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Fighting Long Gone War

The Abandoned

      Ten years ago, if someone (Vietnamese) went back to Vietnam for any reasons, he (or she) would tell a lie that he took a vacation at somewhere in the States. Today, It's quite different. The guy or gal, young or old, male or female would boast with their friends in public about their wonderful Vietnam trip. Not enough, they would email to friends or post on Internet the many beautiful photos that they took during the "home coming journey." When seeing those pictures of "the mother land", one would think how "open" and Westernized Vietnam today is! It's true because most of the pictures have been taken at the luxurious places where only foreign tourists and new high-class Vietkieu can afford.

      Unfortunately, most of the tourists have failed to see a war that is still going in Vietnam, waged by the stubborn ARVN disabled vets. The very plain, bottom rank soldiers of ARVN who bore the real burdens and fought the war long before the Americans came and even after the Americans cut and ran. Most of them are wounded but refuse to die and they have been carrying out an "Urban Warfare." Without American military advisors, without fire supports from the Seventh Fleet, and without the carpet bomb runs of USAF B-52's, those ARVN disabled vets have been fighting street by street, block by block, bus station after train station in the enemy territories. Today they don't arm themselves with rifle M-16's any more, but worn-out guitars. They sing! Yes, they sing all the old epic songs that no one bothers to listen to the lyrics. Their singing voices sound terrible, because of battle fatigue and constant hunger. Today they fight neither in the name of FREEDOM nor for the sake of DEMOCRACY, they fight because of the soldiers' instinct: TO SURVIVE.

      PS: The photo on the left taken by a tourist, from a train somewhere between Nha Trang - Hanoi.


Dog Tag

By David Frum

By war's end, South Vietnamese soldiers who once fought side-by-side with American advisors, faced the Viet Cong alone.

April 26 – For a brief moment, it looked as if America might actually have won its war in Vietnam. The moment was April 1972, sixty days before the Watergate break-in. By the spring of 1972, only some 95,000 Americans were left in Vietnam, down from more half a million when Richard Nixon took office. On March 30, 1972, the North Vietnamese Army struck. This was no guerilla operation. This was real war, with tanks and Soviet-supplied anti-aircraft missiles, and carefully coordinated infantry formations, all of them aimed at the supposedly hopelessly corrupt and inept army of the South.

BUT EVEN MEN led by rotten officers will do heroic things in defense of their homes, so long as they hold some hope of winning. Equipped by the departing Americans with vast stores of equipment and ammunition, food and fuel, the Southern army gave ground but did not break. In the open field, the North Vietnamese Army made a perfect target for American warplanes. The campaign turned into a gigantic trap, with the South's army as the bait and the American B-52s the snapping bar: Slowly, despairingly, the Communist soliders had to give way and withdraw, leaving thousands of their comrades on the battlefield .


The April 1972 offensive proved that South Vietnam could defend its independence without American ground troops – which was more than could have been said at the time for, say, West Germany – if it could count on American aid and airpower. When Henry Kissinger initialed the U.S.-North Vietnam peace agreement of January 1973, he promised the South that the aid would be forthcoming, and warned the North that so too would the airpower, if the North should violate its commitment to pursue reunification with the South only by "peaceful means."

Those promises and threats would not count for very much for very long. In June 1973, Congress wrote into the fiscal 1974 budget an amendment forbidding the use of any American forces "in or over" Indochina, stripping away the guarantee of American air support if the South were attacked again.


By late 1973, there were ominous reports that North Vietnam was preparing to attack again. Despite that news, Congress chopped military aid to South Vietnam from $2.1 billion in fiscal 1973 to $700 million in 1975. Commanders had to ration bullets, artillery stopped firing, trucks ceased moving, the South Vietnamese air force was grounded. Giving South Vietnam the money it needed to survive, Sen. Edward Kennedy explained, "would perpetutate an involvement that should have ended long ago." In August 1974, the month of Nixon's resignation, the North had begun tentatively to test South Vietnamese positions around Danang and near Saigon. In January, President Ford pleaded with Congress to grant an extra $300 million in emergency aid for South Vietnam. He made a specially eloquent personal appeal for an extra $222 million for Cambodia, as the monstrous Khmer Rouge closed in:

Are we to deliberately abandon a small country in the midst of its life and death struggle? Is the United States, which so far has consistently stood by its friends throughout the most difficult of times, now to condemn, in effect, a small Asian nation totally dependent upon us?'– PRESIDENT GERALD FORD Pleading for aid to Cambodia The short answer to that question was: yes.


