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My Vietnam War, 50 Years Later (Part One)

A REMF Way Out In The Front (A Personal Essay)

Like Ninh has done with his American War, I’ve written fiction about my Vietnam War. My fiction was two short stories in Penthouse magazine in the late 1970s. “Polyorifice Enterprises” was modeled on the black humor of Catch 22 and satirized the prostitution that spread like an epidemic in places like Pleiku; for security and health reasons, the Fourth Division supervised bordellos just outside the base camp gate. Everything a horny 19-year-old American soldier wanted was catered to by entrepreneurial elements among the South Vietnamese. We were young American males feeling great power as part of a massive army, and we had money burning holes in our jungle fatigue pockets. Young peasant girls were an attractive commodity to be exploited. It’s worth noting that the most famous work of literature in Vietnamese -- the narrative poem The Tale of Kieu written by scholar Nguyen Du around 1810 -- is about a young woman who becomes a prostitute to save her family from ruin in a period of war lord rule. She eventually becomes a guerrilla chieftain and prevails. The first stanza of the poem ends with these lines:

                    One watches things that makes one sick at heart.
                    This is the law: no gain without loss,
                    and Heaven hurts fair women for sheer spite.

Later, a character says this of the protagonist, Thuy Kieu.

                    She is a woman much ill-used by fate!
                    But then it’s nothing new beneath the sun.

A poetic sense of stoicism and the dignity of life in times of disaster and trial are the core of this great work. When I came home from Vietnam, I submerged and began haunting used bookstores, reading things like The Tale of Kieu and books like Street Without Joy by Bernard Fall and his other books on the French war against the Vietnamese and the insidious transition to the American war. Slowly, I began to understand what I’d been floundering around in in my charmed youth. I began to feel a sense of mission to tell this story, which to this day is like pissing up a pole in our mainstream American culture.

For some reason that’s worth pondering, the Vietnamese seem to like Americans. In the spirit of Kieu, they seem wise enough to know, following a war -- and they’ve had many besides the one with us -- there’s little benefit to nursing vengeance and holding a grudge. It’s time to move on. This may be because they’re a small nation with survival as a goal; in our case, we’re a huge, imperialistic nation with thriving and domination as a goal. We don’t lose wars. It’s imprinted in our DNA. My poet friend Bill Ehrhart, a wounded Marine vet, has a short poem that always gets me when I read it.

story | by Dr. Radut