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A People Not Strong: Vietnamese Images of the Indochina War
Alan Farrell, Modern Languages, Virginia Military Institute
I guess I had shuffled under the huge gate of rough-hewn logs that guarded entry to our Special Forces camp in the highlands of Cong Tum province along the Laotian frontier a hundred times before I noticed the words cut into coarse planks lashed together above my head. Hruh Hong, it announced. And though my thirty-some so dang strikers wore shoulder patches bearing a mad hornet, it was some time still before I had the gate inscription translated to me by one of my supplétifs : "maisô guêpe-là," he told me. Hornet hive. I suppose it made little enough difference to me under what emblem I should fight, but my Anglo-Saxon sense of degree was reassured when--at the orders of the new American commander--the scowling hornets disappeared to make way for another shoulder patch that sported a leaping and eminently more martial black panther, bounding through an arch of winged parachutes, lightening bolts, crossed rifles, and the rest of that stern panoply of war. But I did not forget the fascination of a people for insects, tiny creatures: fierce, strong, communal, indistinguishable, relentless, implacable.
"The Ants are a people not strong," says Proverbs, 30:25. "Yet they prepare their meat in the summer...The locusts have no king, yet go they forth by their bands; The spider taketh hold with her hands, and is in kings' palaces." These "things which are little upon the earth...are exceeding wise" but do not appear to have imparted their wisdom to the West. The French, for instance, always thought of the Vietnamese--scornfully--as ants: fourmis. Jean Lartéguy's novels, long the public face of France's exasperated hopes toward the colony (a pregnant word in this context), have recourse to this image: the long columns of tiny, faceless, straining figures who dragged siege guns, rice bags, artillery rounds through the jungle in filiform legions. In his well-known Centurions, which begins, by the bye, comparing a column of French prisoners wending its way up out of the valley at Dien Bien Phu, to "caterpillars in solemn procession" (1) Lartéguy shows us a bo-doi , typical Vietnamese soldier:
Lartéguy permits himself a number of tirades of the sort:
The intervening text, furthermore, is larded with the same sort of insect-related vocabulary--as are others of his Indochina novels, notably Les tambours de bronze (Bronze Drums ), set mutatis mutandis in Laos: grouillement, grouiller, foisonner, fourmière, termitière, colonne, saper, ronger. Lartéguy assembles here, of course, a whole subliminal machinery of racial stereotype (Edith Cresson calls Japanese fourmis last summer; subsequent flap) and even sexual, as one scene reveals in which a bo-doi speaks to the French prisoners, recounting how as a student in France he enjoyed the jardin du Luxembourg and in particular a young woman who danced there. Asked to loosen Captain Glatigny's ropes, however, the young Vietnamese turns away. Lartéguy notes:
The reeeeeeeeeeeal indictment: insects cannot share the earthy lubricity of pleasure-loving Europeans.
What is less clear is how the Vietnamese saw themselves, though scrutiny of Vietnamese stories, parables, and other accounts of their War, destined for public consumption--through translation-- or otherwise, seems to suggest that the French metaphor was not without its parallel in the Vietnamese mind as well. A corpus of Vietnamese literature exists, didactic and hortatory without a doubt, but in which certain virtues are extolled and citizens urged to follow models of behavior (submersion of self, sacrifice, endurance, patience, formic indifference to pain) which limn a sort of moral model. Studying such art is not without its risks, as Mary McCarthy noted in Hanoi, speaking principally of "visual art" :
Curiously enough, though I do not find the ant image in a superficial review of their writings, both Vo Nguyen Giap in his Military Art of People's War and Truong Nhu Tang in his Viet Cong Memoir speak less of what we would call combat and battle than of the elaborate behind-the-scenes network (Tang calls it tellingly a "web") wrought by insect-like battalions of "workers." "We march all day bent under the weight of our packs," cites Tang
Giap, for his part, recounts the ant-like labors of his troops around Dien Bien Phu, the ferrying of materiel, the digging of tunnels and moving of earth, the patience and biding of time:
This is, as Tang allows, the travail of a "veritable army of workers" (241). Giap speaks of the "wonderful trenches," citing timeliness and patience, enormous numbers of workers freighting indescribably heavy loads, tunnel complexes like the famous one at Cu Chi, all insect-like of course.
Le Ly Hayslip, whose When Heaven and Earth Changed Places is hardly socialist art, returns nonetheless to this image. Hayslip, whose gracious retrieval of Vietnamese folklore and folkways relies often on proverbs and legends, quotes her father's observation that "god's creatures had two basic ways to survive..."
