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Viet Nam Generation Journal & Newsletter

V3, N4 (January 1992)

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Tran Van Tra

Gill Ott

He is approximately 75 years old and when he fixes you in his gaze, you are aware of it. His eyes hold you and make you want to smile. He had like me been a soldier, devoting nearly a lifetime to that profession, while I, a draftee, had served for just several years and reluctantly at that. At one time we would have raised our weapons and shot at each other. The intent, as it is in all wars, would have been to kill and in those awful days I would have done so without hesitation. Twenty-one years later we are sitting down to dinner together. General Tran Van Tra, the former Deputy Commander of the National Liberation Front, and me. Tran Van Tra, the Viet Cong General.

We are not alone. At a local Vietnamese restaurant, seventeen of us have gathered. Earlier in the week, a friend who teaches Asian Studies at Cornell had called. Keith and I had served in the same basic training company at Ft. Bragg although neither of us can remember the other. We do, however, fondly remember the same Drill Sergeants. After "basic," he had been sent to intelligence school, where he learned to speak Vietnamese. Now, he is a noted scholar on Viet Nam and teaches about the culture and history of the people his government told him were the enemies of America and the free world. Would I like to meet the former Deputy Commander of the Viet Cong? Could I arrange some kind of gathering to receive the General?

I called a number of other veterans and friends most of whom had either served in Viet Nam or actively protested the war. All but one said they would come. They would come, I expect, because they are curious, but they will come too, out of the respect old enemies sometimes show each other once the bleeding and dying have stopped. Most fought against the People's Army. Some wear the scars from that war. All of us carry private memories and, I think, a few ghosts as well.

I still dream about killing your fighters, General. I'm always in that terrible moment between elusion and discovery, weapon raised, trying to will myself to fire. I want to continue hiding, but then you might kill me. Head pounding with fear and fighting for breath, I fire. I always do.

Tran Van Tra, like many of us, became a soldier when he was barely twenty years old. During World War II, he fought the Japanese and later joined the Viet Minh to fight the French colonialists. When the Americans came he left his village in Quang Nghi province to fight yet another invader. He became a follower of Ho Chi Minh and a communist, but long before Tran Van Tra ever read Marx or Lenin, he was already a fiercely dedicated nationalist and part of Viet Nam's long history of struggle and resistance against anyone who would deny his people the right to their own self-determination. I knew that as the Deputy Commander of the National Liberation Front, he had played a major part in developing the overall strategy that eventually defeated the United States and its ally, the Republic of South Viet Nam. He was the architect of the 1968 Tet offensive and he led the attack against Saigon himself.

Waiting for him that evening, I thought about my own arrival in Viet Nam in May of 1969. The orientation briefing delivered to new military personnel immediately upon "de- planeing"--usually by a bored and monotonal NCO--was laden with words like freedom, democracy, falling dominoes and communist aggression. And it was hot. So very hot. Our pink (and brown and black) stateside skins were not used to the tropical sun. It seemed impossible to quench my thirst. At the 90th Replacement Battalion in Long Binh, I was immediately placed on KP duty and forty-eight hours later my name was called for assignment to the 101st Airborne Division. I had arrived "in-country" just as the battle for Hill 937, Dong Ap Bia or Hamburger Hill as the newspapers called it, reached its peak. The 101st had lost more than forty troopers and sustained hundreds more wounded for a piece of real estate that was held only a few hours before abandoning. The North Vietnamese lost an estimated fifteen hundred soldiers. From the Senate floor, Edward Kennedy demanded to know the strategic value of Hill 937 and why we had paid such a terrible price for it. That question was on my mind too, as a mesh-windowed bus transported us from the replacement center to the 101st Airborne Division HQ at Ben Hoa.

The large number of new replacements (Cherries, FNGs or Fucking New Guys) in my group gradually dwindled as they separated us by MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) and assigned us to different units within the 101st according to our training and the 101st's needs. In the end there was only about a dozen of us left, all 11B20s. An "eleven-bravo" is a Light Weapons Infantryman enjoying a niche both at the top and the bottom of the military hierarchy, depending on how you look at it. The Infantry is the "Queen of Battle" or so the stories go, but it was a job very few of us had asked for. We were trigger pullers, pure and simple. No fancy technical training. No exotic equipment to operate. Most of us weren't even "jump" (parachute) qualified as was usually the case in Airborne units earlier in the war. We were new meat, ready for the grinder and it showed in the looks we got from the rear-echelon support personnel at Ben Hoa. After a few more days of orientation and climatological adjustment, we were shipped "up-country" to I Corps, the northern most military zone in what was then South Viet Nam, for assignment to specific combat units. As usual, the Infantry companies of the 1st Brigade were in the field. We would soon join them and within just a matter of days, I would see dead soldiers and myself kill for the first time.

