Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Second Edition of Duc: Triumph of the Absurd

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 The American edition
    
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The German edition 

A memoir by Uwe Siemon-Netto

    Forty years ago, absurdity triumphed in South Vietnam. On April 30, 1975, the wrong side conquered this tortured country. The Communists did not achieve their victory by occupying the moral high ground, as their adulators in the Western world would have us believe. In the light the present debate about the apparently squandered U.S. victory in Iraq and the impending withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan it is worth remembering that Hanoi crushed South Vietnam with torture, mass murder and other horrendous acts of terror committed with cold strategic intent.
    I covered the Vietnam War as a staff correspondent for Axel Springer Verlag, West Germany’s largest publishing house. In this second edition of my memoir, I address the question how the Communists managed to gain the upper hand after their clear military defeat he had witnessed as a combat correspondent during the Têt Offensive in Huế in 1968?  I suggest that the answer can be found in the sinister prediction by Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, the North Vietnamese defense minister: “The enemy (meaning, the West)… does not possess the psychological and political means to fight a long-drawn-out war.” In his commentary on the fall of Saigon, Adelbert Weinstein, the brilliant military specialist of Germany’s renowned Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, summed up the reason for the victory of this totalitarian power in one short, elegiac sentence: “America could not wait.” My comment: “Even more dangerous totalitarians [than the Vietnamese Communists] are taking note today.”
      I had titled the first edition of my book Đc, which is the Vietnamese word for German and was my nickname during my time as a Vietnam War correspondent. In the words of Peter R. Kann, the former publisher of the Wall Street Journal, “Uwe Siemon-Netto, the distinguished German journalist, has written a masterful memoir… He captures, as very few others have, the pathos and absurdities, the combat, cruelties and human cost of a conflict, which -- as he unflinchingly and correctly argues -- the wrong side won.
     “From the street cafes of Saigon to special forces outposts in the central highlands, from villages where terror comes at night to the carnage and war crimes visited on the city of Hue at Tet, 1968, Uwe brings a brilliant reportorial talent and touch.  Above all, Uwe writes about the Vietnamese people:  street urchins and buffalo boys, courageous warriors and hapless war victims, and the full human panoply of a society at war.        
      "As a German, Uwe had, as he puts it, ‘no dog in this fight’, but he understood the rights and wrongs of this war better than almost anyone and his heart, throughout the powerful and moving volume, is always and ardently with the Vietnamese people.Bestseller author Barbara Taylor Bradford called this work  “one of the most touching and moving books I have read in a long time. It is also hilarious… I did cry at times, but I also laughed.” Former UPI editor-in-chief John O’Sullivan, described it as an “angry account of a betrayal of a nation,” adding, “But there is hope about people on every page too.”
     Partly as a result of his Vietnam experiences, I turned to theology, earning an MA and a Ph.D. in this field and writing a textbook on pastoral care to former warriors, titled, “The Acquittal of God, A Theology for Vietnam Veterans.” Written in English, Triumph of the Absurd will is now available on Amazon.com. A Vietnamese-language version can be bought on Siemon-Netto’s website, www.siemon-netto.org, and a German edition will be ready by the end of February.
     I am moved by the high acclaim my memoir has won so far: “This brilliant book reminds me of Theodore White’s In Search of History,” commented Maj. Gen. H.R. McMaster, author of Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs and the Lies that Led to Vietnam. “Uwe Siemon-Netto challenges facets of our flawed historical memory of the Vietnam War.”

