Myths die hard

by Bill Rees

Historians generally say that really good books about wars usually begin to appear more than ten years after a war’s end.  That was the case with the Vietnam War.  Knowledge of the war was of course grossly incomplete until several Viet Cong and North Vietnam Army veterans were published.  
The first of which I’m aware was published in 1985, just ten years after Saigon fell.  Eight more appeared by 2002.  It has long amazed me that despite these wonderful resources conventional wisdom in this country still seems stuck at 1975.  Myths die hard.
The Ken Burns eighteen-hour documentary just finished on PTV used some of those resources to begin to demolish some of the myths.  One of them is the myth that the Army of South Vietnam (ARVN) was incompetent and wouldn’t fight.  ARVN units fought superbly when well trained and competently led, no less well than the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), which is exactly what a senior and very experienced NVA combat officer wrote.

I very briefly comment here on thirteen books and a DVD that together contain a great wealth of insights about the Vietnam War, stuff too little known by Americans.  I also add some insights from my personal experiences.  I was an Air Force Forward Air Controller in 1969-70 in combat over Laos.  I flew about 700 hours over or around the “Ho Chi Minh Trail” on about 160 missions.  For about six months I lived in Laos and supported Laotian ground troops in combat against the NVA.

Here are the books:

1.  “Victory in Vietnam - The Official History of the People’s Army of Vietnam, 1954-1975.” This book establishes exactly when our Vietnam War began and why, although the Burns series seems not to have made use of it.   The history was published in Hanoi in 1988 and translated in 2002 by the University Press of Kansas.  This book contains all the propaganda and name-calling one would expect from an official Communist historical document.  It is hard to take seriously until one realizes that every word was chosen for a purpose.

Criminal names were used for people murdered for political reasons, but these are the same names used to encourage young soldiers to do the killing.  This kind of history dare not contradict too obviously what the veterans knew as facts because war veterans are notoriously sensitive about reality. The decision for conquest - “In January 1959 the 15th Plenary Session of the Party Central Committee....decided to liberate South Vietnam from the yoke of oppression imposed by...”  (In summary) “Chairman Ho Chi Minh declared, ‘The responsibility for saving our nation belongs to the entire Party, to the entire population....We must include South Vietnam in the general revolution of our entire nation and include our nation’s revolution in the world revolution....We will hold high the banner of peace because this is very much to our advantage.  Peace does not mean, however, that our forces will not be ready.’” (The above quote is the most candid I am aware of about the origin of our Vietnam War.  It says the war was one of premeditated conquest and not the guerilla or civil war many thought it was.  It imposed life and death duties on people in both north and south without consulting any of them.  Perhaps most importantly, it clearly said the conquest would be part of the “World Revolution.”  That would be the Communist one, and it is consistent with Ho.  He was a founder of the French Communist Party and a long-time employee of the Comintern, the infamous Soviet school and think-tank of world revolutionaries.  WHR)

The creation of the “Ho Chi Minh Trail” -  On April 17, 1959 the NVA created Military Transportation Group 559, which created and operated the “Ho Chi Minh Trail.”  The trail was originally animal tracks and foot paths, then cargo bicycle paths, and eventually thousands of miles of truck roads with a fuel pipeline running nearby. I saw no mention in the series of the two decisions above, although they are crucial to understanding the Vietnam War.  If they were there and I missed them, I apologize.

2.  “A Viet Cong Memoir - An inside account of the Vietnam War and its aftermath” by Former Viet Cong Minister of Justice Truong Nhu Tang.  The author dedicates his book “To my mother and father.  And to my betrayed comrades, who believed they were sacrificing themselves for a humane liberation of their people.”

The author was a revolutionary for almost twenty years, living a double and sometimes triple life.  He, along with most if not all Viet Cong politicians thought they would be running things in the south after the Americans left and the Saigon regime fell.  They were very, very wrong.
He describes how NVN officials took over everything and eventually he wound up in prison.  He was in a cell with an even more dedicated revolutionary, a very sad old veteran of many jungle camps, imprisoned by the French, by the Saigon regime, and now by the Hanoi regime.  “I’ve never tasted chocolate,” he said.

