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One of the genocidal rulers of the 20th century

David P. Chandler, who was the research director at the Centre of Southeast Asia Studies at Monash University in Australia (now emeritus there, he is also an adjunct professor at Gergetown University), is a historian of post-World War II Cambodian history rather than a biographer. The notes of Brother Number One show not only his familiarity of seemingly everything written in English about Cambodia during the second half of the twentieth century but with the archives of the torture state of the Khmer Rouge (Cambodian communists/Angkar) and a large number of interviews with those who survived knowing Saloth Sar, who took the revolutionary name “Pol Pot.”


Chandler’s goal in Brother Number One (revised edition, 1999, first edition 1992) looking into the life of Saloth Sar (1925-1998), aka Pol Pot, is to try to understand how a not-especially-bright Khmer urbanite (who had lived in Phnom Penh and Paris) became the paramount leader of a regime that literally emptied the cities of Cambodia, pretty much destroyed its economy, mythologized peasant virtue, and killed off one out of every seven Cambodians in four years in power (and drove another one of seven into refugee camps and beyond). Chandler did not reach his goal, which seems to be an impossible one. Pol Pot covered his tracks too well, left practically no writings other than a memoir in which most everything is demonstrably false, and the disjuncture between the bland and pleasant man those who knew him recall and the delusional government he headed does not seem bridgeable.

It is not just that Chandler is interested in the policies of the Khmer Rouge more than in the private life of Saloth Sar/Pol Pot but that no one knows very much about the man’s life other than as a revolutionary. Hence the modifier “political” before “biography in the subtitle.

Chandler provides plausible views of Khmer Rouge roots in Khmer pride and Buddhist exhortation (like most males in the Thervada Buddhist countries of Southeast Asia before or other than communist-ruled ones, Sar was a monk for a time) and in the Stalinist/Maoist tradition that the Khmer Rouge carried to a level of destructiveness of life and traditional lifestyles beyond even the forced collectivization and incessant search for enemies within the reigns of terror of Stalin and Mao. I want to provide my own view of this context that is only partly based on what Chandler wrote but is consistent with what he wrote. Anyone interested solely in a review of the biography as biography might skip the following section—though, as I have already said, so little is known about the interiority and very guarded private life of Saloth Sar that there is not much conventional biography that can be done.

The path from Marx to the disasters for their peoples of 20th-century communist states

The most fundamental part of the eschatology of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in The Communist Manifesto and elsewhere is that human misery in its modern form stems from private ownership of the means of production. Engels in particular saw history as proceeding from barbarism to feudalism to capitalism to communism and expected the workers (the proletariat) in industrialized capitalist societies to unite across ethnic, religious, and racial lines to seize control of the means of production and to develop the utopia of “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” (“his” in the generic sense).

What happened instead was that in no industrialized state did the workers seize the means of production. There was also a total failure of working-class solidarity across national lines demonstrated during the First World War… and nationalism has been very, very prominent in all the states in which communist revolutions succeeded in seizing state power (Russia, China, Cuba, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia). Neither nationalisms nor the state have withered away in those countries or in the imperial conquests by postrevolutionary communist regimes. (Lenin’s linkage of imperialism to capitalism was also falsified by 20th-century history.)

Like Russia and China at the times of their communist coups, Cambodia had very little industry—and, therefore, few industrial capitalists—and in classical Marxist “science” were not ready for communism, having not reached the stage of capitalism. This is why there is some sense in the claim that, like Christianity, Marxism is an idea that has never been tried. (Unlike Christianity, the Marxist utopia was supposed to be of this world.) But history has provided abundant disconfirmations of the view that eliminating private ownership of the means of production leads to equality (or the withering away of the state). Communist regimes have somewhat masked inequality by calling everyone “comrade” or “brother,” but to borrow from George Orwell, some have been more equal than others, and/or there have been elder brothers telling younger ones what to do. State-run economies have been colossally inefficient and all communist societies developed managerial elites and political elites: a dichotomy between party members nonmembers (with party members having privileges nonmembers lacked) and hierarchies within the parties. (Managerial elites getting rich as well as powerful without owning the means of production have also typified capitalist societies, but this is nearly as contrary to Marxist “science” as the stratification within communist societies.)

