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War in Vietnam: What Should We Know

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Wars are fought as a result of hopeless politically-driven agendas. In the case of the War in Vietnam, the purpose for engaging in War for both Americans and Vietnamese differed in many aspects. The most evident was the fact that the American’s were not as driven as the Vietnamese, since they were fighting someone else’s war in another country, in order to preserve their ideology of democracy in the region. In contrast, the Vietnamese risked their lives to preserve their homeland, tradition and culture against foreign invaders. The fabric of War proved to be detrimental to soldiers and families, as portrayed in Bao Ninh’s novel ‘Sorrow of War’ and Dang Naht Minh’s film ‘When the Tenth month comes’. The essence of the two literary works criticize War as a destructive tool; transforming a person in a negative war, crushing hopes and dreams and in the end fostering sorrow and despair. Despite this sorrow caused by War, the experiences of human relations gives optimism that transcends the sorrow and despair. In both the ‘Sorrow of War’ and ‘When the tenth month comes’, the respective protagonists Kien and Duyen struggle with the mourning process from the trauma of the post-war. They are constantly haunted by the memories of the War. However they manage to come to terms with their traumatized past, and transcend their sufferings using different coping mechanisms such as human relations and accepting the reality of their situation.

Kien is devoted to his communist ideals and fulfills his national duty by joining the War, however, his journey makes him encounter the awful reality of how humans react to War. Likewise, Duyen’s devotion to her family and village is tested when she finds out about the death of her husband. For Duyen, her loss is too much to bear, consequently her reality and deception coalesce as she tries to maintain her facade.

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Vietnamese cinema has integrated sorrow and mourning as a result of Vietnam’s continuous relationship with Wars. Mourning as a symbol of the nation’s history is illustrated in films like ‘When the Tenth Month Comes’, through its story of love, loss and death. The film constitutes elements of mourning and poetry, both culturally embedded in Vietnam’s history. These elements are appropriately portrayed in the homefront, in order to emphasize the impact of the War on families not directly involved in the War. Furthermore, the focus on the homefront i.e the villages conveys human attributes such as life, love and sorrow.

The film dwells on the psychological impact the death of a soldier has on his family. Duyen loves her family so much, she sacrifices part of her sanity and happiness in order to protect them from hearing the news of the death of her husband. She is aware that her father in law has already lost one son to a war, and the news of his youngest son’s death would bring him unbearable sorrow. Duyen also sees that her son idolizes his father for being a soldier, from his drawings of him, therefore does not want him to feel despair at a young age. Duyen understands that the timing of her husbands death unfortunately coincides with the death anniversary of her mother in law, a significant event in Vietnamese tradition. All of these factors combine to make her bear the agonizing silence and facade, in order to preserve the happiness of her family.

To help deceive her family into thinking her husband is alive, Duyen persuades Khang, village school master, to fabricate letters as if it were sent by her husband. Khang tells her to admit the truth of her husband’s death, but Duyen in disbelief says “maybe he’s still alive somewhere”. Khang realizes that she is in denial, and agrees to write the letters for her thinking she would come to terms with her mistake and admit the truth, thereby bringing her out of the state of disillusionment.

Eventually Duyen becomes trapped by her own deception, finding it difficult to break her grief. Khang is the only one who empathizes with her, however, their relationship becomes clouded once village officials recognize his writing on one of his letters. This incident causes Khang to confess his love for Duyen, an act of sacrifice for her to conceal her truth from the village. As a result, Khang leaves the village and Duyen is left alone to ponder on her actions, a sign for her to reveal the truth and overcome her grief.