The ant, however, does not alone bear the metaphoric burden in such accounts. Other insects, laying claim to identical virtues of solidarity, diligence, persistence, and resilience furnish the exemplum for conduct, the rationale for victory, related with a pride that is hardly ant-like, be it noted. Ly Thu Ho, a woman author who has penned in French several memoirs of her war, recalls in a 1969 novel Au milieu du carrefour (At the Crossroads), the labor gangs responsible for patching up after American bombing attacks:
She goes so far, in one lyrical passage, as to fuse the insect with its human counterpart, an odd and rare reference to mystical religion. It is Van, who speaks to Lang, for whom he has sentiments as they walk through the forest of the highlands near Da Lat:
Humanity, smallness of stature, nature, religion, tradition, insect.
As if advocacy of insect-like values were not enough, as if fusion through the insect-cantor into some sort of national gnosis were not enough, we see on more than one occasion, the ant itself sustain human activity as nourishment: "We ate," relates Ho Phuong in an excerpt from his novel La mer appelle (The Sea Calls ) "Roots and wild grass, snails and red ants." (180) "Come on," says Dinh the Scrounger; "It's vitamin C, huh?" "The soldiers take a few ants between their fingers and begin to chew..." the account goes on; "A bitter taste...a little bit tart." (175) "We washed it down with urine," remembers the narrator. "And to make matters worse," --as if matters get much worse than eating red ants and urine--he notes dispassionately, "even the urine tasted flat" (180).
Ha Noi, the brain of the immense colony, is--naturally enough--a nest, or so it appears in an unusual 1966 novel called Front du ciel (Sky Front) by one Nguyen Dinh Thi, the tale of North Vietnamese MIG pilots and the little seen air war from a Vietnamese viewpoint. "Along the crowded streets, houses pressed against one another," claims Thi, "like the individual cells in a beehive, built century upon century, around the tiny Lake of the Redeemed Sword. We are here, oh Ha Noi" (92). The aircraft buzzing in air furnish an occasion for predictable images of flying insects; all planes are known as Johnson for reasons handily evident, but the F-105 is a mouche verte, with associated verbs like piquer, siffler, bourdonner. The genre is familiar enough, and we shan't be surprised to find our pilots on leave, discovering the suffering--and the determination--of the other front, the home front, though what might be foreseeable scenes of girl friends and lovers remain dispiritingly, well...pudic. One of the pilots, Luong, reflects on the presence of Americans in the South of his land. He has heard of serveuses de thé, taxi girls, épouses à la semaine, corrupted by decadent values of the outlanders. "It is not enough for them to sow death, destruction, and misery among us, but they have to go and soil the thing we hold most precious..."
The locust is , of course, not a useful insect, nor one that teaches lessons. Likewise the beetle. So, such creatures can supply the metaphor for an enemy who shares appearance or characteristic with them. Just as the devouring Americans and their cohorts seem locusts, so the French, whom the Vietnamese see wearing helmets, become scarabées. This is Huu Mai in a story called Le drapeau-repère (The Signal Flag): "Observing the enemy from under cover we see in his trench system the steel helmets--like great beetles--bobbing continu-ously" (15). Equally unpalatable as a model is the behavior of the mouche or fly. The Americans, in Tran Mai Nam's tale of war De Hue au 17ième parallèle (From Hue to the 17th Parallel), "would sweep down on us like a swarm of flies whenever they heard a shot fired. How could that be? Weren't they afraid of death? But all the comrades who came in from the next village said the same thing: 'A swarm of flies'" (135). "How can they 'swarm like flies?' Why aren't they afraid to die?" wonders the guérillero Phong. "Is it because there are so many of them?" Turns out that the Yankee is not "afraid of death" because he is swaddled in body armor, cannot be killed by bullets. But Phong is determined: "All you gotta do is swat hard." And sure enough, in a carefully-crafted ambush, "the enemy dropped on us like a swarm, just as the comrades told us they would. But they were nothing but flies after all. All you gotta do is swat hard. Just like the other kind of fly these flies are afraid..." (154).
These stories are not shy about plumping a relentless and heavy-handed moral in the middle of things, virtually always the same, reflection of the abnegation of self to which a people is committed. Oanh Tan recounts the Days and Nights of Con Co (Les jours et les nuits de Con Co ) in a collection called simply if tellingly L'épreuve du feu (The Test of Fire). He notes that two young students, Sau and Soi, "should have been in classes at the university. But hatred for the ...aggressor has made us all abandon joyfully even the most promising of our individual plans. Our young people know that no plan shall come to anything if the country loses its freedom." (32) In Nguyen Thi Van Anh's Ces enfants et les histoires qui les concernent (These Children and the Stories about Them) a young lover tells his girlfriend: "I'll be back in seven years with a glorious future and a career to look forward to. You'll always be in my heart. Then we'll have a home and live in peace" (75). A seven-year cycle of denial, followed by generation and work. The life of the insect. Kien , say the Vietnamese, "the ant,"-- tha lau cung day to--"takes her time but fills her nest." To a culture of Europeans for whom strength is the ox--"strong as an ox"--the Vietnamese, who have oxen of course, say kien cang : "strong as an ant."
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