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Chapter Four

The group had more than fifty doctors, some of whom had just graduated, and there were seven young men with cinematic training; these were: Hiến, Sửu, Thủy, Trường, Tâm, Trần Thế Dân, and Cao Duy Thảo. Trường and Tâm were originally from the South.

Later Trường defected to the other side, and spoke over the radio. I even heard his voice coming down from a helicopter, addressing us by name: “Let’s come over to the open arms that await us; to the government of nationalist legitimacy…”

It was a long sad story. He had many problems before the departure for the South; recounting them all here would be a distraction. When he reported to 51 Trần Hưng Đạo Street to go up to Hòa Bình, we all sat in a “đít vuông” (meaning “square-backed”) jeep used by junior officers in the Soviet army, while “đít tròn” (meaning “round-backed”) jeeps were used by more senior officers. Trường’s young and pretty wife clung to him and wouldn’t let the vehicle start. Trường indifferently patted her on the shoulder and stroked her cheek, saying, “Well that’s enough, go back now.” And so the engine sprang to life and we started off…

That image has remained imprinted on my memory—it is a terrible image. After 1975 I went to the South many times and looked for Trường, but couldn’t find him. Among the journalists, artists, and filmmakers, there were many people who defected in response to the “open arms” call, including even Mr. Lê Bá Huyến, who had studied in Russia, and was the assistant director of the film The Rising Wind (Nổi Gió).

Trần Văn Thủy and his film crew walking through a forest.

We set forth from Hòa Bình, traveling by day and resting by night. (I’m the last one, with a walking stick)

After a whole month of eating good food and doing nighttime training exercises, such as climbing up and down mountains with heavy back-loads, we set forth from Hòa Bình, traveling by day and resting by night. We cooked food along the way and shared our meals. One of those in our group was the eye doctor Đặng Thùy Trâm, who later became famous after death.1

Many things happened on the way as we walked along the steep and winding paths that led to the South, but the most memorable of them all concerned Đặng Thùy Trâm. The people in the group were all young intellectuals with minds that were pure and full of merriment. We loved and respected each other very much.

As we were passing through Lao territory, I began to feel something unusual in my stomach. My stomach had been hurting for a long time, but I knew that if I reported this fact, I would be accused of ideological deviation, of wanting to take a “U-turn” back to the North. I gritted my teeth and bore the pain without saying anything. I refrained also from confiding in anyone, and had already managed to cover a long part of the journey. Walking along a level stretch—there was no climbing at all there—I was suddenly convulsed by a severe spasm of pain in my stomach. I collapsed into a sitting position by the path and unfastened my backpack. Dân, Sửu, Hiến, Trâm, and others rushed to give me encouragement. I told them all to go on ahead; I would rejoin them after resting a bit. But I was in such pain that I lay back on the grass—I could no longer sit.

The man in charge of our group was Chuyên, a man from the 5th zone. He was about ten years older than the rest of us. Seeing me sprawled on the ground in agony, he indulged in sarcasm: “My oh my, when going into a land of death, how many kinds of pain appear!”

Looking stern, Thùy Trâm said, “You are a doctor—how can you say that?”

Trâm told me to lie back, then rolled up my shirt, applied a plaster, then gave me three shots of Atropine around my navel. The atropine was to induce numbness and reduce pain only.

After more than two long months of arduous and rapid travel, climbing up and down mountains and crossing rivers, we arrived at the jungle base camp of the 5th Zone Propaganda Unit, a high mountainous area in Quảng Nam close to the Laotian border. Trâm and others had to go further; we, however, remained at that location.

Everyone in Trâm’s group had gone ahead, but Trâm lingered on and was reluctant to leave us. Dân, myself, and a few others who had been close to each other throughout the journey gathered around to bid farewell to Trâm. We never met her again afterward, and we could not communicate with each other, though Trâm’s image remained always in our minds: a gentle girl from Huế, a good friend.

And so the war went past, and The Diary of Đặng Thùy Trâm resurfaced. Because we had been close friends with Trâm on the journey to the South, we have taken a keen interest in this event and have had our own thoughts about it.

I don’t know who first said that when soldiers on the other side killed Đặng Thùy Trâm and got hold of her diary, upon which an American soldier was about to burn it, Trung Hiếu, a sergeant in the RSVN army, said “Don’t burn it, there’s fire in there.”

Is it true that he said that? It’s a little hard to believe that he used such political language. With bombs and bullets exploding on all sides, who could have had time to read it and learn what was really in there? Could a sergeant who, as we have come to know, was not fond of socializing, and was a person of very few words, have said something so rhetorical, so theatrical? Especially in the midst of a fierce battle?

