Publications Index | Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’s Internet Archive

Socialist Review Index (1993–1996) | Socialist Review 176 Contents

Socialist Review, June 1994

Clare Fermont


Dying or surviving


From Socialist Review, No. 176, June 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Sorrow of War
Bao Ninh
Secker and Warburg £8.99

It took Hollywood a good few years to remember America’s war in Vietnam. Then came a surge of films, some of which even showed the obscenities of the war.

But not one of those films, nor anything else I have come across, is a patch on this novel. Here, finally, is an account of the war from the North Vietnamese point of view. The author, a war veteran, also happens to be an exceptional writer.

The novel is based on Kien, a struggling writer who is haunted by his war experiences. He remembers the fields piled high with bodies. He relives the napalm attacks. He sees pictures of comrades dying terrible deaths.

These scenes could not possibly have been invented. They must have been witnessed.

Kien is also trying to make sense of life and love. He remembers the innocence and idealism of his youth and how both were destroyed by the war. He recalls the purity and passion of his love for his childhood sweetheart, and how they too were destroyed by the war. These memories offer lyrical and moving passages which break up his brutal account of the war. The Sorrow of War is far from being propaganda for the North Vietnamese system. Kien’s father, a painter, is destroyed by the ‘socialist’ pronouncements on his art. He rants wildly at his son: ‘Define clearly the social class for mountains and rivers and all landscapes. That’s what they’re demanding now!’

Kien’s sweetheart is gang raped by North Vietnamese soldiers on their way to the battlefront. She is their property. They have been dehumanised.

But all is not bleak. Amidst the cruelty and barbarism are acts of kindness and comradeship. A terrified young city woman, inappropriately appointed as guide to a battalion, sacrifices herself to rape and death to save her friends.

This novel somehow captures in just 200 pages the enormous scale of destruction suffered by Vietnam during the 12 years of America’s onslaught. Every character has lost a son, or two, or three. Every family has been devastated.

Ninh shows us what it was like for those who faced the anger of American imperialism.

‘Dying and surviving were separated by a thin line; they were killed one at a time, or all together; they were killed instantly, or were wounded and bled to death in agony; they could live but suffer nightmares of white blasts which destroyed their souls and stripped their personalities bare.’

Ninh should know. Of the 500 people who went to war with his brigade in 1969, only ten survived.

Socialist Review Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 5 May 2017