3.  “When Heaven and Earth Changed Places” by Le Ly Hayslip.  She was a farm girl in a small village near Da Nang when conscripted in her early teens into the Viet Cong.  She was a trail-watcher and spy until unjustly accused of treachery and sentenced to death.  She escaped her executioners by submitting to rape and fleeing to Saigon.  She became a competent black-marketer and escaped Vietnam by marrying an older American, a civilian contractor.  The story tells how she accommodated to American culture, and how she went back to Vietnam to see her mother and other relatives again, and their impressions and thinking in great detail.  She eventually created a foundation that brought several medical clinics to Vietnam.

4.  “The Sorrow of War - A Novel of North Vietnam,” by Bao Ninh.  Bao Ninh often spoke on the Ken Burns series.  He was the first NVA combat veteran to publish a “critical portrayal of life in the NVA” (1991).  He supposedly spent six years away from NVN in the war.  A reviewer says the book is “Aptly compared to ‘All Quiet on the Western Front,’” the classic from WW I.  

Another reviewer wrote “...Make(s) North Vietnamese Soldiers human.”  Well of course they were and are human, as all humans are!   Only ideologues like Lenin and Stalin and Hitler and Ho Chi Minh think of them as mere numbers.  As I controlled air strikes on NVA targets on the Ho Chi Minh Trail I often thought I’d love to have a beer and swap war stories some day after the war with the NVA gunners who were shooting at me.

He wrote of a troop train returning veterans to Hanoi after Saigon fell.  “There had been no trumpets for the victorious soldiers, no drums, no music.  That might have been tolerated, but not the disrespect shown them.  The general population just didn’t care about them.  Nor did their own authorities....The authorities checked the soldiers time after time, searching them for loot.  Every pocket of their knapsacks had been searched as though the mountain of property that had been looted and hidden after the takeover of the South had been taken only by soldiers.  At every station loudspeakers blared ...an endless stream of the most moronic of teachings...to ignore the spirit of reconciliation...and especially to guard against the idea of the South having fought valiantly or been meritorious in any way...We made fun of the loudspeakers’ admonishments…”

People are people.  The crying of a young Vietnamese or Laotian or Cambodian war widow sounds exactly the same as an American one.

5.  “Child of War - Woman of Peace,” by Le Ly Hayslip.  Her second book fills in details left out of her first, and goes much more into the difficulties of domestic adjustment and her successful efforts to create clinics in her native Vietnam.

6.  “Novel Without A Name,” by Duong Thu Huong.”  The author is a woman, who at age 20 in 1967 led a Communist Youth Brigade to the war.  Of her volunteer group of 40 she was one of four survivors.
She was the first NVA woman soldier with front line combat experience to write about it.  She was expelled from the Communist Party in 1989 and imprisoned without trial for seven months.  She wrote four previous novels (of which I am not aware) and “All of her work has been effectively banned by the Vietnamese government.”

7.  “The Sacred Willow - Four generations in the life of a Vietnamese Family” by Duong Van Mai Elliott.  She appeared often in the Burns series.  Her family was educated and relatively well-off.  Her father was mayor of Haiphong for a while under the French.  She attended Georgetown University and returned to Vietnam in 1963 where she worked for the Rand Corp. interviewing Viet Cong POWs.  She returned to the U.S. in 1968.  Her large family went many ways during “a long era of tumultuous change” and she tells the experiences of most of them.  There are many useful insights here.

8.  “Even the Women Must Fight: Memories of War from North Vietnam” by Karen Turner and Phan Thanh Hao.  This is a collection of stories from women who went off to war as teenagers, some as zealot volunteers and some as conscripts.  There were many thousands of them and many were killed or maimed and many who returned were unmarriageable.  They served as anti-aircraft gun crews and in service jobs but perhaps most wound up in road repair crews on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos.  They had many very sad stories.

