Bao Ninh. The Sorrow of War. Trans. Phan Thanh Hao. Ed. Frank Palmas. New York: Pantheon, 1993. Print.
With the exception of those by Robert Olen Butler, few of the books about the Vietnam War written by Americans say much about the Vietnamese. The Sorrow of War was written by a veteran of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). Ninh, a Hanoi native, was in the NVA from 1969 to the war’s end in 1975. From the regiment of 500 men that he originally was assigned to, only ten men including him survived the war.
This alone reminds the reader that from the Vietnamese perspective this was a civil war. To hear about units with casualties like those, Americans have to go back their own Civil War. Ninh’s description of Hamburger Hill very closely resembles Spotsylvania Court House in the description of its casualties.
First, let me share some impressions from the novel. It is well known that military people in America at the time of Vietnam were not generally treated well. There were no parades. Men going out in public in uniform were frequently reviled, called baby killers and pigs. It was almost assumed that war veterans were PTSD wackos or strung out on drugs.
According to Ninh, surprisingly, it was not much different for NVA veterans. Like American veterans, they tended to keep to themselves and had a hard time re-integrating into society. Ninh writes of the expectation of some kind of peaceful realm governed by a benevolent ideology when the war ends, but that did not appear. Though not a major part of The Sorrow of War, we are reminded that two years after Saigon fell to the NVA, it was fighting the Khmer Rouge and the Chinese, both supposedly Communist brothers of the Hanoi regime.
Kien, the main character, represents the everyman veteran. He survives the entire war. Having just turned seventeen in 1965, he boards a troop train to take him to basic training. The train is attacked by bombers on the first day of American bombing raids. He is present in Saigon on April 30, 1975, the last day of the fighting.
Like the war episodes in arguably the best American Vietnam War novel, Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien, the many episodes of The Sorrow of War are presented in a disjointed manner. Each episode lasts from half a page to perhaps five or six pages at the most. There are no chapter divisions. The novel truly does progress, but not in a linear or chronological manner. Gradually, the whole picture is revealed, glimpses of the full ten years of fighting.
It is no spoiler to say that our soldier Kien wrote this typescript and then abandoned it. A neighbor found it while cleaning out his apartment after he moved on about ten years after the war. The pages were not numbered, we are told, and in disarray, perhaps like Kien’s memories. Still, the reader sees that the stories are not randomly arranged, but they emerge like chords or pages in a symphony to form a vivid whole.
Although soldiers and sailors from the countryside might call men from the city like Kien “bourgeois,” the only truly believing Communist we meet in the novel is Kien’s mother. As she adopts the Marxist ideology, she becomes more distant and eventually leaves Kien’s father. Kien cannot relate to her at all. So perhaps Communism gave birth to modern Vietnam, but ultimately socialist theory cannot relate to the ordinary citizens of the land.
One of the first sorrows of war that we see is simply that the old way of life is gone. Kien was happy in prewar Hanoi. It was a lovely, fairly sophisticated city. He had friends. He enjoyed school. Postwar Hanoi is different. It is beaten down, full of mistrust. Most of his friends are gone or so damaged by the war that he becomes more detached. He sounds like one of Hemingway’s veterans: “We were all a little detached.”
The great sorrow is, of course, the war itself. We read about so many people that Kien knows dying that like Kien we become indifferent. And Kien does his share of killing others. Some of his victims might have been appealing friends in another life.
At one point his patrol comes across a prospering farm in the countryside. The farmer and his wife treat the men hospitably, sharing coffee and a meal with them. One of Kien’s fellow soldiers says that he grew up in a similar location, but his family was impoverished. Another soldier says that is because this peasant farm they are passing through has not been turned into a commune. After the war, he suggests, it will be as poor as every other farm.
The most poignant of the sorrows is that Kien recognizes that many different people, fellow soldiers and even a female scout, gave their lives to save his. Good soldiers to “have each others’ backs,” but Kien has somehow survived. Sometimes he was smarter, but sometimes he was just luckier.
Another sorrow is the rapine. If Kien is to be believed, it seems that North Vietnamese soldiers and sailors would rape any woman they could, even if she was from the North. We begin to understand that the women were as affected and as damaged by the war as the men were.
A doomed love story weaves its way through the novel as well. Kien has to survive ten years of war before he is reunited with his “soul mate,” Phuong. Their chaste, tender, and optimistic relationship before the war is naïve and dreamlike. After the war they each have changed too much, and though they try to make a go of marriage, Phuong eventually leaves.
From the beginning Kien remembers a number of places like Hamburger Hill where many people were killed. He and his platoon mates believe such places are full of ghosts. They even burn incense and pray to placate them and ask for their help. It seems hardly the materialistic philosophy of Marxism to do that! Ah, but we recognize that the war survivors like Kien and Phuong have become ghosts themselves, spirits wandering through the streets of the cities and the bypaths of the villages of North and South alike.