Throughout the film, the viewer comes to observe a fusion of reality and illusion through the lens of Duyen’s character. This fusion of dimensions may have been caused by the fact that their was no proper burial for her husband. As a result Duyen questions the legitimacy of the news of his death. An example of the intricate perception of the differing human relationship between reality and illusion is the scene where Duyen acts as a heroine of the village. Given her circumstance, Duyen was not in the mood to take part in the play but she was forced to. As her male counterpart sings about how he must go fight in the War to defend the nation, she sentimentally replies that she will sacrifice their relationship for the homeland, despite the sadness she will have to endure. As she goes along with this act, eventually her illusion hits reality and she is overwhelmed with emotion, filling her poetry with tears. The elderly women in the crowd empathize with her emotion, revealing the shared mourning many of them may have undergone just like Duyen. It is ironic that Duyen was given this role given that her acting mirrored her current situation. The emotional impact of this ‘act within an act’ makes Duyen realize that she cannot lead a normal life by concealing the truth. She runs away from the stage hoping to find solace alone.

Another example of the melting of dimensions between reality and illusion was her encounter with the the spirit of the guardian protector of the village. Duyen familiarizes herself with the spirit and asks him whether her husband is alive. The spirit replies, “he now only lives in people’s memories’. The spirit is trying to convey a subtle message to Duyen, to accept her husband’s death and move forward by carrying the happy memories of him. The scene also shows how the Vietnamese accepted the ‘ghost culture’ and they did not fear them, unlike the western depiction of ghosts as entities to be feared. The spirit remembers her husband’s offering of a kite before he enlisted in the army. This is offering of a kite may personify as a guardian of memory between Duyen and her husband. As the film first introduces to the kite when Duyen was with her husband, before he left for the War. Later towards the end of the film, Duyen and Tuan play with the kite on top of a hill, signifying that Duyen has come to terms with her husband’s death, and now her husband is metaphorically flying on top of her through her memories of him.

One of the most significant scenes that help Duyen come to terms with her husbands death, and helping her overcome her melancholia was her encounter with her husband at the ghost market. When she meets her husband, she confesses to him about her concealing the truth of his death from their family. He comforts her by saying, “Only living people can bring happiness to each other… I’ve completed my role in the living world,” these words suggest that her husband wants Duyen to move forward in life instead of being stuck in the past. He wants Duyen to realize that he cannot bring happiness to her anymore, and he wants Duyen to do her part for the community, just like he sacrificed his life for the community. This incident eases Duyen’s desperate situation as she is finally able to bring some closure to her predicament. The use of black and white photography in a way supports the fusion of different dimensions that are employed in the film. The visual ingredients of the film like the raising of the national flag in the school at the end of the film bring about a feeling of national pride and hope. The film portrays this feeling of hope to those affected by the War, in order for them to come to together as one nation despite their history of sorrow. The film also reinforces the message of Duyen’s husband, “only the living must bring happiness to the living”, this is most vividly depicted at the end of the movie which coincidently is the only period of optimism in the film. At the end of the film, Duyen wears a white bandana publicly symbolizing she is in a period of mourning, and that she has come to terms with the death of her husband.

In contrast to ‘When the Tenth month comes’ which focuses on the homefront, Bao Ninh’s novel ‘Sorrow of War’ criticizes War’s destructive effect on the people who are directly affected by the War. The major theme of the novel revolves around the ugly framework of the War; its ability to psychologically influence a person’s ability to bury their past, cope with the present and face the future. The novel chronicles the experiences of Kien, a North Vietnamese soldier, whose experiences in the War depict an emotionally traumatized mind. For Kien, the traumas and sufferings of the present coalesce with the past, and it is too much for him to handle. He finds it difficult to bury his past memory and he is constantly haunted by it. The narration in the novel shifts back and forth between the past and the present mirroring Kien’s surge of memory associated with the war , his relationship with Phoung, and his attempt to bury his past and move on with his life. This shifting of narration also gives the reader a glimpse into Kien’s troubled and unpredictable mind.

For many Vietnamese, War engulfed much of their lives, many of them did not know a period of peace. Kien discusses this when says “ The war with the Americans determines all events in life…the happiness…the sorrows”(pg 75). The author-soldier aims to voice against the sufferings of his people whose patriotic endurance let them through many Wars.

