On 16 march, the 50th anniversary of the My Lai massacre is commemorated around the world.

In March 1985, fellow reporter Jørn Ruby and I along with photographer Ole J. Sørensen located one of  a handful of survivors in Son My, the Vietnamese name for the village, where the carnage took place.  

She told us her story, breaking down in tears again and again, as she took us back to that fateful morning, when her life was shattered.    

Here is the story of  our encounter with Pham Thi Trinh – and how Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld got involved in the cover up of the atrocities during the war in Vietnam. 


Pham Thi Trinh: “Some people told me to try and think of how lucky I was to survive. Mostly I believe, it would be better if I had died with my family that day.” Photo: Ole Johnny Sørensen.

Under the blue sky, through the heat haze, Son My looks like a typical Vietnamese countryside village.  We drive slowly down the dirt road, passing the farmers moving even slower with their bent backs through the incredibly green rice fields.

In front of us, half grown boys are pushing the water buffaloes, whipping up clouds of red dust.  Insects are gently humming, children are screaming with joy, while they cool down in the small lakes at the outskirts of Son My.  Inside the bamboo sheds, the women are sitting in the dark, cutting vedgetables and herbs. It is all so peaceful.

For a young woman in the village, Pham Thi Trinh (27),  the tranquility of rural  life is still giving in to daytime flashbacks and nightmares bringing her back to that spring morning in 1968, when her entire family was massacred by frustrated US soldiers chasing the elusive guerillas – The Viet Cong as they called them, a derogatory term attributed to the South Vietnamese President.

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My Lai villagers just minutes before, they were killed. 504 people lost their lives 16 March 1968.

“They killed all my family and our relatives – we were eleven people in all. Only I survived. My baby brother of seven months, his  head exploded from the bullets.  My mother had him on her arm, she was mortally wounded in that very first round of fire.  We fell to the ground, and my mother whispered…”

Pham Thi Trinh  is unable to go on. She collapses in front of us in tears.  Phuong, our interpreter, is overcome with emotion and whispers between her own sobs, that we should stop the interview.

“No”, says Trinh. “I want to tell my story,  I want you to know what happened to my family and all the other people of Son My.

Her family was having breakfast, when they heard the sound of the approaching helicopters from Alpha, Bravo and Charlie Company.  In the preceding months, the three companies had suffered serious losses.  Charlie company was the worst hit with 28 casualties, all from mines and booby traps.  The troops had not managed to engage the guerrillas in direct combat.  Frustrations and anger was running very high among the soldiers.

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This photo surfaced a year after this woman was killed in My Lai.

“I want nothing left alive”

The evening before they had been briefed by their commanding officer, Captain Ernest L. Medina, who told the troops that military intelligence had  located the hideout of a major Viet Cong battalion. Finally, they had the chance to strike a devastating blow against the enemy.

“I want nothing left alive,” Medina reportedly said to his men. He later denied in court to have said so, when he was confronted with the ensuing mass killing of 504 unarmed men, women and children.

The next morning the 200 US soldiers took off on ‘Operation Pinkville’, adrenalin running wild, as the choppers approached Son My for the showdown with the enemy.

“When we heard the soldiers coming, my mother told us to lie down on the floor and be quiet. She greeted them politely and told them we were just farmers. The soldiers shouted at us and pushed us out of the house.

There were three of them pointing their heavy weapons at my family, and they  started shooting without asking questions.  We fell down in a heap and they just kept shooting. My mother was lying on top of me with my dead baby brother in her arms. The blood from both of them was all over me. I was only hit in my arm with one or two bullits.”

My mother whispered in my ear: “Stay quiet, do not move, until they are gone. Make them think you are dead.” My mother was bleeding from all over her belly and her arms.  She was in so much pain, it took her so long to die. I stayed completely still, as my mother had told me.”

“I was half unconscious from fear and exhaustion, when sudden  screams made me open my eyes.  Two soldiers were dragging our neighbors through the dirt, a woman and her teenage daughter with the youngest son of three years running after them. I could not see the father anywhere.

One of the soldiers ripped the shirt of the young girl and threw her down on the ground.  Her mom struggled free and dropped down to protect her daughter. Then the two soldiers opened fire and killed both of them.  The little boy tried to run away, the soldiers laughed and shot him dead.”

