War Is Hell--and Vietnam Was the Greatest Example.

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The Universal Devastation of War

Matthew Fieldman

History of the Vietnam War Term Paper Due: 4-17-97

"It is a great thing to die in your own bed, though it is better still to die in your boots." (George Orwell, qtd. in Wolff 219)

At the conclusion of the Korean War, most Americans viewed their country's military conflicts as admirable, even romantic, events in history. Newsreels showing the nation's young and vibrant soldiers marching off to war created a popular yet misguided conception that, based on our military technology, moral righteousness, and superior organization, Americans would be the clear and decisive victors in any conflict . War, as demonstrated in the statement by Orwell, was not a destructive international catastrophe, but a courageous endeavor where patriotic Americans fought for the ideals of freedom, justice, and democracy. In a tiny country called Vietnam, these fantasies were shattered. Not only were young Americans slaughtered by the thousands, but innocent civilians were caught from the very beginning in a war where both sides were the enemy. For Americans at home, the war was a complete disaster where politicians, generals, and tacticians struggled to avoid defeat; for those involved, the war altered their lives forever. The books by Le Ly Hayslip, Duong Thu Huong, and Tobias Wolff attempt to relate to their readers the sense of complete devastation that the war left on the people involved. In When Heaven and Earth Change Places, Novel Without a Name, and In Pharoah's Army, the authors all discuss their motives for entering the war, their shock at the lies that they find in every situation, the corruption that makes up an integral part of daily life, the enormous amounts of destruction caused by the war, and their overwhelming senses of helplessness.

As the war begins, both Tobias Wolff and Duong Thu Huong's character, Quan, look upon the war with great enthusiasm and excitement. Wolff enters the Army because he has nowhere else to go, but soon finds that he likes Vietnam and has a definable goal during his tour there. When he first arrives, Wolff says, "I took pleasure in being one of a very few white men among all these dark folk, big among the small, rich among the poor. My special position did not make me arrogant, not at first. It made me feel benevolent, generous, protective, as if I were surrounded by children . . . " (13) Further, Wolff enters with a strong sense of ideological commitment. He argues with his friends in support of its cause even after the war, saying, ""I was afraid of the war, but I never questioned its necessity" (67). And, as he learns during boot camp, fighting in Vietnam will test his masculinity and bring him honor and glory . As we will see, these views soon change drastically, but, as his tour begins, Wolff is filled with idealism and faith in the morality of his cause.

Although Quan is also dedicated to his side in the beginning, his motives are very different. Quan is proud to carry arms in defense of his country--he remarks that his participation in the war effort serves as a bond between him and his ancestors. Further, for any Vietnamese male at the time, it was an undeniable responsibility to defend the country against foreign aggressors, just as they had against the Mongols, Ming Chinese, Japanese, and French. Quan states: "My generation, we joined the army as soon as we reached the age to do our patriotic duty. The blood in our veins is Vietnamese. As long as a foreign invader remains on our soil, we'll fight" (75). Unlike Wolff's decision to join the Army and fight for his country, Quan is not given a choice--he must defend his country or allow it to become, once again, a colonial possession of some tyrannical, imperial power.

This perceived struggle between life and death leads to the unparalleled devotion of the Vietnamese to their cause. Huong's book contains numerous scenes of average people making huge sacrifices to help the Communist effort. One example is found when Bien's company must build coffins in the mountainous jungle. When asked how the company removes the enormous wooden boxes, Bien replies, "It's impossible to bring trucks in here. The only way to get the coffins over the mountain is on the backs of those men" (192) . Another example is the woman Quan stays a night with. She beams with pride as she proclaims, "I used to have a house, two buildings made out of a wood as red as lacquer. My husband tore them down to fill the road for the gun carriers. What he said was, as long as those vehicles can get by, no regrets for the house" (199).