     Following: my new preface

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Preface

Đc or the triumph of the absurd

Forty years ago, absurdity triumphed in South Vietnam. On April 30, 1975, the wrong side conquered this tortured country. The Communists did not achieve their victory because they owned the moral high ground, as their adulators in the Western world would have us believe. They crushed South Vietnam with torture, mass murder and other horrendous acts of terror committed with cold strategic intent in violation of international law. I lived in Paris when their tanks crashed through the gates of the Presidential Palace in Saigon. As I watched this on television, I wondered: How did they manage to gain the upper hand after their clear military defeat I had witnessed as a combat correspondent during the Têt Offensive in Huế in 1968?
The answer can be found in the sinister prediction by Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, the North Vietnamese defense minister: “The enemy (meaning, the West)… does not possess the psychological and political means to fight a long-drawn-out war.” In his commentary on the fall of Saigon, Adelbert Weinstein, the brilliant military specialist of Germany’s renowned Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung summed up the reason for the victory of this totalitarian power in one short, elegiac sentence: “America could not wait.”
Giap’s prophetic words and the adjective, absurd, will reappear time and again in several chapters of this book. They are meant to be a recurrent theme intended to remind my readers why I wrote this memoir of my five years in Vietnam four decades later.
 I would like this leitmotif to shine through the potpourri of mirthful or sad, erotic as well as lethal episodes in my narrative. Equally important is a second theme underlying these reminiscences: my declaration of love for the wounded, betrayed and abandoned people of South Vietnam whom too the authors of many other books about this war have arrogantly and absurdly assigned a subordinate place.
This is why I have renamed the second edition of this memoir Triumph of the Absurd, replacing the initial title, Đc. But I would like to make it clear that this original title is still very much on my mind, for three reasons: 1. Đc is the Vietnamese term for German, and these are after all the reminiscences of a German war correspondent.2. Đc was the nickname my Vietnamese friends gave me when I lived among them. 3. Đc was the name of two of my protagonists, one a buffalo boy in central Vietnam, and the other a feisty and amusing urchin I befriended in Saigon.
That latter Đc, whom I will now introduce in this preface, was the spindly leader of a gang of homeless kids roaming the sidewalks of “my” block of Tu Do Street. We met in 1965 when Tu Do, the former Rue Catinat, still displayed traces of its former French colonial charm; it was still shaded by bushy and bright green tamarind trees, which would later fall victim to the exhaust fumes of tens of thousands of mopeds with two-stroke engines and prehistoric cars such my grey 1938 Citroen 15 CV Traction Avant, the “gangster car” of French film classics. This car was nearly my age, a metric ton of elegance on wheels -- and very thirsty; eight miles were all she gave me for a gallon of gasoline, provided her fuel tank had not sprung a leak, which my mechanic managed to seal swiftly every time with moist Wrigley gum harvested from inside his cheeks.
As you will presently see, my friendship with Đc and my love for this car were entwined. In truth, it wasn’t really my car. I had leased it from Josyane, a comely French Hertz concessionaire who, as I later found out, was also the agent of assorted Western European intelligence agencies, including the BND, Germany’s equivalent of the CIA. I had often wondered why Josyane rummaged furtively through the manuscripts on my desk when she joined my friends and me for “sundowners” in Suite 214 of the Continental Palace. I fantasized that she was attracted by my youthful and slender Teutonic looks and my stiff dry martinis. She never let on that she read German; why would she want to stare at my texts if they were incomprehensible to her? Well, now I know: She was a spook, according to the Dutch station chief, possibly one of her lovers. But that was alright! I loved her car and she loved my martinis, which she handed around with amazing grace, and she was welcome to my stories anytime; after all, they were written for the public at large.
But my mind is wandering. Let us return to Đc. He was a droll twelve-year old with a mischievous grin reminding me of myself when I was his age, a rascal in a large wartime city.  True, I wasn’t homeless like Đc, although the British Lancaster bombers and the American Flying Fortresses pummeling Leipzig night and day during the final years of World War II tried their best to render me that way.
Like Đc, I was an impish big-town boy successfully bossing other kids on my block around. Đc was different. He was an urchin with a high sense of responsibility. He protectively watched over a gang of much younger orphans living on Tu Do between Le Loi Boulevard and Le Than Ton Street, reporting to a middle-aged Mamasan headquartered on the sidewalk outside La Pagode, a café famed for its French pastries, and the renowned rendezvous point of pre-Communist Saigon’s jeunesse dorée. Mamasan was the motherly press tycoon of that part of the capital. She squatted there outside La Pagode surrounded by stacks of newspapers: papers in Vietnamese and English, French and Chinese; the Vietnamese were avid readers. She handed them out to Đc and his wards and several other bands of children assigned to neighboring blocks.