Whoever has read this diary with its unpolished, sincere language written by a good, gentle girl will have found that it overflows with private thoughts and feelings only. If it has fire, it might have been added by someone infatuated with “stage operas” [i.e. agitptop].

When Đặng Thùy Trâm was praised and blown into heroic proportions, and when thousands of articles about her followed, Thanh Thảo, a poet from Quang Ngãi, the place where Trâm met her death, looked at her story from a different angle: This is what he wrote:

“I was unable to keep back my tears when I read the last line of the letter that Đặng Thùy Trâm sent to Khiêm, her sworn elder sister, dated May 20, 1970: “If, in the days to come, when our land is at peace, you return and find that I am no longer among the living, will you remember your petty bourgeois younger sister? If so, then please light a stick of incense for me.” Thus it appears that right up to the moment when she was about to sacrifice her life, Thùy Trâm was still troubled by the term “petty bourgeois,” an expression that people had clearly used more than once to define her, and to such an extent that at last she had to accept this definition, with bitterness.

“But what is a “petty bourgeois?” It has been a long time since I’ve heard the term used, perhaps because the people who used to define others as such have “bypassed the petty bourgeois phase,” so as to advance straight to a “fully bourgeois” status. I in fact remember now that when I was an inexperienced newcomer to the war zone, I was very displeased when a person would use that term behind my back, naturally it was to classify me as a “petty bourgeois.” But what on earth is a “petty bourgeois?” In those days, all I had, aside from my “teeth and balls,” were two uniforms, an undershirt, and a few shorts—thus I often had to do “plain” laundering, washing these things with water alone, for there was no soap. I existed simply—where was there any money to buy soap? Taking stock of all my “property” at that time, I can’t see anything at all of sufficient value to give me the privilege of being referred to so generously as a “petty bourgeois!”

“Since Thùy Trâm entered the war zone four years before me, she no doubt had far fewer possessions than I had. The class of people regarded as “northern intellectuals” who entered the war zone as we did then, had no possessions other then a bit of knowledge provided us by our schooling, and, as a slight addition, some private thoughts and feelings. Our thoughts and feelings came from our hearts. We didn’t (or didn’t yet) know how to lie, or how to repeat what others said so as to benefit from it. We lived on scanty, shared rations and said what we thought. We had no thoughts at all that might be considered incorrect; the only thing was that, just like Thùy Trâm, we were very allergic to lying and cheating, and to ways of living, speaking, and thinking that we thought were not honest. There were many instances of “mean” behavior in the midst of that great war —that could be accepted, because it was a simply life. There were “mean” people right on the battlefield, where life and death were but an inch apart. That too had to be accepted! But when these “mean” actions and “mean” people struck and mocked gentle, honest and innocent people who didn’t know how to defend themselves, then it was very painful. How cruel it was that those people who were ill defined by the rhetorical term “petty bourgeois” happened to be the victims of murky, dishonest, below-the-belt blows and mockeries. Being a nice yet straightforward man, I was often in a rage due to these blows and mockeries.

“Now, reading Thùy Trâm’s dairy, I feel even greater compassion for her. Not everyone could surmount such painful tests.

“If Trâm were still alive today, I’m sure she would not let the diary be published. She would live in obscurity—who knows, perhaps like Sergeant Nguyễn Trung Hiếu, living beyond Time. In times like ours, people like Trâm would lead sad lives. The road of advancement, from infirmary chief to hospital director, deputy director or director of the Public Health Department, and so on upward would without doubt have been very difficult for a person like Trâm. Even if she had had a distinguished record that showed she was both “red” and “skilled,” a person so absolutely pure and honest would have found it hard to achieve success. So I believe that if she were still alive, she would suffer.”

The poet Thanh Thảo is a person whom I value and respect for his talent and integrity. I shared many deep recollections with him when I went back to Quang Ngãi with a film crew to make the film The Sound of a Violin at Mỹ Lai. Having both been in the cruel and bloody battle zone, he and I had deep-rooted recollections that only people who have taken part in wars like us could fully appreciate.

Actually, the feeling that war is heroic can only exist for brief moments; few who have really witnessed its terrible ravages can tell war stories in a heroic mode. In fact, in many interactions with the audience, I said that it would have been best if we had managed to avoid the bloody war altogether. I spoke thus because I had escaped death a thousand times, but not so that I could survive to sit around here bragging to you all.

Don’t suppose that I’m speaking satirically—if the poor soul of Đặng Thùy Trâm were here, I’m pretty sure that she would confirm that there were lots of people many times more heroic than she. That view is not at all wrong—except that those people don’t have dairies; and secondly, they have… not yet died.

1 Đặng Thùy Trâm (b. 1942) was a civilian doctor killed by American forces in Quang Ngãi in 1970. She became famous when her war-time diary was discovered and published in 2005.

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