Back to Pol Pot

Saloth Sar joined the communist party in France ca. 1951, before the death (in 1953) of Josef Stalin, who dictated policies to the International. (The French communist party was the most rigidly Stalinist European communist party.) Saloth Sar found reading Marx too difficult. The less subtle (less dialectical) writings of Stalin were easier to grasp, and along with 19th-century French poets, it was Stalin whom he read. (Back in Cambodia having not completed any degree, he taught French literature. His former students reported that Saloth Sar could recite many French poems from memory, but, in power, Pol Pot took particular aim at those who were biliterate.)

What the man who would later call himself “Pol Pot” emulated) many of Stalin’s traits—the relative austerity in which he lived, the continual search for traitors to blame for failures (“sabotage”) and root out, promulgation of grand plans (Stalin’s 5-year ones), an imperviousness to the cost in human life of his endeavors, and the isolation from reality that is common to rulers who are able to eliminate anyone who says anything they don’t want to hear. Chandler points out that Saloth Sar/Pol Pot was very isolated from news about what was going on in the world after fleeing to the protection of the North Vietnamese army and some Hill Tribesmen in northeastern Cambodia during the 1960s. In power in the mostly empty Phnom Penh, Pol Pot pored over confessions extracted under torture at Tuol Sleng, but had neither any training or any inclination to evaluate economic data.

Like another major influence, Mao Zedong, when Pol Pot did venture out, what he saw were charades that supported his fantasies about increasing productivity. Pol Pot directly imported the delusion that collectivized rice cultivation could triple rice production. As in Mao’s “Great Leap Forward,” many starved while no one dared to tell the ideologue-in-chief that his belief in agricultural magic was not just wrong, but catastrophically wrong.

Even more than Stalin, Mao was indifferent to deaths related to advancing his agenda of collectivizing agriculture. (Mao also expressed an unconcern about tens of millions of Chinese being killed by nuclear bombs.) Pol Pot/the Khmer Rouge were unconcerned about those driven from the cities dying, valuing peasant virtues and believing city-dwellers were corrupt.

The Khmer Rouge years have been called “autogenocide.” As far as the revolution eating the revolutionaries (in the tradition of the French and Bolshevik and Maoist revolutions) this is certainly accurate, and many Cambodians were killed or starved to death during the Khmer Rouge years. The “base people” (those who did not live in cities when the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975) received more food than the “new people”—that is, those driven from the cities, new to the countryside. A majority of suspect city people were of Chinese or Vietnamese descent. As in other Southeast Asia economies, much of the business (and such industry as there was) had been in the hands of Chinese. Thus, the “social cleansing” of emptying the city and discriminating for the rural natives (in this case, Khmers) cannot really be separated from “ethnic cleansing.” To a considerable extent, the Khmer Rouge was a nativist regime, glorifying the people (Khmers) who had built the monuments of Angkor civilization a millennium earlier.

Chandler makes very, very clear that the North Vietnamese defeated the US-backed Lon Nol regime, which deposed Prince Sihanouk in 1970, and that Pol Pot resented his years of dependency on the Vietnamese a great deal. Many of the Cambodian communists (including himself) had spent time in North Vietnam and been protected by the North Vietnamese army in eastern Cambodia.

The communists purported to be fighting to restore Sihanouk (who was revered by many Cambodians) and reinstalled him—under de facto house arrest—in his palace. The Chinese communists (Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” was still raging) were the patrons of the Pol Pot regime, supplying arms. The PRC support for the Khmer Rouge is one of Mao’s many crimes against humanity. As animosity between the PRC and USSR communist states increased, and Nixon and Kissinger curried favor with the PRC to discomfit the USSR, the PRC/USSR hostility was acted out in Southeast Asia with the Khmer Rouge backed by China (and implicitly by the US), Vietnam by the Russians.

In December of 1978 the Vietnamese (again) swept across Cambodia. This time the Thais (also complicit with the PRC and an enemy of the Vietnamese) provided protection for the Khmer Rouge, and still under the command of Pol Pot, Khmer Rouge sallied across the border to raid western Cambodia. Having spent the 1960s on both sides of the eastern border of Cambodia, Pol Pot spent the 1980s and 90s on both sides of the western border, continuing civil war against a regime in Phnom Penh put in power and supported by aliens (this time the Vietnamese rather than the Americans).