From what I could observe, Đc was Mamasan’s most important lieutenant, the head paperboy at the busiest end of his block.  His turf was the sidewalk between Givral, a restaurant renowned for its Chinese noodle soup as well as the most authentic French onion soup in all of Southeast Asia, and the entrance to the shopping passage in the Eden Building, which housed the consular section of the West German embassy at that time and the offices of the Associated Press. I fancy that I was one of Đc’s favorite clients because I bought the Saigon Daily News and the Vietnam Guardian from him every day, and the Saigon Post and the Journal d’Extrême Orient. Sometimes I allowed him to cajole me into paying for a couple of Vietnamese-language papers; not that I could read them, but I was intrigued by their frequent empty spaces, the handiwork of government censors.
One late afternoon at the onset of the monsoon season, Đc and I became business partners. The massive clouds in the tropical sky were about to burst. Sheets of water threatened to descend on me with the force of a guillotine blade transforming Saigon’s principal thoroughfare into a gushing stream. I hastily squeezed my Traction into a tight parking space outside Givral’s, a muscle-building exercise given that this front wheel-driven machine lacked power steering and was propelled by a heavy six-cylinder motor made of cast iron. Exhausted, I switched off the engine by which time I was lusting for a bottle of Bière Larue on the Continental Palace’s open-air terrace when Đc stopped me.
The old Traction’s front doors opened forward, thus in the opposite direction of the doors of all modern cars. As I tried to dash out, Đc stood in my way pointing at the windscreen sticker I had been issued that morning by my embassy. It bore the German national colors, black, red and gold, and identified me as “Báo Chí Đc,” a German journalist. This was meant to protect me in case I ran into a Viet Cong roadblock on my occasional weekend jaunts to Cap Saint-Jacques, now called Vũng Tàu, a seaside resort once known as the St. Tropez of the Orient. It actually did shield me in those days. Whenever I ran into a patrol of black-clad Communist militiamen, they would charge me a toll and let me go, but not before issuing me a stamped receipt.
“You Đc!” he shouted delightedly. “My name Đc. We both Đc. We like brothers!” We shook hands. Now I had a younger brother in Saigon; later I learned that his remark meant even more: it was wordplay.  Đc is also the Vietnamese word for virtuous.
Having established our bond, he wouldn’t let me go, though. “Okay, okay,” he said. “Rain coming, Đc, rain numbah ten.” I knew Saigon street jargon well enough to realize that my new brother wasn’t talking of the tenth rainfall. No, “numbah ten” meant the worst, the pits, something definitely to avoid.
“Okay, okay,” Đc continued. “You Đc, you numbah One (the best). You and I do business, okay?”
Then he outlined our deal: I was to allow him and his wards to seek shelter in my Traction. It would become their bedroom, which they promised to keep immaculately clean. If I wanted to leave any valuables in the car, they would be safe. Its lock no longer worked; this much Đc had already ascertained.
“Okay, okay, Đc?” he pleaded impatiently.
I nodded. He whistled, and at once eight toddlers rushed out of several doorways and piled into my Traction. Three curled up on the back seats, two on the jump seats, one each in the legroom separating them, one girl took the right front seat, another squatted on the generous floor space under her feet, and Đc naturally took his place behind the steering wheel.
Bonne nuit, Đc, you numbah one!” he said, slamming the door and winding up the window. At this moment a torrent of rain poured down on the Traction and on me. The kids were safe. I was drenched to the bones within seconds. I ran into the Continental, needing more than a Larue.
First I had a shower in my room, then a whisky on the covered terrace. As night fell I kept staring across Tu Do Street at my large Citroen with steamed up windows outside Givral’s. This sight pleased me. These children were warm and dry. In all my years in Vietnam I rarely felt as happy as on that evening, an uncommon sensation in a reporter’s life.
I am honoring Đc in this book to because in my mind he personified many qualities that formed my affection and admiration for the people of South Vietnam, and my compassion for them after their abandonment by their protectors and their betrayal by some, though not all, members of my profession. Like Đc, they are feisty and resilient; they don’t whine, but pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and they care for each other. When they are down, they rise again and accomplish astonishing things.
I am in awe of the achievements of the hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese living and working close to my home in southern California. I am full of admiration for those former boat people and survivors of Communist reeducation camps, those former warriors suffering in silence from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and other severe ailments caused by torture and head injuries received in combat.
