THE WRITERS POST
VOLUME 5 DOUBLE ISSUE WINTER 2003 SPRING 2004
NGO THE VINH
THE BATTLE OF SAIGON
[Ngo The Vinh, a former 81st Airborne Ranger M.D. during the Vietnam War. The author, for his novel THE GREEN BELT, was awarded the 1971 National Prize for Literature. Ironically the same author was summoned to the court of law in connection with his short work entitled THE BATTLE OF SAIGON which was published in the journal Trình Bày (December, 1971). The charge was that the work "contains arguments that are detrimental to public order and serve to undermine the discipline and fighting spirit of the army". Whereas the prize for prose given to Ngo The Vinh’s The Green Belt did not create heated controversy, this writer's indictment was a hot topic of discussion with many journalists working for both civil and military daily newspapers as well as magazines. Public opinion was uniformly in support of the army writer who, on the day he was to receive the prize for literature, did not disengage himself from an important military operation in the Central Highlands.]
BREAKING CAMP, OUR UNIT PREPARES TO RETURN to Saigon. After another military operation laden with several months of hardship, this move makes the troops quite elated. I should feel the way they do, anxiously longing to go back, back to where my loved ones are waiting, to the city which is virtually unaffected by war and death. But somehow my heart is weary and dispirited. I am tired of all changes, including the anticipated complexities of some new role and responsibility.
Previous vague conjectures have turned into reality – the reality that our prospective battlefield will not be the mountains and forests of the Central Highlands; instead, what we are actually to encounter is a battle in the capital city. The first time our unit returned to Saigon, during the Tet offensive of 1968, it was our task and our accomplishment to wipe out with lightning speed important camouflaged fortifications of the enemy. In fact, events which transpired at the subsequently much-mentioned localities – Cây Thị and Cây Quéo – made a legend of our ARVN Green Beret unit, popularly referred to as the 81st Airborne Ranger Battalion, transforming us into experts in urban counter-guerrilla warfare. Perhaps our reputation in itself was sufficiently sound a reason for the central government's decision to recall us to the capital where there is an electrified atmosphere predisposing to unrest and demonstrations generated by the anti-government movement.
Tomorrow we will again be in Saigon. Come to think about it, the presently closing mountainous tour of duty marked the fifth time we had set foot in the Central Highlands. Without alteration, every year at the beginning of the wet season, together with fellow ARVN units from the lowland, our unit converged on this mountainous area to encounter big enemy divisions with whom we competed for control of a few denuded hills, control of a road of strategic value running through an uninhabited area.
The Central Highlands, often referred to as this "Wretched Land", filled with unfamiliar place names like Dakto, Chuprong, Pleime, and DUC CO, and inhabited by forgotten ethnic minorities, became well known thanks to the annual battles that engulfed it in fire and bombs and heaps of corpses. And this year, according to the government's spokesman, the Dông-Xuân or Winter-Spring campaign alone, at its peak during the rainy season, dealt a devastating blow to the communist fighters. In actuality, the losses for both sides reached a level considered the most horrible since the Second Indochina War had broken out. In the Ngok Tobas area alone, whole battalions of ARVN were wiped out. As for damage to the enemy, taking into account only what happened on Hill 1007 – another name for Fire Base 7 – the figure of three thousand corpses is not at all an excessive estimation, and one that customarily could be heard on the government's radio station. This is to say nothing of the extent of destruction made by hundreds of thousands of tons of bombs being dropped from B-52s day and night along infiltration routes. Furthermore, during this year's rainy season, for the first time ever in the Vietnam war, or in any war for that matter, the U.S. Air Force in order to decimate the enemy's hope for victory resorted to use of the gigantic Demolition Mark, a type of munitions weighing fifteen-thousand pounds and having the destructive effect of a small atomic bomb. No living thing remained in the resulting bomb craters, giant lunar lesions larger than soccer fields. And within this hazardous terrain of tropical forest, fleets of helicopters landed, disgorging soldiers who sacrificed their lives to thrust through the siege laid by enemy troops. It will be many more months, perhaps until the wet season next year, before we dare return to that area: a jungle of traps, asphyxiating gas, and dispersed CBUs, cluster bomb units.
Eventually, the rainy season passed. Without prearrangement, things fell into their regular pattern: the mad fighting being suspended at the onset of the dry season. And now, on the roads running from the border areas toward the national highway, convoys once again follow one another to transport us back down to our respective destinations in the lowland, the trucks growing more empty, the soldiers exhausted and ragged, though lucky to be alive.
