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Le dictionnaire

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LOVE AND WAR

Little if anything has been written about the question of love and war during the Indochina conflict. And yet love made itself felt at various levels. Like any war, love manifested itself in scores of letters written by parents to their children in the French Union, Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) and Associated State of Indochina’s armies. The archives in France hold letters from mothers trying to locate their sons missing in action. The same could be said of lovers and husbands and wives. Following skirmishes and battles, soldiers often found love letters on the dead addressed to girlfriends and photographs of children they would never see in this world. French Union veterans or their descendents hold many such documents and no doubt Vietnamese veterans possess similar things. Some forty years after the war ended, French intelligence officer Léon Fallon returned the private documents and diary of Hoang Xuan Binh to his family in Vietnam. To this day, former French Union and Vietnamese families of all sides of the conflagration are still trying to find the remains of their loved ones lost in the conflict, submitting themselves to DNA testing and traveling to sites around the country hoping to reach some kind of closure.

Despite the propaganda to which they were subjected, soldiers often went into battle and endured not for the “empire”, not for ideologies such as nationalism or communism, but because of the intimate bonds of love they had created with their fellow combatants.

However, love was not without its manipulations during the Indochina War. While control was never “total”, the communist party closely controlled marriages among ranking cadres, ensuring that match-making was done in the best interest of the Party and in line with the new communist morality. Although the high-ranking couple Nguyen Thi Ngoc Toan and Cao Van Khanh clearly loved each other from their school days in Hue and did not exactly have perfect class résumés, their nationalist credentials and loyalty to the Party right through the heat of the battle of Dien Bien Phu made them an exemplary couple. No sooner had the battle ended than the party arranged their marriage on the war-torn battlefield, even though Toan would have preferred to organize a traditional marriage in their native Hue, “an important, solemn occasion” with family and friends. The Party thought otherwise and prevailed. The chief of the army’s General Political Department, Tran Luong, personally officiated at this marriage ceremony held on 22 May 1954 at Dien Bien Phu. Theirs was one of several, hastily arranged, politically motivated marriages. As for the wedding gifts, Toan later recalled that “we got two medallions, one was an Uncle Ho medallion and the other was an Uncle Mao medallion … Then Tran Luong told us to kiss, and everyone sang”.

The DRV, like the French, also manipulated gender and sexuality in order to obtain intelligence on the enemy via “love brigades”. And despite its claims to moral superiority, the communist leadership could also look the other way. We now know that Le Duan, who spent years in the south away from his first wife, had a second one in the south. He was not the only male leader to enjoy polygamy.