I hope that Đc’s adolescence and adulthood turned out to be a success story as well, but I don’t know. We lost contact 18 months after our first encounter. Was he drafted into the South Vietnamese army and eventually killed in combat? Did he join the Vietcong and perhaps die in their service? Was he among the thousands of civilians butchered by the Vietcong during the Têt Offensive of 1968? Or did this crafty kid manage to flee his homeland after the Communist victory of 1975? Perhaps he is alive at the time of this writing is a successful 58-year old businessman or professional in Westminster, California, just up the road from me; perhaps he is reading this book.
I thought of Đc when two wonderful Vietnamese friends, Quy Van Ly and his wife QuynhChau, better known as Jo, invited me to address a convention of former military medical officers of the South Vietnamese Army. They had been urging me for some time to write my wartime reminiscences. “Do it for us,” they said, “do it for our children’s generation. They want to know what it was like. You have special credibility because as a German you had no dog in this fight.” Then, after listening to my anecdotes such as the one about my encounter with Đc, several of those retired physicians, dentists and pharmacists in my audience said the same thing, and some bounced my speech around the Internet.
I do not presume to rewrite the history of the Vietnam War or even give a comprehensive account of the nearly five years I spent in Indochina as a correspondent first of the Axel Springer group of German newspapers and subsequently as a visiting reporter of Stern, an influential Hamburg-based magazine. I beg my readers not to expect me to take sides in the domestic squabbles between South Vietnamese factions, quarrels that are being perpetuated in the huge communities of Vietnamese exiles today. When I mention former Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky, for example, this does not mean that I favor him over former President Nguyen van Thieu, or vice versa; I am just here to tell stories, including some about Ky and some about Thieu, without wishing to pass judgment on either. Theirs was an unenviable lot, and they deserve my respect for having taken up an appalling burden.
As I stated in the first paragraph of this preface, I did not welcome the victory of the Communists in 1975. They deserved this triumph as little as the Taliban in Afghanistan will deserve the triumph, which I fear will be theirs once NATO forces have left their country. It is also with this latter sinister prospect in mind that I have written this book.
In Vietnam, I have been a witness to heinous atrocities the Communists committed as a matter of policy, a witness to mass murder and carnage beside which transgressions against the rules of war perpetrated on the American and South Vietnamese side  –- clearly not as a matter of policy or strategy – appear pale in comparison. I know that many in the American and international mass media and academe have unjustly, gratuitously and arrogantly maligned the South Vietnamese and are still doing so. I was disgusted by the way returning GIs were treated by their fellow countrymen and am shocked by the fact that the continued suffering of South Vietnamese veterans is not deemed worthy of consideration by U.S. journalists.
This book is a collection of personal sketches of what I saw, observed, lived through and reported in my Vietnam years, and about the people I met. It is a series of alternating narratives about experiences ranging from the horrific to the absurd, from glamorous to frivolous pursuits, from despair to hope. All the persons mentioned here are authentic, though in some cases I changed their names to protect them or their next of kin.
To remind my readers and myself that this is ultimately a book about a tragic war that ended in defeat for the victims of aggression, I will insert a brief reflection underscoring this fact every few chapters, beginning with a description of a mass murder the Communists committed during the 1968 Têt Offensive.
I owe gratitude to many people, but especially to my faithful friends Quy and Jo who steadfastly stood behind me as I wrote this book giving me every conceivable support while I labored over the manuscript. Every time I had finished a chapter, Quy translated it immediately into elegant Vietnamese with the help of his friend Nguyen Hien. He did the layout, designed the cover and gave me sound advice on cultural and historical questions. I am proud to have become part of Quy’s and Jo’s very traditional Vietnamese family in Orange County. I thank Quy’s brother in law, Di Ton That, and his wife, Tran, who were the first to contact me when I moved to southern California, and who introduced me to the huge and thriving Vietnamese community in Orange County.
 I am grateful to the absent Đc, and to the countless other Vietnamese, American, French, British and German friends I made in Vietnam. I also wish to thank the Vietnam veterans whom I served as a chaplain intern at the VA Medical Center in St. Cloud, Minnesota, and the psychologists and ministers with whom I worked in order to provide those former soldiers with pastoral care. I am very thankful to my friend Perry Kretz for allowing me to publish some of his magnificent photographs from our reporting trip to Vietnam in 1972 in this volume.
I thank my friend and editor Peggy Strong and, most importantly, my wife Gillian who in our 50 years of marriage has stood by me and endured our long periods of separation caused by my assignment to an enchanting war-torn country I have come to love.

