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An Interview with Bao Ninh: Part One
By Marc Levy
(Continued in the Spring/Summer 2000 issue)
In 1995 I backpacked six months across Southeast Asia and Indonesia, and regretted not locating Bao Ninh, the former NVA solider and critically-acclaimed author of The Sorrow of War, in Hanoi. In 1996 we corresponded once, and in 1998, by remarkable coincidence, I met him at The William Joiner Center Writers' Conference in Boston, Massachusetts. Following my unexpectedly emotional reaction, we agreed to meet later and speak at length about the daily life of NVA in combat.
About noon the next day we sat on the grass beneath a symmetrically planted grove of shade trees overlooking Boston Harbor. Except for the occasional sound of wind-rustled leaves, the setting was eerily reminiscent of rubber plantations I had fought in near An Loc and Loc Ninh. To my right was our youthful translator, Chau Thien Hiep, who for the next three hours promptly translated my questions from English to Vietnamese. Chau's English was rapid and flawless, in marked contrast to Bao Ninh's pensive manner and soft-spoken voice.
Ninh sat directly opposite me. He is a deceptively thin, wiry man in his late forties, standing perhaps 5' 6" tall. He sports an uncommonly bushy and tousled head of jet-black hair; a wispy black Fu Manchu mustache adorns the corners of his upper lip. Over the course of the afternoon his gaze varied from restless furtive eye contact to unblinking concentration. His general demeanor was outwardly calm and confident, even-keeled, but let the general reader, and the American combat veteran in particular, not be deceived. Bao Ninh spent six years of his life in the 514th Glorious Youth Brigade. Out of five hundred men and women in this unit, ten survived.
Unexpectedly, and not unlike Harrison Salisbury's experience thirty years ago in Hanoi when speaking with Premier Pham Von Dong, what followed was not the interview I had anticipated, but in some respects a lesson in mutual patience. Although my questions were direct and to the point, Ninh proved remarkably reticent, often sidestepping my queries about himself or the NVA in combat. Once this pattern was established I reluctantly gave way to meaningful, though less aggressive, inquiry. Only later did I more fully appreciate Bao Ninh's steadfast reserve.
I initiated the interview by asking Bao Ninh what he did as an NVA solider. He answered that his work was dangerous and that he was often at great risk observing American installations at close range. He noted this was the general function unit. I wondered if he had gathered information outside or inside base perimeters. Such information would be used for later attacks, vigorously rehearsed, the NVA going to great lengths to perfect every detail, building sandbox models, practicing for days, sometimes weeks, occasionally calling off missions if conditions were not favorable. In short, had he penetrated the defenses of American bases as an elite sapper, gathered intelligence, then escaped undetected? He refrained from comment.
When asked about the men and women in his unit, Bao Ninh noted the average ages were between 18 and 20 years old. He distinguished between soldiers from the countryside and soldiers from the city. He emphasized that in combat, food and other necessities were shared, that the NVA spoke informally to each other, and like soldiers everywhere made ample use of profanity.
What did the NVA talk about? Bao Ninh stated NVA troops most often spoke about sex and food, and exchanged jokes. He related that many of the younger male NVA, generally from the cities, hadn't experienced sex. An older rural solider might then engage a younger soldier in conversation about heterosexuality. Ninh also related that soldiers from the same province or city would often talk about home, and in particular their way of life. Soldiers from the same area might query one another about local schools and teachers or neighbors the other might know. Ninh emphasized that NVA from the city learned about village life from the country-dwelling NVA. Taught in school to believe food cooperatives were popular and held in high esteem, he noted that village life was in reality poverty-stricken and miserable. Although food harvests were shared equally, there was hunger and starvation.
On a lighter note, Bao Ninh remarked that jokes arose from the fact that members in units came from different cities and provinces. I asked him to give me an example of NVA humor. Ninh said the men in his unit made fun of the girls from Ha Tinh Province, whose chests and backsides were said to be of equal proportion. He recalled how the men would laugh at province girls whose breasts they compared to grapefruits.