This sentiment is expressed innumerable times throughout the novel. As the story progresses, it becomes more and more evident that this is not the average war between two opposing forces; rather, to use Giap's words, it is a "people's war. Quan expresses it well when he says: "They might be superior in weaponry, but those well-fed boys couldn't possibly have the drive of those ready to fight until death. To die. To accept death. That was the first quality necessary to the combatant in any army that had fixed its sights on glory. . . . No other army in the world could have had our capacity for suffering, for resisting, for perseverance" (79).

In contrast, Hayslip is never subject to such emotions; rather, she is sucked in by the Viet Cong when they invade and "liberate" her village. Before she knows it, she is serving the Viet Cong, engaging in menial labor and petty theft. Ideology, imperialism, democracy, Communism--these words are never a part of Hayslip's vocabulary. From day one, the name of the game is survival, and surviving was simply a matter of doing whatever those in power demanded of you. Growing up, ""whenever we turned something over to the Viet Cong--even something as small as a mess kit or pocketknife--we were rewarded like heroes. Handmade medals were pinned to our shirts and our names were entered on the Blackboard of Honor" (45). As a result, Hayslip is unconsciously forced to participate without even choosing a side and, very rapidly, she is exposed to the horrors of war from both sides.

Of all the deaths caused by the Vietnam War, perhaps the most saddening was the death of truth and honesty. In this war, truth was what the victor decided it was--no side could be held accountable for their actions as long as the truth could be buried beneath the fog of war . Each character soon becomes disillusioned about the war's reality, and is repulsed by what they find beneath a nearly impenetrable layer of lies.

After ten years of fighting, Quan finds the Communist propaganda repulsive. As his close friends are being killed by the dozen, Quan is angered by Communist propaganda proclaiming that victory is near. And when a Communist newspaper declares a glorious victory during Tet, Quan rips it to shreds and throws the remnants into the water (83). Furthermore, while the Communists proclaim that the Americans are the hideous foreign aggressors, Quan knows the reality of the situation. Tigers, malaria, and cholera--but, most of all, Communist execution squads--are killing far more Viet Cong soldiers and docile Vietnamese peasants than these "vicious" American troops (190). As one can see, lies pervaded every facet of life, creating a sense of frustration and resentment within Quan.

Despite the fact that she lives miles from any warzone in the tiny village of Ky La, Le Ly Hayslip is also subjected to the wide-spread disregard for honesty and truth. Seeing a squad of Republican troops heading towards the village, Hayslip knows that her life is in danger: "Nobody would be interested in my side of the story. Nobody would be interested in the truth. The same 'facts' were there for everyone to see and truth, in this war, was whatever you wanted to make it" (87). She also sees the other side of the equation--the brutality inflicted by the Republicans when the Viet Cong could not be found. Regardless of a person's loyalty or history of service to the government, anyone who looked suspicious could be carted off to jail or simply executed on the spot (41). In a related instance, a whole family is systematically slaughtered by the Republicans when they are found to have a relative in the VC (49). Because perceptions mean far more than reality, Hayslip must watch her every action so that it isn't interpreted as helping either side in this confusing, and often contradictory, war.

Wolff's disillusionment is a gradual process where, one by one, his misconceptions are destroyed and the realities of war begin to set in. From the very beginning, Wolff knew that, "Illusions kept me going, and I declined to pursue any line of thought that might put them in danger" (5). Whereas he felt like a caring father looking after the South Vietnamese peasantry, he soon finds that his whole reality is a terra infirma built on rumors, lies, and misperceptions; the peasants turn out to be "maddeningly self-possessed, ungrateful people, whom we necessarily feared and therefore hated and could never understand" (20).

