World

The war that won’t go away

Martin Woollacott June 16 1980
World

The war that won’t go away

Martin Woollacott June 16 1980

The war that won’t go away

World

Martin Woollacott

The disabled soldiers gather around the meeting hail, some hopping along on one leg, others manoeuvring the little wooden carts into which their disfigured bodies have been inserted. They are the sad residue of war whom all societies vow never to forget but somehow end up tucking away into camps and centres. In this one, near the Vietnamese city of Vinh, the young men still wear their army uniforms, rank' markings replaced by red and white badges reading thuong binh (wounded soldier).

The camp is a vivid illustration of the high cost of Vietnam’s fight against those who stand in the way of its objectives. Currently, as was underlined last week when Vietnam angrily accused the U.S. and China of meddling in the boat people problem, those two countries continue to take pride of place in its list of enemies. But in the Vinh camp, as in scores of others throughout Vietnam, you can see three generations of struggle-middle-aged ex-lieutenants from the war against the French, men from the American war and youngsters who lost limbs or eyes in more recent combat against the Cambodians and Chinese.

These newest members are just kids, many of them feeding an unnatural cheerfulness with unrealistic hopes of recovery. Private Nguyen Hoang Hop was wounded on the Cambodian border in 1978 in one of the skirmishes that preceded Vietnam’s successful thrust to oust the Pol Pot regime in Pnompenh. The excitement of what a 19-year-old man still saw as an adventure comes through again as he tells the tale of shooting down Pol Pot soldiers before the Cambodians replied with a barrage of B-40 rocket fire which chewed up his spine and left him partly paralysed for life. The camp doctor, Nguyen Hu Thoan, has the difficult job of coping with Hop and 500 other veterans who, in a very typically Vietnamese fashion, refuse to give up. Many have set their hearts on becoming engineers, but few have the intellect or the physical stamina even to try. “To become engineers, this is their dream.. .but it is an impossible thing,” he says sadly. The camp is a real compendium of Vietnamese virtues—obstinacy, willpower, an oldfashioned patriotism which does not balk at sacrifice and an uncritical acceptance of national purpose.

Those same virtues pervade Vietnam’s large 600,000-strong army, its entrenched elderly leadership and its backbone of hardworking villagers. Indeed, they are largely credited with the successes Vietnam has recorded in its reconstruction efforts since 1975. The villages of the North, and increasingly those of the South, are unexpectedly prosperous. Throughout the more fertile areas, Vietnamese peasants live in sturdy, traditional red-brick houses surrounded by mature shade trees and flanked by well-tended private plots.

The communal fields, almost equally well-tended, stretch out around them.

In the poorer parts of the South, the northern system is beginning to take hold and there is little evidence that more than a minority are unhappy with it. In My Lai, for instance, the farmers are busy reshaping the jigsaw shapes of the old private fields into collective oblongs—leaving only one area untouched as a memorial to the 1968 massacre by the Americans. That life has improved is made clear by peasants who show off their new houses. Taxation is low, they say, and the quota of the harvest sold to the state at fixed prices is no great burden. And, through the “50-percent rule,” the state performs another vital service for them. The rule declares that only half of the new generation can stay in the village—the others going off to the army or colonization projects in remote parts of the country. Thus, the surplus population, which would otherwise overstrain the village economies is siphoned off.

The alliance between party, peasantry and army is the steel framework of Vietnamese society but, while it solves some problems, it has disturbing results. Internally, it excludes large segments of the urban classes from the circle of privilege. That is most dramatically clear in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) where most of the old upper middle class is languishing in detention camps, the Sino-Vietnamese trading classes are still hankering to get out—by flimsy boats, if necessary—and most of the lower classes show clear signs of discontent. As well the city contains some of the most poignant reminders of the American presence. In centres like Bamboo Shoot No. 1, hundreds of Amerasian orphans face a bleak future.

Externally, the formula has given Vietnam military options that a society of its size would not normally possess—options that it has taken up in its determination to resist the will of Peking. Following the American withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975, peace in the region became dependent, above all, on accommodation between China and Vietnam, both of whom feared the other’s historic aspirations to be the Indochina kingpin. But the whole experience of the Vietnamese leadership has been that sticking to one’s guns pays off in the end, and the national ego has sometimes to be experienced to be believed. Leaning forward in his shabby green uniform, a Vietnamese colonel told how, as the Chinese laid the foundations for a two-front war against Vietnam in 1978-79, the Vietnamese “moved to break the southern threat” by invading Cambodia “and to meet the northern threat” by battering the Chinese invading force. Now, he says, “We are ready to deal with a much bigger attack and we will beat them even more severely.”

The facts about how the relationship between the two countries degenerated are not yet all in, but a fair summary might be that while China pushed too hard by arming the Pol Pot regime and encouraging its obstreperous attitude toward Vietnam, the latter gave too little. In any case, the result of that clash of wills has been the near-destruction of Cambodia, the enlistment of the whole region in the Sino-Soviet power struggle and the perpetuation of a warfare society in Vietnam. Thus, the Vietnamese still live in a bittersweet world in which reluctant soldiers pen their love letters by campfires and officers write sad poems in rain-swept hills along the Chinese frontier. The crippled youths in the camp at Vinh are one proof of the fact that Vietnam is more prepared than most countries to pay a higher price for what it wants. But the thought also occurs that if Vietnam was prepared to be satisfied with something less than her full ambitions, the price might be a great deal lower.