diaCRITIC Zora Mai Quỳnh interviews Nguyễn Công Luận, a veteran of the Republic of Việt Nam (ARVN) army. Quỳnh recently reviewed his memoir, “Nationalist in the Việt Nam Wars: Memoirs of a Victim Turned Soldier”.
In January of this year, 2017, Nguyễn Công Luận passed away unexpectantly from a heart attack. Though frail and weakened by Parkinsons in his later years, Mr. Luận’s mind and memory was still very sharp – his passion for his people and the South Vietnamese Army evident in every aspect of his life.
In November of 2016, I was fortunate enough to interview Mr. Luận at his home in San Jose, California where we explored his life, his memoir, and his desire to leave a lasting impression upon the next generation of the path of the South Vietnamese soldier.
Together Mr. Luận and I pieced together and reminisced over the many recollections in his memoir, “Nationalist in the Việt Nam Wars.” Often with tears in his eyes, Mr. Luận recounted the trauma experienced by and the sacrifice of South Vietnamese soldiers in the Việt Nam War.
Like his memoir, his oral narrative of his experiences were just as rich in detail. I was struck by the precision of his uncanny memory as well as the depth of his continuing devotion and loyalty for the Vietnamese people. There were often moments throughout the interview, particularly when he spoke about the sacrifices of soldiers in the Chiêu Hồi program, when we had to pause as his memories overwhelmed him with sorrow and he shed quiet tears at the loss of fellow soldiers, friends, and colleagues.
Please join me in this rare conversation with author, memorialist, and veteran of the Army of the Republic of Việt Nam (ARVN).
ZMQ: What motivated you to write your memoir?
Luận: The reason I wrote the memoir is to let the people in Việt Nam and in the world know exactly what was happening in the war in Việt Nam because most of the information about the war was reported by journalists who did not speak in Vietnamese. They only spoke English or French. They did not understand Vietnamese or the Vietnamese people. They only knew of the Vietnamese people through the war so they didn’t understand the general characteristics of the Vietnamese people. They had a bias about the war and they were influenced by communist propaganda which lead them to believe misinformation – you know the communist distorted information. They made up lies about ugly things about the South Vietnamese Army to make the people believe that the South Vietnamese Army was a puppet of the American army. They conducted psychological warfare. In my memoir, I wanted to tell them the truth and why we were fighting the Communist – not because we were American puppets but because we wanted independence from the Communist to build South Việt Nam into a prosperous place where human rights were protected and enhanced.
ZMQ: Can you tell us how you came to become a Nationalist in Việt Nam?
Luận: In 1945, many people thought that the Communist would bring happiness but when the French came back to try to re-organize the colonial system in Việt Nam, people fought against the French. There were some that exploited that situation to re-establish the Communist party. They used the full power of oppression to turn people into Communist members.
It wasn’t until 1945 to 1946 that the word “Nationalist” was introduced into the Vietnamese vocabulary. It happened when the Communist appeared and applied their dictatorship over North and South Việt Nam. Nationalist are people who believed in the independence of Vietnamese people but who were also non-Communist. To be non-Communist, they had to side with the French temporarily because between these two enemies – the French and the Communist – they had to choose which one they could live with more. The Việt Minh assassinated people so they fled to the French area to temporarily live under the control of the French to survive and fight the Communist.
I wanted to tell people the root of the Việt Minh war. The Communist party had committed many atrocities and they had many oppressive policies to keep people under their control – to direct the people and to kill anyone with different opinions. They eliminated every member of the Nationalist party. They arrested my father in 1948 and he died in a prison camp in 1951. In 1949, when my father was in the Communist prison camp, I went to visit him and I told him that I was going to graduate from a University. My father wanted me to enlist in the Nationalist army however – to keep fighting for our people. That’s why I went into the ARVN, because of the wishes of my father.
At first, in 1951 when I was in high school, I worked for the Việt Minh because they were the only ones around. But in 1951, they introduced the landlord program and they killed anyone who was a landlord – whether they were good or bad – just being a landlord resulted in their death. I saw them do so many things that I cannot accept, so, at 16, in 1961, I decided to quit the Việt Minh and work for the Nationalist.
I was a party member of the Nationalist school association of my high school. We worked very hard. We organized and brought anti-Communist leaflets to the French soldiers to get them to support the independence of the Vietnamese people.
Some Nationalist parties were the Việt Nam Quốc Dân Đảng or the Việt Quốc for short. They were one of the main parties fighting the Communist during the Bảo Đại government. Another party, the Đại Việt joined the Việt Quốc to fight the Communist and the French. In 1946 they all suffered under the Việt Minh purging campaign that sough to eliminate them. At that time the Việt Minh controlled most of the countryside. The Đại Việt were cooperating with the French to eliminate the Việt Minh.
In the end it came down to just two parties – the Việt Minh and the Nationalist. In reality, the French didn’t like the Nationalist either, but they allowed the Nationalist party to live safely under French control so that they could use them to fight the communist
ZMQ: When did you join the South Vietnamese army?
