The real stuff: what a Vietnamese army doctor saw

AFP , HANOI

Thu, Sep 22, 2005 - Page 9

After 35 years in safekeeping with a US war veteran, the diary of a Vietnamese army doctor has hit bookstores in Vietnam and become an instant bestseller with its unusually personal take on war.

A warts-and-all portrayal of the horrors of war or of intrigues in the trenches it is not.

But the diary has caught the imagination of Vietnamese readers as it makes a break from the undiluted heroism and self-sacrificial mush dished out in many a propaganda tome in the decades since the Vietnam War ended in 1975.

The Diary of Dang Thuy Tram contains her thoughts and feelings when she served in the battlefields of the central province of Quang Ngai in 1967 until she was killed in June 1970, aged 27.

Emotions have been carefully excised in Vietnam's huge collection of war memorabilia and most are thought to be doctored or even entirely fictional accounts.

And what adds gravitas to Thuy Tram's diary is its "strange journey" and hibernation before publication in Vietnam, as her mother, Doan Ngoc Tram puts it.

"Thuy Tram's diaries had been kept by American army officer Frederic Whitehurst for 35 years before it came back home to me," Ngoc Tram said.

In 1970, when reviewing Vietnamese communist forces' documents recovered during combat for the military intelligence detachment he worked in, Whitehurst was about to burn the diary, deeming it useless but his interpreter, Nguyen Trung Hieu, objected.

"As I burned documents, he stopped me. He was holding the diary and told me, `don't burn this book, Fred, it already has fire in it.' I was so moved that he would honor an enemy soldier that I did as he asked," Whitehurst said in an e-mail to the author's family earlier this year.

He went back to the US in 1972 as a 24-year-old and took the diary with him. For many years there was no question of trying to return it to the family of the author as the war only ended in 1975 and the aftermath was chaotic.

Whitehurst joined the FBI in 1982.

"I could never have approached representatives of a communist nation with requests to help me find the family of Dr. Tram," he said in an e-mail. "The FBI would never have allowed it."

Ten more years later, "I decided I did not care what the FBI felt about this task, that I would go about it," Whitehurst, who now works as a lawyer, said. He began to look for ways of publicizing the diary and resumed the quest for Tram's family.

He was joined in his efforts by his older brother Robert, another Vietnam veteran, and finally with the help of the Vietnam Archives in Lubbock, Texas, they located the family early this year.

It then took them months to persuade Tram's mother to allow the diary's publication.

"I saw that they were obsessed by the war and mentally they had suffered a lot from its consequences. The diary showed them that the war was futile and they greatly regretted it," Ngoc Tram said.

Describing the war zone on Feb. 21, 1970, her daughter says: "Once again, death was so close to me ... Some HU-1A [helicopters] fought in our place for more than one hour.

"We were only dozens of meters from them. Sounds of gunfire were echoing in our ears. My comrades and I were sitting under the shelters, not knowing when a bullet would hit us. Death seemed to be a touch-and-go thing."

An entry on Nov. 25, 1968 says: "The work load is huge, causes headache and fatigue. I wish nothing more than to peacefully get back to the comfort of a loving home.

"But a wish is just a wish, reality is reality. The heartrending groan of patients is ringing in my ears. There is so much work to do: it is complicated, difficult and even frustrating," wrote Thuy Tram, who later died from a bullet wound.

There is much hatred for Americans and a great anxiety to eject them from Vietnamese soil.

Tame stuff it would be in most countries but for Vietnamese fed on a fulsome fare of undimmed valor, this is refreshingly new.

"In the diary, the war is described as something fierce. During the war, the soldiers were often sad and had to suffer a lot. The war was not always heroism and passion," said Thuy Tram's sister, Dang Kim Tram.

Vietnam has been through decades of wars against French and US forces. The victorious regime has always painted a glowing canvas of communist troops brimming with determination and derring-do in evicting invaders.

Every year, vast sums are spent by publishing houses and filmmakers on works that are given a wide berth by the public. Historians say many heroic figures presented therein are patently unreal.

"I had not felt much for the Vietnamese soldiers' wartime conduct as they were always depicted as saints, untinged by sadness or fear although they were in the thick of fierce and bloody wars," said Nguyen Ngoc Duong, 27, a translator.

Moments of sadness have been infra dig for Vietnamese propagandists: Soldiers have invariably displayed whole-hearted devotion to the nation, with no thought of personal happiness or unhappiness.

A novel published in 1991, by a former soldier and renowned writer Bao Ninh, described bloodshed and suffering.

But its title was changed from The Sorrow of War to The Fate of Love as propaganda officials decreed the country's struggle against foreign enemies could never be one of sorrow.

While Ninh's puncturing of Vietnamese communist mythology was pathbreaking, it was nevertheless seen as a work of fiction whereas Thuy Tram's account is treated as the real stuff.

About 200,000 copies of her diary have been printed, a record as compared to the usual 2,000 copies for new releases in Vietnam.

"The diaries of Dr. Thuy Tram impressed me as there are real thoughts of a real person in war, with moments of sadness, loneliness, pain," said Duong, the translator.