Pol Pot continued to fixate on traitors and was finally deposed as head of the Khmer Rouge in November of 1997 having ordered the execution of his longtime close associate Son Sen (ten additional members of Son’s family were also murdered). Less than a year later he died (ostensibly of heart failure) unrepentant about his policies (or modus operandi of creating and eliminating traitors). He claimed “I did everything for my country,” begging the question of what his country was, but certainly showing yet again that nationalism eclipsed universalism for communist leaders (and making me wonder again if Emerson was right about patriotism being the last resort of scoundrels”—it so often seems to be the first one!)


Pol Pot remains opaque. His ability to maintain delusions about the soundness of his economic and social policies is striking. Chandler illuminates some influences, in particular China’s Cultural Revolution (though Mao only sent Red Guards who had gotten out of his control to the countryside and did not go so far as emptying China’s cities) and the ambivalence toward the patronage (and patronizing) by the Vietnamese. Chandler has sorted out where Saloth Sar/Pol Pot was most of the time, but not what he was thinking.

The book is excellent history, providing much to think about, necessarily thin as biography. Chandler seems to use all available information and seems to cut through the disinformation Pol Pot provided on the rare occasions he made autobiographical statements.

Having started reading the book in Cambodia and after reading Loung Ung’s memoir from just barely above the ground of being forced out of Phnom Penh and enduring the depredations of the Pol Pot years, I was particularly interested in sorting out blame. There is a lot to go around and multiple candidates. Certainly, the ones most responsible are the Khmer Rouge. It is clear from Chandler’s account that they would never have come to power without the North Vietnamese, and the foreign policies of Sihanouk, Nixon, and Mao. And I wouldn’t want to leave out such apologists as Noam Chomsky, either. (As far as I know, Chomsky has not recanted what he wrote about the Khmer Rouge—patriotism is not the only refuge of scoundrels…) The Vietnamese to some extent remedied their earlier errors by removing the Khmer Rouge from power, while the US, Thailand, and the PRC in various ways are responsible for the continued depredations by the Khmer Rouge after 1978.


©2007, 2017, Stephen O. Murray

Women continuing to have to eat bitterness in postwar Vietnam


A best-seller in the month or so in Vietname before it was banned in 1988, as the preceding two novels by Duong Thu Huong (1947-) had been, Nhng thiên đường mù then became the first Vietnamese novel published in English in the US, as Paradise of the Blind. Though a volunteer who served in the front lines in “the War Against the Americans” for seven year and a volunteer again in defending Vietnam from Chinese invasion in 1979, she was expelled from the Vietnam Communist Party in 1989, imprisoned without trial for seven months in 1991 (and again when Tiu thuyết vô đề was published abroad as Novel without a Name in 1995).


I read Novel without a Name first: it is a gripping autobiographical novel of her war experience. Much of Paradise of the Blind is set in the Soviet Union, the patron of the victorious communist regime in Vietnam. The backstory which looms very large is set in Duong’s native northern Vietnam province, Thai Binh, during the Viet Minh times, when brutal land reform modeled on Mao’s was instituted while the Viet Minh was fighting the re-establishment of French colonialism.

The parents of the novel’s protagonist Hang had a brief time of happiness until Hang’s maternal uncle Chinh returned in 1956. A communist zealot, he forbade his sister (Que) to associate with her husband (Ton) because of his class background (which was peasant with a small landholding, not rentier). A few years later the Special Section for the Rectification of Errors comes to the village and though she was a victim torn from her husband, because she is Chinh’s brother, Que was targeted for revenge.

Que became a street vendor and when her brother pops in again, now a mid-level official, he denounces her as a petty capitalist. It turns out that he is there to take his share of the sale of their parents’ house.

At the time (early 1980s) of the novel, Hang travels across the Soviet Union to Moscow, where her uncle is ill. The ideologue is involved in the black market and needs the help of his niece who is fluent in Russian.

Between the portrayal of corruption in the Homeland of Socialism (the USSR) and in victorious communist Vietnam, it is not surprising that the book was (and remains) banned in Vietnam. The fear and despair of Novel without a Name demystified the triumph of wars against France and the US and is, I think, of more interest to Americans as a view from the other side, where danger was also constant (but without being able to call in any air support) than wheres bitter tale of corruption in two communist states take place.

