As has been apparent all semester, Vietnam had a profound and individualized effect on vast numbers of people. When you consider the stories we have read do you think these are purely the result of people living through a war, or are there distinctive features of the Vietnam War that shaped their experience?
Dang Thuy Tram's diary Last Night I Dreamed of Peace, offered a view from the opposing side of the Vietnam War that Americans have almost never heard, either during or after the war. Originally from Hanoi, from 1968-70 she worked as a surgeon in South Vietnam where she died in combat with American forces. Military intelligence officers captured her diary and ordered it burned, but Frederic Whitehurst disobeyed this order and kept for 35 years, finally arranging to return it to Tram's family in 2005. Naturally, the Vietnamese government made use of the story of a young heroine who gave her life for the cause, and the diary became a bestseller and was also made into a movie. Dr. Tram's experience of the war resembled that of many Americans in that she also experienced the heat, monsoons, homesickness, loss of friends and fear just as they did, although she was far more certain about the cause for which she was fighting. Indeed, anyone who has ever fought in a war had all of the same experiences as Dr. Tram, and this serves to humanize the other side in ways that few Americans ever have in regard to the Vietnamese. For example, she wrote on May 1, 1968 that "I miss Hanoi, Dad, Mom and my siblings terribly" (Tram 15).
At the same time, Dr. Tram mentioned her disappointment at not having yet been accepted as a Communist Party member, which is one of her main goals throughout the diary. She often referred to how certain people were suspicious of her relatively privileged background and "the more I wish to be accepted, the more miserable I feel" (Tram 16). Americans have often written of the class bias that affected their side in the war, with poor and working class men being drafted to do the fighting while more privileged middle and upper class men were often able to avoid service. On the Communist side, of course, no one was able to do so, and most seemed willing to make all sacrifices necessary in the name of nationalism if not always sympathy for Communism. Ironically, though, Dr. Tram's 'bourgeois', middle-class background counts against her with the Communists since they favored the peasants and working class as Party members. She refers frequently to the fact that the Communists do not fully trust and accept her, which makes her try all the harder to win their approval, with statements like "I am bourgeois in sentiment, not in attitudes as sometimes claimed" (Tram 37).
For Americans, even those opposed to the war, Dr. Tram's diary hardly makes pleasant reading, since she frequently expresses hatred of the United States for the death and destruction that it is inflicting on her country. She writes that "I hate the belligerent American devils. Why do they enjoy massacring kind, simple folks like us?" (Tram 39) and says of Americans "they are devils, robbing our country" (Tram 23). This is all the more reason to read it, since most Americans were naturally focused on the war did to their own country and the men who fought there in the jungles and rice paddies. They are absolutely dedicated to the cause, as American observers often noted during the war, and they never considered giving up. Tram felt the same way, writing that "we do not regret anything exchanged for freedom and liberty," which in this case meant freedom from foreign domination (Tram 19). They have already made tremendous sacrifices for victory, and it South Vietnam it seemed that "one hundred percent of the families had suffered a loss," while every family in the North had also lost someone to the war in the South or the bombing (Tram 24). From the start, Tram also made it clear that the quality of medical care available to the other side was far lower than that wounded Americans could expect, as when she had to operate on a young man without any real anesthetics but "he never groaned one during the entire procedure" (Tram 4). Americans know very well that the treatment their prisoners experienced at the hands of the North Vietnamese and NLF was poor and often involved torture, yet they also expected the same treatment if they were captured. Indeed, this was true as many witnesses on the American and South Vietnamese side confirmed during and after the war (Tram 11).
This diary deserves considerable reflection since to an American so much of it seems both familiar and alien at the same time, at least alien in the sense that it reports on the war from the enemy viewpoint. To be sure, the fact that Tram was a dedicated Communist and nationalist was hardly unique to Vietnam or this particularly war. Nor is the fact that she was a young woman from a middle class background trying to fit in to an army that had a mostly peasant and working class background -- although the Communist policy of favoring the lower classes is the exact opposite from the system in the United States. She experienced the pain, fear, friendship, comradeship and hatred for the enemy that is normal in all wars throughout history, but her side was far more certain about the justice of their cause and dedicated to total victory than the Americans. They had already been fighting since 1946 and were ready to keep sacrificing for twenty or thirty more years if necessary, but virtually no same person in the U.S. was prepared to keep fighting that long. They probably would have been had the war been fought on their home ground, but that was not the case.
Philip Caputo's autobiographical novel A Rumor of War is the type of Vietnam story far more familiar to Americans. He was a Marine Corps lieutenant who fought in the early phase of the escalation under Lyndon Johnson in 1965-66, who gradually became disillusioned with the war. This was hardly unusual for American veterans of the war, and Caputo joined the antiwar movement after he was discharged in 1967, as did Ron Kovic after he was wounded. Like Kovic and other veterans of his generation, he at first felt "the pride and overwhelming self-assurance" of the American empire at its apex, especially during the Kennedy-Camelot years -- the arrogance of a superpower that "could still claim it had never lost a war" (Caputo xiv). They had all been told that their purpose was to stop the expansion of Communism in Asia, but were totally unprepared for the real nature of the war in Vietnam, which had already experience twenty years of revolution and civil war by the time they arrived on the scene. By the time he returned to cover the fall of Saigon as a journalist in April 1975, Caputo was completely free of any illusions he once had about Vietnam. This war was fought with little mercy on either side against an extremely tough and determined enemy that was fighting on their home ground. Those who did not learn to respect this enemy had no chance of survival. Caputo wryly observed replacements arriving on a troopship from San Diego, who were as confident as he had been when he first arrived. He wrote that "of course they were gung-ho. No dysentery cramped their bowels, no fears shrunk their hearts, no ghosts of dead comrades haunted their memories" (Caputo 216). Among these was a friend of his he had trained with at Quantico named Walter Levy, who was killed very soon afterwards in an ambush.
Caputo's disgust with warfare, including the loss of friends, the death and suffering he experienced, were common feelings of veterans in any war, as was the sense of bonding he felt with others in his until. As usual in warfare, this bonding was stronger in the field than in the rear echelon, and soldiers in all wars have felt contempt for those who have safe, secure, clean jobs behind the frontlines. In Vietnam, these feelings were extreme, however, given the nature of the war itself, which was almost never a conflict of set piece battles but snipers, ambushes and booby-traps. In all these skirmishes, however, "we learned the old lessons about fear, cowardice, courage, suffering, cruelty, and comradeship" (Caputo xv). As many other veterans reported, they could not distinguish between the enemy and civilians, while General William Westmoreland's strategy of brutal attrition and body counts led to an over-counting of 'enemy' dead' who were probably civilians and to a chain of deception that ran to the higher levels. In addition, the environment in Vietnam was one of malaria, fever, dysentery, jungle rot, leeches, heat, humidity and monsoons. They all called the United States…