9.  “From Enemy to Friend - A North Vietnamese Perspective on the war” by NVA Col. Bui Tin.  He watched Ho Chi Minh declare Vietnam’s independence in 1946, joined the Viet Minh army, participated in the 1954 Battle of Dien Bien Phu, and walked down the Ho Chi Minh Trail to SVN during its early days when about half those who made the trip died on the way.  He was the first NVA officer in the Presidential Palace in Saigon in 1975 and the same in Phenom Penh in 1979 when Vietnam conquered Cambodia.  Vietnam left Cambodia in 1989 after losing over 40,000 more soldiers.  He left the NVA after 45 years, visited France, and decided to stay and work for the restoration of peace and democracy in Vietnam.  The picture on the book’s cover shows him placing a flower on our Vietnam Memorial in Washington.  He became friends with many retired U.S. officers. 

10.  “Tragic Mountains - The Hmong, the Americans, and the Secret War for Laos, 1942-1992,” by Jane Hamilton Merritt.  This is an excellent journalistic effort by a very dedicated reporter, composed mostly from eyewitness accounts collected after 1975.  It is the story of the war in northern Laos, mostly between the NVA and Hmong tribesmen operating under CIA control.  They acted as a buffer between North Vietnam and the Royal and political capitals of Laos and tied down scores of thousands of NVA troops that otherwise could have fought in SVN.  Their sacrifices were very great.  Many Hmong now live in MN.

11.  “Vietnamese Women at War” by Sandra C. Taylor (Prof. of History Emeritus).  These are collected stories of female soldiers of the VC as well as the NVA.

12.  “Victory at Any Cost - The Genius of Viet Nam’s Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap” by Cecil B. Curry.  Some call Giap a genius and some call him a butcher.  I doubt he was actually bloodthirsty, but it is clear that he was uncaring of mass human suffering, as was the case with all or most of the big bosses in Hanoi.

13.  “The Key to Failure - Laos & the Vietnam War” by Norman B. Hannah.  The view of a military strategist and I feel sure the correct one.  North Vietnam could not possibly have supported its war in the South without the Ho Chi Minh Trail through the eastern mountains of Laos.  Why it was not blocked is the great mystery of the war.  A NVN publication of 1985 “brags that two million people used the Trail during the course of the war, and forty-five million tonnes of material were transported along its length.”

The DMZ across Vietnam should have been extended by fortifications across Laos, generally along Route 9 which runs from the Mekong at Svannakhet through Khe Sanh and on to the sea.  Before 1967 this could have been done relatively easily because the NVA could get men and supplies to the scene only via three mountain passes then by jungle trails while U.S. and Thai divisions could easily get men, supplies, armor and artillery there from Thailand and through mostly open country.  I flew hundreds of hours over exactly this region and know this as fact.

We made so fundamental a mistake in not blocking the Trail that I must wonder if there was treachery within our higher councils.  Somebody should look for evidence even today.

14.  “Return with Honor,” a stunning PBS Home Video (DVD) produced by Tom Hanks.  It uses much film from North Vietnam and is narrated mostly by former POWs who lived long years in the “Hanoi Hilton” prison.  The longest serving POW, Everett Alvarez is a major narrator and one must marvel that he could go through so much and still retain his intellect and sense of humor.  One former POW explains the title by saying, “They took away everything we had.  All we had left was our honor, and we weren’t about to give that up for anything.”   

They were tortured terribly until Ho Chi Minh died in 1969.  The purpose was never to get military information, it was induce them to produce materials to aid our “anti-war” movement.  Few did.  Nearly all “Returned with Honor.”
I’m sure the story will never be absolutely complete because there are bound to be secrets too sensitive for Hanoi to ever reveal.  I suspect one is that the Hanoi bosses assumed and accepted that the Viet Cong would be destroyed in the Tet offensive of 1968, as they were.  This eliminated a potential competitive political force in the South after the war.  

The only winners of the Vietnam War were the bosses in Hanoi.  Everybody else lost.
Vietnam lost far more in victory than we did in defeat.  Her population in 1970 was about 43 million and averages of the wild estimates of her war deaths amount to about 1.5 million.  That’s about 3.5% of her population then.  3.5% of our population today would be about 11.4 million.
This is enough for now about a long and very tragic episode in our history, and much, much more so in Vietnam’s.