In The Nam

by Kenneth Champeon, May 9, 2004 | Destinations: Vietnam / Ho Chi Minh City

According to my count, Mark Baker's book Nam has been reprinted twenty-two times, but it seems to have resurfaced in bookstores in Thailand all of a sudden. This may be no coincidence, as one can't help but read the book with one eye trained on today's headlines. Taking place in a country that few Americans understood, the war became ever more unpopular as the role of business in the whole business grew ever more apparent. One embittered veteran quoted in Nam claims that "41 percent" of the war was about generating "capital for corporations." Who knows where this figure comes from, but Vietnam may have been the war that fused in American minds the connection between killing people and making a profit. Americans seem to have figured out that it's misguided to spit on their returning soldiers or accuse them of wanton infanticide, even if they are guilty of it. But the American government seems not to have learned that land wars in Asia are too often the errands of fools.

Nam is a collection of first-hand accounts of the war by American veterans. Each chapter is prefaced by Baker's rather feeble attempts to summarize what the conflict was like. The interviews are a great deal more effective; indeed, taken together, they are more effective than any work of history or fiction in conveying the horror as well as the excitement of the war. One might as well be sitting across from a veteran, a few empty beer cans or a whisky bottle between you and him. Or her: there be nurses here too. Baker reports that he and the veterans sometimes succumbed to tears.

Several of the veterans refer to being "in the Nam", while the United States was known as "the World"; you returned from Nam to the World via the Big Bird of Paradise. But many veterans found that the Big Bird proved a bumpy ride. Their countrymen were hostile or indifferent. Life was dull. ("I was bored to fucking death," complains one veteran.) Some who had been wounded beyond recognition chose suicide over life as a helpless curiosity; others returned as junkies, or drunks.

As I read Nam, I found that many of the returnees' anxieties are shared by today's American expatriates in Southeast Asia. Referring to Americans as "robots", one veteran hopes that they will one day feel some of the pain their foreign policies have caused. Another finds that after a few cursory questions about his experience abroad, his fellow Americans "weren't even listening. They didn't really want to listen. They didn't even wait for an answer. I could have read off the thirty-one flavors at Baskin-Robbins and it wouldn't have made any difference." Yet another concludes that he "felt at home" in Vietnam, while one relates a rather familiar symptom of reverse culture shock: "The first week I was there [in California], I slept on the floor because I couldn't get comfortable in a bed." One veteran found himself addressing American bartenders in Vietnamese.

Some people have suggested that the Vietnam War represented the sputtering out of the idea of Manifest Destiny - that, having barreled across the mainland United States and all but annihilated the native population, the Americans leapt over the sea in pursuit of a similar policy of "civilizing". GIs referred to remote parts of Vietnam as Indian Country, and in evidence was the same tendency to treat the Vietnamese as subhuman, and not just because dehumanization of the enemy is a given during wartime. The veterans in Nam relate stories of Vietnamese being pushed out of helicopters, raped, dismembered. Killing for sport often comes to mind, as when a GI decides to see if he can sink a Vietnamese boat by throwing a big rock at it. (He can.) And the accounts contain several corroborations of perhaps the war's most revolting phenomenon: GIs sporting necklaces of Vietnamese ears. One even wore a scalp, making comparisons with the Wild West almost irresistible.

Many GIs became addicted to Vietnam because they became addicted to the power that they wielded there. One veteran relates in particular how the mere possession of a weapon could inspire feelings of omnipotence. Others are full of praise for Vietnamese prostitutes, some of whom would drive motorbikes to wherever horny GIs happened to be in abundance. The veterans realized something that many if not most Americans fail to realize today: that sometimes the Land of the Free can be less free than other lands, or at any rate that freedom's just another word for nothing left to buy. But there were also things that Americans could get away with in Vietnam that were prohibited at home. Like being a smack-snorting nurse. Or shooting at one's superiors.

And what of the people whose country was sometimes treated as the Americans' playground du jour? American attitudes, needless to say, were mixed. Some veterans had seen so many of their buddies killed that the only good Vietnamese was a dead Vietnamese. Others tried to distance themselves from their deeds by adhering to a code of professionalism: among other things, soldiers kill for a living, and who they happen to kill is not their concern so long as they are following orders. As in many other accounts, some GIs confess to a grudging admiration for their enemies - "no dummies", as one puts it - and at least one learns that the Vietnam War was no World War II: "If we came into a village, there was no flag waving, no pretty young girls coming out to give us kisses as we march through victorious. 'Oh, here come the fucking Americans again. Jesus, when are they going to learn?'" Understanding for the first time that wounded Viet Cong would "call out for their mothers, their wives, their girlfriends", one veteran concludes: "Jesus Christ, what a fucking waste this whole thing is."

Such unsparing language is a large part of what makes Nam such refreshing reading. While generals and presidents stick to the sanitized vocabulary of pacification and body counts, the veterans call the notorious radio propagandist Hanoi Hanna a "little cunt face"; they compare Vietnamese to roaches; they tell the Vietnamese to didi mao, which one veteran translates as, "Get the fuck away." Another makes this hilarious observation: "The Central Highlands is called the Highlands because there's nothing but fucking mountains everywhere."

But while such talk may convey the ugliness of war better than would your average Defense Department briefing, it may have only confirmed in the minds of the Vietnamese that the Americans were childish and nasty, that they were not so much defeated as outclassed. Some Vietnamese villagers, reports one veteran, "were beautiful, aristocratic, more civilized than you ever though of being", while other veterans remark upon the sheer beauty of the Vietnamese landscape. Those GIs who were reluctant to leave the country may have fallen in love with it, and I suspect that some soldiers classified as either POWs or MIAs are still in Southeast Asia somewhere, and quite content.

Most veterans of any war are reluctant to talk about their experiences, but Baker is right to observe that veterans of Vietnam may be the most reluctant: "They are wary of strangers," he writes. "Questions make them cautious." And the wound on the American psyche that the war caused is far from healed. One need look no further than a recent presidential press conference to confirm this. An unimaginative journalist asked George W. Bush whether Iraq was his Vietnam, and the president retorted that the analogy was "false". It remains to be seen whether "weak" might have been a better word; in any case, I am acquainted with at least one Vietnam veteran who has had to watch his sons head off to the sands of Mesopotamia. He is not happy about it. This is a man who admitted to having served in Cambodia without the knowledge of the American public, and who burned his uniform upon returning to the states. Nam is a gold mine of stories one should know but would rather forget, but its real value may rest in the fact that it intimates all the stories that have yet to be told, by American and Vietnamese veterans alike.

- The End -

* * *

Review of Mark Baker's Nam, Abacus, 2001.

* * * * *