Yes now that all of the killers have been killed,
Sent away, yeah, but the people know, the people know,
It’s winter, winter in America, and ain’t nobody fighting cause
Nobody knows what to say.
After an ambush, bodies were scavenged for souvenirs–money, pistols, photos, etc. Anything important was sent to military intelligence.
“Don’t burn this one. It has fire in it already,” said Fred Whithurst’s interpreter in 1970. Ignoring orders to burn all items without military value, young officer Whitehurst kept the diary of Dang Thuy Tram, a female VC doctor, hoping to one day return it to the family. After thirty years his searches lead nowhere, but in 2005, through a friend, a copy of the diary was sent to Thuy’s aging mother in Hanoi. Soon afterwards, the diary was published. A startling 300,000 copies were sold in Vietnam. In America, the book takes its title from this entry: “Last night I dreamed of peace. I came back and saw everybody. Oh, the dream of peace and independence has burned in the hearts of thirty million people for so long.”
Thuy’s diary is not a literary account of combat. The language is simple, at times redundant. It contains few compelling tales of gallantry or heroism. Instead, over the three years she fought against the Americans and treated badly wounded soldiers, starting at the age of twenty-four, Dr. Dang Thuy Tram recorded how she longed for friends and family, pined for the love of an NVA officer, and wrote of her complete devotion to the Communist Party. She recorded almost daily self-criticism, expressed deep insights into herself and others, praised her comrades, rallied against physical hardships and secret sorrows. Here and there, she pens brief accounts of ambushes, harrowing close calls, and her beloved soldier’s self-sacrifice. Numerous times she invokes the ultimate victory against the foreign invaders. The ‘Yankee bandits’, she calls them.
Towards the end, as the American attacks become more ferocious, as casualties mount, her exuberant tone and self-confidence wane, but still she summons hope. Her last entry reads: “Come to me, squeeze my hand, know my loneliness, and give me the love, the strength to prevail on the perilous road before me.”
Then one day in June, this shy, young, attractive woman, this diminutive leader and devoted daughter to country and family, is dead.
Film maker Neil Alexander has spent considerable time assembling the back story of the diary’s return. During the war, Fred Whitehurst and his interpreter roughed out an English translation. Whitehurst was deeply moved by it, and once home, was haunted by Thuy’s steadfast beliefs. Alexander, a personal friend of Nam veteran Rob Whitehurst, Fred’s brother, accompanied the two men to Hanoi. They met Thuy’s mother, and Thuy’s surviving sisters, visited the doctor’s school, the locale where she died, and her grave site. Finally, the brothers are received by the nation when the diary is first published. In private, they worship at the Tram family altar to the spirit of Thuy. Madame Tram and her daughters fly to the United States, and at Texas Tech they are presented with the original diary. In North Carolina they visit the Whitehurst family. In Washington, DC, Madame Tram and Robert clasp hands at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The film ends full circle: in Vietnam, Thuy’s passionate words are enthusiastically read by a generation who have not known war. At this writing Alexander is in post production and hopes to complete the film soon.
There are varying accounts of Thuy Tram’s death. In the US translation, the epilogue states that a platoon from the Americal Division spotted four people on a trail; Thuy and a NVA soldier were killed. According to Neil Alexander’s web site (www.findingthuy.com) the platoon’s shouts for surrender were met with rifle fire, Thuy’s group fired back, and three, including Thuy, were killed.
But the book’s introduction provides an ominous hint of what might have really occurred: “The American troops returned, and several days later she was found by a highlander of the local H’re people, dead with a bullet through her forehead.”
It’s possible that Thuy Tram was either executed or shot at close range. On both sides, such things happen in war. And Thuy’s unit, the Central Trung Bo NFL, part of the 145th Viet Cong Infantry, had inflicted heavy casualties on the Americal.
Made up of three separate brigades, the Americal Division in Vietnam will forever be linked with 1968’s notorious (and some say one of many) massacres committed by US and allied troops. In her introduction to the diary, Frances Fitzgerald notes that the Americal was known as the Army’s worst combat unit: its 11th Light Infantry Brigade was unusually troubled. And Pinkville, an area nicknamed for its rose color on GI maps, denoting heavy VC activity, would forever be associated with the slaughter of civilians at the hamlet called My Lai. Pinkville was also the vicinity of Thuy Tram’s death.
In a burst of naivete I thought: “What better way to conclude the film than to locate the shooter, apprise him of the diary, the Whitehursts, Neil Alexander’s project, the notion that all has been forgiven, and that a grateful nation (theirs, not ours), and Madame Tram et al will forgive and welcome him with open arms.”