Duong_Thu_Huong-Ertezoute 2014.jpg

the author is 2014, Creative Commons photo by Ertezou

The stories of those on the winning North Vietnamese side who lived in poverty are even less upbeat than those of the losing (South) Vietnamese side who managed to get out to refugee status (or lengthy “re-education”). Sacrifices and hopes for a free Vietnam, capitalist or communist, were for naught and reading about the sorrows of war and peace is depressing. The mix of true-believer in communism uncle and pragmatic aunt recurs in Uyen Nicole Duong’s family saga (Daughters of the River Huong and Mimi And Her Mirror) and the (amoral?) familialism is also very evident in writings by the children of South Vietnamese émigrés, Andrew Lam, Andrew Pham, and GB Tran. Unlike Duong herself, her protagonist Hang eventually rejects her past (in the accommodations of her mother, uncle, or aunt), which is not to say she is relieved of the burdens of the past, including her laboring in the Soviet Union (I have not mentioned her romance with a sort of Bohemian there…)


As a record of the tumultuous and indirect road to modernity (and the ubiquity of corruption regardless of ruling ideology) the book is valuable, but it is easier to admire than to like. It adds a feminist twist to the genre of “the god that failed” narratives from just before the Soviet Union devolved into a post-ideological thugocracy, a trajectory Vietnam has been following.


©2011, 2017, Stephen O. Murray


A Vietnamese perspective on the war with American invaders

“The future lied to us” is a major point of Bao Ninh’s 1991 autobiographical novel The Sorrow of War, in which the present is the late-1970s with a survivor helping find MIA remains in the Jungle of Screaming Souls. Set in early 1975, Novel Without a Name (Tiu thuyt vô dê), a novel written about the same time by Duong Thu Thuong (author of what is suppposed to be the first novel to be translated into English, Paradise of the Blind, which is set in 1980s), but not published until 1995 has the same theme. Written by another North Vietnamese veteran with extended combat experience (seven years based in the tunnels of South Vietnam), Novel Without a Name is more explicitly critical of the regime for which the author and the narrator of the book fought.


Repelling foreign invaders more than any ideology inspired Quan and his buddies to volunteer ten years earlier (that is, in 1965, when American marines and soldiers began to be deployed) “As long as a foreign invader remains on our soil, we’ll fight,” the young Quan told a commissar. “That’s the way it was for the Ran Dynasty against the Mongols and the Le Dynasty against the Ming Chinese invaders.” The 18-year-old soldier believed that “this war was not simply another war against foreign aggression. It was also our chance for a resurrection. Vietnam had been chosen by History: After the war, our country would become humanity’s paradise. Our people would hold a rank apart. At last we would be respected, honored, revered. We believed this, so we turned away from those tears of weakness” (that is, tears of family members, though Quan’s mother was ten years dead and his father remote and a cipher to Quan). The commissar to whom Quan recalled long-ago Vietnamese struggles, told Quan that patriotism was good, but that there was more: “We’re doing something greater. Our victory won’t be just that of a tiny country against the imperialists. It will also be Marxism’s victory. Only Marxism can help us to build communism—a paradise for mankind.”

There is very little concern with ideology or the regime in The Sorrow of War. Its protagonist, Kien, is overwhelmed by the carnage. I don’t think that his rank is ever specified, but I infer he was a lieutenant (the counterpart of Philip Caputo in A Rumor of War, who was also deployed in 1965). Quan is a captain with even more responsibility to try to keep the doi bo (soldiers of the people) alive and able to go into battle.

It is clear that if Kien took political indoctrination more seriously, he would rise in rank, as his boyhood friend Luong has. It is just as clear that Kien does not believe a socialist paradise is going to result. There are three major scenes in which others point out the inequality between the emaciated masses and the well-fed party cadres: the first, the father of the third member of the youthful three buddies, then some party officials (so brazen as to be hard for me to believe) who have a seat on a packed train car cleared for them, and just before the end, Kha, a soldier under Quan’s command. Those ruling in the name of the people are not “of the people,” but are the “new class” that characterized communist regimes everywhere (the label and first sustained analysis of class not based on ownership of the means of production was Serbian Milovan Djilas’s 1955 book The New Class).

