combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 04 Number 04 Fall ©Oct 2006

Pass in Review
an inspection of the literature

A book may be as great a thing as a battle.
Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield

To Bear Any Burden,
the Viet Nam War and its Aftermath in the Words of Americans and Southeast Asians

by Al Santoli; E.P. Dutton, New York (©1985), Indiana University Press, Bloomington (repr 2004)

There are about twenty oral histories on the Viet Nam conflict. Some are worthless. Others are quite commendable, yet lack the depth and breadth of Santoli's work, arguably among the most informative and enlightening of oral histories, if not the best of the lot. Another, Otto Lehrack's No Shining Armor [Kansas University Press], is outstanding, yet focuses almost exclusively on United States Marines along the DMZ and is, for this reason, a sub-genre within Viet Nam oral histories.

Santoli, a combat veteran of the war, displays a knowledge and insight not only in selecting interviewees, but also exacting statements of import and significance, too often overlooked by compilers of oral histories. This distinguishes his work from those content to dwell upon the horrors of war while overlooking Viet Nam's unique aspects in history. It is easy for anyone to interview a combat veteran, reveal that war is indeed Hell (big surprise!), yet fail to provide any historical understanding of the forces that forged and molded that history. In these instances, larger questions remain: Why was the war fought, how, and with what overall impact?

Unlike some oral history compilers, Santoli does not limit his book to the accounts of American combat veterans; nor does he follow the typical question-answer format. He instead provides experiences, views and thoughts of Americans, Southeast Asians, and civilians, that focus on matters beyond the chaotic insanity of combat, descriptions of which do not dominate the book. Of the eighty-seven separate narratives, provided by forty-eight different people, just over half are from Americans, the remaining come from Southeast Asians themselves, including a number of former VC or NLF supporters and sympathizers who uniformly express dismay at and disgust with the eventual outcome. Santoli has also astutely included some non-veteran, non-military women, who one way or another came to have direct and enduring experiences with Viet Nam's tortured history; the accounts of refugee worker Berta Romero, POW/MIA wife Janis Dodge, and human rights activist Ginetta Sagan are welcome and insightful additions to the work.

Several recognizable names are included in the mix, to include General Edward Lansdale, Peter Braestrup, Eddie Adams (who discusses his famous photograph of Colonel Loan's summary execution of a VC assassin), Colonel Harry Summers, and former PRG Minister of Justice Truong Nhu Tang are among the contributors. All were and remain well known to informed students of the war. No high-ranking policy makers are included, which has proved to be a wise decision as few have shown any great depth of knowledge about the war's essence, and too often dwell upon generalities and/or abstruse political sub-topics having little bearing on the hows, whys and wherefores of the war. At the same time, Santoli's selection of lower ranking subjects was astutely done and with great forethought, producing a selection of people with knowledge, maturity, humanity, and, as Santoli spells out in his preface, values worthy of emulation.

The book is broken down into five sections, roughly spanning the entire course of the war, and extending beyond the post-1975 aftermath, an aftermath that was hardly the utopian paradise promised by Hanoi and its U.S. supporters. War, oppression, and misery, not peace, came in the wake of the 1975 ignominious defeat. In his introduction, far more engaging and thoughtful then the insipid blather found in many works, Santoli makes his objectives clear: he forthrightly states the war was worth winning, it was morally justifiable, that forces of idiocy doomed the effort to defeat, and that voices and views such as his have far too often been excluded from the national discussion on Viet Nam, more accurately described as an allied effort to stop Hanoi's Indochina theater war.

Santoli describes his service with a small combined intelligence platoon, relying on stealth and (surprise!) the assistance of common village people, people who detested VC depredations yet had no means to defend themselves. He also expresses his firm underlying beliefs and convictions about those he honors and respects as people who did not burn villages and butcher innocents but who instead developed great personal conviction in opposing what they viewed as forces of barbarity and mindless totalitarianism:

"This is a book about values. We who remember invite you to look back with us, behind the veil of myth and rhetoric. Though at times we must swallow our pride and examine tragic mistakes, the common humanity of the forty-eight people here is a shared triumph of the human spirit. In no way do we claim to represent the whole story. But we hope to bring to light some of the complicated realities that have often been overlooked. Please allow our truths to be a part of the larger discussion and debate."

These truths, almost unknown and ignored for decades, are clearly spelled out in this superior oral history.

Cross-woven into the general chronological flow and structure of the book are several recurring themes familiar to anyone who spent time in Southeast Asia and actually bothered to learn something – many did not. Interspersed throughout are examples and damnations of an incompetent U.S. leadership at the highest levels, the insidious and diabolically effective communist propaganda, the deluded Southeast Asians who believed Hanoi's brilliant lies, complaints about an utterly obtuse and ignorant news media, and experiences of real, live SE Asian people whose intelligence and dedication, even if at times erroneously channeled into supporting the communists, erases the too typical depiction of Asian people as either illiterate dunces, or victims, or thieves, or liars or, with the exception of communists, cowards.

Most revealing to some readers will be the trajectories followed by those Southeast Asians who once believed in the ostensible beneficence and supposed benign democratic nationalism of Ho Chi Minh, later to run aground on the shoals of bitter disappointment, if not shame at having been so gullible. Mrs. Le Thi Anh was 19 years old in 1945, when the prospects of ejecting the despised French colonialists ignited the patriotic aspirations of most Viet Namese:

"In the spring of 1945, when the Japanese put the French in jail, a people's government was formed everywhere. That was such a happy time. Everyone was swept up in a tidal wave of patriotism. The rich people, the students, organized defense and prepared to rule the country."

