I grew up in the Eighties, the Golden Age of America. Reagan had the Communists on the ropes and we were all going to be rich someday. Hollywood blockbusters provided us all with stories and shared experience, like so many bearded shamans around the Neolithic campfire. I was particularly struck by the wave of Vietnam War films of that time. I wanted to know more and consumed dozens of books on the American involvement in the war. I was always most eager to read the personal narratives of soldiers in the conflict.
In the stacks last week I came across this book, Red Plateau: Memoir of a North Vietnamese Soldier. Looking it over, I had the startling realization that I had never read anything from the Other Side. All the personal stories from the war I had read were from American perspectives. Whether in book or film, the enemy was a largely faceless and impersonal danger, an elemental force lurking in a primeval jungle.
I read the short book in a day and half and was floored. Comparing the differences and similarities between this story and the American stories I have read was interesting. The inherent wastefulness and horror of war are present in both. As a North Vietnamese soldier fighting in the south, Nguyen Van Tan is away from home like his American counterparts. But he doesn’t count the days until he can return. He and his comrades are there to fight until they are killed or the North prevails. The details of the hardships he faced are gripping and poignant, marching for days and days with only puddle water and moldy rice balls for sustenance, frequently under the threat of nightmarish B-52 strikes. The North Vietnamese soldiers are a sentimental lot and form the close bonds familiar to anyone who has served. His entire platoon weeps openly after Tan, himself paralyzed with shock, receives a letter with the news of the death of his father. Nguyen Van Tan miraculously survived some of the heaviest engagements of the war, including the assaults on Khe Sahn. He credits his survival to a grievous wound he received in 1971, keeping him off the line for a long period of recuperation. Tan had been a schoolteacher and his rudimentary knowledge of English was put to use for a time translating captured documents. In these sections we can read that the North Vietnamese troops found their American foes equally inscrutable.
I only took a moment to mine some more material in the stacks.
Vietnam: A Portrait of its People at War contained personal stories from members of another shadowy antagonist of the Vietnam War film, the Viet Cong. Interestingly, this book was first published under the title Portrait of the Enemy.
Once again, the power of browsing is revealed. I didn’t know I needed to read these books until I saw them.