Kilometer upon kilometer, as the trucks move, our psychological state improves. Apparently having learned from experience in previous years, the town of Pleiku, which is our first stop, seems to have arranged to be duly forewarned of our arrival. Many restaurants and eateries have automatically closed their doors to avoid mishaps. Their precaution is amply justified when rumor was heard that the Commanding General of II Corps Tactical Zone – the Central Highlands – had given orders for local squads of military police to turn a blind eye to whatever is committed by the soldiers returning from the world of destruction and death, provided their rowdy behavior is not deemed excessive.
This first night in town, at the officer's club named Phuong Hoàng, 'Phoenix', the General himself hosts a party to entertain the heroic fighters who made their mark in our glorious victory this rainy season. Not counting those who died, among the survivors present are a few truly worthy to be called heroes because of their legendary feats of arms. Indeed, one can easily identify outstanding figures present at this party.
To begin with, mention should be made of Captain Thoa, the CO or commanding officer of Fire Base 7. He is a man small in stature. His darkened skin and hardened facial features testify to the grueling hardship he has undergone. He and a Mike-Force unit had to endure their stay in a deep underground shelter for thirty days of defense beneath a rain of artillery and against many attacks by massed enemy troops.
Then there is the Major, CO of Brown Beret Battalion 93. Together with his staff, he played the greatest role in removing the enemy's blockade. His extraordinary skill in arraying troops was esteemed by the American advisors as "the world's best", which was brilliantly displayed in a lightning counterattack that caused severe losses to the opposing forces three days before the battle came to an end.
In the same light, one should not forget to mention Major Binh, a young pilot who is both courteous and full of courage. Throughout the operation, he commanded Helicopter Squadron 215, which effectively supported units of Brown Beret rangers and Red Beret paratroopers in their counterattack upon and recapture of Fire Base 7. Despite the enemy’s thick network of anti-aircraft guns on the ground, the Major and his comrades day and night conducted hundreds of sorties to transport troops, food and ammunition, landing even in new bomb craters still smoldering in the heart of the enemy’s operational area. An inspection showed that none of the helicopters remained undamaged. The command aircraft of the command and control fleet displayed more than twenty bullet holes. In one of the particularly critical situations, Major Binh risked landing on top of Hill 1007, and luckily escaped relentless shelling by the enemy.
And finally, it would be negligent not to honor Dr. Bao. He is the only medical doctor who volunteered for insertion into Fire Base 3, or Hill 1003, which was also in an intense state of siege. The doctor stayed on in the base for fifteen days until it was liberated, during which time he cared for and performed emergency surgeries on numerous sick and injured soldiers stuck in underground passages. The manner by which he brought himself down onto the top of the hill was nothing short of reckless – a very risky calculation, albeit exciting. The situation was that, after many aircraft had been shot down by enemy anti-aircraft fire issuing from among the rocks down in the valley, the General ordered an airlift suspension until the enemy's pressure had been neutralized. Even though food and ammunition were adequate to last for many more days of fighting, of concern was the traumatic situation of the increasing number of sick and wounded soldiers stranded there in dire need of medical attention, while having no access to evacuation. This deplorable circumstance was precisely the reason for Dr. Bao to volunteer for the risky mission, a mission to which two American helicopter pilots were also assigned.
Early in the morning of D-day, the day of the insertion operation, when the mountains and forests surrounding Hill 1003 were still wrapped in a thick fog, while the doctor’s comrades were holding their breath in great anxiety, from above the clouds a small OH-6A Cayuse light observation helicopter, like a gently falling leaf, landed on the base safely, disgorging the doctor, medical supplies, and other equipment. This type of helicopter, shaped like a scoop with a long handle, is normally used in a scouting role to find targets for Cobra gunships to attack. Unfortunately, this particular aircraft came under fire after landing, and before long the enemy's heavy bombardment demolished it completely. Together with the two American pilots, Dr. Bao remained in the base amidst the heavy fighting. He worked day and night in underground passages, attending to the sick and the injured. His brave appearance at critical moments greatly heartened those soldiers still wielding their weapons in the continuing fight. Though he had served to the best of his ability as of an exquisitely skilled surgeon, upon reflection Dr. Bao expressed his dismay at and weariness with the fact that he had not been able to do much on a battlefield which was short of all the necessary medical facilities. He also expressed his sincere discomfiture with being extolled as a hero because of his volunteer undertaking. In his words, all he had done was to fulfill the duty expected of a frontline doctor. Furthermore, he added, only unnamed soldiers who had been killed in action deserved that kind of praise.
I wonder how many more names I should reckon, from among other military services, before I can say that an adequate account has been given of all the heroes who gather here at the Phoenix Club this evening. At the same time, out of modesty, I do not cite the worthy contributions made by comrades in my Group, namely the Airborne Ranger Companies and reconnaissance teams. They operated in an extraordinary fashion, while surrounded by the enemy, erecting effective blockades which served as obstructions to passage of enemy personnel and supplies.