Quan has little use for the political lectures, but still has some idealism and the ability to speak of saving captured goods for “the people.”

“Kha just laughed. ‘Ah, but do “the people” really exist?…. The people,’ that’s my mother and father, your parents, the soldiers. none of them will ever get a crumb.'”


Like The Sorrow of War, Novel Without a Name includes a prewar romance that is a casualty of the war, childhood sweethearts torn apart by the man’s enlistment and awful experiences of the woman left behind. (The broken romances figuring prominently in these two Vietnamese novels is a difference from the American novels and memoirs of fighting in Vietnam. The Americans on 13-month deployments were much farther from home than the North Vietnamese with ten-year deployments, but, I think more importantly, the Americans’sweethearts at home did not undergo bombing and the destruction of infrastructure or have similar problems in avoiding starvation.)


“They would never leave us, those faces, ashen, drained of blood, twisted in pain, accusatory, demanding justice—”

The war in The Sorrow of War is as hallucinatory as in the books by Larry Heinemann, Michael Herr, Tim O’Brien, Nicholas Proffitt, et al. The war is not quite as hallucinatory for Kien in Novel Without a Name—at least when he is not suffering a malaria attack or lost in the forest. It is still plenty surrealistic… and haunted. Belief in ghosts has more social support and general credence in Southeast Asian (and East Asian) cultures than in American culture, though it seems to me that the ghosts Paco talks to in Heinemann’s Paco’s Story are every bit as palpable as the ancestor who comes to chastise Kien (in a dream while he is feverish from malaria) for cursing his ancestors. I do not see ghost-haunting as differentiating the Vietnamese war novels from the American ones.

Not only does Novel Without a Name turn the conventional Bildungsroman into a tale of disillusionment, like such American works as Rob Riggan’s Free Fire Zone and Stephen Wright’s Meditations in Green, but it also uses a disjointed time sequence, reminiscent of works like Nicholas Proffitt’s Gardens of Stone, to try to convey the war’s disorienting, surreal effect.

Flashbacks (involuntary memories) are rife in American literature about the war in Vietnam and in the two novels about prolonged engagement in the “American war” by Vietnamese veterans I have now read. The flashbacks are set off in italics in Novel Without a Name, making it easier on readers than those in The Sorrow of War.

The horrors and sorrows of the war for the victors, even apart from the failure of the socialist utopia that was to follow, are considerable, as both these books make very, very clear. What is euphemized as “friendly fire” recurs in Novel Without a Name. Twice, Quan’s soldiers fire on their own reinforcements. Plus the book opens with mistaking one of the company’s members and shooting him, and, near the end, one infuriates another into a lethal attack. Also twice, the soldiers want to kill prisoners (the Vietnamese ones are killed, Quan is able to protect an American who is probably a journalist and probably unaware how close he came to being executed).

Conclusion: My expectations of Novel Without a Name were higher than those I had for The Sorrow of War, in part from reading somewhere that it was better. It is easier to follow, less hallucinatory than The Sorrow of War (or Paco’s Story) and might provide a better point of entry for readers put off by not knowing where in narrative chronology they are at every point. Although there are some haunting secondary characters in Novel Without a Name, there are some who seem contrived to me (particularly the party officials on the train). Both translations have occasionally leaden metaphors (which might work in Vietnamese, but even if so, should not have been Englished).

Along with portraying the horrors of prolonged immersion in the jungle filled with menace 24/7 (and not just enemy patrols and bombs…), Novel Without a Name provides a portrayal of those running the war from a distance and war profiteers (insofar as these aren’t the same people…) that is as sharp as a bamboo stake, and was unpalatable to the regime of the victors a decade and a half later.

The author

Not only has the book been blocked from publication, Thuong Thu Duong (born in 1947 in rural Thai Binh province in the plains, the capital of which is 109 kilometers southeast of Hanoi) was imprisoned (without trial) for 7-8 months in 1991 for “revealing state secrets” in the manuscript for this novel that has only been published outside Vietnam.

I have held off mentioning that Thuong Thu Duong is a woman. There are women soldiers in The Sorrow of War, but none in Novel Without a Name, which seems to me written from a male perspective that I find plausible. I think that many would be interested in reading what it was like for a young Vietnamese soldier during the 1960s.