“It was very hard just to keep still and just lay there next to my mother and my headless baby brother.  I do not know how a 10-year old girl could do that.  Later that day, when the soldiers had left, people from one of the other villages came to see, what had happened to us. They buried my mother, my brothers and sisters, my aunt, my cousins, my grandmother. They were all dead except me.  We burned incense and prayed, and then a family from the other village took me home with them.

I quickly healed from my small wounds, but somehow these wounds are still with me, and they get deeper and deeper in my soul and heart.  The doctors told me many times that I am fine. I do not think I will ever become a healthy and happy  human being. Some people told me to try and think of how lucky I was to survive. I believe, it would be better if I had died with my family that day.”

A memorial in Son My has listed the names of the 504 villagers, who were killed that morning in the village: Among them were 60 elders, 17 pregnant women and 210 babies and children under the age of 13.  Pham Thi Trinh spends her time maintaining the memorial grounds.

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Colin Powell reported to his superiors that there was no evidence of a massacre in My Lai.

A military victory

At first, Operation Pinkville was recorded as a major military victory, the dead villagers – big and small – were counted as enemy casualties.  Only one US soldier was wounded, when he shot himself in the foot by accident.

Soon rumors started circulating among the American troops in Vietnam. A courageous helicopter pilot, Hugh Thompson and his gunner Lawrence Colburn had threatened to shoot their fellow soldiers, when they saw from the air what was going on the ground in Son My. They managed to get  a small group of survivors on board and flew them to safety.

A young officer, Colin Powell (later to become US Secretary of State under President George Bush) was dispatched to investigate the rumors.  Powell reported to his superiors that he did not find any evidence to substantiate the rumors of a massacre in My Lai. On the contrary, he pointed out that “relations were excellent” between the local people and the American soldiers.  In reality, Powell only interviewed one of the commanding officers at regional headquarters.  No real investigation took place at the time.

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Lieutenant William Calley got a life sentence for his role in the My Lai killings,  personally killing 22 villagers and ordering his men to join the massacre. He only served 3,5 years in house arrest and was then released.

A year after the massacre, irrefutable evidence showed up. A military photographer, Ronald Haeberle, had brought his own private camera along with the army equipment. Haunted by feelings of remorse and guilt, he handed his private photos over to a fellow soldier, Ron Ridenhour, who interviewed several soldiers participating in the My Lai massacre. Ridenhour presented his findings in a letter to the US Congress, and subsequently tipped off  US freelance journalist Seymour Hersh, who broke the story of what really happened in My Lai.

“Murder in the name of war”

After a military investigation, 24 soldiers were court martialled and charged with various criminal offenses, including manslaughter and rape. Only one of them,  lieutenant Willam L. Calley was convicted with a lifetime jail sentence for the killing of 22 people and ordering his men to shoot at the villagers.  Calley’s sentence was subsequently commuted to house arrest, and he became a free man 3,5 years later.

The My Lai massacre has since been called “murder in the name of war” by critics of the American role in Vietnam.  Even worse, additional evidence has later surfaced that the events that morning were by no means an isolated atrocity, committed by desperate soldiers.

In 2006, US journalists Michael Sallah and Mitch Weiss disclosed that systematic killings took place on a much larger scale in numerous other villages in Quang Ngai province, in the same area where the My Lai massacre took place.

According to Sallah and Weiss it was a systematic terror campaign to force the farmers in Quang Ngai to leave their villages, because they were suspected of sharing their crops with the guerillas.

These massacres were carried out by the socalled Tiger Force. The numerous reports about the atrocities led to an internal army investigation by CIC, the Criminal Investigation Command.  The report was rejected by senior Pentagon officials, one of them was Donald Rumsfeld, later to become Secretary of Defense under President Bush, overseeing the war in Iraq.

The head of the CIC investigation team, Gustav Apsey, resigned in frustration and brought home a copy of his report.  The other investigation team members were re-assigned to US military bases in Korea and Germany.

After Apsey’s death, his son found the incriminating report in his father’s basement and handed it over to the two journalists, who launched their own extensive investigation to verify the report.