This evening, the General is no longer seen wearing a sling which helped reduce pain in his left shoulder joint. Paralleling the rhythm of fighting in the Central Highlands, his arthritis activated at the start of the wet season and began to fade away as the weather turned dry. At this party, the General wears civilian clothes over which is draped a splendid traditional Thuong tunic. In the eyes of his subordinates, he is the image of magnanimity, and more importantly, viewed as indispensable for stability of the border areas of II Corps.
After some simple ritual words of welcome, the General joins everyone in raising a glass of whiskey to toast the glorious victory for our side during this rainy season. Subsequently, he is the first to appear on the dance floor where, together with a gorgeous woman, he performs fancy foot movements to begin the dance party. The place is animated with boisterous words and laughter, the air thick with cigarette smoke and the scent of hard liquor. There is live music for dancing. Readily available women. All forms of freedom are on the loose, so as to restore a little of the sexual drive that had gone cool, and to obliterate obsession with fear and death. Touching the wine glass to my lips, I tell myself to think of the living, not of corpses.
But the problem is how we can hope for oblivion, for the ability to erase from memory the horrible images of the battleground overwhelmed with the fetid smell of putrefied corpses from both sides. Images come of comrades mistakenly strafed by flechettes which completely wiped out their faces. Individual images: that of a pilot’s corpse retrieved from the jungle by helicopter, drooping from the sling like dead game being pulled up; that of the close and reliable non-commissioned officer who had been attached to me for many years in various battles, and who had recently died, died just the day before we received orders to go back to Saigon. His body was discovered two days after his death in dense bush, which suggested to me that he had only been injured in the battle and unknowingly left behind in the field. With the instinct for survival and avoidance of danger, he had obviously dragged himself into the bush, making it into a safe place to lie and wait for rescue, or at least to prepare himself for a dignified death. He was found resting his head on his rucksack, his jungle hat laid over his chest where a wound penetrated through from the back. Such images continue wandering about in my mind, even though I honestly want to be able to forget them forever.
For a long while now, the Lt. Colonel, commander of our 81st Airborne Ranger Group, has been sitting in silence, seemingly engaged in private thoughts. So has the doctor, the chief surgeon of the Group. In the midst of a celebration of victory, what makes some of us stay on the margins? Certainly worry and anxiety cannot lead to a proper state of mind, a state enabling us to survive the war.
Captain Thoa asks me, "So, Hawk, when will you go back to Saigon?"
"Hawk" is the nickname the chief surgeon conferred upon me for my warlike tendency.
It appears to me that everyone present is irritated with news of trouble in Saigon. This is suggested by what the Captain immediately says: "When you are back there, Hawk, if you meet any discontented students, just pick them up and deliver them to me at Fire Base 7."
Holding his wine glass as though he wants to break it in his hand, Major Binh, the pilot, says in a sharp tone of voice, "Left it to me, you won't need waste any tear gas grenades and rockets. I'll need only have a few heavy machine guns set at street corners to await them."
It seems that politics divides us in some fashion.
The Major turns to the doctor. "Well, how about you, Dr. Zhivago? What do you think about those students who do nothing other than engage in disturbing demonstrations?"
We gave the doctor that nickname by way of describing the seeming contradiction between the free spirit of his artistic nature and the life he leads strictly governed by prescribed principles. It is true that in the past, he went through an exciting and active period of life as a student, but at present he resigns himself to a tolerant, quiet lifestyle. He rarely bares his heart, a heart we know to be full of deep contradictions.
Gathering calmness into his voice, the doctor answers, "During the long years spent in university, I lived the state of mind experienced by the students of today, and at present I live side by side with all of you in this state of war. I understand your annoyance with them, but at the same time I appreciate the motivation behind their struggle. It's not entirely absurd that they should abandon their studies and sacrifice their future in order to commit themselves to their strongly motivated movement."
I realize that the doctor's conscience is being placed in an awkward position. On the one hand are the soldiers he cares for as required by his duty; on the other hand are the youths and students who participate in anti-government demonstrations colored with a touch of anti-American sentiment, and whose viewpoint he accepts and shares to a certain degree.
Clearly we all are but small cogs in a large machine.
Contrary to his usual self as a man of few words and discretion, this time the Colonel participates in the group's political discussion. "Well then, doctor, if we are ordered to launch an attack on the compound of the Medical College in Saigon, how do you plan to deal with that?"
The current student unrest, in fact, originated at the Medical College. The Colonel's teasing question makes us all smile, the doctor included.