America seemed a strange and confusing place in 1969. Movie stars and civil rights leaders were being murdered. Two Kennedy's were dead. The war in Viet Nam raged and the nightly news advised us of the bodycount from each day's fighting. Anti-war protesters and civil rights activists filled the streets. The few black friends I had were beginning to distance themselves from me and other liberals as "the movement" became more militant. Women were changing too, as they claimed their rightful place as leaders in protesting the war. My four years of college had been mostly an exercise in irrelevancy. Though never particularly enthusiastic about the war, I had done little to oppose it. Facing the draft, I left the United States in the late summer of 1968--the night McCarthy lost the Democratic nomination for President--with my girlfriend Mariana, who later "dear johned" me halfway through my tour in Viet Nam. We traveled together through Europe for nearly five months connecting occasionally with radical student groups who were protesting America's war. We discussed my requesting asylum in Sweden. Perhaps I might go to Canada. I spoke with Mariana's American businessman father, a man I liked greatly, who was a World War II combat veteran. He told me stories of fighting Germans in that war. He described how his infantry squad had learned to pin down enemy soldiers in their concrete bunkers by directing a high volume of small arms fire into the bunker's narrow gun portals while a single man crawled up to its base. Upon reaching the bunker, the man would pull the pin on a hand grenade and allow the fuse to wind down for a few seconds before tossing it through the gun portal. The grenade would explode almost immediately leaving little chance for the occupants to protect themselves. The rest of the squad would then charge the bunker and finish the remaining stunned and wounded Germans. After the war, he married Mariana's mother, a German herself, and went home to Indiana to become a Chemical Engineer. Worried and confused, I returned to the United States where my draft notice was waiting.

After a brief, unhappy family visit my father, also a WWII veteran, drove me to the local induction center. He had been fearful all along that I might refuse to serve my country although we had never really discussed the war. But he knew. When he dropped me off at 5:30 a.m. on that cold December morning, he reached out, shook my hand and smiled. I said nothing and walked inside. Later that day, after the physical exam and various interviews, those of us who had not been deferred were administered an oath and asked to take a step forward. Briefly, it again occurred to me that I could resist. I could just not step forward. I could turn around and walk out. I did neither. Three days after returning from Europe, I was in the United States Army and on my way to Ft. Bragg.

When I arrived in Viet Nam five months later after Basic Training and Infantry AIT, Tran Van Tra and his fighters were already seasoned combat veterans. They were a formidable enemy, one whose dedication, tenacity and courage, I was assured by my nineteen-year-old squad leader, must be respected. He said if I was lucky and did what I was told to do, I stood a good chance of going home in one piece twelve months later. I did indeed go home twelve months later but the young squad leader was not so fortunate. He was killed in a firefight the next day. Killed, because he was distracted by a scared shitless cherry who was having trouble functioning in his first contact. We had come under crossing fire from two ridges and my squad had attempted a flanking action that was not successful. We were pinned down and our only recourse was to continue the attack and try to fight through it. The young sergeant had to stop repeatedly to check on the cherry who could not force himself to move towards the incoming automatic weapons and rocket fire. As the young sergeant stopped and turned around once more, he was relieved to see that the cherry was now moving and keeping up with the rest of the squad. The young sergeant smiled, faced frontwards and immediately took a round in the face that blew the back of his head off. I was the cherry. Many years later, I would learn that the odds of being killed or wounded during my tour in Viet Nam were one-in-eleven. For my and Mariana's fathers in World War II, the odds were one-in-seventy-eight. It was an ugly little war. The NLF and their NVA (North Vietnamese Army) counterparts seemed to take everything we threw at them including B-52 strikes, napalm, defoliants, artillery, helicopter gunships and of course that ultimate weapon, as we were told in Basic Training, the U.S. Infantryman. Navy battleships with sixteen-inch guns, ten miles off the coast of Viet Nam, pounded enemy positions whenever we could find them. We inflicted terrible casualties and still they fought on. Maybe two million died. Waiting for him that evening, I wondered about this man who could suffer the deaths of so many of his soldiers and still not lose his convictions, go mad or sink into permanent despair.

We gather slowly, a few at a time. Some of us wait inside the restaurant while others less sure of what they are doing remain outside, watching. The restaurant owner and her Vietnamese staff look nervous. A friend, dismissed in the sixties from his faculty post at a medical school for protesting the war in Viet Nam, arrives. Don was never a soldier, but I consider him as much a veteran of the war as I. He is also my therapist.