                                                                  Uwe Siemon-Netto
LagunaWoods, Calif., January 2014.




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Epilogue

The fruit of terror and the virtue of hope

   More than forty years have passed by since I paid Vietnam my farewell visit.  In 2015, the world will observe the 40th anniversary of the Communist victory, and many will call it “liberation.” The Huế railway station, where a locomotive and a baggage car left on a symbolic 500-yard journey every morning at eight, no longer qualifies as Theater of the Absurd. It has been attractively restored and painted pink. Once again, as in the days of French dominance, it is the most beautiful station in Indochina, and taxi drivers do not have to wait outside in vain. Ten comfortable trains come through every day, five heading north, five going south. Collectively they are unofficially called Reunification Express. Should I not rejoice? Is this not just as in Germany, where the Berlin Wall and the minefields have gone, and now high speed trains zoom back and forth between the formerly Communist East and the democratic West at speeds up to 200 miles an hour?
     Obviously I am glad that the war is over and Vietnam is reunified and prosperous, that the trains are running, and most of the minefields cleared. But this is where the analogy with Germany ends. Germany achieved its unity, in part because the Germans in the Communist East toppled their totalitarian government with peaceful protest and resistance, and in part thanks to the wisdom of international leaders such as Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and partly because of the predictable economic collapse of the flawed socialist system in the Soviet Bloc. Nobody died in the process, nobody was tortured, nobody ended up in camps, nobody was forced to flee.
     There is an incomprehensible tendency, even among respectable pundits in the West, to refer to the Communist takeover of the South as “liberation,” thus following, perhaps unwittingly, the contemptible line of Harvard Professor John Kenneth Galbraith who arrogantly wished for South Vietnam to “go back to the nothingness it so richly deserves.”
     This begs the question: liberation from what and to what? Was South Vietnam “freed” for the imposition of a totalitarian one-party state that ranks among the world’s worst offenders against the principles of religious liberty, freedom of expression, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of the press? What kind of liberation was this that cost 3.8 million Vietnamese lives between 1955 and 1975 and has forced more than one million Vietnamese to flee their country, not only from the vanquished South, but even from ports in the North, causing between 200,000 and 400,000 of the so-called boat people to drown?
      Was it an act of liberation to execute 100,000 South Vietnamese soldiers and officials after the fall of Saigon? Was it meant to be a display of generosity by the victors to herd between one million and 2.5 million South Vietnamese to reeducation camps, where an estimated 165,000 perished and thousands more have sustained lasting brain injuries and mental health problems resulting from torture, according to a study by an international team of scholars led by Harvard psychiatrist Richard F. Molina?
      And who were the liberators? Does nobody bother to consider the biography, history and words of the man who launched this war of conquest? One of his names his youthful admirers chanted on the campuses of virtually every Western university: Ho-Ho-Ho-Chi-Minh. But that was not his real name. Today we know that it was one of the 170 (!) pseudonyms he had given himself, being a top agent of the Soviet-led Comintern, or Communist International, since the 1920s. This was no secret by the time I arrived in Vietnam in 1965.  It could be found in the textbooks that lay on most reporters’ bedside tables.
       Those who wanted to know had no difficulty finding out from reliable and impartial sources what his real goal was. He said so himself: He wished none other than to help bring about the global victory of Marxism-Leninism.
       Had independence of Vietnam from France been his primary objective he would not so diligently have betrayed and liquidated all Indochinese freedom fighters no following the Soviet party line, including nationalists, monarchists and Trotskyists.
       When I lived in Saigon, it was perfectly known that Ho had been responsible for the murder of at least 200,000 landowners in the Stalinist-style agrarian reform in northern Vietnam between 1953 and 1956. Some sources even claim that 500,000 were killed. Countless others committed suicide to avoid being tortured to death. Following the examples of Stalin and Mao Zedong, Ho’s primary reason for these massacres was not so much the redistribution of wealth but the “neutralization” of all potential “class enemies.”
