On my bike the next afternoon I detoured away from the square and rode over to Memorial Drive and from there went across the Mass Ave. bridge to Boylston Street and the Boston Public Library. Though by 1982 the Vietnam War was to some extent still palpable in the air, and so, in my opinion, enough time had yet to pass for the topic to be sufficiently digested and reprocessed, I was somewhat surprised to find two entire shelves of books of all thicknesses and shapes about it in the second floor stacks. I fingered through four or five rows and carried a half dozen back to the small ashen-stained desk that looked out over the spacious lobby and entranceway. For three full hours I paged through them unfazed by the senseless muttering of what I assumed was a homeless man at the desk in front of me sitting slumped in his chair. He was young enough, I saw, that the irony he might be a vet of that undeclared and undecided conflict I was there to read about was real enough, and that kept me, and I presumed others as well, from complaining to the librarian and having him quieted down or removed.
Thus, in the second book I flipped through the pages of, I came to a display of photos on the evacuation of An Loc during the 1972 Easter offensive. It’d had such a direct bearing on Mai’s life that I sat with rapt attention in much the same way Mai must have when she went home with the book the librarian had brought out from the back room for her. I stared so hard at the pages of AP and UPI photos that with a little more effort I might have transferred my image onto them and joined her and her sisters and cousin on the ride along Highway 13 to Saigon, where her aunt and uncle waited to take us to their home, and where we’d stay until the NVA fought their way to the outskirts of the city and, before they entered it, we had no other choice but to head off to the coast and a refugee camp in Thailand.
It was a mesmerizing tour of a war I considered the most profound and tragic event of my generation. I couldn’t deny that the whole account, from Ho Chi Minh’s 1945 declaration of the an independent Democratic Republic of Vietnam, to the partitioning of the country at the 17th parallel under the terms of the Geneva Convention, to the Vietcong insurgency in the south beginning late in 1956, to Kennedy’s increased military assistance and Johnson’s appeal for hearts and minds and all out expansion, was moving and powerful, and when I thought of the people I knew, Mai and Richie and Carl, the story yanked at my soul even though, at the same time, I understood war was an entry in the Human Books that took up much, much more space than peace. And this one in particular, this absolutely unnecessary and deceitful one, I came to the conclusion right there in my seat, was like a mistake that was made a million times over and there was no point making it a million and one and so it came to an end. Those intuitions would be backed up twenty-five years later after the release of previously sealed White House tapes showed that early in 1964 Johnson doubted the war was winnable, he knew there was no plan in place for victory, militarily or diplomatically, and yet he went ahead with his escalation anyway and upset the lives of millions.
That sent me to the shelves again. And sometime later I was back at my desk with a book in either hand. Adjusting myself in the chair, the volume I opened next, an oral history of Vietnamese Americans published by a small press out in Madison, Wisconsin, held me enthralled. The somber first person testimonials were quite candid, and ten and fifteen years after the fact I brooded over the plight of people helpless to the armies clashing around them.
While as a Liberal Arts student with a History minor I’d certainly learned enough about the two great World Wars to think I understood them, I will say that was the first time I’d read what the survivors, those who’d experienced the battles and bombings, had to say about what went on in their own words instead of what the exploiters of the material contrived about it for their personal and professional profit. Many of the stories I perused were eerily similar to Mai’s, so it almost seemed she’d gotten together with them to synchronize the details. And then there were entries like this one from a man who had eventually settled in St. Paul, Minnesota.
We were evacuated from the provincial hospital after it was hit by mortar fire, perhaps by accident, we weren’t sure, but it was too much of a risk to stay there any longer. About thirty among us who had crowded into it for sanctuary were killed and there was no time to bury them so we left them there as they were. The wounded were cared for in a pagoda further down the highway in Phu Due. There were no beds for them, and only a few mats for the most badly injured. The other patients had to lay on the dirt floor or on the bundles of rags we brought up from the basement. There was a shortage of tetanus serum and a child died of lockjaw. Her body was twisted like a snake under the rags and there was nothing we could do to make her ending dignified. Not far from her an old woman was dying of malnutrition. She told us she’d spent more than a month in a bunker in An Loc eating boiled rice and rice soup, and when her supplies of those ran out she ate anything that was edible. Her skin was the color of the finest china and there were flies all over her face. All the time the communist artillery fire continued to pour into Phu Due even though there were no military targets of significance to threaten them.*
* passage created from my readings in several archive sites no longer available online