A diarist of the tragedy of war

February 14, 2008

Last Night I Dreamed of Peace: An Extraordinary Diary of Courage from the Vietnam War

By Dand Thuy Tram

Rider, 2007

225 pages, $32.95 (pb)

"Following the call of country and love" in 1967, Dr. Dang Thuy Tram volunteered to follow the man she had loved since a teenager from Hanoi to the south of Vietnam to fight the US invaders.

The young doctor, fresh out of medical school and incurably in love, kept a diary of her years facing both the hardships of war and the perils of the heart. Last Night I Dreamed of Peace is based on that diary.

Assigned to the district of Duc Pho in Quang Ngai Province, Thuy was chief physician at a thatched-roof field hospital hidden in the mountains of central Vietnam. Quang Ngai had been a guerrilla stronghold for decades since the 1930s, fighting first the French, then the US and its puppet South Vietnamese regime. Duc Pho was a "free-fire zone" where the US military decreed any Vietnamese to be an enemy target. Hospital clinics like Thuy's had no protective immunity from bomb or bullet.

Thuy was responsible for clinic management, surgery, training the young medical workers and the relocation and building of the often-bombed clinic. She treated mainly the guerrillas of the National Liberation Front (the southern Vietnamese resistance) and troops of the North Vietnamese Army.

Long days and nights were spent battling fatigue, the lack of electricity and sometimes even anaesthetic, to treat the stream of casualties from the ferocious attacks of the US military, like the young soldier "roasted" by a phosphorous bomb, his body still smoking an hour after he was hit.

Thuy was debilitated by Agent Orange, hid in underground shelters, spent a night up to her chest in water and was almost killed many times.

Thuy was plagued by other trials. A socialist, she was desperately unhappy at the opposition by a handful of local, "hard and ungenerous" leaders of the Communist Party of Vietnam — which led the nationalist resistance — to her joining the party.

Their narrow, doctrinaire rejection of Thuy for her "bourgeois" background (her father was a surgeon, her mother a pharmacologist) was, however, eventually overcome by her humility, skill, compassion, dedication and sheer lovability. Everyone had always been a little in love with Thuy, from the schoolboys of her youth to the patients and soldiers of the war.

In the midst of war, with "death coming as easy as eating a meal", with many who have "fallen without knowing a single day of happiness", Thuy wonders whether all her sentimental longings are just so much negative petit-bourgeois introspection, unworthy of a communist.

No, it isn't unworthy, she decides, comforting herself with a quote from Lenin — "a revolutionary has the most sentimental heart" — for, as a socialist, she was both a disciplined cadre and intensely human. "I am proud to offer my entire life to the country. There is no regret", she writes with stern sincerity, but the regrets of her heart were another matter.

On June 20, 1970, after sending her medical workers and most patients to safety after the latest attack, Thuy stays behind alone with the seriously wounded, recording in her diary the plaintive longing that will not go away — "I am no longer a child. I have grown up. I have passed trials of peril, but somehow, at this moment, I yearn deeply for Mom's caring hand. Even the hand of a dear one ...". It was to be her last diary entry.

Two days later, with Thuy and her patients rescued and the clinic resupplied, Dr. Tram was shot through the head by a US patrol.

Discovered amongst her belongings was the surviving part of her diary. It may have been lost for all eternity but for a US military intelligence soldier, Fred Whitehurst, who rescued it from a bonfire of captured documents of no military value.

He was caught by its spell — "human to human, I fell in love with her" — and, against regulations, he took Thuy's diary home. Whitehurst, who became an FBI forensic scientist and whistleblower, exposing corruption and incompetence in the FBI, returned the diary in 2005 to Thuy's family through his brother Rob, also a Vietnam veteran and also smitten with the diary. Rob and Fred were adopted as "bothers" into the Tram family.

Thuy's diaries have been a success in Vietnam, especially among young people who make up two-thirds of the population. Here was the human face of war, seen through, as Frances Fitzgerald records in her excellent introduction, "a brave, idealistic young woman, prone to self-doubt and vulnerabilities, a romantic in spite of her discipline".

If read with sensitive allowance for its "flowery" style, and for the grim environment so hostile to its writing, the diary conveys the horrors of war, the heroism and pathos of the Vietnamese resistance, the struggle of a compassionate doctor to free her country and to find love, the dreams of a young woman for peace — "the dream of mine and of thirty million Vietnamese".

Like that other remarkable young woman war diarist, Anne Frank, the reader's knowledge of the diarist's looming fate adds a tragic personal layer to the terrible waste of war.

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