Sallah and Weiss documented it all in a Pulitzer Prize winning journalistic investigation for the Toledo Blade newspaper. Their reports were later published in the book: “Tiger Force – The shocking true story of American soldiers out of control in Vietnam”.


“At four years of age I became something less than human”


Today, I hand over my blog to the Vietnamese-American novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen with this excerpt of his introduction to THE DISPLACED a new collection of essays written by refugee writers

By Viet Thanh Nguyen

I was once a refugee, although no one would mistake me for being a refugee now. Because of this, I insist on being called a refugee, since the temptation to pretend that I am not a refugee is strong. It would be so much easier to call myself an immigrant, to pass myself off as belonging to a category of migratory humanity that is less controversial, less demanding, and less threatening than the refugee.

I was born a citizen and a human being. At four years of age I became something less than human, at least in the eyes of those who do not think of refugees as being human. The month was March, the year 1975, when the northern communist army captured my hometown of Ban Me Thuot in its final invasion of the Republic of Vietnam, a country that no longer exists except in the imagination of its global refugee diaspora of several million people, a country that most of the world remembers as South Vietnam.

Looking back, I remember nothing of the experience that turned me into a refugee. It begins with my mother making a life-and-death decision on her own. My father was in Saigon, and the lines of communication were cut. I do not remember my mother seeing our hometown with my ten-year-old brother and me, leaving behind our sixteen-year-old adopted sister to guard the family property. I do not remember my sister, who my parents would not see again for nearly twenty years, who I would not see again for nearly thirty years.

My brother remembers dead paratroopers hanging from the trees on our route, although I do not. I also do not remember whether I walked the entire one hundred eighty-four kilometers to Nha Trang, or whether my mother carried me, or whether we might have managed to get a ride on the cars, trucks, carts, motorbikes, and bicycles crowding the road. Perhaps she does remember but I never asked about the exodus, or about the tens of thousands of civilian refugees and seeing soldiers, or the desperate scramble to get on a boat in Nha Trang, or some of the soldiers shooting some of the civilians to clear their way to boats, as I would read later in accounts of this time.

I do not remember finding my father in Saigon, or how we waited for another month until the communist army came to the city’s borders, or how we tried to get into the airport, and then into the American embassy, and then finally somehow fought our way through the crowds at the docks to reach a boat, or how my father became separated from us but decided to get on a boat by himself anyway, and how my mother decided the same thing, or how we eventually were reunited on a larger ship. I do remember that we were incredibly fortunate, finding our way out of the country, as so many millions did not, and not losing anyone, as so many thousands did. No one, except my sister.


“I do not remember many things, and for all those things I do not remember, I am grateful, because the things I do remember hurt me enough.”

For most of my life, I did remember soldiers on our boat firing onto a smaller boat full of refugees that was trying to approach. But when I mentioned it to my older brother many years later, he said the shooting never happened.

I do not remember many things, and for all those things I do not remember, I am grateful, because the things I do remember hurt me enough. My memory begins after our stops at a chain of American military bases in the Philippines, Guam, and finally Pennsylvania. To leave the refugee camp in Pennsylvania, the Vietnamese refugees needed American sponsors. One sponsor took my parents, another took my brother, a third took me.

For most of my life, I tried not to remember this moment except to note it in a factual way, as something that happened to us but left no damage, but that is not true. As a writer and a father of a son who is four years old, the same age I was when I became a refugee, I have to remember, or sometimes imagine, not just what happened, but what was felt. I have to imagine what it was like for a father and a mother to have their children taken away from them. I have to imagine what it was that I experienced, although I do remember being taken by my sponsor to visit my parents and howling at being taken back.

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The exodus from South Vietnam. Thousands died.

I remember being reunited with my parents after a few months and the snow and the cold and my mother disappearing from our lives for a period of time I cannot recall and for reasons I could not understand, and knowing vaguely that it had something to do with the trauma of losing her country, her family, her property, her security, maybe herself. In remembering this, I know that I am also foreshadowing the worst of what the future would hold, of what would happen to her in the decades to come. Despite her short absence, or maybe her long one, I remember enjoying life in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, because children can enjoy things that adults cannot so long as they can play, and I remember a sofa sitting in our backyard and neighborhood children stealing our Halloween candy and my enraged brother taking me home before venturing out by himself to recover what had been taken from us.