In a tone of voice free of bitterness, the doctor replies, "Under such a circumstance, of course, I wouldn't be able to do anything other than to wear an anti-teargas mask, drive an ambulance, and take care of the injured from both sides. But the issue is what follows afterwards…"
Directing his gaze toward the Colonel, the doctor speaks in a confiding manner, "If it clearly turns out that my assigned duty involves a long-term stay in Saigon, I will ask permission to be released from our unit and transferred to a certain hospital in the highlands. This is in spite of the fact that I have constantly thought of our combat unit as the one and only place I would choose to spend the entire period of my military service."
Without confessing it, every one of us feel weary even before actually placing ourselves in that dull battlefield, Saigon. Thoroughly familiar only with mountains and forests, the soldiers under my command will be no different from wild animals in the city, bewildered and lost. Then, what they will face is days of confinement to quarters where they are to become accustomed to gas masks and bayonets, where they must learn various methods of dispersing demonstrators, practicing formation into a defensive line, into an offensive wedge, and into a reinforced defensive line constituted in a lozenge shape. In the name of order, we cannot refrain from mercilessly suppressing the demonstrations. On the opposing side, the demonstrators might be youths and students fired with idealism; they might be hungry orphans and widows; they might be war invalids, the disabled ones who, at one time or another, wielded their weapons and fought for our side. How can we now turn ourselves into the very nightmare that disturbs their sleep? That uncomfortable thought is made sharper by memory. More than once have we experienced our days, not in the highlands, but in Saigon. The last time was eight months ago when, plucked from long days in isolated mountains and jungle, we were immediately dispatched to the capital. Only to find ourselves posted right at the heart of Saigon, surrounded by high-rise buildings bustling with prostitutes, adjacent to Hoi Ky Ma or Cercle Hippique Saigonnais, 'the Equestrian Club', where plenty of stud horses were constantly seen with their glossy rumps!
Such a change of locations, involving a spatial transit of merely a short distance, provides the troops with an opportunity to realize that this worldly life is made not only of the sorrow and pain arising from a war that constantly haunts them with fear of destruction and death, that afflicts their wives and children with hardships and misery. What is more, in this motherland, this very same motherland, there is a separate society above and beyond them, magnificent and gloriously bright, and immersing itself in its detached happiness. This separate society is a world that alienates itself from the soldiers, soaks itself in pervasive fragrance and excessive consumption. Here we have the world of a group of people clamoring for war while managing to stay above the fighting or remaining outside of it. Eventually, these bewildered soldiers ask themselves what they are protecting, what they are defending with their weapons, their risk of death. They cannot imagine protecting a luxurious pleasure boat traveling down a narrow river stained with blood and dotted with the floating corpses of their fellow countrymen. Neither can they find any acceptable reason to protect the leisurely life of a small fragment of high society, to secure the environment of care these privileged people lavish on their favorite dogs, on their stud horses at Hoi Ky Ma, care which surpasses anything the wretched mass of humanity has ever dreamt of. These young soldiers who are ready, always ready, to sacrifice their lives fighting the enemy in the battlefield, cannot stop wondering why they are pulled back to the capital. How can the dreams and aspirations which we hold for a military career manifest themselves only through turning us into security guards for the rich, into a type of highway police directing traffic on the flow of history? In the name of the army, are we contributing to the implementation of a social reform program, or are we instead turning ourselves into an obstruction to historical progress, a mere circle of red light that blocks the flow, obstructs the essential steps of social transformation?
A soldier's only wish is to hold a weapon and fight for his country, to sacrifice himself for a noble ideal and for justice, without having to bother about anything else. But in the present circumstance, our soldiers are aware that the false sense of security they feel when repairing from exhaustion accumulated in the mountains and jungle is gone, lost. Beside the murderous battlefield familiar to them, they must confront another frontline, a barricade more depressingly wearisome: the corruption and injustice people are being forced to bear in sorrow and shame.
For thirty years now, there have been many heroes in war, while social activists have proved to be few and far between. For our peace of mind, which battlefield should we choose? It may appear to the soldiers that the right battlefield is not the one far away in the border areas of the highlands, but the truly challenging battleground found in Saigon.
(From the short-story collection The Battle Of
NGO THE VINH
Editorial note: All works published in this issue are simultaneously published in the printed Wordbridge magazine double issue 3 &4 Winter 2003 & Spring 2004. (ISSN: 1540-1723).
Copyright © Ngo The Vinh 1999, 2004. Nothing in this issue may be downloaded, distributed, or reproduced without the permission of the author/ translator/ artist/ The Writers Post/ and Wordbridge magazine. Creating links to place The Writers Post or any of its pages within other framesets or in other documents is copyright violation, and is not permitted.