Trai Ho Hang (The Youth by the Name of Hang) and Ngay Dep Troi (Sunny Days).
Translated by Nguyen Ba Chung
Unlike the two realistically-portrayed sculptures about soldiers -- male and female -- nearby, which we can respond to directly, the Vietnam Wall is like a book with many pictures and pages, which to truly appreciate requires an inner perspective.
Those are pages cast in stone, beautiful and sad, with hundreds of lines standing mute, one after another inscribing the names of those American soldiers who died. They force us to read slowly; they force us to think.
To us Vietnamese, war is always an exceptional situation testing our love of our country, our courage, our determination, and our ability. War, to us, is also synonymous with hardship, loss, and sacrifice.
I spent months and years under the shrieks of American fighters and inside their bombing curtain. I was in the city of Yen Bai when it was bombed and destroyed in 1965-66. I was by the shore of Thach Han River and at Ai Tu base -- all still covered with gun smoke in 1973. My two-year-old son had to go down to the underground shelter with his grandmother a couple of times a day. My wife, after finishing her shift, had to take up a rifle to guard the electric plant at Lao Cay province.
Those were the years when death was always near. In the 30-year war, all five brothers in my family joined the army. And one -- my younger brother -- was killed. He was an intellectual, with high hope and great determination, and he was preparing to take the entrance examination for the Polytechnique College. One summer day in 1966, he and I talked in a local restaurant. Having only a few piasters left, I ordered two small cups of sweet soup -- our farewell meal. Right after that he had to take a 3-month training course to be a 37-mm antiaircraft operator. First he was the machine operator, then the distance estimator.
In a letter to me, he wrote that a momentary fear would immediately cause a mis-reading. For in the telescope, the F105 and the F4H looked frightening! I can never forget the one line he wrote: "Only now I regret deeply that I did not always listen to you earlier." That line brought me to tears.
My brother was killed in Quang Tri in 1972. A civil guard buried his body at the edge of a forest. Later, it was transferred to a provincial cemetery, where my family and I went to identify his remains. I recognized him because of his exceedingly long leg bone; he was the tallest in our family. We gathered my brother's bones into a trap, then camouflaged it inside a knapsack. The train conductor, if he knew it was human bones, might throw us off the train. So, on our long trip home, I kept praying to my brother to give us his blessings. We successfully brought him home.
My father said "If you know how to learn, even mountains and rivers are books." The Vietnam wall is a book. War is a great book that we all need to read. And so I have read the Vietnam wall slowly, carefully, line by line. I tried to read it with a great deal of thought, with calmness to achieve a measure of peace. It was Dostoevsky who said, "Great ideas are spawned in sufferings." After a great loss comes experience and growth. To meditate on the war, on the loss of loved ones, is to meditate on how to live rightly in peace and friendship among ourselves.
I have read the work of many American writers who are also veterans. I find them very much like myself. They too know how to read the pages written about a bygone war.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Khanh Truong joined the Army of the Republic of Vietnam as a paratrooper in 1966. He was wounded in the Lower Laos Campaign of 1972 and discharged. He fled Vietnam in 1985 and settled in the United States in 1986; in 1988, he began a career as a writer, poet, and journalist.
Khanh Truong has published several books, including Doan Thi Khanh Truong (Khanh Truong's Short Poems) in 1988, and the short story collections Co Yeu Em Khong (Do You Love Me?) in 1990 and Chung Cuoc (The Ending) in 1997. He is the editor of Hop Luu journal. Also a visual artist, Khanh Truong has exhibited his paintings in Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand, and the United States.
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.