The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh – A Review

9781573225434_p0_v2_s600x595The Sorrow of War
Bao Ninh
trans. Phan Thanh Hao
Riverhead Books, 1993, pg 233

If you are coming to Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War after seeing his interviews in Ken Burn’s The Vietnam War, as I did, you may have the impression that you are picking up a war novel. It certainly is that, but it is also something more: an exploration of the toll war takes years after.  Ninh’s comments during the documentary made it clear he had doubts about the wisdom of the heavy losses the Vietnamese suffered during the war. Reading the novel, it’s clear he has been unconvinced for a long time. Published 15 years after the end of the war, it is a raw book that has no illusions about patriotism or heroism.

The Sorrow of War is three novels: a story of war;  the struggle to survive PTSD; and the aftermath of war. Each is interrelated, obviously, but in each he gives you different registers that show a narrator who has survived not only years of war and a post war that only reminds him of war, but who is  completely damaged. Structurally, Ninh has written the novel as a series of unconnected episodes, moving between the war, his days as a relatively happy youth, and the nightmare of the war. The narrative arc for much of the book isn’t that important. Instead the glimpses of the war and his PTSD laced nightmares are woven throughout. The narrator is giving you impressions of a dazed mind. Much of it is quite clear, but in a very narrow view as if his mind is hyper attuned to precise details. In survivors accounts you often see an attention to the immediate detail as the intensity of the experience sharpens their memory. This pervades much of the book and gives it an impressionistic feel, as if we are watching a mind attempting to process what has happened.

When, the narrative is pieced together, The Sorrow of War has the typical arc of innocence, to experience, to dissolution. The innocence is not one of heightened patriotism. The novel follows Kein, a reluctant soldier, naive to its horrors, but at the same time indifferent. What little excitement he has, is quickly lost when the war starts after the Gulf of Tonkin. He spends years in the war, loosing all his comrades in devastating battle after another. It is a savage war that has no quarter, even when he liberates the Saigon airport in 1975 one of his friends dies pointlessly at the hand of a civilian. For Kein, though, the war is not over. He is part of a MIA and graves registration team that goes through the country looking for the dead and missing. Even after the war, the war hasn’t ended, and highlights the complete devastation that the war left. It is from this nearly 15 year long immersion into killing comes the compulsion to drink and write. In general, the arc works well, except for one small issue I’ll come to latter.

The story arc I’ve pieced together is not linear at all. Moreover, Ninh frames the story in several layers of narrator. There is the author of the fragmentary war stories. Maybe it was someone like Kien, perhaps it is meant to be autobiographical. The unknown author, the one who has created the Kien stories lives in an apartment with a mute woman and writes and drinks. Then he disappears, leaving his novel scattered over the apartment. Here we get a new narrator. He doesn’t know where the Kien narrator has gone. He pieces the novel together. The pages are unnumbered and each page seems independent of the other, he says, which gives the book its fragmentary structure. It is a mostly successful literary device. Given the already fragmentary nature of the book and its continual sense of the futility, to have the author disappear, one more casualty of the war, only seems fitting. The final narrator also provides a closure on the war without having to resolve anything. Did the Kien narrator die? Is war so traumatic there are no survivors? It certainly eliminates any kind of heroic uplift.

Those who survived continue to live. But that will has gone, that burning will which was once Vietnam’s salvation. Where is the reward of enlightenment due to us for attaining our sacred war goals? Our history-making efforts for the great generations have been to no avail. What’s so different here and now from the vulgar and cruel life we all experienced during the war?

Is Ninh’s approach successful? I ask because although the first 2/3 of the novel is fragmentary, impressionistic, the last 1/3 is a pulsing narrative that follows Kien and his girlfriend as war breaks out. It is the longest sustained writing of the book and it is horrific, detailing an American bombing of a troop train, and his grilfriend’s rape at the hands of some train workers. It could be easy to dismiss this as laziness on the part of Ninh: an author who couldn’t sustain the full novel. However, Ninh is a better writer than that. He has used different registers to suggest a mind unable to focus on a coherent narrative. Kien can describe specific traumatic events, but he has no overarching sense of story. Why else does the organizing narrator say he had a hard time putting the book together? A war that long and brutal with that many dead is too difficult to make sense of. This is something Hemingway even picked up on in The Soldiers home 70 years before. Personal experience needs to be welded to a larger narrative or it fragments, as it does for Kien.

The Sorrow of War is a successful novel. The only element that seems a little much is the rape. Kien’s reaction to it, definitely complicates the man, but it has, given its placement in the book, the effect of dropping something as traumatic into the middle of the story without really exploring it. That aside, Ninh has constructed a solid novel of war and aftermath that is as brutal, dark, and hopeless as any of the classics of the genre.

Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam – A Review

Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam
Nick Turse
Metropolitan Books, 2013, 370 pg

Note to my regular readers: I don’t read as much history as I would like to, but from time to time I will venture away from just literature.