Not only is Wolff disillusioned about the situation off the battlefield, he soon finds that, in actuality, there is no "battlefield" at all. Wolff enters with the idea that he will participate in violent, full-scale battles, where armor, helicopters, and artillery all contribute to an American victory. The first thing he realizes is that this is not the case: "We did not die by the hundreds in pitched battles. We died a man at a time, at a pace almost casual" (7). The most significant event, though, is the disaster of Tet--not the military loss, which in reality was minor, but the psychological disillusionment that resulted from the attacks. Wolff states that the Tet Offensive "taught the people that we did not love them and would not protect them; that for all our talk of partnership and brotherhood we disliked and mistrusted them, and that we would kill every last one of them to save our own skins" (140). Throughout Wolff's book, we see this slow transformation in attitude from defending innocent civilians to doing anything to survive in a hostile land.

Another destructive factor that the three characters face is the wide-spread corruption that pervades every aspect of life. The black market is not just a place where people go to obtain food and water, it is a lucrative way of life. Stealing, lying, cheating, and trading illegal items are all ways of surviving, and each character, if not directly involved, is greatly affected by the corruption within Vietnamese society caused by the war.

In Novel Without a Name, it is Mr. Buu who takes it upon himself to speak out about the ongoing dehumanization caused by the war. He states that, before the war, most generals were honest and civilized men. But, when the war gives them a status of absolute power, they are corrupted absolutely. Free of the fetters of public scrutiny and disgrace, the generals are free to pillage anything they find valuable. Not only do they ignore the basic Marxist teachings that state the necessity of a class struggle against their elite oppressors, they use these teachings to justify their actions (133). They travel from North to South, escorted by squads of elite body guards, black market liaisons, slaves, and concubines . In a land supposedly threatened by foreign invasion, Mr. Buu believes that it is the internal strife caused by Vietnamese elites that constitutes the genuine danger.

Tobias Wolff is no stranger to the black market and the corruption found in Vietnam. His book starts off with Wolff "acquiring" a television from the local Army base, a sneaky maneuver that typifies life in Vietnam. Using an elaborate system of bribery and kickbacks--trading Viet Cong flags, the infamous ChiCom rifle, or other Vietnamese memorabilia is especially popular--Wolff is able to obtain anything he wants or needs. The South Vietnamese (ARVN) also engage in illicit practices: "When their men deserted they kept them on the roster and continued to draw their pay . . . Our own battalion was seriously understrength" (15). And, when not engaged in illegal activities, the ARVN unit Wolff works with focuses on finding food and avoiding combat--one of the key stories in the book centers around a poor little dog the soldiers are intent on eating. If there is any underlying theme of Wolff's book, it is that, in war, people look out for themselves and no one else; in these examples, we see this theme demonstrated conclusively.

By far the most influenced by this new lifestyle was Hayslip, who eventually must prostitute herself in order to survive. But even as a young girl, she sees the benefits of living this alternative lifestyle. Her cousin, a black marketeer, is her first contact with the Saigon underworld, and she soon realizes that: "Beginning with the motorbike, he had nicer things, including a watch and a camera, than anyone I had known . . . " (117) Eventually, stripped of all legal means of making a living, Hayslip must resort to selling drugs, bribery, and larceny. Towards the end, Hayslip realizes, "I had come to worship at the shrine of the street-smart and shrewd, the tough and canny, and not at the altar. I had become my own worst enemy" (189). All this could not have happened in a traditional Vietnam, but when two armies battle throughout the country, every aspect of life is transformed irrevocably. Hayslip's father puts it well when he says, "Don't hate Chin--and don't hate Ba for marrying him. Hate the war for doing what it did to them both" (164). Even when Hayslip returns to her home, she finds that the black market and underhanded dealing still reign supreme. Ironically, the government itself asks for a "donation" from all its returning citizens! (215) In a war where no side is really "good" or "bad," people must do what they can to survive. Corruption, and the use thereof, offers this chance, and many people are able to benefit from its lucrative, if illegal, practice.