Duong was 21 when she led a Communist Youth Brigade to the tunnels and was one of only three survivors of the forty after seven years of combat. She was also a front-line soldier in the 1979 China-Vietnam war. Her first four novels, Journey in Childhood, Beyond Illusion, Paradise of the Blind, and The Lost Life were published in Vietnam between 1985 and 1989 and were best-sellers. In 1989 she was expelled from the communist party and her passport was revoked. Since then, none of her books has been published in Vietnam, she was fired from her screenwriting job, and she was imprisoned without trial for seven months, Eventually, she was allowed to leave and moved to Paris in 2006.

Duong_Thu_Huong-Ertezoute 2014.jpg

(Duong in 1914, Creative Commons photo by Ertezou)

I was struck by the contrast of Quan, the North Vietnamese captain who was with the soldiers he commanded with the American captain sleeping in comfort and safety far behind the lines each night in Caputo’s memoir. Quan does his best to protect his men from nonsense (political and other kinds) dreamed up higher in the chain of command, whereas Caputo’s captain has the detachment from reality of the managerial military modeling of Robert MacNamara (or Donald Rumsfeld).


©2007, 2017, Stephen O. Murray

Less embittered than would be justified, but difficult to engage with


I’ve been engaged in an intermittent program of “reading Vietnam,” that is reading about what the Vietnamese call “the American war.” The first book I read from/about the Vietnamese side is Bao Ninh‘s The Sorrow of War. It is similar to Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War in chronicling a patriotic young suburban volunteer at the start of the American war in Vietnam, who loses much in the jungle(-fighting). (The Vietnamese had been fighting the French and Japanese and French before that but author Bao Ninh and his novel’s protagonist, Kien, who shares the same decade-long military service had not been involved in those earlier wars against aliens.) Although, like Caputo, Kien was quickly disillusioned (even before the fighting even began in both instances). Caputo went over the edge in less than a year, whereas Kien survived on the edge for ten. The ratio of the number of comrades killed is also in the ten-to-one range: Bao was one of ten survivors of the 500-member Glorious 27th Youth Brigade.


Caputo (and Michael Herr, whose book Dispatches was published in 1977, the same year as A Rumor of War, and Larry Heinemann, whose novel Close Quarters was published in 1975, and Tim O’Brien’s novels) and the most-acclaimed American movies with Vietnam war settings (“Apocalypse Now,” the second half of “Full-Metal Jacket,” the first part of “Who’ll Stop the Rain?”, “Casualties of War,” “Platoon,” “The Deer-Hunter,” “and the undeservedly obscure but great “Go Tell the Spartans”) portray atmospheres of continuous danger from any direction that led to feverish hallucinations (aided in the case of many American front-line military personnel by mind-altering drugs) and the indifference of commanders to realities, particularly of sending men to their deaths without any clear military objective (the biggest example of this is defending the Khe Sanh base that is central in Dispatches and scaled down as a model for “Go Tell the Spartans”).

What is most interesting to American readers of The Sorrow of War is that the same hallucination-generating continuous danger and perceived callousness about commanders was experienced by the “winning side.” The taste of “victory” for the few survivors of the Glorious 27th Youth Brigade was ashes. Survivor guilt was at least as intense, especially for those who spent years in combat. Memories of mangled comrades and near-death experiences flood back as uncontrollably for Kien as for Paco in Heinemann’s Paco’s Story (which is mostly addressed to Paco’s ghosts).

Caputo went back (as a journalist) and witnessed the US evacuation of Saigon (leaving most of its employees behind). Bao returns to the area in which he fought to recover remains immediately after the North Vietnamese final victory (domination of the south). Kien knows where to find many bodies. Exhuming and distributing remains is not cathartic in the least for him. Only writing about his experiences purges them and stills the ghosts who/that haunt him. And the writing is the book, starting in the present with the “MIA-Remains-Gathering Team” and recalling combat experiences in the same area, the Jungle of Screaming Souls.. Between the fractured temporal sequence and writing about writing the book (in fact the structure is even one more level more constructed!), Bao’s book is as postmodernist of any of the books by the former enemy American soldier/writers. At the same time it is an old-fashioned work of “witnessing”: “There is no escape, no savior to help him. He alone must meet this writing challenge, his last duty as a soldier.”