There were more atrocities in Vietnam than Mai Lai is the basic premise of Kill Anything That Moves. It is an important statement because while there have certainly been books that mention various small group actions that could easily be called atrocities (Turse quotes from come of them), there has not been a book to systematically show problematic American behavior in Vietnam was. 370 pages of brutal detail and well documented research, using American documents, contemporary news accounts, and survivor testimony from both American and Vietnamese sources, he shows that American strategy and tactics and general break down of moral conduct of many fighting men lead to countless criminal acts, large and small. It can be tough reading at times, as any book like this can be, but it is a much needed work.

Turse divides up the atrocities in to two general categories: those committed by units or individual soldiers, and those that fall into what one might call industrialized war. It is a good framework for looking at the conduct of the war, because, in Turse’s opinion, the latter led to the former. The chief issue was the term body count. American military planers, prevented from engaging North Vietnamese forces in set piece battles where American arms would prevail, opted for a way of attrition that would bleed the North Vietnamese and lead them to stop the war. The body count statistic was so powerful that units were sent into the field with the expectation that they would return with bodies for the tally board. Unfortunately, that led to commanders who didn’t really care about whether the number of bodies actually had a relation to the captured guns. Too often soldiers would return with disproportionally small number of arms. Moreover, the American military instituted what were called free fire zones in areas of heavy enemy activity. In the zones soldiers had even fewer rules about what they could shoot. A common tactic also was to bring in heavy armaments from fire bases or airplanes to shell and in theory scare the North Vietnamese. Those tactics coupled with the commanders on the ground calling in air and artillery strikes in heavily civilian areas led to massive indiscriminate destruction. This is not to mention defoliation strategies and other industrial methods of clearing the landscape.

Naturally, all these tactics had a heavy toll on the Vietnamese population. Rise fields were damaged, villages destroyed, people killed and wounded, and suffering the effects of toxins. Most villages had bomb shelters or trenches to protect the villagers. Turse doesn’t mention the efficacy of them for safety from shelling, but they became a double edged sword when American troops came saw them. Soldiers took them for something more and did not have patience for villagers who went into them, preferring to kill civilians in them rather than risk a booby trap. The catch 22 nature of the trenches was just one of the ways that the Vietnamese civilians were trapped. An all too common experience was when they ran in fear from soldiers they would be shot because only the enemy runs. That practice often got out of control when a helicopter pilot would hover over a civilian and they would run and be shot.

It is in these encounters with the soldiers in the villages that it is hardest to read. Description after description of one atrocity after the other can make it a little hard to get a little more perspective on what was going on. Turse is aware and points out many times how American soldiers were not well equipped for this kind of counter insurgency, and their frustration could turn into indiscriminate violence. Turse also notes a strain of racism that ran throughout, the most common when describing Asians was “they don’t value life as much as Americans do” and the MGR (mere “gook” rule). The one thing that is missing and probably is impossible to know is just what percentage of patrols were doing these kinds of things. His work is well researched, but when reading it without a sense of where it fits in the overall story it is possible to see every soldier as a killer, which is an overstatement.

Ultimately, we will never know the full scale of these events because many of the court marshals and investigations performed by the military were destroyed or are missing. Turse notes that when he made freedom of information acts he often got empty records. Still, he was able to dig up enough to show there was a pattern of cover ups. Part of the issue was after the soldiers left the army the government no longer wished to prosecute. The other issue was the press was never that interested in writing about war crimes. Before My Lai they didn’t want to do it because of the scandal, after it was as if it was old news. Probably the biggest example of this was the operation in the Mekong delta that two reporters, working from official military press releases, uncovered. They had a story ready to go that showed a very high body count and a very low weapons recover ratio, around 100:1. It might have been a My Lai size story but their editors buried the piece saying the public was tired of the war.

Ultimately, Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam describes a war that failed, not as some revisionists might say, because America let down the South Vietnamese, but because the killing was so indiscriminate, at best made the population fear the Americans, at worst supporters of the North. It is a needed book one that adds a fuller dimension to a war that cost so much and did so little.

World War II: Now In HD Color – A Review

I wasn’t sure if the History Channel’s World War II in HD was going to be more over the top disaster/war channel material, the kind of thing that celebrates the extreme nature of the subject, rather than a respectful presentation. But two episodes in, the show seems to be in the latter camp. It is an American history, not only in focus, but in vocabulary: the narrator uses we/our often when describing American forces; and the term greatest generation has shown up once. Yet it isn’t jingoistic, just proud; Steven Ambrose had nothing to do with this, fortunately. Seeing combat in color makes the war seem more recent, as if it was an extension of the Vietnam fotage. Distance gives one a chance to apprase the past; closeness blurs the opportunity, and the remaking of the war in color has the ability to make the war seem rosy again, America’s greates monent—in other words, the return of the Greatest Generation dreams. Yet the show also has some of the most graphic images of that or any war and the film makers haven’t refrained from showing the dead nor the wounded, esspecially those undergoing medical treatment. At times it can be disturbing, but those are the rewards of war and considering the sanitization of the last 3 wars, it is a needed reminder.

I don’t know how many times the war needs to be watched, but if you are going to watch the war it is a quality production wrapped in some HD hype.