Quite suddenly, Tra appears. With him is a senior Vietnamese diplomat and the Cornell University professor and Viet Nam veteran who has arranged the visit. The three of them have just driven from New York City where General Tra, now a respected military historian and scholar, presented a paper at Columbia University. With them is a twenty-year-old Vietnamese woman who fled Saigon as a child and now attends Cornell on a full scholarship. Mai is acting as Tra's interpreter, but over the course of the evening she is transformed into his granddaughter. The Vietnamese, I remember, love to play with their children and invariably allow them great license. Before dinner is over, Mai is going through his pockets laughing, tickling him and giggling. Her parents, she tells us, stayed behind in Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City. She and her brother were placed on a boat with notes pinned to their shirts instructing the brother to study engineering and for her to become a doctor. She was seven years old and her brother, five. Along the way the boat was boarded by pirates who threatened, but did not kill anyone. When they ran out of food, they ate talcum powder.

Xuan Binh, an economist from Hanoi who is studying capitalism at Cornell. He lost an arm to an American bomb at the age of eleven and wears the new prosthetic device that the local chapter of Veterans For Peace has given him. Binh was returning from school with his two cousins when the first bombs fell. They all ran for the shelter of a nearby ditch. Their village was on the outskirts of Hanoi and sometimes the American B-52s overflew their targets and dumped their loads throughout the countryside. After the second wave of bombs fell, all Binh remembered was wandering around holding his mangled arm. His cousins were dead. In the hospital, the doctors kept cutting off more and more of the arm because of infection. Finally, there was no arm at all.

The scene in the restaurant becomes increasingly surreal, reminding me more and more of Viet Nam. The evening has a peculiar quality to it, feeling like it used to feel after a firefight or some other occurrence that has no parallel in ordinary life. At one point, an independent film crew making a documentary about Tra arrives, sticking lights, cameras and microphones into our faces, generally making a nuisance of themselves. Conversations overlap and flow into each other. There is laughter and a little too much beer. The food is delicious and I find myself wondering if the cook really knows who he is serving. At times the talk is hushed and serious. I watch my friends watching Tra.

Dave, a gentle cabinet maker and former infantryman with the 1st Cavalry Division, hesitantly approaches the General. In Viet Nam, as a twenty-year-old squad leader, he carried two human skulls, most likely Viet Cong skulls, in his rucksack. Gruesome yes, but they also served the more practical purpose of desensitizing his men to the violent death that was a part of their daily lives. After he was wounded his last month in-country, he sent the skulls home to his parents, something to this day they will not acknowledge. He extends his hand to greet the General. Tra holds Dave's arm and gently runs his fingers over the scar tissue. He nods knowingly.

"It works just fine now," Dave tells him with an embarrassed smile.

Larry is a reclusive farmer who served with the 4th Mechanized Infantry. He lives without electricity on the property he bought with his disability payments from the Veterans Administration. Larry grows most of what he needs and recently met a young woman with whom he has a baby daughter. He has brought with him this evening a peace symbol crafted from a fifty caliber machine gun round. Tra, thinking it is a gift, smiles appreciatively and places it next to his tea. Larry didn't really mean to give it to him. He just wants to show it to him. He gives me a desperate look. Later in the evening, I retrieve it.

Cris, a former Marine and now ex-cop also on disability from the VA, confronts Tra about MIAs and POWs. His questions are direct. His manner, aggressive. I thought this might happen and doubt Cris, who has erected a sixty foot pole on his homestead to fly the POW-MIA flag, is open to any rational discussion on the issue. Tra, whose own soldiers are still missing in action by the tens of thousands, listens patiently.

"What would we have to gain?" he replies and promptly invites Cris to return to Viet Nam to help him look for his missing men, too. "We will look together!" Cris smiles. I nearly cry. I think Cris believes him.

Jack is a WWII veteran whose infantry company liberated three concentration camps. He is a member of the local chapter of Veterans for Peace. Just recently he broke a forty-five year silence and spoke at a Holocaust memorial service. He has seen it. He is a witness. He has seen the ovens and the gas chambers. He saw the stacked bodies and held the dying in his arms. Jack once privately told me how he and several other young soldiers gave chase to some fleeing Nazi camp guards. When they caught them they shot them on the spot. He did not tell the story with pride. Jack sits across the table from Tra. They seem to share something special between them. They smile and nod frequently.

Old men, Jack tells Tra, "always send the young into battle." Tra acknowledges this and replies, "we must never do it again."

Jay is taking photographs most of the evening. He is a former professional photographer and now edits a trade magazine. Several years earlier I had heard him speak out against the war during a Viet Nam Veterans symposium at a local community college. Though well-intended, the symposium was little more than an attempt to vindicate the U.S. involvement in Viet Nam and glorify the experience of war. Jay's remarks, made from the floor and not the podium, were not appreciated by the majority of Veterans in attendance, most of whom had never seen combat. Although trained as an Infantryman himself and assigned to the 82nd Airborne, Jay refused to carry a weapon in Viet Nam. Instead of sending him to prison, the Army gave him a truck to drive. He later managed an NCO club. Jay was twenty-four when he volunteered for the draft.

