Recently, a reviewer of The Violent Season, Ray Voith, asked me this question, “I meant to ask you – did you talk to North Vietnamese soldiers to get a perspective on their part in the war, or did you base your segments about them on the (valid) assumption that we are all in this life together?”
First, a little about Ray before I get to his question. We’ve never met, but he and I have shared a significant, formative experience. We both attended a Roman Catholic seminary for the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America, known as Maryknoll. Since Ray is older… much… much… older than I am, we weren’t there at the same time, but we were both nurtured in the humanity, social justice and the life of the spirit which is Maryknoll.
Maryknoll’s hope for us was, “To raise up sterling men for God.” I sincerely hope I have not disappointed them and my Maryknoll brothers and sisters,.
Now to Ray’s question.
No. I haven’t spoken to any former members of the People’s Army of North Vietnam (PAVN), except to trade insults across a battle field.
“Hey, GI! You got American cigarette?”
“Smoking’s bad for your health, Charlie!”
“My name not Charrie!”
“And my name’s not GI! I have a mother!”
Although I have read intelligence briefs and transcripts of the debriefings of defectors and POW, my general inspirations for the characterization of the North Vietnamese soldiers in The Violent Season, is Erich Maria Remarque’s novel, All’s Quiet on the Western Front, which I read shortly after returning home from Southeast Asia.
This book was breakthrough for me in a number of ways.
First, I was brought up in a generation that vilified Germans. My grandfather had fought them in the First World War, and my father and uncles had fought them in the Second. In every war movie I had watched as a kid, the soldiers of the Wehrmacht were portrayed as brainless, clumsy, evil automatons, who spoke English badly with thick accents. “Sooo… vair are your papers… hmmm?” They were the enemy!
So, I was surprised and quite impressed by Remarque’s characterization of German soldiers, Paul Bäumer and his comrades. I immediately recognized in them myself and the guys with whom I served in Nam. Despite being Germans, and therefore the “bad guys,” they became human for me. I recognized their plight and sympathized with them. They were me!
Second, the book helped me understand my own sense of alienation. When I got home from Nam, everything seemed superficially pretty much as it was before I left. Although my brothers and sisters had grown a bit, and mom and dad were a little greyer around the edges, my room was still in the basement, (I had to kick my brother out of it). My favorite shows-Bewitched (Oh! Elizabeth Montgomery!), Dean Martin (Oh! The Ding-A-Ling Sisters!), Mission Impossible, Get Smart (Oh! Barbara Feldon!), and Monty Python-were still on the tube. My favorite rock station, 77-WABC, was still blasting out the tunes. And most of my friends were either back from the war or had never left.
But, something seemed “off.” I couldn’t put my finger on what was wrong. Everything seemed pretty much the same, but something dark was lurking around the margins of my perception… some discordant note in every chord.
Then, I read the passage in All’s Quiet on the Western Front where Paul goes home from the front on leave. He finds his hometown has not changed since he went off to war. However, he also discovers that he does “not belong here anymore, it is a foreign world.” He feels disconnected from most of the people he had known before going into the army. In the end, he concludes that he should never to have come home, and returns to his comrades at the front before his leave expired.
In The Violent Season, I wrote a chapter, “Coming Home,” telling the story of Pat Green’s coming home and his struggle with his sense of “not belonging” in a society that was not welcoming to returning soldiers.
But, back to Ray’s question.
In writing The Violent Season, I wanted to break the typical “good guy / bad guy” convention of the genre. So, I adopted the premise that “the enemy,” the North Vietnamese, were as human as were I and my comrades.
Of course, my other hurdle in achieving a connection with North Vietnamese soldiers was cultural and racial. I remember statements about the North Vietnamese made to me by other soldiers, while I was in Nam that “they weren’t like us”; or “they don’t put the same value on human life that we do”; or, “they’re fanatics because of communism.”
Right after leaving the army in 1970, I had my “ex-patriot” experience, but instead of heading off to Paris like Hemingway, I headed to Taipei. I had no intention of returning to the States any time soon. I immersed myself in the Chinese culture, even learning to speak Guoyu, and enough of the Taiwanese dialect to order lunch.
