Historical Dictionary



Bao Ninh’s penetrating account of the Vietnam War, The Sorrow of War, published in 1991, has no equivalent for the Indochina conflict. A dozen or so war novels on the Indochina War have been published in the communist-run Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) since 1954. They tend to follow the Communist Party line, focusing on the heroism of the Vietnamese soldier, the infallibility of the Communist Party, and the righteousness of the Vietnamese nationalist cause. Social realism is de rigueur, as even Pham Thanh Tam’s diary Drawing Under Fire confirms. The adversary is faceless, one-dimensional, and brutal. Despite the difficulties of escaping communist censure, there are important exceptions. Le Kham’s On the Other Side of the Border (Ben kia bien gioi) and Before the Battle Starts (Truoc gio no) were among the few novels to treat combat in fairly realistic, less propagandistic terms. In Men after Men, Wave after Wave (Nguoi nguoi lop lop), Tran Dan recounts his experiences at the front lines during the battle of Dien Bien Phu. Published in 1955, during a brief liberal opening in the Party’s control over literature and the arts, Tran Dan goes beyond communist heroic stereotypes to provide a moving portrait of men at war, humanizing them and their experiences. While he certainly followed the Party’s heroic line, not unlike Pierre Schoendoerffer on the other side (they both worked in army propaganda units), Tran Dan provided one of the rare accounts of the heavy price paid by the soldiers fighting this war. He even spoke of the terrible machine-gun fire that mowed so many of them down as they tried to take the entrenched enemy camp. Tran Dan’s desire to give more realistic accounts of battle apparently landed him in hot water shortly after the publication of his book. As the DRV prepared to fight another war, there was no room for such nuanced, realist, and above all independent accounts of men at war. Such war literature only emerged following the end of the Cold War in 1989 with communist Vietnam’s opening to the world. Tran Dan’s work on the war reappeared in print in 1991, coinciding with the publication of Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War. This author is unaware of any equivalent novel portraying the war from the point of view of the soldiers of the Associated States of Indochina. See also CINEMA; CULTURE; EXPERIENCE OF WAR; HISTORY; MYTH OF WAR; NOVELS, FRENCH.