Two of the most important narratives that seem complete (and unpleasant enough) early in the book are continued (with more horrific aftermaths to report) later in the book. This may be considered authorial daring, but also might be judged as withholding crucial information in understanding Kien’s war experiences (while reading; at the end, the reader can easily understand the sequence that was not provided in chronological order within the book). I think that this stop-and-go structure is what has made some readers view the book as “incoherent.” The flood of bad memories and what is labeled “post-traumatic stress” here is not an order narrative of A then B then C, so that I think the invasion of involuntary memories is psychological realistic. (I have had a PTS diagnosis myself, though not for Vietnam, a place I have never been.) It is also no more orderly than the battles and hit-and-run “engagements” of the war Bao recalled and wrote about were.

The Sorrow of War was published in Vietnamese in 1991 and initially banned. I’m not sure what it means for a book to become a “best-seller” there and then, but the ban was lifted, and the book was rendered (into sometimes unimaginative and close-to-redundant English) in 1993. In 1994 it won the Independent Foreign Fiction Award.

There is a love story, indeed the original title Than phan tinh yeu means “Destiny of Love.” Anyone who has read this far in the review will rightly suspect that there is considerable trauma, sense of loss, and bitterness in it. Do I need to add that it does not glorify General Giap or Ho Chi Minh? (Neither is mentioned.) And that it does not demonize the Americans, frightening as their size and superiority in armament and air support was? There is one veteran who becomes a successful businessman after the war, but Kien and everyone he knew in or before the conflict is worse off after the Pyhrric “victory” than they were before (most of them dead):

“My life seems little different from that of a sampan pushed upstream towards the past. The future lied to us, there long ago in the past. There is no new life, no new era, nor it is hope for a beautiful future that now drives me on, but rather the opposite. The hope is contained in the beautiful prewar past.”

Even if, as Proust wrote, the only true paradises are lost ones available only in memory, it’s easy to see that the book displeased the Vietnamese cultural autocrats! This is not the way that heroic communist martyrs are supposed to be portrayed (to inspire future ones) If there was any mistaking the retrospective valuation Vietnamese soldiers made, Kien/Bao continued:

“From my life before soldiering there remains sadly little. That wonderful period has been heartlessly extinguished…. The aura of hope in those early postwar days swiftly faded. Those who survived continue to live. But that will has gone, that burning will which was once Vietnam’s salvation. Where is the reward of enlightenment due to us, for attaining our sacred war goals? Our history-making efforts for the great generations have been to no avail. What’s so different here and now from the vulgar and cruel life we all experienced during the war?”

Reaching for an analogous representation, Kien is even more affectless and fatalistic than Paco of Paco’s Story with its heavy dose of pain at the ingratitude physically and psychologically damaged American Vietnam-war veterans experience/d. Kien also similarly notes that , “there had been no trumpets for the victorious soldiers, no drums, no music. That might have been tolerated, but not the disrespect from them. The general population just didn’t care about them. Nor did their own authorities.”

The closest analog that comes to my mind is the Japanese soldier in desperate straits in Burma when Japan surrendered in 1945 in Ichikawa Kon’s “Burmese Harp” and “Fires on the Plain” (,which contributes it being fairly far forward in my mental storage case).

I’m not sure that The Sorrow of War is a great novel (many novels classed “great” are difficult to read, so that is no obstacle—reading The Sorrow of War is considerably easier than reading some of the great Faulkner novels, for instance). I can’t compare it to other Vietnamese novels [one book leads to others and this one led me to Duong Thu Huong ‘s Novel Without a Name and Paradise of the Blind], but it can hold its own among the American Vietnam War classics (mentioned earlier) and has great value as an account from the “winning” side (winning with more than two million casualties, a poisoned physical environment, and bombed-out infrastructure). Although unmistakably rooted in some nonwestern cultural beliefs, the vision of insurgency/counterinsurgency struggle for those on the ground fighting it is very similar to the literature written by the other side (the US combatants’).

