I had gone to Vashi for a ‘workshop’ – no, it was nothing like a workshop – along with my PM group. The institute (?) where this workshop was being conducted closed from 1 pm to 3:30 pm – in time with scheduled load shedding. Amey, being the usual “ha ha, this is fun, let’s enjoy to the max, guys!” type of guy, took a few of us to a book fair. Oh well, I don’t mind a book fair, its just that the thought of seeing a book I like but can’t buy, breaks my shell like nothing. And thats what happened; because I simply had not brought money to buy books, atleast the one I would have liked to read…
The aforementioned dude was hunting for books. There was an entire section giving away books at 10 bucks each. Cool! Got an unabrigded (I think) version of Beowulf. I had read the mid-school version and I thought the real stuff might be impressive. Gave it to Amey – don’t know whether he bought it. Then I saw “Everything We Had” by an Al Santoli. Interviews of thirty-three Vietnam vets. Arranged more or less chronologically. An oral history – thats a quote from the book. I don’t know why I picked it up. And I don’t know why Amey bought it.
The Vietnam War has has always interested me. Morbid at times – who wants to know that among the documented ways (of the Viet Cong or VC) of subjugating entire hamlets is raping the chieftain’s kids before the village and then executing the family? Or that the VC competed with Command Saigon when it came to brutalizing POWs. Damn interesting stuff too – guerilla tactics, special ops, air combat (if WW-II was about perfecting amphibious assaults on Pacific islands, the Vietnam War was about perfecting airborne assaults with close air support) and so on. And of course, the idea of a western military power engaging in full throttle mode in an oriental theatre – real interesting. It is also fascinating – how a beautiful country has been history’s playground – part of French Indo-China, then a Japanese territory till 1945, again under the French and then, the War. What was it fought for? And who actually fought it?
No other war has troubled the US like the Vietnam War. A nation, confident after saving the democratic world and becoming the champion of “liberty, democracy and equality” post WW-II, was defeated for the first time (possibly since the war of 1812 against England) after a bitter, ten years long struggle. The US had never faced an opponent like the VC till then. And it lost. The politician in DC, unlike the soldier on the jungle floor, didn’t know the true enemy. He didn’t know the country. He didn’t understand the people and their culture. He didn’t know how to win a war. Unfortunately for the soldier, the politician was pulling the trigger. The US-South Vietnamese forces found themselves playing a game whose rules were to be followed only by them and freely broken by the other side. Is it any surprise they lost?
The lessons were bitter for the American people. They had lost a war that was of no consequence to them. They had lost relatives to a cause that was not related to them. They had fought a war for people who didn’t want them to participate in it. This feeling – call it bitterness, anger, guilt, angst – is perhaps going to remain for a long time. Its not for nothing that Iraq is called the US’ second Vietnam.
I first stumbled across this undercurrent of bitterness when I saw Good Morning, Vietnam!, a movie about a radio jockey with the US forces (yes, the US forces ran radio stations in ‘Nam). He thinks he’s along for the ride in the country when he comes face to face with war. And war is synonymous with death. Then in a typical Hollywood style, he runs afoul of the censorship in place and is sent back home. That must have been ten years back.
Roughly around that time, my father gave me a book (the name escapes me) detailing the organisational details, operaring procedures, doctrines, etc. of the VC. It had interviews with ex-VC guys and victims of VC attacks, soldiers and people who had faced off with the VC and so on. Then came a series of books – novels actually – based on the War. Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne has his traumatic roots in that war. Tom Clancy’s novels have used the war as a keystone in debates and discussions, specially of the moral kind; and a few times, the story. Couple of special-ops “crawl through the jungle-shoot-moralize-rescue someone-moralize” sort of novels thrown in. I grepped through the World Book for Vietnam War and related entries.
My best source for this has been “It Takes to be a Hero” – the autobiography of H. Norman Schwarzkopf; the Commander of Allied forces in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. He served two tours in the Vietnam War and he has detailed his experiences as well as any writer could. Dom Moraes has also detailed his experiences as a war correspondent in Vietnam in his second autobiography, “Never at Home”.
And of course, the stuff thats shown on NatGeo, Discovery and The History Channel.
Through it all, I thought I had a pretty good grip on the Vietnam War and its effects. The book Amey bought (and which I borrowed) proved me wrong. It seems as if there is simply no end to how much guilt, anger, bitterness… can be found. It goes on and on. The more you find, the more you know are yet to be found. There is only one idea, with endless variations.
I realized the stories – interviews – were different in material but not in theme. I didn’t need to read the book after all. I already knew what was coming. But I’ll regret it won’t sit on my bookshelf if I ever decide to read it to the end.