Escalation 11

The chances were that Hung’s other letters, if he wrote any, rarely or never reached his mother—as I speculated after talking with North Vietnamese veterans. One retired captain told me, for instance, that he had no contact with his wife or parents during his first six years in the south, and then he exchanged messages with them only once a year over the next three years. Nor were the dead shipped home, as I also learned in the north, where village cemeteries feature a war monument flanked by rows of neat white tombs bearing the names, but not the bodies, of those killed in action. Families received only cursory reports of the deaths of their husbands or sons during the war—a tragedy for the Vietnamese, with their close kinship ties. The experience of Hoang Thi Thu, an unusually outspoken peasant whom I interviewed in a hamlet near Hanoi in 1981, must have been shared by other war widows:
I didn’t receive a single letter from my husband after he went south. I wrote to him often, but I don’t know whether he ever got my letters. Then, one day, I was suddenly handed an official notice saying that he had been killed, without any details of how he died. I was shattered by the news, and I’ve been miserable ever since. Sometimes I think that I’m going out of my mind, as if my soul has departed from my body. I can’t hear anything. I can’t concen¬trate on anything. Yes, he died for the country, but it’s been very painful for me, extremely painful.
Still, the North Vietnamese and Vietcong forces were formidable foes, as the Americans who fought against them consistently acknowl¬edged. “I wish thfey were on our side,” was a comment commonly uttered by American officers. Among the thousands of prisoners taken during the war, few showed signs of contrition. In that respect, they differed drastically from Germans captured in World War II or Chinese Communists in the Korean war. Numbers of enemy troops in those conflicts could be induced to surrender because they had lost confi¬dence in their cause. But Konrad Kellen, a RAND Corporation expert who interrogated North Vietnamese and Vietcong prisoners, found their convictions unshaken after they had laid down their arms. “Nei¬ther our military actions nor our political or psychological warfare efforts seem to have made an appreciable dent on the enemy’s overall motivation or morale,” he concluded. At a time when official Amer-ican statements brimmed with optimism, he predicted that the Com¬munists were “unlikely to yield, let alone disintegrate,” under American pressure: “The thought of compromise in the current strug-gle, even in return for concessions, seems alien to these men. They see the war entirely as one of defense of their country against the invading Americans, who, in turn, are seen merely as successors to the French.”
Big North Vietnamese and Vietcong units went into actual combat infrequently—sometimes only once or twice a year. Their commanders knew that they could not match superior U.S. military might in frontal clashes. They also preferred to engage in hit-and-run ma¬neuvers, thereby retaining the initiative so that they could choose the terrain for battle. And, by avoiding direct confrontations, they hoped that the Americans would eventually exhaust themselves in grueling and often fruitless search-and-destroy operations.
As the war dragged on, a major challenge for the Communist leaders was to buoy up the spirit of their men. The process has been labeled “indoctrination,” implying that the enemy troops were subjected to some mysterious sort of totalitarian “brainwashing.” But the notion is specious. The North Vietnamese and Vietcong regulars had a tra¬dition of opposition to foreign intervention. They had been raised on legends of Vietnam’s resistance to Chinese rule, and their fathers or uncles or older brothers had fought against the French. They were thus convinced from the start of the righteousness of their mission, and it was unnecessary to persuade or coerce them into subscribing to the validity of the war against the United States and its Saigon government “puppets.”
I asked a high-level North Vietnamese officer in Hanoi after the war to explain frankly how his comrades had been able to make such sacrifices during the conflict. “You must understand the depth of our patriotism,” he replied, and went on to spout familiar slogans about Vietnamese fidelity to independence and sovereignty. Yet North Vietnamese and Vietcong prisoners interrogated during the war almost unanimously expressed the same line, and they were sincere. “I knew that I might be killed, but I was committed to the sacred salvation of the nation,” said a North Vietnamese private under questioning, and another recalled discussions with his comrades on the subject: “Some¬times we sat and talked about seeing our loved ones again. But we all realized that the country had been invaded, and that to get home sooner, we had to fight the war. As long as the war continued, we agreed, we could not put our happiness above our duty.”
Like any soldiers, though, they grieved over the deaths of buddies and yearned for their families, and their perseverance had to be bol¬stered. They also had to be rewarded or punished for courage or cowardice in battle, or penalized for such infractions as chasing girls or stealing chickens. To perform these and similar functions, indis¬pensable political cadres stiffened every North Vietnamese and Viet¬cong unit. The system, borrowed from the Chinese Communist army, was based on the notion of a cadre—a framework to steel a unit. But the system could be no better than the cadres themselves, who were supposed to combine the roles of personal confessor, surrogate parent and ideological tutor to the troops. So important were they that Ho Chi Minh once declared: “Success or failure depends on whether our cadres are good or bad.”

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