Another universal theme throughout the three books is the absolute obliteration of Vietnamese land and towns. Throughout her book, Hayslip talks about the shells falling in and around Ky La, the fires, and other forms of destruction wrought by the opposing sides on this primitive village. Little is left when Hayslip returns home after her escape to America. Also, in Huong's book, Quan says sadly that: Nothing was like it used to be. The insecticides the farmers used had depopulated the countryside just as the bombs had killed something in our souls, the divine inspiration that had once filled our lives. I didn't hear the sawing of grasshopper wings anymore. There wouldn't be another chance to chase emerald-green praying mantises. That joy wouldn't come again. Even the night birds had left these fields for other skies." (144)

In a crucial scene for Wolff, we gain a shocking insight into the reason behind the annihilation of a village. During the Tet Offensive, the North Vietnamese seize Wolff's base of My Tho. Wolff calls in a massive artillery barrage, knowing full well that innocent civilians far outnumber enemy troops. To Wolff, the bombardment seems not only logical but necessary: "When you're afraid you will kill anything that might kill you. Now that the enemy had the town, the town was the enemy" (138). Thus, all three characters experience the destruction, both of humanity and of Nature, caused by this senseless war.

Finally, a terrifying sense of helplessness pervades each novel. Not only are the main characters powerless to alter their situations, but in many cases they survive only by chance. For example, Wolff knows that, during his stay in Vietnam, "I was alive because they didn't consider me worth killing. I understood that, perfectly. I also understood that they might change their minds, take it into their heads that I mattered somehow" (87). Even when his tour ends, Wolff still feels this lack of control--he knows that, in his time in Vietnam, his only success was in staying alive (187). Even when faced with imminent combat, Wolff shrinks from his duty in the hopes of staying alive: "This was a chance to offer myself up and put all doubt to rest, and I found I had no heart for it. The knowledge was humiliating. It left me with no protection against myself" (155). Upon his return home, he feels no glory, no honors, and no manhood. Just an overwhelming sense of emptiness caused by his perception of a personal and national failure in Vietnam.

Hayslip learns a similar lesson early in life. From the liberation of Ky La by the Viet Cong, Hayslip becomes a mindless pawn, often traded between whoever is in power. She calls herself the "perfect victim," because she cannot fight back against the forces that control her life. For example, she finds that, "In the war that was about to begin, many people would be killed simply because they were related by birth or by marriage to the wrong person--someone who was an enemy to the person who held the gun" (34). After numerous jailings, beatings, and endless sessions of torture, Hayslip finally concludes that in order to survive, she must "shun the Republic and its wheels of corruption, just as I knew I must elude the Viet Cong if my child was to be born and have a mother after that" (168). In this seemingly endless war, where both sides commit vile atrocities at will, Hayslip decides that she will help neither side, but rather, "My duty lay with my son, and with nurturing life, period" (214). Thus, Hayslip takes whatever actions necessary to care for her unborn child and avoid the war at all costs.

Quan, too, finds that he is impotent to make any significant decisions or cause any changes in the way his army fights. When another soldier named Hung begins executing defenseless prisoners of war; Quan can do nothing to stop the senseless violence (224). The eating of orangutans by Quan's men symbolizes far more that desperate men devouring whatever comes their way--it shows the fact that, in war, many men swallow their morality in their attempts to win at all costs (6). This is the theme behind Huong's book, and she fills her novel with examples of the disgusting behavior that war makes possible.

In conclusion, George Orwell was wrong when he stated that it is better to die in one's boots--meaning in war--than in bed. The messages of Duong Thu Huong, Tobias Wolff, and Le Ly Hayslip all rebuke Orwell's statement with shocking force. For these three authors, the Vietnam War was not a "noble cause," but a horrible bloodbath where innocent victims were slain simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. In all three books, one reads of the naive desire to fight, the death of honesty, the prevalence of corruption, the appalling destruction, and the feeling of complete helplessness. Thus, while the political reasons for the war are still debatable today, the negative impact of the war on the individuals involved is undeniable. By reading these poignant and meaningful novels, perhaps we will one day learn from our mistakes, and never again allow the occurrence of another Vietnam War.

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