Somewhat darkly, Ninh said that to keep morale up his unit avoided talking about past or recent contact or battles. When I asked about disease and other hardships of guerrilla warfare, he referred only to the debilitating effects of malaria. He did not speak about the incredibly difficult training and subsequent grueling marches up or down the Ho Chi Minh trail, the lack of food, the constant threat of American aerial assault, the sick or disabled left to rest or die in cloth hammocks or tree branches.
I asked Bao Ninh about the use of ideology in combat situations. I knew the NVA engaged in group and self-criticism sessions, something unheard of on the part of the Americans. He related that indeed the members of his unit were forced to study official ideology. However, under combat conditions this was done quickly and without the usual thoroughness. I asked what subjects ordinary NVA studied in and out of combat. Ninh fingered a line in the grass, then quickly replied: tactics, strategy, policy. By tactics he may have been referring to the NVA/VC concept of "pit one against ten," where attacks took place against American fortified positions only if the NVA/VC had numbers superior to the defenders. If, and it is a significant if, Bao Ninh and his unit were involved in assault operations, they may have studied the best ways to approach and penetrate an American base, coordinating the elements that made up the attacking force: sappers, heavy weapons section, and the main assault unit. They may have prioritized their targets, starting with the American gun pits, then knocking out the command posts and ammunition dumps. Or, Bao Ninh may have been obliquely referring to the tactical doctrine "four quicks," one slow and three strong, which followed a strict and lethal sequence designed to take maximum advantage of methodical planning, surprise, superior numbers, and quick withdrawal, leaving the Americans in awe and wonder as to who had attacked so murderously, then vanished so mysteriously.
However, Bao Ninh declined to elaborate and later only briefly touched on policy as it related to NVA in the field. I asked Bao Ninh about the NVA equivalent of the American NDP (night defensive perimeter). I wanted to know more about the practice of the NVA soldiers digging L-shaped bunkers and the more elaborate bunker complexes I had encountered in Song Be Province in 1970. Bao Ninh made only a passing reference to bunkers being dug at fixed positions. He noted that in action, when on the move, each individual solider dug a trench for his own use. This concurred with my readings, which described individual L-shaped positions with an open trench on one end 1.2 meters long, 1.2 meters deep and 0.4 meters wide. Though more notably, he did not comment on the ARVN and American respect for NVA/VA soldiers dug into either temporary or base-camp defensive positions. After many casualties sustained by using direct assaults, the Americans learned to use artillery fire, gunships and tactical air strikes to destroy the well-defended and fanatical NVA/VC troops.
I asked Ninh about the range of feelings he and the soldiers in his unit experienced during and after combat. He said the NVA cried or were sad when there were deaths or casualties. And what of religious ceremonies after the retrieval of the wounded or dead? To provide comparison, I described how the Americans would fly chaplains into the jungle, more often than not on paydays, who would then conduct song and prayer, often with our weapons and ammo scattered carelessly about. Ninh stated that in his unit all the troops were communist, and therefore no religious ceremonies were observed. The dead were mourned and buried. Recalling his book, I pressed Bao Ninh on this subject, but to no avail. Later, under somewhat different circumstances, he would reveal deeper feelings. For the present he remained implacable.
I returned to a previous subject. If the NVA soldiers didn't talk about ongoing battles, or battles they had fought in, what was the general morale? Ninh provided an eloquent and perhaps doctrinaire answer. Although everyone feared death, the NVA soldiers in his unit had a clear focus: to fight for the independence of the country. Perhaps this was true, since the Vietnamese had successfully fought the Chinese for a thousand years, then the Japanese, then the French, then the Americans. Though perhaps not. The title of his masterful book flashed across my mind.
Nearly three hours had passed. Did Bao Ninh wish to make a final comment to me? Was there something he wanted to say that I had overlooked? For the first time, I discerned a trace of emotion in his voice and face. The NVA were not robots, he said through Chau. We were human beings. That is what you must tell people. We were human beings.
Continued in Spring/Summer 2000 issue
Marc Levy is a Vietnam vet who participated in the Cambodian invasion in 1970.