I remember moving to San Jose, California, in 1978 and my parents opening the second Vietnamese grocery store in the city and I remember the phone call on Christmas Eve that my brother took, informing him that my parents had been shot in an armed robbery, and I remember that it was not that bad, just flesh wounds, they were back at work not long after, and I remember that the only people who wanted to open businesses in depressed downtown San Jose were the Vietnamese refugees, and I remember walking down the street from my parents’ store and seeing a sign in a store window that said Another American driven out of business by the Vietnamese, and I remember the gunman who followed us to our home and knocked on our door and pointed a gun in all our faces and how my mother saved us by running past him and out onto the sidewalk, but I do not remember the two policemen shot to death in front of my parents’ store because I had gone away to college by that time and my parents did not want to call me and worry me.

I remember all these things because if I did not remember them and write them down then perhaps they would all disappear, as all those Vietnamese businesses have vanished, because after they had helped to revitalize the downtown that no one else cared to invest in, the city of San Jose realized that downtown could be so much better than what it was and forced all those businesses to sell their property and if you visit downtown San Jose today you will see a massive, gleaming, new city hall that symbolizes the wealth of a Silicon Valley that had barely begun to exist in 1978 but you will not see my parents’ store, which was across the street from the new city hall. What you will see instead is a parking lot with a few cars in it because the city thought that the view of an empty parking lot from the windows and foyer of city hall was more attractive than the view of a mom-and-pop Vietnamese grocery store catering to refugees.

As refugees, not just once but twice, having fled from north to south in 1954 when their country was divided, my parents experienced the usual dilemma of anyone classified as an other. The other exists in contradiction, or perhaps in paradox, being either invisible or hypervisible, but rarely just visible. Most of the time we do not see the other or see right through them, whoever the other may be to us, since each of us — even if we are seen as others by some — have our own others. When we do see the other, the other is not truly human to us, by very definition of being an other, but is instead a stereotype, a joke, or a horror. In the case of the Vietnamese refugees in America, we embodied the specter of the Asian come to either serve or to threaten.

Invisible and hypervisible, refugees are ignored and forgotten by those who are not refugees until they turn into a menace. Refugees, like all others, are unseen until they are seen everywhere, threatening to overwhelm our borders, invade our cultures, rape our women, threaten our children, destroy our economies. We who do the ignoring and forgetting oftentimes do not perceive it to be violence, because we do not know we do it. But sometimes we deliberately ignore and forget others. When we do, we are surely aware we are in inciting violence, whether that is on the schoolyard as children or at the level of the nation. When those others fight back by demanding to be seen and heard — as refugees sometimes do — they can appear to us like threatening ghosts whose fates we ourselves have caused and denied. No wonder we do not wish to see them.


Today, I hand over my blog to Alex Sheal, who has graciously permitted me to re-run this amazing interview with Vietnamese novelist Trung Trung Dinh.

Writer and veteran Trung Trung Đỉnh. Photo:  Colm Pierce

In the Jungle: An Interview with Trung Trung Đỉnh

By Alex Sheal

“Brother, when do you think we’ll have freedom?” the novelist Trung Trung Đỉnh remembers asking one of the guerrillas he fought alongside for seven years in the jungles of An Khê, central Vietnam.

“When these have completely worn out,” his comrade replied, pointing to the rubber-tire sandals on his feet, the famously indestructible “Ho Chi Minh sandals.” “Only then will we be free!”

It’s one of many war memories Mr. Đỉnh recalls with a smile that lights up the dusty Hanoi street café where we are sitting. Indeed, for all the mayhem, fear and devastation he describes from those years, the “skies packed with planes,” the “normality of death,” you sense that he misses the simplicity of jungle life. It was his youth, after all.

“I still have some pictures of myself taken at that time. I had a ragged beard, but my face shone so bright!” He gently shakes his 69-year-old head in wonder. “The hardest years came afterward,” he admits, “after ’75.”

