Book Reviewed by Jim Smith
The definitive book about the Viet Nam war has been written by a twenty-something Vietnamese woman. This may be hard to believe for those raised on a diet of male-oriented sagas of hard fighting, hard loving and hard living American soldiers that dominate the U.S. book market and big screens. Even veterans of Viet Nam don’t know the full story of the war until they read, Last Night I Dreamed of Peace, the best-selling (in Viet Nam) diary of Dang Thuy Tram.
What was the Viet Nam War really like? It was not just the experience of bomber pilots carrying out their missions miles above their intended victims. And certainly it was not the experience of policy makers 10,000 miles away in Washington. Perhaps the best book on the combat experience by an American solider is Ron Kovic’s Born on the Forth of July. A Rumor of War by Philip Caputo also has its fans. Histories of the conflict also abound, as do fantasy films like Apocalypse Now.
What all of these books have in common is that they tell the story from the invader’s point of view. In a relatively poor country like Viet Nam, there are few writers and few publishing houses. This is why Tram’s diaries written from 1968-70, “under the gun,” in Quảng Ngãi province are so illuminating.
Quảng Ngãi province, which lies about half-way from Hanoi and Saigon, was a hotbed of support for the National Liberation Front, called the Viet Cong. It was the sight of numerous bombings and sprayings of Agent Orange, as well as sorties by U.S. infantry, Marines and helicopter gunships. Dr. Tran’s field hospital hid under the forest canopy while enemy soldiers on patrol came within a few feet of it. Quảng Ngãi province was also the sight of the My Lai massacre where soldiers of the Americal Division under Lt. William Calley murdered between 350 and 500 mainly women, children and old men.
The diary became public only in 2005. Within 18 months, it had sold nearly half a million copies in Viet Nam. Most books there have press runs of 5,000 copies. The Diaries have caught the imagination of a generation that never knew the war. Two-thirds of Viet Nam’s 90 million people were born after 1975, when South Viet Nam was finally liberated.
After Dr. Tran’s death at the hands of an American soldier in 1970, the Diaries had come into the possession of an intelligence officer, Fred Whitehurst who took them back to the U.S. Whitehurst later joined the FBI and became a well-known whistle-blower over the FBI’s investigation of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. In 2005, he gave the Diaries to another veteran who was traveling to Hanoi. The Tran family was tracked down and the book was quickly published. The young doctor is now a national hero.
The Diaries reveal the innermost thoughts of a young woman’s insecurities, loves and crushes, and her desire to serve her people. Dr. Tran – known as Thuy (pronounced Twe) – often talks to herself and criticizes her failings and weaknesses: “Oh, Thuy! Are you pessimistic? Look around you, there are so many comrades, so many young men, who have sacrificed their youth for the revolution. They have fallen without ever finding happiness. Why do you think only of yourself?” (Dec. 21, 1968).
It struck me when I was reading the diary of this heroic young woman that she and I were nearly the same age. Born a world apart, our lives were so different, yet so similar in many ways. I, too, was in the army when her diary begins. Yet I was not there by choice, having been drafted in 1966. Thuy, on the other hand, had turned down a safe assignment in a Hanoi hospital when she graduated from physician training. She wanted to go when she would be most needed, in the war zone, where men and women her own age were suffering bullet wounds and dying. It was up to this young doctor to save them.
Thuy had to operate on wounded soldiers in nearly unimaginably primitive conditions. She often was without drugs that could save her patient’s life. Anesthetics were sometimes missing in critical operations. Through it all, Thuy seems to suffer as much as her patients.
In 1968, I was able to leave the Army when my term of servitude ended. But for Thuy, it was a life and death struggle with the invaders. Defeat meant death. Victory was the only road to a normal life. As Thuy prophetically said in 1968: “So many people have volunteered to sacrifice their whole lives for two words: Independence and Liberty. I, too, have sacrificed my life for that grandiose fulfillment.”
The Vietnamese people did reach “the promised land,” as Martin Luther King called it shortly before his death. But Thuy did not get there with them.
When I visited Viet Nam last December, I saw an independent country at peace. Everyone seemed healthy, well fed and well dressed. Women seem assertive and active in economic and social affairs. I’m not an expert on Viet Nam, but I think Thuy would be pleased with the progress made in spite of war, defoliation and lack of support from the outside world. The U.S. never made reparations for ravishing the country.
If Thuy had lived and could visit Venice today, I wonder what she would think. I’m sure she would disapprove of the selfishness of many young people who think only of themselves and their possessions.
What would she say to those of us who are trying to fend off the rich and powerful while helping the poor and homeless? What would she say to the many women around the world who are protesting against dictators and injustice? Perhaps she would say to us what she wrote to herself 43 years ago: “To live is to face the storms and not to cower before them. Stand up, then, oh, Thuy! Even when the rain and gale are rising, even when tears have flowed in torrents, keep your spirit high.”
A Vietnamese feature film, entitled Don’t Burn, based on the diaries has been released. A clip can be seen on YouTube at http://bit.ly/ihN49U.