BOOK REVIEW: Novel Without a Name by Duong Thu Huong

Novel Without a NameNovel Without a Name by Dương Thu Hương
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This novel’s protagonist, Quan, is a North Vietnamese soldier who, after ten years of war-fighting and surviving, has worked his way up to a junior officer position with a small unit under his command. Much of the story describes a road trip in the midst of war. One of Quan’s childhood friends who is now his superior officer, Luong, assigns Quan the task of going to visit a distant medical unit to check on a third common village friend, Bien, who is said to have had a nervous breakdown. Luong, further tells Quan to take some well-earned time off for a home visit, since the junior officer hasn’t been to see his home in a decade. In the latter part of the book, Quan returns to his unit after an uneasy home visit to see the father with whom he has strained relations (his mother ran away with another man), the neighbors he seems closer to than he is his own father, and his childhood sweetheart who has fallen on hard times — having had to accept that the two would never be married. On the way, back to his unit, Quan checks on Bien who he busted out of horrific conditions at a field hospital and got reassigned to a special unit with the non-Infantry, but macabre, task of building coffins. The book ends with another uneasy transition, the war’s end – which sees Quan’s comrades in celebration, but also not sure what to expect after an entire adult life spent at war.

Interspersed with the real-time events that occur as Quan travels through a jungle war-zone, one is shown flashbacks to some of the intense traumas of his years at war. These include friendly-fire incidents and the “only the good die young” effect in which it seems the most kind and virtuous are often the most perishable in times of war. There’s also a very human story that’s told about how war effects lives and transforms relationships – in some cases forging unbreakable bonds and in other cases building impenetrable barriers between loved ones.

I’ve read a few books on the Vietnam War, both fiction and non-fiction, but this may be the first I’ve read from a North Vietnamese perspective. What is interesting about that is that the experiences and themes are often not that different from one sees in works like Karl Marlantes’s “Matterhorn” or Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” Soldiers on both sides have similar day-to-day experiences from boredom to horrors, and it has largely the same effect upon the soldier’s psyches. One of the overarching themes this book has in common with its American-centric counterparts is growing disillusionment. Like the American soldiers who often couldn’t comprehend what they were fighting for (other than the survival of their friends and themselves), Quan’s core beliefs become challenged over the course of the novel. It’s often been said that there are no atheists in foxholes, but it seems equally true that there are no ideologues in foxholes. The pragmatic concerns demanded of the war-fighter make it hard to be an impassioned Marxist or an impassioned follower of any ideology. This is seen in one scene in which an older officer is put off by Quan’s lack of enthusiasm for the Marxist message, and then later when the tables are turned and Quan converses with a young subordinate soldier who is even more disillusioned.

Of course, there are differences. Quan is much more at home in the environment of the war – though not exempt from the miseries of the jungle. It’s not like he’s been dropped on a different planet as it was for American soldiers who had no experience of tropical living. On the other hand, an American soldier could at least rest assured that his loved one’s were home in safety, but for Quan and his peers there is no reason to think family is any more safe than they. Of course, the concept of traipsing through the war zone on a home visit after years successively at war represents one important difference that is also fundamental to the story.

I found this book to be gripping and illuminating. It’s highly readable and relatable, even though there are flashbacks that take one out of a linear timeline; they are well done and not confusing. I would highly recommend this book for anyone who reads war stories, who enjoys translated fiction from other cultures, or who just wants a thought-provoking work of literary fiction.

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BOOK REVIEWS: The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

The Things They CarriedThe Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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It’s called a novel, but it reads like a collection of war stories and essays about being an American soldier in the Vietnam War. That’s not a criticism. In fact, it’s part of the brilliance of this book. If it were thoroughly plotted, it might not feel so authentic. As war is disjointed, so is O’Brien’s book. Some of the chapters are tiny and some are lengthy. Some read more like essays than fiction, and others are clearly fictitious.

When I say that “some are clearly fictitious,” there’s always a doubt that it might just be a true story–because war is just that absurd. An example that springs to mind is one of the most engaging pieces in the work. It’s called “Sweetheart of Song Tra Bong,” and it’s about a wholesome, young girlfriend to one of the soldiers who [improbably] comes to live in the camp. The girl acclimates to the war, and soon she is going out on patrol–not with the ordinary infantry soldiers, but during the night with the Green Berets. Perhaps the moral is that some people are made for war, and it’s never who you’d suspect. As I describe it, the premise may sound ridiculous, but the way O’Brien presents it as a story told by a Rat Kiley–a fellow infantryman known to exaggerate—it feels as though there is something true, no matter how fictitious the story might be. Before one reads “Sweetheart of Song Tra Bong” one has been primed by a chapter entitled “How to Tell a True War Story,” which tells one that truth and falsehood aren’t so clear in the bizarre world of war.