Mr. Đỉnh is the author of many novels and plays, but it’s his first novel, “Lạc Rừng,” or “Lost in the Jungle,” that we’ve come to discuss. The book was recently reprinted for the 19th time, and many in Vietnam consider it a classic of “The American War,” although it has never reached an international audience like “The Sorrow of War,” a novel by his friend and “bạn rượu,” or drinking buddy, Bao Ninh.

He remembers his childhood fondly. “1949 to 1959 were the greatest years of my life, when I was still back in the countryside,” he says. “In my memory it was an idyllic time. We spent the days fishing, catching cicadas, watching our buffalo. I was a naughty kid, stealing fruit and fish from the neighbors.” Mr. Đỉnh is a native of Vĩnh Bảo, Haiphong, even today a rural backwater where a foreign face would draw curious stares.

Most of his relatives died in the war: a brother-in-law killed in the first American bombing of the north; brothers who sacrificed themselves both before and after he himself joined up. He lists the many family members he lost almost mechanically.

“Lost in the Jungle” tells the story of Binh, a North Vietnamese Army regular who becomes separated from his regiment in the mountains of central Vietnam, and is saved and then initiated by a band of tribal Bahnar guerrillas fighting the Americans. Binh lives with and fights alongside the Bahnar for many years, learning their language and assimilating their culture, while taking cover from helicopter gunships and setting booby traps for the enemy. But the title reflects unease about “going native.” Mr. Đỉnh points to his head, “He’s lost in here.”

“How much of the story is true?” I ask him. Like the hero of “Lost in the Jungle,” Mr. Đỉnh fought shoulder-to-shoulder with the Bahnar from 1968 to the end of the war.

“It’s a work of imagination, based on truth,” he explains. “It was the first novel I wrote after the war, and the memories were still fresh. Some of the stories I tell in the book are very close to what happened.”

As the morning unfolds, Mr. Đỉnh shares many anecdotes from his own years in the jungle. There’s a boar hunt; tales of stealing rations and weapons from the Americans stationed nearby; and another of hoisting an old parachute like a flag on the tallest tree in the forest and watching from afar as American jets unloaded bombs on it. “Just to tease them, you see?” Mr. Đỉnh explains.

All of these stories, slightly fictionalized, feature in the novel.

The characters sprang from life too. There’s an ancient Bahnar man, called “Old Phoi” in the novel, who in Mr. Đỉnh’s telling appeared impervious to missiles, bombs and bullets, escaping certain death several times. And of course Bin, the fiercest of the Bahnar warriors, and Binh’s guardian, shadow and guide.

We ask him about the character of Kohler, an American captive enlisted as a farmhand and menial laborer by the Bahnar in the novel. Was he real?

Mr. Đỉnh explains that, while he never met any personally, some American soldiers were captured and imprisoned “for various purposes.” Normally, however, such P.O.W.s would be transferred to Hanoi. The inspiration for docile, nervous Kohler came from an American veteran Mr. Đỉnh met after the war, on one of the many exchange programs organized by the two countries.

Unlike “The Sorrow of War,” in which the conflict affects every part of the story, destroying the lives of its characters, in Mr. Đỉnh’s novel it functions more as a background to the action. Apart from several skirmishes with American troops, and the occasional buzz of reconnaissance planes overhead, the plot focuses on Binh’s immersion in the culture of the Bahnar, his bonds with the group, and the challenges of jungle survival. In fact, the forest, for all its dangers, protects Binh and his comrades from the war, especially giving them cover from the Americans in their helicopters and planes. As Mr. Đỉnh writes, “Sometimes jungles are so quiet that even war can’t rouse them.”

However, while the action in “Lost in the Jungle” tends to be on the light side, Mr. Đỉnh describes his own years of war as ones of near-constant fear and violence. “I joined up at 17 years old, and hadn’t really wanted to fight. But suddenly I was surrounded by bombing and people dying all around me,” he says. On the way to the frontline, he caught malaria, and was laid up in a field hospital at the DMZ for a short time. There he met a staff sergeant from Gia Lai who recruited him to fight with the guerrillas in the south.

