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Manoa 12.1 (2000) 258-260
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Even the Women Must Fight: Memories of War from North Vietnam
Even the Women Must Fight: Memories of War from North Vietnam by Karen Gottschang Turner with Phan Thanh Hao. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1998. 244 pages, cloth $24.95.
According to a Vietnamese proverb, when war strikes close to home, even the women must fight. As U.S. troops disembarked in Viet Nam in 1965 and the air war heated up, some women in the North joined the armed forces, over a hundred thousand were mobilized in volunteer youth corps, and close to one million served in local militia units. Based on interviews with veterans of these campaigns, Even the Women Must Fight: Memories of War from North Vietnam sheds light on the female contribution to North Viet Nam's war effort.
Karen Turner's project illustrates the limits and possibilities of oral history. The book is driven by interviews with film director Nguyen Thi Duc Hoan, militia woman Ngo Thi Tuyen, veterans from the C814 volunteer youth corps, and others. Recruitment of informants seems to have been haphazard, and a reassurance that the author consulted "a good cross section of female veterans" must be taken on faith. The shortage of testimony from the South, where "feudalism" was put on the dock and feminist currents ran stronger than in the North, is especially to be regretted. Staying close to the interviewees, Turner does not attempt a comprehensive study of women during the war or in contemporary Viet Nam, nor does she offer the sort of comparative and theoretical commentary the wide-ranging bibliography would seem to authorize.
At the same time, this is an uncommonly brave and thoughtful inquiry, yielding a chronicle of human connections both forged and missed, of mutually won insights, but also of misunderstanding and hurt feelings. At the end of the first [End Page 258] chapter, an interviewee asks Turner for her own story. But this sharing ends on a painful note. Her interlocutor, the author reports, was bluntly unsympathetic to "my own small-scale tale of heroism, of my divorce and struggle to get an education as a single parent....She could forgive me for the acts of my government, but not for my decision to break up my family." Conceived as an act of solidarity, the book explores the gulf between Vietnamese and Americans.
Splits among Vietnamese also emerge. Patriotic watchwords are heard throughout: "The North is our homeland....We had no choice." But this national liberation theme, sounded by the guerrillas during the war and echoed by many today, does not tell the whole story. The book opens with a collision of views: painter Nguyen Ngoc Tuan evokes an idealized vision of women defending their country, and the author's collaborator, Phan Thanh Hao, answers with a more somber statement, emphasizing the "suffering and sorrow" occasioned by the war and the mistreatment of women veterans, who today are "condemned to life on the margins" of society.
Heroism there was--no doubt about it--as volunteers rallied to Ho Chi Minh's call. With a quiet pride ("Only Vietnamese could do what we did"), informants speak of hardships endured and a mission accomplished. But the epic has a grim undercurrent. The North Vietnamese regime hastily dispatched thousands of ill-trained teenage girls into a war zone with inadequate shelter, food and medicine in short supply, and bombs raining down. Volunteers worked to the limits of their physical capacities, building and repairing roads and bridges, caring for the wounded, and maintaining relay stations for soldiers marching south. Many died, while the hair of survivors fell out and their menstrual periods stopped.
In postwar Viet Nam, survivors of the volunteer brigades receive no benefits and are not recognized by the government as veterans. Many were unable to marry or bear children, and without enough education to secure good jobs, some retreated into communities of Buddhist nuns or all-female collectives. Their personal accounts are tinged with disappointment and bitterness.
Turner conveys a sense of deeply...