South Vietnamese forces trained by U.S. advisers to move rapidly, to defend themselves with overwhelming firepower now found themselves painstakingly meting out a few dozen bullets per man per day, putting a gallon or two of gas in their jeeps, fighting blind because their airplanes had been grounded by lack of fuel.

On March 20, 1975, the day the exhausted and depleted South Vietnamese army evacuated the central highlands before the North Vietnamese final offensive, Senators Adlai Stevenson III of Illinois and Charles McC. Mathias of Maryland introduced legislation requiring termination of all aid to South Vietnam by June 30. American aid, they warned, was encouraging South Vietnam to stretch out the fighting.

The eighty-two Americans remaining in Phnomh Penh, Cambodia, were airlifted out. The U.S. Ambassador, John Gunther Dean, offered to evacuate the leading figures in the Cambodian government as well. "To our astonishment and shame," recalls Henry Kissinger, "the vast majority refused, including Lon Nol's brother, Lon Non, and Premier Long Boret, both of whom were on the Khmer Rouge's published death list." Sirik Matak, a former Cambodian prime minister, sent his refusal in a note, handwritten in elegant French:

Dear Excellency and Friend:

"I thank you very sincerely for your letter and for your offer to transport me towards freedom. I cannot, alas, leave in such a cowardly fashion. As for you, and in particular for your great country, I never believed for a moment that you would have this sentiment of abandoning a people which has chosen liberty. You have refused us your protection, and we can do nothing about it.

"You leave, and my wish is that you and your country will find happiness under this sky. But, mark it well, that if I shall die here on this spot and in my country that I love, it is no matter, because we all are born and must die. I have only committed this mistake of believing in you.

Please accept, Excellency and dear friend, my faithful and friendly sentiments."


Matak, Kissinger tersely notes, was shot in the stomach and left without medical care. It took him three days to die.

Hawks in the late 1960s wore a tee-shirt printed with the Stars and Stripes and underneath the motto, "This flag doesn't run." But if it did not run on April 30, 1975, it was folded, tucked underneath the arm of U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin, and evacuated. Great nations sometimes lose wars. But to deny a one-time ally arms and fuel for fear that it might keep on fighting; to insist, not just on disentanglement, which was reasonable, but on actively throttling that ally – this went beyond defeat, to shame.

(David Frum is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. He is the author of "How We Got Here: The 70s – The Decade that Brought You Modern Life, for Better or Worse.")

VN Medal


Dog Tag


THU DUC, Vietnam – The eyes of Cpl. Le Van Nao have been gouged out of the enamel portrait on his tombstone in the abandoned South Vietnamese military cemetery where he was buried with honors 31 years ago.

Wandering cows tear at dry tufts of grass where acres of similar tombstones lean this way and that, many of them smashed and vandalized, some uprooted and lying on the ground beside empty graves.Just across a nearby highway lies the carefully tended grave of Capt. Nguyen Xuan Truong, who also died in 1969 at the height of the Vietnam War. He is one of thousands of soldiers on the victorious Communist side who are buried in what is known as a "martyrs' cemetery," their tombstones surrounded by raked gravel paths and beds of flowers.

On official holidays formal ceremonies are held to honor these fallen Communist soldiers. But just 10 miles away to the south, many people in Ho Chi Minh City – formerly called Saigon – do not even know of the existence of the abandoned graveyard across the road.

This, in summary, is the story of the war as told today by the victors. It is a tale of heroic nationalists who triumphed over American interlopers in a decade-long war that ended 25 years ago on April 30.

America's South Vietnamese allies, who lost, have been virtually written out of history. Indeed they have mostly been forgotten by both the Vietnamese and American governments, who are engaged now in an emerging effort of reconciliation. But there has been little effort by the Northern victors to embrace their fraternal enemies, who seem to be remembered, at least by the older generation, with less generosity than is accorded to the Americans.

