This review originally appeared at diaCRITICS.org.
Reviewed by Z.M. Quỳnh
“South Vietnam paid a horrendous price in the war – ultimately losing more than a quarter of a million South Vietnamese soldiers between 1955 and 1975. The stories of the men and women who served in the military forces of South Vietnam are invisible—lost in time.” – Nathalie Huynh Chau Nguyen
Imagine you are dying. You are young—18. You have served for less than six months. You have never been kissed. Or you are in your 50s. You have served for two decades. You have left your wife and five children behind in your village. You are on a battlefield. You are dying from multiple gunshots during a two day siege defending your hometown. You are dying in an ambush in the middle of the jungle. You are dying from tripping a landmine. You are dying on the same soil that only a few years before, you helped farm. You knew this would happen when you enlisted or when you escaped conscription but were caught. However your path to this moment of your inevitable death—at least you know one thing: you died fighting for a free democratic Vietnam. Or… You imagine, as you pass the threshold of life and death, that your country, in the grip of Communism, will forget you.
This is the plight of the vanquished—those men and women of the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces (RVNAF). Between 1955 and 1975, an estimated quarter of a million South Vietnamese soldiers were killed. Though it is seldom mentioned, the South Vietnamese sacrificed one in every five soldiers, one in every twenty adult males to injury or death for the South Vietnamese dream of democracy. And yet, their memory has been all but erased, if not maligned, from the national memory of postwar Vietnam and suppressed in the wider American military-dominated war narratives.
Nathalie Nguyen memorializes their stories in her astounding and remarkable book, South Vietnamese Soldiers: Memories of the Vietnam War and After, a rare collection of the narratives of RVNAF veterans whose stories have mostly been shrouded behind a cloak of silence. Nguyen, an Associate Professor of History at Monash University, has accomplished the impossible: record the histories and herstories that are often kept hidden in silence. Showcasing the experiences of two generations of 52 male and female South Vietnamese soldiers currently living in Australia who represent all of the branches of the RVNAF—the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Airborne Division, Rangers, Regional and Popular Forces, and the Women’s Armed Forces Corps, the book is a gem to a generation hungry to understand the past lives of their elders and ancestors.
Here are veteran’s memories of their service; combat tales; bonds with other servicemen and women that were only broken by death; their sense of sacrifice; and finally the intergenerational experiences of their children with regard to their military service.
In the pages of South Vietnamese Soldiers, I learned about Bui Ngoc Thuy who volunteered for the Airborne Division at the age of 19 in 1955 and was parachuting out of airplanes in basic training along with a cohort of female soldiers. In her narrative, she retells her experience as a nurse for the Airborne when she had to traverse battlefields to treat and transport injured soldiers back to a military hospital for treatment. Thuy served for a total of 16 years, became second lieutenant, and was eventually promoted to chief of social services in the Medical Corps.
I also met Vu Hoai Duc, born in 1917, whose service spanned three wars beginning with World War II when he volunteered for the French Army in 1938 and was eventually sent to North Africa. During his four years of service, Duc had the opportunity to study law and journalism at Montpellier University in France. As a result, he was able to serve as press officer of the Vietnamese General Staff in 1952 at the beginning of Vietnam’s civil war. He later served as special aide-de-camp to former Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1960.
The most notable segment of the book are the oral histories of women who served in the Women’s Armed Forces Corps (WAFC)—narratives that cannot be found anywhere else. Nguyen dedicates an entire chapter to military women, detailing the formation and history of the WAFC through the stories of South Vietnam’s female soldiers like Bui Ngoc Thuy, Ho Thi Ve, Phung Thi Hanh, Nguyen Thi Nam, Nguyen Thi Minh Nguyet, among others who protect their identities through pseudonyms. More importantly, Nguyen points out that women also served unofficially in combat capacities. 130,000 women served in combat forces defending hamlets and urban neighborhoods.
Outside of Nguyen’s book, however, our warriors have not fared well. South Vietnamese war cemeteries and memorials were razed shortly after the Fall of Saigon; over a million government workers, including members of the armed forces and teachers, were interned in “re-education camps,” some for more than a decade, some never returning. Though many were able to immigrate to the U.S. through the Orderly Departure Program, those who remained were forced to live on the margins of Vietnamese society, their injuries and disabilities incurred in the line of service ignored, medical assistance and employment denied, and their children prevented from attending schools.
“The North is trying to erase the political memory of the South, but those memories remain in the people who took part, in the memories of family members still in Vietnam, and among those who fled to countries such as Australia and the U.S.,” Nguyen says.
We are slowly losing time with our warriors. Nguyen’s project resulted in the establishment of an oral history collection at the National Library of Australia: “The accounts of South Vietnamese veterans are a part of Vietnam’s history that can now be preserved for a time when Vietnam can finally acknowledge them,” she says. The time is ripe for the U.S. and Vietnamese Americans to do the same—explore, commemorate, and honor all who sacrificed for our freedom.
Z.M. Quỳnh is currently working on a novel that highlights the experiences of ARVN soldiers. You can visit her at zmquynh.com.