For people like Kien, their whole life was constructed within the fabric of War. Kien not only looses his family but also his childhood lover, Phoung. For Kien, Phong is both the embodiment of hope, and also the reason “his life entered into bloody suffering and failure” after he witnessed her being rapped. Even though Phoung and Kien are alive, their once idealized love would not be the same as the “ ghost of War haunted them and permeated their deteriorating lives”.(pg 230) As Phoung tries to get back with Kien, their break up is triggered by Kiens inability to accept her prostitution history and Phuong’s inability to live up to his ideals. It is interesting to compare the differences between Phoung and Kien’s ability to experience and respond to their suffering in their lives. Phoung is more pragmatic in her approach, as she makes efforts to move on from her traumatized past. In contrast, Kien wrestles to clinch onto his past idealisms for as long as possible without making a conscientious effort to move on.

The novel also examines the lives of the Vietnamese soldiers during the War. Many of these soldiers suffered from starvation and despair. For these soldiers, they would rather die than see the War being dragged on. This idea of death being welcomed by the soldiers is reinforced by a song sung by the soldiers, “When will I die.”(pg 15) Kien’s encounter with the driver of the truck makes him question the value of the War they are fighting. The driver believed that the so called ‘peace’ the soldiers triumph after they win actually lead to worse living conditions for soldiers and civilians alike. He cynically comments that after the ‘hard won victory’, the soldiers who fought in the War will never be the same. In retrospect, the comments made by the truck driver reinforce the destructive nature of Wars and the psychological effect it has on its victims(i.e soldiers). For many of these soldiers their toughest battle was in their mind. As Can, a comrade of Kien, says “ the recent years of War had brought enough suffering and pain to last them a thousand years”. Can asserts that the impact of the War within their mind would be never ending, an eternal sorrow they would have to carry till they die.

An important element in this novel is Kien’s writing power as a therapeutic device to help him overcome his state of sorrow. The reader is able to empathize with Kien’s hope that writing will help bring an end to his emotional and mental suffering. This hope is similar to the expectations he has for Phoung, both being urgent and illusional. Kien believed that his writing journey was a manifestation of a divine purpose and an ‘obligation to his generation,’ to reveal the true nature of War.

The novel’s perspective is not entirely comprised of cynicism and sorrow, there are glimpses of transcending optimism and humanity which show the value of human relations in times of despair. An example is when Kien and his North Vietnamese comrades stumble upon a compassionate South Vietnamese family in a farm. These North Vietnamese soldiers are not treated as enemies but simply as fellow humans. This act of generosity in the darkest of times seems to give a transcended hope to Kien and his comrades who feel stuck in the dreadful abyss of War. Another manifestation of this glimmer of hope and humanity in the novel was the letters Kien received from a soldier. This soldier was one of the men who partook in the raping of Phoung and taunted Kien calling her a ‘whore’. However, in the letter he sends he asks Kien for his forgiveness for the wrong he had done to Kien. The very fact that the soldier is asking for forgiveness shows that humanity is essentially present in the evils of War.

Two important themes in the Bao Ninh’s novel are the intertwined interpretations on the sufferings caused by the War of those who fight it and those who are affected by it. As well as the hope for humanity that gives people like Kien hope that this suffering can be alleviated. The genuine human connection from the compassionate farm family, his supportive comrades and the Mute girl allow Kien to restore some hope in humanity. For Kien, however, his ‘only hope of staying in rhythm with normal life’(pg 176) is his act of writing that keeps him committed to maintain his attachment to his memory.

In retrospect to ‘When the Tenth Month comes’, the message of Duyen’s husband that the ‘living can only bring happiness to the living’ addresses Vietnam’s problem of mourning their history. The mantra of sacrificing oneself for the nation is repeated throughout the film. By observing grief and sacrifice through the lens of Duyen’s character, the viewer perceives suffering as a personal obstacle one must overcome in order to lead a normal life. The title of the film delivers an important message: mourning must entail until the tenth month comes, implying that the only way to overcome mourning is through time.

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