Sunday, October 12, 2008

Sunday Warbooks: A Viet Cong Memoir

A review of A Viet Cong Memoir: An Inside Account Of the Vietnam War And Its Aftermath, by Truong Nhu Tang, the former Minister of Justice for the Provisional Revolutionary Government in South Vietnam, with David Chanoff and Doan Van Toai.

This is an example of the "war biography" genre, of which countless examples stand on the shelves. Boy born to poor but honest parents, etc., loves his country, boy joins the armed forces with no particular expectations, boy gets a severe shock, boy analyzes what the hell war is about. This particular book stands out, of course, for being from the viewpoint of "the enemy" in what may still be America's touchiest subject, Vietnam. (Other contenders for that title, I suppose, would be the Civil War and the Iraq wars.)

In this memoir, Truong explains how revolutionary idealism came upon him despite his privileged background, and how he joined the National Liberation Front (an organization which he is at pains to insist is more political than military in function). He details the trials he experienced as a prisoner of the South Vietnamese; his life in the jungle during U.S. bombardment; and what he characterizes as the final victory.

All well and good, and so far within the parameters of the genre outlined above. But the book becomes more interesting when he describes how this victory crumbled, as his nationalistic ideals were pushed aside in the brutal Northern socialist campaign for the south, and how he escaped by boat. The style is good, although the historical events are not laid out chronologically, which is a bit disorienting.

As for the content of book, the arguments he makes: well, obviously one has to take any war story with a grain of salt, and all else being equal, lots more salt when the war story is coming from a Communist. For example, there are many points at which he claims Vietnamese intelligence had pinpointed how the war with the U.S. was going and how it would continue. That's unlikely, and Truong contradicts himself a few times in the details. Of more interest is his thesis that while the Viet Cong understood what was going on in the war more than the Americans did, they still misjudged the political climate after the fact. Also, Truong explains how Hanoi and the NLF were not a united bloc in terms of ideology, which explains the betrayal he felt after the Americans were pushed out and the Vietnamese continued to suffer.

In general, this book seems a reasonable account, very intriguing and highly readable. Modern American readers can argue back and forth how accurately Truong depicts the past and whether any prescience even made a difference. What's important, though, is that the book stands as a testament that Americans didn't "lose Vietnam" simply because of mistakes at home, or the jungle, or the heat, or the U.S. press, or peace protests. Truong represents the other side, the active agents that engineered American defeat in Vietnam. That's, I think, a crucial point; Americans always seem to forget that there exist other people and cultures, with different ideas and goals than their own.

I wonder, when American students read in their history classes memoirs of Afghan and Iraqi Republic Guard soldiers, telling their side of the Gulf wars, what those will have to say?


Sunday Warbooks casualty count:

Greco-Persian wars: 1
WWI: 1
Vietnam: 2
Iraq wars: 2

1 comment:

Churlita said...

That sounds pretty interesting. I love reading the other side. I had a friend who's family were South Vietnamese. They got to leave when Saigon fell and he was 10.The only thing he knew about America was that he would get to wear tennis shoes and see Mickey Mouse. When I knew him in the 80's, his family was still plotting how they would take over Vietnam again.