“An Khê at that time was the most dangerous place in Vietnam,” Mr. Đỉnh says. “Not only did we face the Americans, but also the Australians, and toughest of all, the South Koreans, who were the most experienced and ruthless soldiers in the jungle. Each day would bring at least two or three battles. Death was a very normal thing. The years ’68 to ’69 were the worst, with nonstop American bombing. Sometimes, when the planes finally left, you’d find yourself trapped in the roots of enormous trees that the bombs had upturned.”

For many years afterward, he says, the war haunted him. “I’d hear a wall fan start up and jump, thinking it was a helicopter, have nightmares about the loudspeaker voices from propaganda planes over the jungle.” In the period after 1975, he tells me he “aged heavily,” no doubt suffering from what we’d now call PTSD.

He began to write “Lost in the Jungle” in 1980. “As a child I’d been a great daydreamer,” he says. “I remember reading Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, about a fisherman lost in the ocean, and thinking, ‘One day, I’ll write an even better story than this!’ During the war, of course, there was no time to write anything. I just took notes mainly, for tactical purposes. But I think that dream about writing a book like ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ stayed with me.” “Lost in the Jungle” took him 10 years to write, and five different drafts, but went on to win several awards, and it launched Mr. Đỉnh’s career as a writer.

I ask if he had read any war fiction by American soldier-authors, such as Karl Marlantes and Tim O’Brien.

“Some,” he says vaguely, “but not much.” The reality is that, even today, few such works are available in Vietnamese, making it difficult for a non-English-speaker like Mr. Đỉnh. He has read foreign classics of the genre, and argues that no one has topped Erich Maria Remarque. “He best captured the atmosphere of war.”

But what of “The Vietnam War,” Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s acclaimed documentary, which has a Vietnamese-subtitled version, and featured his great friend Bao Ninh?

He has seen a few episodes, he says. “Interesting,” he admits, “and mostly correct. But I found some of the choices for interviewees strange. They went for diversity rather than expertise. It was impossible to explore the most important points in depth. Everything Bao Ninh said was right, but some of the others, I wondered how well-qualified they were to speak.”

I ask him what he makes of America’s ongoing fascination with the war. While American artists and writers continue to create new work on the topic, the Vietnamese (in Vietnam at least) have produced relatively little since the 1990s. Likewise, American visitors to Vietnam are often astonished by locals’ willingness to forgive and move on. Would today’s Vietnamese simply rather forget about the experience?

“No,” he replies bluntly. “It’s just that, for Vietnamese, the feelings and memories are so heavy. It’s not easy to share.” And as for the youth, even his own son, studying in London at the moment, they don’t want to hear war stories, he says. “If the young aren’t interested in the war, it’s fine,” he waves a hand dismissively. “Let them live.”

Far from melancholy, though, Mr. Đỉnh seems to have enjoyed this wander into the past. He tells some funny stories about motivational meetings with the revolutionary cadres back in An Khê. They would set a blackboard up against a tree and go through the dialectic. “Are we on the way up or down?” they once asked the group rhetorically.

“Down,” Mr. Đỉnh replied, matter-of-factly.

“You can’t say that!” came the reprimand. “We’re on the way up, we’re going to win!”

“I just say down because the way is easier,” he explains.

“I didn’t really want to go to war,” Mr. Đỉnh says, as our cafe starts to clear out for lunchtime, “but in April 1968, every able-bodied young person had to sign up. And all the time I fought, I never thought of victory.” He quotes the poet Nguyễn Duy, “Phe nào thắng thì nhân dân đều bại” – “Whichever side wins, the people lose.”

Alex Sheal is the co-owner of Vietnam in Focus, a photography tour company based here in Hanoi

This interview has previously been published in the ongoing New York Times about the US involvement in the war in Vietnam



Today, I stopped by a Charcoal factory near Taiping city in northern Malaysia. Here is ‘Abdul’ who has spent his entire adult life working 7 days a week, producing charcoal for export to Japan.
It takes 32 days to turn the trees from the nearby mangrove forest into charcoal, involving hundreds of hard and unhealthy working hours.

I was told that the the factory owner makes real good money on the business.
Abdul is paid 1.000 ri
nggit (USD 250) a month.
In a shed next dor to the big ovens, I met young women, stuffing bags with lower quality charcoal for local consumption. They get
0,2 ringgit (USD 0,05) per bag.

