Saturday, July 21, 2012

Reflections on a War - Know How To Read a Great Book

Ma Van Khang was born on December 1, 1936 in Hanoi, where he now lives. Ma worked for many years as a teacher in Vietnam's Northern Highlands; later he became a journalist. He has published numerous books of fiction, including the novels Dong Bac Trang Hoa Xoe (The White Flower-Shaped Coin) and Mua La Rung Trong Vuon (Season of Fallen Leaves) and the short story collections Nguoi Con Trai Ho Hang (The Youth by the Name of Hang) and Ngay Dep Troi (Sunny Days).

Unlike the two realistically-portrayed sculptures about soldiers -- male and female -- nearby, which we can respond to directly, the Vietnam Wall is like a book with many pictures and pages, which to truly appreciate requires an inner perspective.

Those are pages cast in stone, beautiful and sad, with hundreds of lines standing mute, one after another inscribing the names of those American soldiers who died. They force us to read slowly; they force us to think.

To us Vietnamese, war is always an exceptional situation testing our love of our country, our courage, our determination, and our ability. War, to us, is also synonymous with hardship, loss, and sacrifice.

I spent months and years under the shrieks of American fighters and inside their bombing curtain. I was in the city of Yen Bai when it was bombed and destroyed in 1965-66. I was by the shore of Thach Han River and at Ai Tu base -- all still covered with gun smoke in 1973. My two-year-old son had to go down to the underground shelter with his grandmother a couple of times a day. My wife, after finishing her shift, had to take up a rifle to guard the electric plant at Lao Cay province.

Those were the years when death was always near. In the 30-year war, all five brothers in my family joined the army. And one -- my younger brother -- was killed. He was an intellectual, with high hope and great determination, and he was preparing to take the entrance examination for the Polytechnique College. One summer day in 1966, he and I talked in a local restaurant. Having only a few piasters left, I ordered two small cups of sweet soup -- our farewell meal. Right after that he had to take a 3-month training course to be a 37-mm antiaircraft operator. First he was the machine operator, then the distance estimator.

In a letter to me, he wrote that a momentary fear would immediately cause a mis-reading. For in the telescope, the F105 and the F4H looked frightening! I can never forget the one line he wrote: "Only now I regret deeply that I did not always listen to you earlier." That line brought me to tears.

My brother was killed in Quang Tri in 1972. A civil guard buried his body at the edge of a forest. Later, it was transferred to a provincial cemetery, where my family and I went to identify his remains. I recognized him because of his exceedingly long leg bone; he was the tallest in our family. We gathered my brother's bones into a trap, then camouflaged it inside a knapsack. The train conductor, if he knew it was human bones, might throw us off the train. So, on our long trip home, I kept praying to my brother to give us his blessings. We successfully brought him home.

My father said "If you know how to learn, even mountains and rivers are books." The Vietnam wall is a book. War is a great book that we all need to read. And so I have read the Vietnam wall slowly, carefully, line by line. I tried to read it with a great deal of thought, with calmness to achieve a measure of peace. It was Dostoevsky who said, "Great ideas are spawned in sufferings." After a great loss comes experience and growth. To meditate on the war, on the loss of loved ones, is to meditate on how to live rightly in peace and friendship among ourselves.

I have read the work of many American writers who are also veterans. I find them very much like myself. They too know how to read the pages written about a bygone war.

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