A Vietnamese Perspective on the Wars

A review of ‘Nationalist in the Viet Nam Wars: Memoirs of a Victim Turned Soldier’

A Vietnamese Perspective on the Wars A Vietnamese Perspective on the Wars

Uncategorized August 14, 2013 0

South Vietnamese troops in combat against vietcong guerillas. Wikimedia commons A Vietnamese Perspective on the Wars A review of ‘Nationalist in the Viet Nam... A Vietnamese Perspective on the Wars
South Vietnamese troops in combat against vietcong guerillas. Wikimedia commons

A Vietnamese Perspective on the Wars

A review of ‘Nationalist in the Viet Nam Wars: Memoirs of a Victim Turned Soldier’

Accounts of the Vietnam War from the perspective of Vietnamese are often overlooked, and books by South Vietnamese soldiers in particular are relatively rare.

For that reason, Nguyên Công Luân’s new autobiography Nationalist in the Viet Nam Wars: Memoirs of a Victim Turned Soldier is refreshing … but heavy. In 598 dense pages, the memoir weaves in-depth historical analysis with Luân’s own experiences. This is not a light read, and I recommend it only for those seriously interested in Vietnam’s wars.

But for the serious reader this book is a treasure trove. Luân recounts his experiences during the Japanese occupation, the rise of the communists and brutal French colonialism. He details his service in the army of South Vietnam, life as a veteran of the losing side in unified Vietnam and, ultimately, his emigration to the United States.

Luân was born in the North to a lower middle-class family and was heavily influenced by his father, a teacher and Vietnamese patriot. The boy quickly learned to distrust the French. He recalls atrocities and abuses by the French, including one French officer who kept a harem of Vietnamese girls who had been detained in raids. But Luân also credits the men of honor in the French army, in particular a Senegalese sergeant who saved him from a particularly brutal French African soldier.

He also recounts the rise to power of the Vietminh. Initially, Luân was inspired by the guerrillas and Ho Chi Minh’s writings. But he eventually became disillusioned by their methods, particularly their purges of non-communist nationalist movements. Luân’s father was detained and died in communist custody. Luân along with many other non-communist nationalists decided to move south.

Having spent his life as a witness to and victim of war, and knowing that peace was not in Vietnam’s immediate future, he decided to make a stand. Luân joined the fledgling army of the Republic of Vietnam.

He was under no illusion. He knew that he’d earn far less money than his peers who’d elected to pursue law or medicine. He was also acutely aware that the army and government in Saigon were wracked with corruption. But Luân believed that if young men of principle stood by, there would never be reform. In addition to fighting the communists, he and his compatriots waged an unending war on corruption in their own ranks. He admits that he would “never see a fair election in Vietnam, whether under the communist or non-communist regime.”

Luân worked closely with the Americans, and believed the high point of Vietnamese-American relations was between 1960 and ‘64, when the Americans still had only an advisory role and didn’t try to control the war. Later he felt sympathy for the young American GIs, thrust into a conflict half a world away from home in a land they didn’t understand.

Some of the most interesting revelations come from Luân’s time in America as a military trainee. He trained with fellow East Asian soldiers, and together they explored American culture. He was inspired by the freedoms Americans enjoyed and hoped that one day reformers like himself could bring some of that to his own beloved republic. But he also speaks of his discomfort in seeing how African Americans were treated around Ft Benning in Georgia.

After the fall of Saigon Luân, like many other soldiers, was imprisoned by communist authorities. For years he went from camp to camp, enduring hard labor and brutal “re-education.” He was eventually freed but found no peace, as “puppet troops” were barred from many opportunities. Vietnam remained at war against the Khmer Rouge and the Chinese. Eventually Luân saw a chance to leave for America to start a new life—and took it.

Luân’s account is both unflinching and nuanced, never shying from ugly truths and also never depriving participants of their humanity. He praises his enemies when he feels they acted bravely or justly. Ultimately he longs to see Vietnam and its people, both within its borders and throughout the diaspora, find some measure of peace and reconciliation.

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