Luận: When Việt Nam was divided in two in 1954, I choose to go to the South. The Nationalist army was not very good at that time. It was full of corruption. I decided to join because many of my friends told me that I was an honorable, intelligent, and educated young man and that I was good with politics. They told me that I must join the army to make it better because without a good army you cannot fight the Communist or the Chinese. At that time, we expected the Chinese to intervene in Việt Nam. I joined in 1955 and became a member of the South Việt Nam military Armed Forces.
ZMQ: What was it like to live under French colonial rule?
Luận: It was very frustrating at that time because the French controlled everything – the economy, the issuance of the money, the financial management in Việt Nam. The French army also did so many atrocious things to the Vietnamese people – raping, killing – they did not respect the people – they raped women in front of everyone – so people hated the French.
ZMQ: Your memoir is amazingly detailed. How did you remember everything? Did you draw from personal journals?
Luận: I have a very good memory. I got it from my grandmother. My grandmother learned and knew a lot of Chinese characters. My grandfather was a very good man; no one was afraid of him. But my grandmother was a very strong woman – she protected my grandfather and protected our property successfully. No one could scare her and she remembered everything that ever happened: the birthday of everyone that had been born since she was 10 years old. She knew the name of everyone in our branch of the family and everything that happened in the city and the province. When the French first came to the city – she remembered every single detail. So as I was growing up, I asked her a lot of questions about when people died, for example, and she’d say the exact date. I inherited this from her. When I grew up, I had a good memory of numbers. Right now, I even still remember my two telephone numbers in Sài Gòn.
ZMQ: How did you come to the United States?
Luận: In 1975, I was in the United States attending a special training for advanced officers. There were rumors that Sài Gòn was about to fall and that the Communist were going to attack Huế and Đà Lạt. I had friends that offered to get me passports to stay in the United States, but I had a wife and children in Việt Nam and I had to come back for them. I also could not give up on my country. I spent a few sleepless nights in the United States before boarding a plane to return to Việt Nam. On April 3, just a few weeks before Sài Gòn fell, I returned to Việt Nam even though I knew that when I came back, I would suffer greatly but I could not see myself as a deserter. When I was in Sài Gòn during the Fall, we tried to escape but we could not – so we all ended up staying and I was eventually taken to a Communist re-education camp on May 15th of 1975. For the next six and a half years, I was forced to do hard labor – I was always hungry and sickly.
ZMQ: Tell us a little bit about your time in the re-education camps.
Luận: I was in a total of about 7 forced labor camps. In the camps, the Communist tried to intimidate us and treat us with the hardest measure to intimidate us from being anti-Communist. They used every small measure they could think of to scare us from working against them. Anyone trying to escape but failed was shot. If you say something against them and they heard it, they’d put you in a dark hole or cell.
I was released in 1982. At that time there was a movement in the U.S. to bring former ARVN soldiers to the U.S. The public opinion of the war was against the Communist, so they were under the pressure of world opinion to release a lot of ARVN soldiers. I was released back to my home – but without citizenship. This meant that I was not in the ration system that the Communist had established for food. I had to live outside it – and depend on my wife and children. I eventually got a job teaching English. Many people wanted to leave for the U.S. The Orderly Departure Program was allowing former ARVN soldiers to come to the U.S., so people wanted to learn English to prepare themselves to live in the U.S.
ZMQ: What is the one part of your memoir that you’d like readers to focus on the most?
Luận: I’d like people to know the difference between the character of the French army and the American soldiers in Việt Nam. Many people still remember what the American soldiers did for the people in the country – they gave them food, gifts, very expensive medical treatment, and they provided operations for serious health conditions. They did not charge the people anything for the services. Many people were made to believe that the Americans were killing or raping South Vietnamese people – killing babies and confiscating Vietnamese products to take to the U.S. but many of these were lies created by the Communist to make people hate Americans. For example, in October of 1969, the Communist claimed that during the war, the people in South Việt Nam were starving – so they collected 20,000 tons of rice from North Vietnamese people to give to the South Vietnamese people. The Communist claimed that all of this rice was confiscated and brought to the U.S. – but that was not true. In fact, we never received anything from the North.
I also want people to know that the ARVN fought many battles and won them successfully. I talk about these in my memoir. There were very big battles like Biên Hòa that many people don’t know about or that were not reported accurately or at all by the Americans for various reasons.
ZMQ: Please tell us about the Chiêu Hồi Program that you directed.
Luận: The Chiêu Hồi Program was a big campaign in which 200,000 North Vietnamese soldiers successfully surrendered to the South Vietnamese. These were people who decided to desert from the Communist party. That is a very difficult decision. Those 200,000 deserters were enough to make up at least 15 combat divisions. Many of these deserters joined the South Vietnamese side and saw many victories with us.
These soldiers also gave us very valuable information to help destroy the communist. For example, a Chiêu Hồi soldier accurately reported the exact location of a Communist convoy that was moving thousands of ammunition and weapons along the Hồ Chí Minh trail. The South Vietnamese air force found and exploded all 200 trucks in that convoy. He was awarded 2 million piastas.