"Way too old for that war," he once told me. "I knew I couldn't kill anybody and I didn't want to be killed either."

Sitting next to me is another non-veteran friend, Fred Wilcox. Fred is an author and college professor who protested the war in Viet Nam. His well-known book, Agent Orange: An Army Waiting to Die, describes the post-war horrors of Viet Nam vets who were heavily exposed to the deadly dioxin-laced defoliant. Fred spoke to the senior diplomatic officer accompanying General Tra and asked about the people who now live in areas that were heavily sprayed with Agent Orange. We are told of multiple birth defects and high rates of uterine cancer. In the North, where Agent Orange was not used, there apparently are no such problems. Later in the evening, Fred presents Tra with a copy of his book. He stands. Tears fill his eyes.

"On behalf of my own family, myself and all peace-loving people, I want to apologize for what our government did to the Vietnamese people. It was a great crime, a crime that must never happen again, and I am deeply sorry for your suffering."

Maria's former husband and brother served in Viet Nam. One flew jets and the other commanded a river patrol boat, a PBR. She has come to offer me support and to meet the General. She says she isn't sure what she will tell her brother about this evening or how he might respond. A university librarian who does volunteer work with the local Battered Women's Taskforce and the Committee for U.S. and Latin American Relations, Maria does not share her brother's view of the war. She tells me of the time they went to the Viet Nam Veterans Memorial.

"He was terribly moved. He lost a lot of friends. It's still hard for him." I tell her that it's still hard for most of us.

Ross, an electrical contractor and Cornell University graduate, served in Viet Nam with the 4th Infantry Division like Larry. He is a quiet man, devoted to his wife and four young children. He did not stay to meet his former enemy, a decision made instantly upon the arrival of the film crew making the documentary about Tra. Of all the former soldiers and marines present, Ross protects his privacy and in turn his family's privacy, the most. He's been a banker, consulting engineer, run a painting contracting business in Saudi Arabia and sold gasoline at the pump in the small town in upstate New York where he grew up. In Viet Nam, he was one of only a few survivors in his platoon, after a Viet Cong ambush. Later, when the invading film crew and their Vietnamese director become intolerably intrusive, Tra banishes them to their own dinner with a few sharp words and the wave of his hand. Too late, though, for Ross who has already fled.

Towards the end of the evening, Alan, a former Platoon Sergeant with the 9th Infantry Division presents Tra with a fine fountain pen as an offering of peace and symbol of the General's new stature as a scholar and writer. Tra beams.

"You were all excellent soldiers and brave fighters, but you were not fighting just another army. You were fighting the people! But now we must forgive each other. We must be friends."

Alan has only recently acknowledged his service in Viet Nam. Now in real estate, he is a soft-spoken man who once lived on communes and baked bread for a living. He is a natural leader, as all really good Platoon Sergeants are, but for over twenty years has avoided anything to do with his past life as a soldier. I persuaded him to speak for the group and he reluctantly agreed. Alan has, on occasion, described himself as the last link in a chain of command that began with Robert McNamara in Washington and ended with him in the Mekong Delta. It was Alan who decided what trail to take or where to cross a river. He had to decide what squad would take the point and who would go out on night ambush. Alan, and not Robert McNamara, saw what the policy makers never see. Once he told me of a visiting general who descended from three thousand feet in his helicopter to inspect the scene after a particularly bloody firefight. The general became physically ill and quickly left in his VIP helicopter.

Glasses are raised. More words spoken. We look around at each other. Something astonishing has happened this evening, but we aren't quite sure what it is. There are handshakes and hugs. Tears and laughter. Sadness. Tran Van Tra knows well the inner pain that soldiers can feel. It is the pain that comes from that place in all our hearts that knows killing is wrong. It is always wrong even though governments may tell us that it is sometimes necessary. Tra, I'm sure, believes this as perhaps so do some of us, although for me twenty-one years later, it is difficult to find much to commend in what I did in that war. For Tra, I expect, it is different. His people won, but their suffering continues. He himself disappeared from sight--a victim of politics--in the years immediately after the fall of Saigon. It has only been recently that he has re-emerged as the aging war hero now given to more scholarly pursuits. We watch him leave that evening and slowly, as we have gathered, return to our separate lives.

After I met you general, I had the dream again. As always, my weapon is raised and my head pounding with fear. As always, I am trying to will myself to fire. As always, I do. I move up to check the bodies. They are Americans.

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