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Nationalist in the Viet Nam Wars

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This extraordinary memoir tells the story of one man's experience of the wars of Viet Nam from the time he was old enough to be aware of war in the 1940s until his departure for America 15 years after the collapse of South Viet Nam in 1975. Nguyen Cong Luan was born and raised in small villages near Ha Noi. He grew up knowing war at the hands of the Japanese, the French, and the Viet Minh. Living with wars of conquest, colonialism, and revolution led him finally to move south and take up the cause of the Republic of Viet Nam, exchanging a life of victimhood for one of a soldier. His stories of village life in the north are every bit as compelling as his stories of combat and the tragedies of war. This honest and impassioned account is filled with the everyday heroism of the common people of his generation.

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Preface

ePub

In my early childhood, “war” was one among the first abstract words I learned before I could have the least perception of its meaning. It was when World War II began. When I was a little older, I saw how war brought death and destruction when American bombers attacked some Japanese installations near my hometown. But it was the wars in my country after 1945 that resulted in the greatest disasters to my people.

Particularly, the 1955–75 Việt Nam War has been the most destructive in Việt Nam history and the most controversial in the United States as well as in many countries in the world. The debate seems endless, the arguments contradicting.

Before and since April 1975, there have been conferences, teach-ins, books, reports, and movies about the Việt Nam Wars after 1945. I realized that many of them contained incorrect and insufficient information, one-sided and superficial arguments, and erroneous figures. There have been conferences held outside Việt Nam about the war, but among many hundreds of participants, there was not a single Vietnamese from either side.

 

A Note on Vietnamese Names

ePub

Vietnamese names generally consist of three parts: family, middle, and given, used in that order. In writing or speaking, a respected old man or a despicable bastard is referred to by his given name, and this is correct in any case, be it formal address or colloquial dialogue.

Highly respectable men of celebrity who are considered old are referred to by family name, as a mark of respect. For example: Phan Bội Châu, a revolutionary, was called Cụ Phan (Cụ = old Mr.), and nobody called him Mr. Châu. Usually such men were born before 1900. This rule is applied when the person cannot be mistaken for another in a text or a speech. If that is not the case, the full name must be used instead. Hồ Chí Minh was called President Hồ or Mr. Hồ because he was the only famous person who carried the family name Hồ. Nguyễn Tường Tam, the famous writer and a Việt Nam Quốc Dân Đảng leader, was not called Mr. Nguyễn because there are other famous personages with this very common family name. Instead, he went by a pen name, Nhất Linh. A pen name is usually a two-word noun and inseparable in any text or speech.

 

Part 1. A Grain of Sand

ePub

It was a cool summer morning in 1951 in my home village, a small and insignificant place on the Red River delta, some sixty miles south of Hà Nội, in the north of Việt Nam. Under the bright sunlight and the cloudless blue sky, the green paddy in front of my grandma’s house looked so fresh and peaceful. It would have been much more beautiful if there had not been war in my country.

I was surprised that I was still able to perceive beauty when the whole village was filled with horror. At about 5 AM, African soldiers of the French Army arrived, took position in the pagoda area, and began searching the village houses at sunrise.

Sitting by the doorway of our brick house beside my grandma and a cousin, I was waiting for the worst to happen to me. The village was very quiet; even birds seemed to be aware of impending dangers. At that hour of a day in peacetime, the air would have been noisy with voices, children babbling, birds chirping, and the rice fields active with farmers working.

 

Part 2. The War of Resistance

ePub

When a company-sized unit of French soldiers arrived in Nam Định City not long after the March 6 agreement, the city population was nervous but not in a panic. Neither side concealed its hostility. However, there were no organized firefights. Every week, newspapers reported sporadic exchanges of fire by small units in the three largest cities of North Việt Nam (Hà Nội, Hải Phòng, and Nam Định). But the joint control teams quickly halted them.

Tension rose. In late November and early December, the French soldiers in my city consolidated their defense in the large concrete building of the former Indochina Bank, situated on the main street, and in the silk factory nearby. Street fights between individual soldiers took place more often. The government once again advised people who had no job in the city to move to the countryside, and ordered the military to be ready to confront any threat by French forces.