There are a couple of chapters outside the period during which O’Brien (the character, who may or may not be the same as the author) is actively in an infantry unit. One early chapter describes his near attempt at draft dodging, and another talks of his time stationed at the rear after being injured. Both of these chapters offer an interesting twist in the scheme of the book overall. We find O’Brien to be a fairly typical infantry soldier, and it seems hard to reconcile this with his floating in a canoe and narrowly deciding not to make a swim for the Canadian shoreline. However, what is odder still is realizing how distraught he is to be pulled out of his unit, particularly when he realizes that he has become an outsider and the [then rookie] medic who botched his treatment is now in the in-group. This is one of the many unusual aspects of combatant psychology that comes into play in the book, along with O’Brien’s description of how devastating it was to kill.

There are 21 chapters to the book. As I said, they run a gamut, but at all times keep one reading. It’s the shortest of the Vietnam novels I’ve read—I think. When I think of works like “Matterhorn” and “The 13th Valley,” there seems to be something hard to convey concisely about the Vietnam War, but O’Brien nails it with his unconventional novel. O’Brien also uses repetition masterfully. This can be seen in the title chapter “The Things They Carried,” which describes the many things carried by an infantry soldier—both the physical items they carried on patrol and the psychological and emotional things they carried after the war. It’s a risky approach that pays off well.

I’d recommend this book for anyone—at least anyone who can stomach war stories.

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DAILY PHOTO: Military Bulldozer

Taken in December of 2015 at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City

Taken in December of 2015 at the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City

Reflections on Vietnam

IMG_0122I was five when Saigon fell. So I can’t say that I remember the war as breaking news. However, by the time I was coming into adulthood, Vietnam remained front and center in the American psyche. Many of the most prominent movies on the war came out when I was in high school or shortly thereafter (e.g. Platoon (1986), Full Metal Jacket (1987), Bat 21 (1988), Casualties of War (1989), and Born on the Fourth of July (1989).) Even films that weren’t explicitly or solely about the war often featured characters transformed by its crucible (e.g. Lt. Dan from Forrest Gump.)

 

It wasn’t just cinema. While many of the most prominent books on the war came out in the 70’s and early 80’s, bestsellers were still coming out during my early adult life (e.g. The Things They Carried (1990) and We Were Soldiers Once… and Young (1992).) Even once the war wasn’t news anymore, discussion of the aftershocks continued to grace news and talk shows. I do remember my father watching an episode of 60 Minutes  which showed footage of helicopters being pushed off of aircraft carriers into the sea as American forces steamed back home. I have no idea what that story was about (perhaps the ecological and environmental effects of the war,) I just thought it was too bad that they were destroying perfectly good whirly-gigs.

 

Terms like “the fall of Saigon” were etched into my consciousness before I had any capacity to understand them. It fell from what? To what? I didn’t know. It’s a city, right? How can a city fall? Balls fall. People fall. Dinner plates, unfortunately, fall. Of course, I’d eventually be taught what it meant, and would mistakenly think I knew what it meant for many years. I thought it meant the defeat of those forces that would keep Vietnam from becoming a totalitarian dystopia akin to the Soviet Union or, even more apropos, Kim dynasty North Korea. Sure enough, one side–the side that America had supported–had been defeated, but otherwise this “fall” was false.

 

IMG_0411As one walks around Saigon today, passing a few Starbucks, a Carl’s Jr, and innumerable Circle-Ks, it’s difficult to imagine how a victory by the other side would have resulted in a more entrepreneurial or vibrant Vietnam. The college kids at the dinner, largely ignoring the friends around them in favor of texting someone else on their iPhones, seem strikingly like their counterparts in Bangalore and Atlanta. They seem mirthful and exuberant. A tour guide lets fly little criticisms about the bureaucracy, and nobody sweeps in and throws a black hood over his head. People just don’t seem scared, brainwashed, or crazy, and–believe me–everybody who survives in North Korea fits one of those criteria. (While I’ve been impressed by cool, gregarious, and well-spoken North Korean diplomats; they’re always accompanied by a sinewy, mirthless “assistant” who I’m pretty sure has a syringe of strychnine in his pocket to silence the diplomat if he goes off script.)

 

I’m aware that it’s difficult to see the dysfunctions of a nation as a traveler or tourist. I also realize that–to twist Tolstoy– “All happy nations are alike; each unhappy nation is unhappy in its own way.” However, what Tolstoy’s quote doesn’t convey is that all families are unhappy in some measure–and the same is true of nations. However, it’s easy enough to see extremes of dysfunction. That’s why the Kims mostly keep foreigners out of the DPRK and carefully select and manage the experience of those they do let in. It’s difficult to imagine a degree to which things could be better in Vietnam that would have made the cost of that war worth it.