"I think they have all run away to the United States," said a Communist army veteran, echoing the dismissive attitude of many in the north. "Even those who were kept in camps have left. They are all gone."

This willful blind spot is one sign of continuing frictions between the north and south of Vietnam despite the economic and political integration the government has worked hard to foster. Among some northerners, suspicions persist that they have not truly won the hearts and minds of everyone in the south. Among some older southerners, resentments linger over lost lives, lost homes, lost careers and lost hopes.

The first years of what is officially known as national reunification were harsh for the people who lived in the defeated south. More than a million southerners fled the country after the war ended. Some 400,000 were interned in camps for "re-education" -- many only briefly, but some for as long as 17 years. Another 1.5 million were forcibly resettled in "new economic zones" in barren areas of southern Vietnam that were ravaged by hunger and extreme poverty.

These postwar scars linger too.

For Vietnam, 1975 was the year of national reunification geographically and 1976 was the year of national reunification legislatively," said a Vietnamese journalist in Hanoi. "But for national reunification psychologically it will take several decades more." Not only are the graves of the southern soldiers left untended, their parents' sacrifice is ignored as well. Only the mothers of Communist soldiers are accorded the title of "hero mother" and are entitled to a small monthly pension. And while the Communist government helps the United States search for the remains of the last few hundred American soldiers listed as missing in action, and while the Americans share information that could help the Hanoi government track down its own 300,000 missing soldiers, no one has even tried to count the number of soldiers who are missing from the southern side.

One veteran of the South Vietnamese Army, still bitter at heart, was asked how old soldiers like him manage accept these inequities.

"Because we were defeated," said the veteran, who lost not only a war but also his career and social position. "You know, we have accepted that. And we don't have the right to say anything. It has been so for many years. From year to year we forget."

What, then, for people like him, is April 30, the national holiday that celebrates the northern victory?

"We used to call it the big day of mourning," he said.

"Now it's just a day off from work. And this year it falls on a Sunday, so we don't even get our day off."

These are the resentments of the older generation, however. The war is not even a memory for more than half the population, born after 1975. For them, the greatest passions on display do not differentiate between north and south. These are the wild celebrations – sometimes beyond the control of the police – when the national soccer team scores an important victory against a foreign competitor.

For some others, the bitter resentments of the past are mellowing into humor. "Are you red or yellow?" one man teased another as they drank whiskey the other day at a sidewalk stall in Ho Chi Minh City. The colors referred to the wartime flags of the North and the South.

"Today," said his friend, "we are orange."

Foreign scholars debate whether Vietnam is one historical entity that was divided by war or whether the the regional differences among the south, the center and the north are more deeply rooted. It was only in the 18th century that the southern region, formerly a part of the Khmer civilization of Cambodia, became an integral part of Vietnam, said Robert Templer, the author of "Shadows and Wind: A View of Modern Vietnam" (Little, Brown, 1998). The French colonialists of the next century set the country's borders and divided it by historical region into three parts: the south, center and north.

The "reunification" of 1975 was in fact the first time that Vietnam was an independent nation within its current borders. Since then, the government in Hanoi has taken great pains to maintain a geographical balance in the central leadership. The first decade of reunification, some scholars say, was a period of "northernization" of the south, when property and farmland were seized by the state and northern officials took over most of the administration. The free-market reforms that began in 1986 have led some people to refer to the second postwar decade as the "southernization" of Vietnam.

Today, the south is the nation's economic engine, producing two-thirds of its wealth and helping to support the north by sending nearly 90 percent of its tax revenue to the central government in Hanoi. More than $1 billion a year in foreign currency floods into Vietnam to the families of southerners who fled the country. These are statistics people in the south like to mention when they recite their grievances. But the years are passing and, as the South Vietnamese Army veteran said, "The wind blows, and it blows away your memories."

He has a 15-year-old son who is more interested in soccer and his friends than in the conflicts of his father's generation. "The young people, they don't know about us," the veteran said. "They don't know about our past. We don't tell them who we are. It is better for them not to know." Some day, he said, he may tell his son his story, as well as the story of his own older brother, who also liked soccer and who died as a soldier for the south in 1974.