On the morning of December 19, 1946, French soldiers became more aggressive. They used their half-tracks and armored cars to clear redoubts, breastworks, and barricades that had been erected on most of the streets by the city’s self-defense corps. With little provocation, they opened fire on Vietnamese militiamen and civilians. At noon, my mother, my father, my cousin, my sister, and I left the city for our home village with what we could carry by hand.

 

Part 3. The Cogwheel

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As my father had been a public servant and had died in the communist prison camp, and I was my mother’s only son, I was exempted by conscription law from the military draft. If I had applied for a scholarship abroad, I would have been on the priority list. My mother and my aunt hated the idea that I would be in the military. They wanted me to be a doctor or an engineer.

Some of my friends thought that we should not join the army because it was spoiled by corruption and had too many incapable officers who impeded the army’s progress and spoiled the young officers’ efforts to improve the organization. My friends thought that young men with above-average intelligence, like some in our group, would be better able to help the country if they became doctors or academics. Besides, the salary of armed forces officers was rather low.

Other friends had a different opinion. They said in a world where the conflict between communist powers—especially China—and the free world was becoming more and more serious, another war in Việt Nam would be inevitable in the next few years. In such a situation, we should be serving in the army to defend our stronghold of freedom.

 

Part 4. Victory or Defeat

ePub

The last days of January 1968 marked a communist large-scale campaign against South Việt Nam that turned the war in an unexpected direction. The communist supreme command named the campaign “General Offensive and General Uprising.” It was launched on January 29, 1968. It was Tết’s Eve, the first day of the Lunar New Year, the Year of the Monkey. So it was generally known as the “1968 Tết Offensive.”

In the last weeks of January 1968, at least ten new defectors in Chiêu Hồi centers reported that communist units had secretly purchased a lot of ARVN camouflaged field dress and field police uniforms to prepare for an offensive. The interrogation section under my command was instructed to pass the information and the sources to the Vietnamese and MACV intelligence services.

However, I wasn’t worried. I guessed that what the enemy could do in the cities was some assassinations and bomb attacks. The big party to celebrate Tết for 600 defectors and 300 guests at the National Chiêu Hồi Center went on beautifully.

 

Part 5. After the War

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What we were waiting for came at last. On June 9, the communist military governor of Sài Gòn announced his decision to call all former RVN field grade officers and ranking civil servants, including elected legislative officials, to report for “reeducation.” Everyone knew the rhetoric meant “incarceration” or, to be more exact, “incarceration in a concentration camp.” The ARVN NCOs and enlisted men in the Sài Gòn area had been ordered to attend the three-day reeducation class at the wards in late May. They were then released to live with their families.

Communist authorities in the provinces acted differently. In most areas, military officers, civil servants, and other notables were detained right after April 30. The NCOs and troops were subjected to “local reeducation” and released. In other areas, they were sent to serve the unlimited terms in forced labor projects that included clearing land mines left from the war.

On June 15, 1975, I left home for the reeducation camp.

 

Part 6. Epilogue

ePub

The war from 1945 to 1954 was initially a war of independence when Vietnamese patriots of all dispositions were fighting to liberate their nation from French domination. The Việt Nam Communist Party’s campaign to eradicate political opposition drove the anticommunist Vietnamese patriots to the other side. So the war of resistance became mingled with the communists’ long-range scheme to consolidate their ruling power. Beginning in 1951, the Red Chinese were involved in the conflict, providing aid and military and political advisors to the Việt Minh side, and the United States began providing assistance to the French, elevating the war to a new level, turning it into a conflict of influence between the international communist bloc and the capitalist world.

After the 1954 Geneva Accords, the nationalist Vietnamese gathered in the South, founding an anticommunist regime backed by the United States. Millions of Vietnamese like me picked up arms to fight communism because we would not live under communism. We trusted the invincible power of America to defend the democratic and free South Việt Nam. Prior to April 30, 1975, I had never imagined a day when the U.S. government would accept an inglorious defeat.

 

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