|Download PDF of this full issue: v53n1.pdf (37.7 MB)|
By Susan Dixon (reviewer)
Southern Voices: Biet Dong and the National Liberation Front
by Michael Robert Dedrick
(University Press of Kentucky, 2022)
In 1968, when Michael Dedrick was serving as an analyst and interrogator in Saigon, "Americans then were impatient, angry, stressed, fearful, and arrogant, trying to push their military vehicles through traffic with little or no regard for Vietnamese rights or cultural differences." In 2013, when he returned after an absence of 45 years, he found a place in which "traffic was heavy but not chaotic, with few Americans, and with the feel of a city that was now vibrant, dynamic, clean, and orderly in its own fashion." He had come to Vietnam a second time to observe, to listen, and, more importantly, to ask what the war was like for them.
In February 1968, Dedrick had interrogated one of the participants in the attack on the US Embassy during the Tet Offensive, a man named Ba Den, a member of a secretive group of special forces fighters called the Biet Dong. Unlike the image we might have of such fighters, though, these were "ordinary" people shielded by their anonymity, their walks in life, even their age or gender. Dedrick returned to Vietnam in hopes of finding this man and learning more about him. In that purpose he did not succeed, as Ba Den had died, but simply by pursuing his purpose, following the leads that appeared to him, and at each step showing respect, he was able to meet eight other members of the Biet Dong. He sat with them, recorded their stories, transcribed the interviews, checked each transcription for accuracy, and published the accounts in Southern Voices: Biet Dong and the National Liberation Front.
Although these accounts, taken together, add a new layer to the American understanding of the war, Dedrick says, "I did not want to write yet another military history; rather, I envisioned a book of personal remembrances published in both English and Vietnamese." The dual language format, of practical use only to scholars, has enormous symbolic significance to English-speaking readers. It says what has been said too little: that Vietnamese have their own stories to tell, their own points of view, their own opinions of their government and their country, and their own language.
They also have their own opinions of us based on insightful observation of our strengths and weaknesses. The director of the War Remnants Museum, Huynh Ngoc Van, for example, said of the American soldiers that "they were young and needed reconciliation." In light of assessments like these, it becomes more than a minor detail that on learning of Ba Den's death, Dedrick bought an incense holder and had it taken to Ba Den's grave. This act of cultural awareness and respect opened doors for him as he embarked on his project.
The result is a collection of small, calm, almost understated stories and all the more powerful for that simplicity. Dedrick places each of his interviews on a particular day in a particular place, which underscores the humanity as well as individuality of each person. It also suggests the passage of time. Decades have brought changes but have not altered the commitment of these fighters to the cause they fought for. Accounts of time spent in South Vietnamese prisons are painful to read but they point to one of the major contributions of the book—the witness of those whose stories provide a welcome layer of complexity to the "two sides" narrative of the war more familiar to American audiences.
Dedrick enriches the accounts by including copies of letters, poetry, maps, and photographs. Readers are given the opportunity to see and to expand their understanding. Dedrick invites his readers to follow him into unfamiliar territory, that of Vietnamese themselves. By being present in the story, Dedrick avoids academic distance but by never forgetting his purpose he lets the story belong to the Vietnamese speakers. The result is so much more enlightening than the more common obsession that Americans have with themselves. How could that have happened, we still wonder? Facing fighters who were "ordinary" people, how could our superior fire power have lost? Muoi Than, an NLF soldier who had been imprisoned at Con Dao with Ba Den said, "When you are young you want to do the right thing. … Not all Americans were bad, but when they came, we followed Uncle Ho's saying: 'It's better to fight for freedom than die enslaved.' Everyone thought that, otherwise they would not have had the courage to fight."
Susan Dixon is co-author with Vietnam veteran Mark M. Smith of Seeking Quan Am: A Dual Memoir of War and Vietnam