Despite betrayals by their supposed co-equal communist brethren, costing the deaths of non-communists also fighting the French, Le Thi Anh continued to support anti-Saigon forces, and was involved with anti-war protests in Viet Nam. In 1964 Mrs. Anh left Viet Nam to study in the United States, where she was involved with anti-war efforts until 1971 when her mother's illness dictated return to Viet Nam. Somewhat reluctant and fearing retribution for her political activities, Mrs. Anh finally decided to go, and saw a Viet Nam unreported in the press:

"I found so much had been exaggerated in the United States. The authoritarian regime of Mr. Thieu was not that bad. It was corrupt, yes. But it did allow quite a great deal more democratic liberties than we had seen under Mr. Diem or surely what we have not seen under the Communists. ... The rural areas especially enjoyed great benefits from the American presence. Telephones, new roads and bridges – we never had those kinds of things before. From the time I came home in 1971, the people were rallying to the non-Communist side."

Hoang Van Chi saw the light much earlier, when he served with the Viet Minh in North Viet Nam and witnessed the barbaric people's courts used by Ho's communists to intimidate villagers and discourage peasant aspirations of land ownership. Horrid kangaroo courts were held:

"At first the accused is only denounced with minor crimes of exploitation. If the victim denies this, the next night he is accused of bigger crimes by neighbors and relatives – rape or murder. If he does not confess, on the third night he is accused of serving French intelligence. That is treason to the country, which means death."

Executions followed, as did another form of death:

"When the family is branded landlord nobody in the town is allowed to communicate with them. The family must live inside the house with nothing to eat. As a consequence, many people died of starvation, children and old people first."

Truong Nhu Tang, former PRG Minister of Justice, had dedicated his entire adult life to supporting the NLF, spending years in the primeval squalor of VC bunkers, subjected to bombing, infantry assaults, and overall misery. He was a true believer who finally saw the betrayal after 1975:

"...the Communists twist ideology. They always use words like: freedom, peace, democracy. And the better of impulses of people who truly want peace are manipulated into a popular movement against the free world's defenses. ... This is not to say that America did not make mistakes in Viet Nam, or that war is anything but a horrible thing. But I can assure you that not only were the South Viet Namese and American public lied to by the Communists. Even those of us who lived in the jungle and sacrificed and fought for true independence and concord were made victims of the Communists' lies and deceit.

Readers are provided with rare views of Viet Nam and Cambodia in the mid-1950s, when the seeds of American involvement were planted, and the chaotic internecine warfare and political struggles were beginning. Rufus Phillips and General Edward Lansdale were there from the beginning, and discuss their efforts to build something from nothing, in a maelstrom of competing political factions and the then quiescent Viet Cong in Viet Nam, as well as the early formation of the Khmer Rouge under Hanoi's direction and training. Their experiences and recollections provide a rare, in-the-rice-paddies view of a turbulent time.

All of Santoli's subjects share one feature: a belief that what they were doing was important and that the experience has left an indelible imprint on their lives. This outlook is encapsulated by Ken Moorefield, whose years in Viet Nam and Southeast Asia included military and civilian roles. In looking back over the years – and blood – he invested in Viet Nam, Moorefield concludes:

"I'm sure that Viet Nam will always live within me. And I don't want it not to be there. Viet Nam veterans experienced something that transcended ourselves. Despite the fact that we suffered a political defeat, the values for which we fought are larger than each of us and the fundamental reason for our willingness to give and to serve."

Oral histories can be, at worst, a disjointed pastiche of anecdotes, some insightful, some absurdly irrelevant or otherwise unimportant, that fail to provide any significant understanding of just what the hell was going on, and why. At best, they do not and cannot substitute for logical and factual historical analysis and narrative, yet this work provides a mosaic of experiences and thoughts which, taken together, reveal a very real Viet Nam and Southeast Asia that is too often obscured by many best-selling and supposedly authoritative histories. Santoli did a masterful job of learning about his subject, and then identifying people whose insights and experiences provide memorable, worthy, if not sometimes emotionally moving commentary. It is a superb book for anyone new to the subject, especially younger students, expressing an interest and asking "What was it all about?" Of additional benefit is the fact that uninformed readers may be inoculated from the curse of being Karnowized or Sheehanized, seduced by the white noise of simplistic and frequently insipid drivel passed off as history. It will also be welcomed by Southeast Asia veterans who may have served in Laos, yet do not grasp Viet Nam's intricacies. Likewise, the CTZ-I/MR-I combat U.S. veteran, or USAID folks, will gain insight into what happened before and after he or she served, as well as a glimpse of things Laotian or Cambodian. This reviewer has not encountered anyone who has read the book and not found it a valuable bookshelf addition.

The Dutton edition includes sixteen pages of photos, and the useful chronology and brief biographies of all interviewees is believed to be also contained in the later Indiana Press reprint. I recommend that you get a copy for your own library, and pick up an extra one for any local high school libraries that need one to balance the simplistic melodramatic ravings of people posing as Viet Nam historians.

[editorial note: as stated in this review, Santoli's efforts to preserve an authentic history of the Second Indochina War was well received by many veterans, and his work was an inspiration for this publishing project; we acknowledge our debt of gratitude for his pathfinding so this project could establish a Forward Operating Base. /s/Ed]

contributed by William S. Laurie

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