With a per capita income of USD 11.000, Malaysia is one of the richest countries in Asia.



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Finally it is available online: CHAU, BEYOND THE LINES – the magnificent Oscar nominated documentary about the Vietnamese artist Lê Minh Châu.  As my good friend Charles Bailey has said: “Its the best film ever made about Agent Orange. I know because I have seen them all.”

Click on the link above and watch – and then pass it on to your friends.

Kudos to Courtney Marsh and Jerry Franck for the seven years of work they put into the film.

To read more about Châu and his life, click here for the essay BEYOND THE MISERY.



– And two different attempts to make us want to understand why and how it all happened


Collage: 30 hours of TV-time on war in Vietnam, a B&O vintage remote, and the postcard version of Catherine Karnow’s stunning Halong Bay photo.

*This blog title “the war nobody won” is stolen from Stanley Karnow’s famous and controversial prologue in “Vietnam – a History.”
The recent launch of the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick 18-hour documentary on ‘THE VIETNAM WAR’ has prompted me to hole up quite a few Hanoi nights over the past month.
Subsequently, I added a 13 hour re-watch of the original  ‘VIETNAM – A TELEVISION HISTORY’, done almost 35 years ago.  It has been absolutely fascinating. 
Both series are published by PBS, but very different in their approach to the war(s) in Vietnam. Burns/Novick are on a mission to captivate the viewers with a dramatic and well researched narrative, based on wartime footage (some it never seen before, I believe) and retrospective interviews with former combatants, peace activists, victims and relatives in Vietnam and in the US.  
No doubt, it has been an enormous task to put this documentary together.
It is all spiced up with a continuous score of greatest hits from the US pop music charts during the war years. The narrator is intense and (melo)dramatic. The obvious ‘story-telling gimmicks’ seem a bit too much, but if you make it to the end, you will walk away feeling wiser on the war and its far reaching implications 40 years on.
However, one very big issue is strangely missing from the documentary: The legacy of the war, i.e. the long term effects of Agent Orange and the enormous amounts of UXO’s, unexploded mines and bombs, which are still killing people in Vietnam as well as Cambodia and Laos, 40 years after the war.  Apart from a single sentence on Agent Orange, the documentary completely ignores the terrible, lingering consequences for thousands of Vietnamese and US and other allied veterans, who ‘humped the boonies’ in the sprayed areas during the war.
Likewise, the efforts carried out by VN veterans to assist the Vietnamese with UXO clearance are also left out. One should think that initiatives like the Project Renew would deserve attention in a new documentary on the war in Vietnam.

The story of the Hanoi Spy legend Pham Xuan An would have suited well with the other ‘human interest’ stories in the Burns/Novick documentary.

Considering the Burns/Novick fascination of ‘human interest’ stories, it is also surprising, that the role of the legendary Hanoi spy, Pham Xuan An is not mentioned at all.
Being a trusted advisor of the US Ambassadors and several senior military officers, An supplied the North Vietnamese and the Southern Insurgents with the vital intelligence to prepare for the 1968 Tet  Mau Tan Offensive, the massive attack against more than 100 cities and other targets in the South.  
An even managed to become bureau chief for Time Magazine and cleverly manipulated the foreign press corps in Saigon during daily informal chats at his favorite café. Only several years after the war, it was disclosed that Pham Xuan An was also a colonel in Hanoi’s military intelligence apparatus.
It also surprising that Burns/Novick refrain from bringing post-war revelations into focus. On example: They are spending quite a bit of airtime on the1968 My Lai massacre without bringing this horrendous act into perspective.  Once again, we get the hero-and-villain story about Lieutenant William Calley, who ordered the killings, and the courageous helicopter pilot, who managed to stop the massacre after 504 old men, women and children had been killed.
Why not tell the bigger story about, what really went on in Quan Ngai province, when Tiger Force was let loose in a year-long killing spree in ‘enemy villages’, and how Pentagon bureaucrats, led by Donald Rumsfeld, subsequently sabotaged the Army’s own investigations and covered up the atrocities. The incredibly story is well documented in yet another fine piece of Pulitzer-winning journalism, and subsequently this book:


