Synopsis : The true valor of a people lies in their resolve to overcome all challenges and their willingness to pay the ultimate price for it with their lives the way the Vietnamese did to regain their freedom.
When anyone cares to write about what it takes to win a war so that they can gain their freedom from foreign occupation and oppression, the valiant struggle of the Vietnamese people comes as an example worth writing about. So today I decided to write about the Vietnamese people who struggled so hard for more than thirty years to win the war that was imposed on them by the foreign powers. They were poor, had few weapons to fight the mighty foreigners and other resources needed to fight a very prolonged war but they had one thing the foreigners did not count on or ever understood .
It was called a great national resolve to suffer any hardship, any deprivation no matter how severe and still persevere no matter how long they had to suffer and no matter how much sacrifice in human lives they had to make in order to win a war against very well equipped and supplied adversaries like the French and later the Americans.
I was amazed at this steel in their resolve when I was working in Vietnam as a volunteer agronomist during the height of the war there in 1967. There were more than half a million American soldiers there at that time representing an enormous and modern war machine ever to have been used against so primitive and ill equipped people like the Vietnamese.
To go back in the bloody history of that country, you only have to go back to the French colonial period before it ended in the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. It was then called the French Indo China that included Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam that the French ruled with iron fist as their colony. There was a period in the human history when many European countries like England, France, Belgium, Spain, Portugal and the Dutch were all setting up colonies of their own in poor countries where they could exploit their rich mineral and other wealth to enrich their own countries.
They ruled their colonies with cruelty towards the local people whom they used for their own purpose and paid very little in the way of recompense. They used forced or cheap labor to set up vast rubber plantations in Vietnam that supplied all their rubber needs so they became enormously rich by trading the rubber among other things. The colons as they were called by the natives lived in comfort in grand villas and with swimming pools in the midst of acres of well kept gardens maintained by slave like people who were very poor and had little to eat. I have seen the ruins of such a villa in the countryside in Vietnam myself. Their wives indulged in the latest fashions of Paris and their children were sent to expensive private boarding schools in France or elsewhere.
This was the same story in Algeria where they were called the pieds noires who lived in grand villas and made the poor Algerians work in their huge vineyards for pittance. The courageous struggle of Algerians to gain independence from France is told in my biography that you can read in Chapter five there.
But today I just want to write about the struggle of the brave Vietnamese people who suffered for so long and sacrificed almost 2 million of their lives to be free. I write about them from my personal experience there so it gives more credence to my story as an eye witness to the tragedy called the Vietnam war. I had to personally witness this tragedy , see the blood and gore and the plight of the endless streams of destitute refugees created by the endless war when I worked to help after the Tet offensive of 1968.
I learned first hand how intelligent and hard working the Vietnamese were. The farmers were the most hard working people I have ever met considering how dangerous it was to do farming during the war. The Americans frequently shot their carabaos from helicopters just for fun and bombed their villages with napalm at will. They also massacred the poor farmers, their women and children for no reason other than on a whim because they were drunk with power over the hapless villagers who had meant no harm to them. Remember My Lai massacre? There were many such atrocities committed by the French and later by the Americans but back home the culprits were received as war heroes.
The Vietnamese learned how to make do with their very limited resources so they became experts in fixing broken machineries without any formal training to do so. Once my car was shot up by shrapnel of rockets that fell near it while I was sleeping not too far from it. One farmer asked me to leave the car to him for a few days to fix the holes. I was amazed at the wonderful job they did and made it look like new including the same glittering shade of paint and they did it for free because they loved me for the help I was giving them in farming.
They could fix old engines, water pumps with home made spare parts. They used their ingenuity to fix broken or useless weapons to fight the war and used the un exploded bombs dropped by the Americans to make new weapons to be used against the invaders. They used bamboo stakes to act as weapons and set up booby traps for the enemies using scrap metals. They became experts in the guerrilla warfare to inflict maximum casualties in the enemy ranks with minimum damage to their own.
They dragged up heavy canons inch by inch over steep mountain slopes until they were all in place and then bombarded the battle field of Dien Bien Phu all of a sudden when the French soldiers slept soundly in their barracks never suspecting such an attack and never recovered from the shock of their defeat so left Vietnam altogether in 1954.
Then came the Americans in the guise of advisers to stop the domino effect of the spread of communist regimes in Asia that gradually built up to an outright armed invasion of Vietnam fielding over half a million military men and dropping more bombs on a small country like Vietnam than what they used in Germany in the last war.
The Vietnamese fighters fought the mighty Americans tooth and nail and dug miles of tunnels three levels deep in Cu Chi that had hospitals, living quarters and war rooms keeping thousands of guerrilla fighters there right under the nose of the American base above but the Americans had no clue what was happening right under their feet.
Very young girls worked in bars or in brothels to keep an eye on the American fighters and learn what they could learn from them about military matters that they passed on to the guerrillas and they did so at the risk to their own lives daily. When caught by their enemies that included the south Vietnamese soldiers, they were tortured and killed after long interrogations while the CIA operatives watched or assisted.
They wore sandals made from truck tires and black pyjamas and black shirt and carried rice and dried fish wrapped in cloth as a waist band and often went hungry for long periods but they never gave up their resolve to win the war. This resolve found in young boys and girls barely in their teens came from a strong belief that collectively they will someday beat the enemy and were willing to die for it.