At a weed-covered shrine on a hill overlooking the abandoned South Vietnamese cemetery, monsoon rains and mold have mostly worn away a heroic inscription: "They died for their country; they sacrificed for their people." Clusters of old incense sticks sprout from the ground in front of a memorial plaque where someone, not too long ago, wrote in blue marker pen the words: "With respect." On hot afternoons, a young man named Nguyen Minh Quang likes to rest here in the quiet shade of the shrine. He is a laborer at one of several tiny brick factories that are digging up the thick yellow soil around the graves to bake in their kilns. Mr. Quang is just 24 and said he never bothered to learn the history of his cool refuge or of the graves that lie beyond it. But he said people do come by from time to time to kneel in front of the memorial plaque and pay their respects.

Others – perhaps overseas Vietnamese who have returned for visits – sometimes pay the brick workers to maintain the grave of a brother or a son. In fact, the young man said, his own father, a wounded veteran who was a sergeant in South Vietnam's Special Forces, visits the shrine once or twice a year to pray.

"He likes to come up here and light incense, but I don't know what for," said the young man. "I only see him come and light the incense. He told me he fought with the Americans. I never asked him why."

Seth Mydans -The New York Times



By CNN Senior Correspondent Richard Blystone

BIEN HOA, Vietnam (CNN) -- The weeping heavens of the monsoon turn the paths between headstones into brown rivers. That is the only sign of mourning at this Vietnamese graveyard. The untended graves nearly obscured by long grass; black moss encroaching on the names of the dead.

This was the cemetery of the army of South Vietnam.

From this gentle slope you can see the industrial zones that were the big bases of Bien Hoa and Long Binh, where the U.S. military planted small American cities, complete with bowling alleys, hamburger bars, movie theaters.

Here, America's client erected something very different. At the gate, a touching statue: a weary soldier, seated, rifle across his knees.

That's gone.

Behind it an honored resting place for 20,000 soldiers, a small proportion of the total of South Vietnam's dead.

Part of that has been razed for a brick kiln and a factory, we're told, and the families of the dead were told to remove them or forget them.

Some had volunteered to fight; many more had no choice. Some believed in their anti-communist cause; others really didn't care. Some fought bravely; others just tried to stay alive. But it came to the same thing in the end.

No monuments for them, no parades, no multimillion-dollar searches for their remains.

While the new Vietnam celebrates the visit of President Clinton, here the past has to grieve for itself. And the survivors must fend for themselves.

Of Tutors And Taxis

In Ho Chi Minh City, still widely called Saigon, the monsoon showers a livelihood on Tran Dinh Thanh, standing in the downpour on his crude peg leg.

He sells cheap plastic raincoats in vibrant pink, yellow, green, blue, to the affluent who buzz by on motorbikes -- one of the few jobs open to veterans of the vanquished "puppet" regime.

A land mine took his leg, he says. The new regime does nothing for him, but neither did the old one.

Dong Van Luu used to teach U.S. pilots Vietnamese phrases to use if they were shot down. No job for him after the war. For 15 years, he got along tutoring young Vietnamese in English.

Then economic liberalization took hold, and today he's the assistant manager of a showroom selling cars that he'll never be able to afford.

Had it all turned out differently, Le Van Thinh's eight years with the U.S. Marines at Danang might have put him on the road to a good career. After the war, like others tainted by their contact with the U.S., he spent 10 years laboring in "new economic zone."

Today he waits with his pedal-powered taxi outside a hotel, one of many veterans whose smattering of pidgin English helps get jobs wheeling tourists around this booming town.

In a lucky 14-hour day, his pumping legs might earn him around $7. On a bad day...

"No lucky," he says, "no money."

Thinh is 52 but looks 10 years older. Two-thirds of his countrymen are under 30. His generation is part of a past that is fast being forgotten.

Hello, Old Friend

But many Southerners still feel left out of today's Vietnam. Even veterans of the communist Viet Cong complain privately that the Northerners, with their sterner, more regimented ways, have pushed them aside.

And many Saigonese socially shun what they disdainfully pronounce "bac ky," Northerners, who've moved south because here is the core of Vietnam's economic reactor.

Reconciliation with America is not the only reconciliation that remains unfinished here.

And as the Ho City crowds cheer Bill Clinton, you wonder if you're sensing a feeling of not just "welcome," but "welcome back."

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