Predictably, Burns/Novick have received quite a bit of flack for being biased, primarily from the ‘we-fought-an-honourable-war’-opinionists in the US. For obvious reasons, the Nixon Foundation is highly critical in published comments to the episodes, dealing with the Nixon/Kissinger years. But by and large, to this blogger the Burns/Novick documentary seems to be a rather fair assessment of the consequences of Nixon’s ‘peace with honour’ strategy, and the enormous loss of lives, which followed.
An obvious weakness of the entire Burns/Novick documentary (as opposed to the PBS-predecessor) is that they are without firsthand knowledge of the war in Vietnam and therefore at complete mercy of their sources.  
The substance of several episodes seem to be largely based on interviews with wartime journalist Neil Sheehan and his Pulitzer-winning book ‘A Bright Shining Lie’.  There a very few retrospective interviews with key decision makers, partly for the simple reason that most of them are dead now.  
These weak points make the original PBS-series appear all the more stronger, even so many years after it was made. The producers of ‘Vietnam – a Television History’ contracted one of the war’s most eminent journalists, Stanley Karnow (Time Magazine) as chief correspondent for the series.
Amazing network
Karnow’s  amazing network of sources on all sides is the backbone of every episode. During the war he had regular access to the highest levels of US political and military decision-making, ranging from ‘kitchen-chats’ with President Kennedy to the inner circles of the Pentagon and the intelligence agencies.
This also made Karnow a target of criticism for being biased in favor the US in his coverage during and after the war. For the very same reason left leaning professor Noam Chomsky and others fired away on the original PBS documentary.
The US-bias attacks on Karnow did not stop the Hanoi leadership from allowing him back in 1981. He became one of the first American journalists to make a first hand report from post-war Vietnam. PBS and the viewers would benefit enormously from the sources, which Karnow had developed among the senior decision makers in Hanoi.
The Vietnamese authorities gave Karnow full access to almost everyone on his bucket list, except the enigmatic wartime chief negotiator Le Duc Tho and Hanoi’s master spy Pham Xuan An.  (Coincidentally, fellow reporter Jørn Ruby and I received the same khong duoc – “no-no” on the same requests,  when walking a few years later in Karnow’s footsteps through the Hanoi maze of government offices).
Nevertheless, virtually all the sources you are missing in the Burns/Novick documentary, you will find in abundance in the original PBS-series.  
Compelling interviews with all sides
The 35 year old documentary is by no means outdated. The analysis stands clear and solid, along with in-depth interviews with some of Hanoi’s famous warlords,  General Vo Nguyen Giap, Prime Minister Pham Van Dong and Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach.
Representing the US side, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, General William C. Westmoreland, and CIA chief Willam Colby are among those sharing their reflections on the war that led to so much death and suffering in Vietnam and in the US. 
My recommendation to fellow Vietnam nerds, on which documentary to hole up with: Take both of them with you. If this is not enough, both documentaries come with just as compelling book companions, which are equally different in approach.
The Burns/Novick book is glossy and coffee table-size with lots of dramatic color shots.  The text is a quality compilation of works by real Vietnam expert writers.  
Stanley Karnow’s classic is an eminent brick of a book. 800 pages are waiting for you, and once you are done with it, you will be looking for a volume II. 


Vietnam’s Tuoi Tre newspaper have looked into, how the government is stepping up its measures against the perceived dangers of social media, including a 10.000 strong ‘cyber force’ unit, controlled by the army:

“On top of efforts to regulate content on social media, a Vietnamese general has revealed that the country had employed a cyber task force to fight the dissemination of false and derogatory information on the Internet.

Force 47 consists of more than 10,000 “core fighters” against hostile forces in cyberspace, according to Colonel General Nguyen Trong Nghia, deputy chairman of the General Political Department of the People’s Army of Vietnam.

“As forces and countries suggest using cyberspace to fuel real war, [Vietnam] should also stay vigilant against wrongful views in every second, minute, and hour,” the three-star general said at a meeting on December 25.

With hostile forces having employed the Internet as a new medium for their effort to sabotage Vietnam, the country’s army has acknowledged that it should ready its forces for warfare in cyberspace alongside the conventional military, Nghia added.”

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