Back Channel Story
In the summer of 1998, this writer met the former NVA soldier Bao Ninh, author of the acclaimed novel The Sorrow of War. The encounter, marked by much weeping and long embraces, proved a turning point. Blinded by enthusiasm, I contacted persons acquainted with Pinkville. A flurry of emails lead to one source asserting that he likely knew the man or men who killed Thuy. Imagining the shooter or his accomplices would eagerly step forth to make amends, I informed this source of the likely outcomes of rapprochement: the merciful purging of life long guilt and attendant shame; the easing of nightmares and fitful sleep; a triumphant and welcoming return to Vietnam. I thought this would be an appropriate ending for the film.
After careful consideration, the source declined to name those he believed murdered Thuy. He described their angry outbursts when her death was discussed, and feared for their present mental well being. Better to drop the matter, he said. Leave it alone.
Of course he was right. It is one thing for grim-faced infantry, slogging through jungle, hunted and being hunted by other human beings, to kill and scavenge and sometimes torture or mutilate survivors after an ambush. It is quite another for a clean safe well-groomed rear echelon officer to examine captured enemy documents without benefit of terror.
Fred Whitehurst had the emotional and moral courage to return Thuy’s diary to her family. But it is overly simplistic to think that the persons who killed her would gladly step into a spotlight’s merciless glare. War is a brutal, ugly, and nasty business that especially scars the front line combatant. The men who shot Thuy may have kept it secret out of shame, and for fear of being charged with war crimes. It is also possible that they had committed other illegal acts. Better to hide the truth. Shut it down. Lock it behind an impenetrable gate and throw away the key. For some who have survived combat killing its memory is a way of life.
How could I have missed the obvious? Easy. I wanted a story book ending. But it doesn’t work that way.
Ten years ago, with much fraternal fanfare, sixty-five American and Vietnamese vets, many of them war wounded, bicycled together, the 1,200 miles from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. All was smooth sailing until the group reached My Lai. Nearly every American angrily refused to visit the massacre ditch or the monument to the slaughtered. Political manipulation was the reason cited. But an infantry officer could barely choke back his tears. He had lost too many good men under his command, and would not dishonor their memory. A group of villagers and survivors’ next-of-kin confronted the American vets. Cursed them. Wept and spat. After a time, awkwardly, the cyclists re-mounted and departed. For some, in every war, old rivers of blood will forever run deep.
Winter in America
But there are always men and women who speak out against war. Most famously, in 1971, Vietnam Veterans Against the War held the electrifying Winter Soldier Investigation. For three hectic days in Detroit, 109 veterans and 16 civilians described war crimes they had committed or witnessed. Cynics, among them B.J. Burkett, have raised doubts about their credibility. Historian Gerald Nicosia’s rebuttal is instructive.
In March, Iraq Veterans Against the War will gather at the National Labor College near Washington, DC to conduct Winter Soldier: Iraq and Afghanistan. Veterans and civilians will give public testimony and share eye-witness accounts censored by the main stream media. It will be an historic occasion. But more voices are urgently needed.
There is an unhealthy silence in America about what is really happening in Afghanistan and Iraq. Spin doctors, desperate civilians, prolific patriots, and commanders in denial insist that fantasy is truth. The absence of cruel facts can best be filled by those who knew it.
You know who you are. You know what you did. You know when and where and why you did it. If you’ve ever thought of speaking out, now is the time to tell your sometimes ghastly and sometimes haunting and other times redemptive, but always remarkable stories to those who need to hear them. Yet be advised: some may grimace and turn away, some may not believe you, and some may just not give a damn.
So what? The hopeful diary of Dang Thuy Tram and the extraordinary journey of the Whithurst brother’s have broken new ground in understanding war and its aftermath. Now it’s your turn. You folks are the real deal, you have the papers and medals to prove it. With dignity and passion, in public, in private, anonymously, in letters to the editor, to congress, the president, speak out. Your hard earned voices may help bring America back to its senses.
Iraq Veterans Against the War: www.ivaw.org
Original Winter Soldier Investigation DVD: www.vvaw.org/store.
Neil Alexander’s website: www.findingthuy.com.
Historian Gerald Nicosia’s rebuttal: to critics of the Winter Soldier hearings (http://www.blacklistedjournalist.com/).
Official and unofficial documents on My Lai: www.vietnam.ttu.edu.
MARC LEVY served with Delta 1/7 First Cavalry Division as infantry medic in 1970. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org