 

I also know that hindsight is 20/20, but where fear runs rampant foresight is 20/100 with a nasty astigmatism. In my International Affairs graduate program, I specialized in asymmetric warfare, writing a thesis entitled, “Playing a Poor Hand Well.” While my thesis didn’t focus on Vietnam, one can’t study asymmetric warfare without learning a thing or two about the Vietnam war. One learns that the mathematical, attrition rate-based formulas that analysts love are worthless in deciding a victor when one side is fighting in their backyard and the other is fighting in a place of marginal importance to a population who mostly couldn’t point said country out on a map. Will matters. What made America take on such a burden on the other side of the world?  Many feared a domino effect. If Vietnam was lost to the forces of communism, soon we’d be surrounded by tyrannical totalitarian states blaring “one of us, one of us…” through loudspeakers until we relented–or something like that. In retrospect, it seems like an astounding lack of faith in the appeal of democracy and rule of law, but that’s what happens when one stews in one’s fears.

 

What worries me is that I still see a desire to make mountainous threats out of mere ant hills.

 

 

 

 

BOOK REVIEW: A Million Shades of Gray by Cynthia Kadohata

A Million Shades of GrayA Million Shades of Gray by Cynthia Kadohata
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This young adult (YA) novel is set in the Central Highlands of Vietnam during the last few years of the war. The lead character, Y’tin, is an adolescent whose life ambition is to be an elephant handler, a dream which he’s well on the way to achieving and which he’d be a shoo-in for if he didn’t live in war-torn times. His life is complicated by the fact that his father has worked for the American Special Forces (as a tracker), and the war is turning in the favor of the North.

When US forces withdraw and South Vietnamese forces are overrun, Y’tin escapes into the jungle with a couple of other boys and their elephants. Almost immediately a fault line freezes out Y’tin. The three boys had been close friends in the village, but under the stress of jungle life, the other two resent that Y’tin’s father worked for US Special Forces and that Y’tin, himself, had once gone on mission with the Americans. They believe that this is what has brought the war to their village. On the other hand, they recognize that Y’tin is more gifted in jungle craft than they, especially tracking, because of the education of his father.

Because of these skills, Y’tin is chosen to go back on a mission to reconnoiter their village, and he finds it’s been bombed out and nobody is to be seen. This leaves it unclear how many of the villagers escaped versus being executed by the North Vietnamese forces—but he does know many were killed. [Incidentally, the title comes from Y’tin’s view of the jungle after seeing the remnants of his village—i.e. instead of being a million shades of green, all he can see is gray.]

Besides telling the story of Y’tin’s adventures in surviving the war, the novel pivots on Y’tin’s role as a mahout—and ultimately as a protector of the elephants. Y’tin finds himself in a position in which his dream is no longer tenable, and he must decide whether take a heroic risk to save the elephants or hold on to his dream in the face of unfavorable odds.

The book is only a little over 200 pages arranged into 14 chapters, and—as would be expected of YA fiction—is readable. The book’s strength is in building a lead character who’s interesting by virtue of his mix of worldly naiveté and jungle [local] wisdom and giving him intense challenges and dilemmas. Weakness? The strict chronological progression results in a slow start in which the author spends a chapter establishing that the lead character loves elephants without anything interesting happening. However, if one gives the book til the second chapter, things start happening.

I’d recommend this book for readers of fiction, and particularly those interested in YA fiction and stories of war.

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BOOK REVIEW: On Killing by David Grossman

On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and SocietyOn Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society by Dave Grossman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Grossman’s work reports on a line of research started by Army historian and author of “Men Against Fire” S.L.A. Marshall. Grossman not only brings us up-to-date on this thesis, he shows us its ramifications for modern society-at-large.

A two-part thesis was advanced by Marshall and continued by Grossman and others.

First, humans, like other species, are reluctant to kill within their species. (Marshall noted that in World War II about 75% of soldiers would not fire on the enemy when they had the opportunity. There is evidence this was true for earlier wars as well.

Second, the percentage of soldiers firing on the enemy could be increased by training that conditions them to shooting targets that look more human. i.e. Instead of shooting bulls-eyes, they should at least shoot a shape that looks like the silhouette of a man’s head and shoulders.

It turns out that the ability to condition combatants proved correct. There was a progressive increase in genuine engagement of the enemy by soldiers in subsequent wars (i.e. the Korean and Vietnam Wars.)

Grossman goes on to say that this type of conditioning is not limited to soldiers and police officers. He suggests that video games in which gamers shoot at humans and humanoid creatures will desensitize players to trigger pulling. Many scoff at this idea because they think that he is saying that such games make killers. What he is suggesting is a bit more subtle than that. He is saying that a person who is pre-dispossessed to go on a killing spree will be less reluctant if they have undergone the conditioning of this type of gaming. In essence, an high barrier to going on a killing spree will be lowered.

Grossman covers many other issues related to killing, such as the importance of distance. One intriguing fact is that an infantryman that kills a single enemy soldier in war is more likely to have problems such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) than a bombardier who drops bombs that may likely resulted in hundreds or thousands of deaths.

The book also talks about the role of authority, famously addressed by the Milgram experiments. Stanley Milgram found that most people would turn a knob that they believed was delivering a severe shock to a complete stranger, if they were told to do so by someone who seemed to be an authority figure.

I highly recommend this book for those interested in the subjects of:
– PTSD
– the role of violent video games in mass killings
– the psychological effects of killing

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