In 1969, a Chiêu Hồi reported to a province near Vũng Tàu that the next morning at 8 a.m., a crew of Communist would fire about 60 rounds on military and civilian personnel. If they were successful, at least 200 people would have been killed. But, as a result of the report, ARVN went to the location reported and found mortars with 60 rounds already prepared. All you had to do was push a button to kill the 200 people. The Chiêu Hồi was given 1 million and 500 piastas but he took only a third of it and he gave the rest to the nursery home.
In 1972, a Chiêu Hồi hospital in Vĩnh Long was seized by a company of Communist soldiers. They held the patients in the hospital hostage. Chiêu Hồi soldiers went into the hospital to rescue the patients. They suffered 19 casualties to save over 200 people. This was a truly brave sacrifice.
ZMQ: What do you remember about the Tết Offensive?
Luận: The reports that the American people received in 1968 of the Tết Offensive had a lot of inaccuracies. For example, it is little known that the Communist sent mostly untrained soldiers into the Battle of Sài Gòn during the Tết Offensive. They sent mostly draftees without training. They used the large number of soldiers to overcome the fact that the soldiers actually did not know how to fight. These young Communist draftees were in fact just target practice for the ARVN. I saw three ARVN platoons attack these Communist draftees who were marching with rifles that they had not even loaded. The problem is that they were told that Sài Gòn had already been liberated and that they were going in to help liberate the people. That is why they marched in proudly without even knowing that they were actually coming into a city to attack. They were killed by South Vietnamese police very quickly. They did this throughout Sài Gòn, so the Communist failed to achieve any victories. These young draftees were tricked by their superiors. The Communist were prepared to seize South Viet Nam at any price so they sent as much forces as many possible to South Việt Nam. They didn’t care about the loss of lives. For example, I once met a woman who had five registered cards for five Communist soldiers – she had married five times and all five of her husbands had died fighting for the Communist.
The Communist had suffered so many casualties by 1968 that they had to use untrained soldiers. They collected 100,000 people from five districts and gathered all of them in the big barracks in the province where they received a five-minute training on how to use an AK. Some of them had never even held an AK before. Then they were sent to the South to fight and given an official number – about 200 men were sent to the 325th Division. So when these soldiers were killed, no one knew who they were. They were buried without any papers or identification in unmarked graves. They were often buried wherever they died. The Communist did not bring any of their bodies back to North Việt Nam – they just left their bodies there. After the war, the Communist created a cemetery with gravestones for many of these soldiers – about 280 graves or so – but when people dug up the graves – there was nothing underneath. Their bodies had been buried elsewhere – probably wherever they died in the battlefields.
ZMQ: If you could tell young people anything – what would it be?
Luận: I would tell young people that there is a lot of misinformation out there about the Việt Nam war – and as a result they may have a faulty understanding of the war. The root of the war was when the Việt Minh began to oppress the Vietnamese people and cleanse the Nationalist party from North Việt Nam. In 1945 – the Việt Minh lied to the people when they said they’d take the property of the rich and divide among the poor. The poor people believed it so they supported them.
The Việt Minh lied with the most incredible stories – you’d never even believe them. For example, in 1945 – they said that Hồ Chí Minh had four pupils. They showed the poor village people a picture with Hồ Chí Minh which appeared to show him with four pupils. This was supposed to be some symbol of his greatness. But in reality it was just the way the light caught in Hồ Chí Minh’s eyes in the picture.
They also created stories of American atrocities that did not occur. For example, in 1965, when I moved to the Bình Định area, I encountered a story that was spread by the Communist that people in the area had been killed by American soldiers and that five women were raped. When I went to Đà Nẵng, I heard the same story except that the number of women that had been raped had been increased to 7. In addition, an alleged 800 people had been killed. I brought the people of the two areas together to exchange their stories and they confirmed that nothing of the sort had occurred in their area. The stories were fake and no American soldiers had even entered their area. This is an example of the propaganda and lies that the Communist spread in Việt Nam.
Zora Mai Quỳnh is a gender queer Vietnamese literary poet and writer whose short stories have appeared in the Anthologies: “The Chamber of Souls” – The SEA is Ours and “The South China Sea” – Genius Loci: The Spirit of Place. Her short story “The Chamber of Souls” was translated and featured in the Czech version of the “The SEA is Ours” anthology. Her short story, “The Seashell” was nominated in 2015 for a Sundress Best of the Net Award for fiction, given honorary mention by the literary magazine, Glimmer Train, and was featured in APAture 2016. Her essay “On the Topic of Erasure” was published in the Anthology, “People of Color Destroy Science Fiction.” Her creative non-fiction essay, “Meta Eulogy: Nguyễn Ngọc Loan By A Vietnamese American,” published at DiaCRITICS, was nominated in 2015 for a Sundress Best of the Net Award for creative non-fiction. Her essay, “Octavia Butler – Master Cultural Translator” is forthcoming with Twelfth Planet Press and her short story, “Drink Brother for the Pain…” is forthcoming in Kweli Journal. She was a finalist for the 2014 Barbara Deming Writing Grant.
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