When I saw their mutilated bodies near my house one morning, I was shocked to see how young they were. They were fighting for a cause that gave them a moral upper hand while their enemies did not know why they were fighting in Vietnam an invisible enemy they called Vietcongs or Charlie and gooks. They were young country boys with low education and a quick boot camp training of a few weeks when they were told to go and kill the gooks in a far away country they had never been to or known anything about. It was the first time they were out of their villages to go anywhere so they were bewildered.
These young American GI s became the mindless robotic killing machines but such killings daily took its toll on them when they lost their fellow soldiers or were seriously injured that resulted in drastic amputations of their limbs . It changed their lives completely in a very negative way that prevented many to go back home and live the life they were used to. They suffered from PTST issues, alcoholism and drugs that they had started to take in Vietnam . They lost faith in their commanders and often shot them dead when they were ordered to fight a useless fight .
The Americans and the French before them paid a high price for their war on the Vietnamese . Some 60000 Americans lost their lives and perhaps over 200000 received life altering injuries that included amputations, drug addiction and severe mental depression that forced many to take their own lives. People in their own country lost their sympathy for the returned soldiers who only received scorn and neglect so many ended up on the streets living as pathetic addicts surviving on charities. The cheap medals they received for their brutality lost their shine and appeal when they returned home to find their spouses living with some one else and their family life shattered.
Their loss of faith came as a shock to their commanders who were under pressure to retake territories and give an increasing body count everyday so they pushed on their battalions who killed, raped and napalmed villagers only to lose it to the Vietcongs the very next day. One general said that he had to destroy a village in order to save it but what exactly they had won at a great cost that they lost the very next day ?
The Vietcongs chose their fight at a time and place of their choice giving them maximum advantages against their enemies so they usually had the upper hand in any fight. They avoided fight where the enemy had an advantage in weaponry and logistics so a surprise attack was their strength. But they had to leave the most vulnerable old men, women and the very young in their villages at the mercy of the enemy so My Lai massacre happened.
The use of a defoliant called agent orange by the American giant planes was so widespread that one day I saw the banana plant near my shelter wilting that had a white coating of powder on it but this defoliant was deadlier than anyone one could have ever imagined. It denuded the forest to deny cover to the guerrillas but it also poisoned the soil and water . Farmers or children walking bare feet absorbed this poison that made them very sick and dead. Young women gave birth to severely deformed babies because they had somehow absorbed this poison unknowingly.
I attended a conference in America to talk about the Agent orange and its ill effect on people in Vietnam. The Vietnamese still suffer in silence taking care of their severely deformed people in many hospitals.
There were thousands of young women who were forced into prostitution due to their need to feed their starving families and often became the sole bread earners because their fathers or brothers had died. The war destroyed not only their villages and the source of their livelihood that was mostly farming but also their families that were once close knit so they became refugees in their own country living on charities. I worked in Saigon after the Tet offensive of 1968 and helped carry food and other essentials to numerous refugee centers around the city and often got into cross fire situations that I somehow managed to escape from. It seemed that the fighting was everywhere.
The war of thirty years had a devastating effect on their values and the social structure that suffered . There was a rise in domestic violence, drug addiction, rise of immorality in women who were forced into brothels to earn a living, thievery, wholesale destruction of their once beautiful and placid villages , destruction of their animals, their forests and wildlife due to the defoliation by agent orange, poisoning of their land, water and the people but against all odds they continued to fight not knowing when it will all end.
What impressed me most about the Vietnamese people was their sense of humor, their hospitality when they had so little to offer, their kind hearts and their determination to win the war in the end that they eventually did. Even at the height of the war, there were night shows or itinerant operas that was a respite for them who suffered. They invited me to their weddings, their funerals or when they just stopped me on the road to share with me their delicious food or a drink of rice wine.
They protected me from harm knowing that I was there to help them in their agriculture . They gave me beautiful silk gown and cap to show their appreciation for what I did for them. They found a place for me to live and recovered my watch that was stolen by some kids.
The Vietnamese are the most gifted people I have ever met. Their art, their craft, their music , their water puppet shows, their silk embroidery, their food and their artisanat have few equals anywhere. I was positive that once the war ends, they will get back to reconstructing their beautiful country. I was not disappointed when my wife and I visited Saigon a few years ago . It is a changed Vietnam where all the ravages of war are carefully erased . Now it is a thriving economy and growing at a fast rate. There are new highways, new roads, new bridges, schools, hospitals and new admin buildings in all provinces.
The defunct railways is thriving again so you can travel to any part in comfort. There are new hotels, comfortable modern buses to travel in so we were happy to see the new Vietnam because I remember the horrid and squalid Vietnam during the war.
Source : Google photo of the monument to the My Lai massacre
When some Americans visited the village of My Lai to show their respect to the 500 or more victims of the massacre , they were surprised and overwhelmed with emotions when the survivors said that they had forgiven the perpetrators of the crime . They put flowers and burn incense at the monument and silently pray for the departed souls so that they attain nirvana.
That defines who the Vietnamese really are.
I have a powerpoint called Remember Vietnam that I present here for you to watch and learn something about the indomitable character of the Vietnamese people.
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