       As we approach the 40th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon, it is well worth remembering that it was to a political movement with this blood-curdling history that the Congress of the United States delivered South Vietnam when it voted to stop almost all further military aid to this bleeding country, thus accepting the view of Prof. Galbraith and likeminded intellectuals that “the assumed enemy does not exist.” 
      Since the mid-1960s, political and historical mythographers in the West have either naively or dishonestly accepted Hanoi’s line that this conflict was a “People’s War.” Well it was, if one accepts Mao Zedong’s and Vo Nguyen Giap’s interpretation of the term. But the Saxon Genitive implies that a “People’s War” is supposed to be a war of the people. In truth, it wasn’t. Some 3.8 million Vietnamese were killed between 1955 and 1975. Approximately 164,000 South Vietnamese civilians were annihilated in a Communist democide during that same period, according to political scientist Rudolf Joseph Rummel of the University of Hawaii. The Pentagon estimated that 950,000 North Vietnamese and more than 200,000 South Vietnamese soldiers fell in combat, in addition to 58,000 U.S. troops. This was no war of the people; it was a war against the people.
     In the all too often hypocritical rhetoric about the Vietnam War over the last 40 years, the key question has gone AWOL, to use a military acronym meaning absent without leave, and the question is: Did the Vietnamese people desire a Communist regime? If so, how was it that nearly one million northerners moved south following the division of their country in 1954, while only about 130,000 Vietminh sympathizers went in the opposite direction?
     Who started this war? Were there any South Vietnamese units operating in North Vietnam? No. Did South Vietnamese guerillas cross the 17th parallel to disembowel and hang pro-Communist village chiefs, their wives and children in the northern countryside? No. Did the South Vietnamese regime massacre an entire class of people by the tens of thousands in its territory after 1954 the way the North Vietnamese had liquidated landowners and other potential opponents of their Soviet-style rule? No. Did the South Vietnamese establish a monolithic one-party system? No.
     As a German citizen, I had no dog in this fight, as Americans would say. But to paraphrase the Journalists’ Prayer Book, if hardened reporters have a heart at all, mine was, and still is, with the wounded Vietnamese people. It belongs to these sublime women who can often be so blunt and amusing; it belongs to the cerebral and immensely complicated Vietnamese men trying to dream the perfect dream in a Confucian way; to the childlike soldiers going to battle carrying their only possessions – a canary in a cage; to young war widows who had their bodies grotesquely modified just to catch a GI husband and create a new home for their children and perhaps for themselves, rather than face a Communist tyranny; to those urban and rural urchins minding each other and water buffalos. What a hardened heart I had, it belonged to those I saw running away from the butchery and the fighting – always in a southerly direction, but never ever north, until at the very end there was no VC-free square inch to escape to.   I saw them slaughtered or buried alive in mass graves, and still have the stench of putrefying corpses in my nostrils. 
      I wasn’t there when Saigon fell after entire ARVN units, often so maligned in the U.S. media and now abandoned by their American allies, fought on nobly, knowing that they would neither win nor survive this final battle. I was in Paris, mourning, when all this happened, and I wish I could have paid my respects to five South Vietnamese generals before they committed suicide when the game was over that they should have won: Le Van Hung (born 1933), Le Nguyen Vy (born 1933), Nguyen Khoa Nam (born 1927), Tran Van    Hui (born 1927) and Pham Van Phu (born 1927).
   As I write this epilogue, a fellow journalist and scholar of sorts, a man born in 1975 when Saigon fell, is making a name for himself, pillorying American war crimes in Vietnam. Yes, they deserve to be pilloried. Yes, they were a reality. My Lai was reality; I know, I was at the court martial where Lt. William Calley was found guilty. I know that the body count fetish dreamed up by the warped minds of political and military leaders of the McNamara era in Washington and U.S. headquarters in Saigon cost thousands of innocent civilians their lives.      But no atrocity committed by dysfunctional American or South Vietnamese units ever measured up to the state-ordered carnage inflicted upon the South Vietnamese in the name of Ho Chi Minh. These crimes his successors will not even acknowledge to this very day because nobody has the guts to ask them: why did your people slaughter all these innocents whom you claimed to have fought to liberate? As a German, I take the liberty of adding a footnote here: why did you murder my friend Hasso Rüdt von Collenberg and the German doctors in Huế? Why did you kidnap those young Knights of Malta volunteers, subjecting some to death in the jungle and others to imprisonment in Hanoi? Why does it not even occur to you to search your conscience regarding these actions, the way thoughtful Americans, while correctly laying claim to have been on the right side in World War II, wrestle with the terrible legacy left by the carpet bombing of residential areas in Germany and the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