My experience of the Chinese people was consistent with the “Theory of the Universal 20–80 Split.” There were certainly some cultural differences, but that was the just the twenty percent of the experince. As far as the other eighty percent went, the Chinese and I shared the same sense of humanity. They desired security and happiness. They laughed at funny movies and wept at sad ones. They loved their children. They were cautious with strangers… just like me.
So, when I attempted to develop the characterization of the North Vietnamese soldiers in The Violent Season, I assumed about them the eighty percent. My characters are attached to and concerned about their families; they want the war to be over so they can go home; they’re terrified by the dangers of combat. The other twenty percent-army routines, cultural beliefs, communist ideology-I constructed from research and imagination.
Another of my assumptions in constructing my characters was that, as in our army, there were some “good guys” serving in PAVN and some real jerks. So, essential questions for me as a writer were, “How would a NVA grunt behave?” And, “How would an NVA cultural or ideological martinet behave?” This approach defines the essential difference in characterization between Sergeant Major Trinh and Sub-Lieutenant Tran Trung Thanh, who appear in my story “A Very Bad Day.”
Trinh, who in his essence is a poet and teacher like his long-dead father, whom he continues to mourn, is of course severely damaged emotionally by a lifetime of war against the Japanese, the French, other Vietnamese, and now the Americans. Tran, on the other hand, is an FNG-a “F’ing New Guy”- still a boy really, “high” on the propaganda he was force-fed as a university student in Hanoi. Tran forces a fire fight with an American patrol near a place in the highlands called “The Volcano,” despite Trinh’s advice that the engagement is unnecessary. Of course, the results are tragic for both the Vietnamese and Americans involved.
The characterization of Colonel Tran Van Dung in the final two “Chu Pa” stories of The Violent Season is based my conception of how a North Vietnamese career officer, trained as a staff planner along the lines of the US Army’s Command and General Staff School, with pronounced Meyers-Briggs “Thinking” and “Judging” inclinations, would have behaved.
Dung is essentially a good man; he wants to serve his country and believes that his actions serve to reunite his people. But, not only is he faced with a powerful enemy that seeks to destroy his command, but he is also constantly forced to deal with internal “political” influences and ideologies, which at times, albeit potent and dangerous, are not constructive. These I represent by Lieutenant Colonel Dai and his black notebook.
Dung is one of my favorite characters in The Violent Season for a good reason. When I read the sections of the book dealing with Dung to my wife, Jan, she responded, “So! He’s you!” Ironically, she was absolutely correct. Dung is me! And he’s every other soldier-American, Vietnamese, Korean, Australian, and Degar-who fought that war.
One of the stories that I didn’t write for Season was Dung being invited to address a group of American veterans long after the war had ended. At first the Americans are hostile to him; he’s still “the enemy” in their minds. But, as they begin to realize that they share more with this man than they do with many of their own fellow citizens, they come to embrace him.
This potential for empathy between American soldiers and their former enemies, was expressed in my first book A Grunt Speaks,
“NVA. This was an abbreviation for the North Vietnamese Army, also known as the Peoples’ Army of Vietnam (PAVN). These were bad guys on testosterone. They were typically well-trained, well-equipped and motivated, unlike the Viet Cong whose training and sub-standard weapons were as much a danger to themselves as they were to any grunts they might encounter. The NVA could be recognized by their pith helmets, tan or OD uniforms, red collar tabs (if you got that close, you were about to have a bad day) shiny, clean, Czech-made AK’s and bad attitudes. Grunts’ attitude toward the NVA was a combination of hate, fear and respect. The “hate” and “fear” part is obvious—their job was to kill us and they were damn good at it. The “respect” is harder to explain. First, like us they were “good grunts”—they were trained, tough and determined. Second, these guys were sharing our experience—putting up with the same crap, living in the dirt amidst the bugs and reptiles, losing friends, missing home—and putting up with their own version of lifer—the political cadre (I’m sure more than one of these blokes wound up with a frag in his blankets). Ironically, the NVA were the closest thing to us we had in Nam.” (from A Grunt Speaks).
Thomas Hardy, in his poem, “A Man He Killed,” had it right, I think, “Yes; quaint and curious war is!”
So, to my friend, Ray Voith’s, question, did I interview any North Vietnamese veterans for my book, the answer is no. They were within me. Now, they are brought to life in The Violent Season.