     Reminiscing on her ordeal on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the news magazine Der Spiegel, the West German nurse Monika Schwinn recalled her encounter with North Vietnamese combat units on their way south as one of her most horrifying experiences. She described the intensity of hatred in the facial expressions of these soldiers and wrote that her Vietcong minders had great difficulty preventing them from killing the Germans on the spot. Nobody is born hating. Hate must be taught. Fostering murder in the hearts of young people involved a teaching discipline at which only the school of totalitarianism excels. In his brilliant biography of SS leader Heinrich Himmler, historian Peter Longrich relates that even this founder of this evil force of black-uniformed thugs did not find it easy to make his men overcome natural inhibitions to execute the holocaust (Longerich. Heinrich Himmler. Oxford: 2012). It was the hatred in the eyes of the North Vietnamese killers in Huế that many of the survivors I interviewed considered most haunting. But of course one did have to spend time with them, suffer with them, gain their confidence and speak with them to discover this central element of a human, political and military catastrophe that is still with us four decades later. Opining about it from the ivory towers of a New York television studio or an Ivy League school does not suffice.
     In a stirring book about the French Foreign Legion, Paul Bonnecarrère relates the historic meeting between the legendary Col. Pierre Charton and Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap after France’s defeat at Dien Bien Phu (Bonnecarrère. Par le Sang Versé. Paris: 1968).  Charton was a prisoner of war in the hands of the Communist Vietminh. Giap came to pay his respects to him but also to gloat. The encounter took place in a classroom in front some 20 students attending a political indoctrination session. The dialogue between the two antagonists went thus:
     Giap: “I have defeated you, mon colonel!
     Charton: “No you haven’t, mon général. The jungle has defeated us… and the support you have exacted from the civilian population - by means of terror.”
     Vo Nguyen Giap didn’t like this answer, and forbade his students to write it down. But it was the truth, or more precisely: it was half of the truth. The other half was that democracies like the United States seemed indeed politically and psychologically ill equipped to fight a protracted war. This realization, alongside the use of terror tactics, became a pillar of Giap’s strategy. He was right and he won. Even more dangerous totalitarians are taking note today.
     To this very day I am haunted by the conclusion I was forced to draw from my Vietnam experience: when a self-indulgent throwaway culture grows tired of sacrifice it becomes capable of discarding everything like a half-eaten donut. It is prepared to dump a people whom it set out to protect. It is even willing to trash the lives, the physical and mental health, the dignity, memory and good name of the young men who were sent to war. This happened in the case of the Vietnam Veterans. The implications of this deficiency endemic in liberal democracies are terrifying because in the end it will demolish their legitimacy and destroy a free society.  
     However, I must not end my narrative on this dark note. As an observer of history, I know that history, while closed to the past, is always open to the future. As a Christian I know who is the Lord of history. The Communist victory in Vietnam was based on evil foundations: terror, murder and betrayal. Obviously, I do not advocate a resumption of bloodshed to rectify this outcome, even if this were possible. But as an admirer of the resilient Vietnamese people, I know that they will ultimately find the right peaceful means and the leaders to rid themselves of their despots. It might take generations, but it will happen.
     In this sense, I will now join the queue of the pedicab drivers outside the Huế railway station where no passenger arrived back in 1972. Where else would my place be? What else do I possess but hope?
















2 comments:

  1. Congratulation to the second edition and to all the positive reviews! Well done!
    By the way - missing my "mental exercises". And waiting now impatiently for the German edition.
    Wie immer - xxxkarin

    ReplyDelete
  2. Liebe Karin, die kommt am 26. Februar auf den Markt.

    ReplyDelete