I have quoted explicit value judgments that show Bao’s position, but may provide a false sense that the book is analytic. Mostly, he shows rather than tells, and what he shows is very… telling! And what he was telling about was a very chaotic and terrifying time away from home, though “home” was suburban Hanoi rather than suburban Chicago.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray


What I Listen to Most Often (on my laptop)

Between writing about heavy movies, my laptop’s measurement of my most played (favorite?) tracks. They aren’t very light-hearted either. My desktop has 7 days and 7+ hours of music. Transporting stuff onto my laptop is tedious.


Save Your Love for Me -Space

I Want to Know What Love Is – Foreigner

God Only Knows – The Beach Boys

King of Rome – Pet Shop Boys

Sara –Fleetwood Mac

Always and Forever – Brenda and the Tabulations

Rivers of Babylon – Melodians

Just Losing You – Smokey Robinson and the Miracles

Sweet Harmony – Smokey Robinson

If You Don’t Know Me By Now – Teddy Pendergast

If You Lose Me — Temptations

Many Rivers to Cross – Jimmy Cliff


Arias and Choruses

(A list of my favorites would include the last three of Richard Strauss’s Last Songs as sung by Jessye Norman. Oddly, they aren’t on my laptop.)

A Te O Cara from I Puritani by Bellini – Juan Diego Florez & Ermonela Jaho

Nature Immense from The Damnation of Faust by Berlioz – Jonas Kaufman

Nessun Dorma from Turandot by Puccini – – Jonas Kaufman

Ch’Ella Mi Creda Libero from La Fanciulla Del West by Puccini – – Jonas Kaufman

La calunnia è un venticello from Rossini’s Barber of Seville – Paolo Montarsolo

Zadok the Priest, Handel’s first Coronation Anthem

Why Do the Nations So Furiously Rage Together form Handel’s Messiah — Bryn Terfel

Ebben? Ne andrò lantana from Catalani’s La Wally – Renata Scotto

Eternal Source of Light Divine by Handel — Wynton Marsalis and Kathleen Battle

Sing Ye to the Lord  for He Hath Triumphéd Gloriously from Handel’s Israel in Egypt

1,2 Tolstoy from Philip Glass’s Satyagraha

Laudate Dominum from  Mozart’s Vesperae solennes de confessore – Kiri Te Kanwa

Celebrating a late-19th-century newsman trampling his female rival

The fifth movie (from 1952) made by writer/director Sam Fuller (1911-1997), and, alas, not available even on VHS, let alone DVD, “Park Row” is at once very sentimental and quite misogynist. “War” is not a metaphor in the description “newspaper war” as Fuller portrays publishing in the New York City of the 1880s. Phineas Mitchell (Gene Evans) envisions better ways of doing things, including sponsoring the invention of linotype, inventing newspaper stands, and launching a campaign to raise funds to put up the Statue of Liberty (accepted by Congress without any appropriation of tax dollars for erecting it in New York Harbor).


Across the street from his marginal facility for The Globe is the established Star, published by a ruthless woman misnamed “Charity” but with a fitting last name (Hackett). What seems like a Joan Crawford or Gale Sondergard role was played passionately by newcomer Mary Welch. (Sondergard was blacklisted. Welch made no other movies and died in childbirth in 1958.)


An old sidekick of Horace Greeley named Josiah Davenport (Herbert Heyes) encourages Mitchell’s innovations and encourages Ms. Hackett to get out of a man’s business. After all such antagonism between a man and a woman can only mean they are in love, right?

Although the movie is difficult to get into and is filled with stock characters and hackneyed attitudes (starting with rampant misogyny), the look of the old-time machinery and Fuller’s talent for filming mayhem make an interesting spectacle. “Citizen Kane,” it ain’t, but Fuller did a lot without much budget or cast talent. Ordinary material and often cliched dialogue were filmed from some striking angles with very fluid (often tracking) camerawork (credited to Jack Russell, who would later film “Psycho” for Alfred Hitchcock).

Fuller also put a statue of Ben Franklin to interesting use.

“Park Row” is notably upbeat compared to some other Fuller movies such as “Shock Corridor” and “Steel Helmet,” and not as wild as others, such as “Run of the Arrow.”

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Best San Francisco Movies

My list of best San Francisco novels begat a list of favorite San Francisco movies. I’m including IMDB(1-10) ratings after the year to provide a consensus view of quality. I’m weighting San Francisco visibility more.

Vertigo (1958) 8.4

5739.jpgAlfred Hitchcock’s movie about obsession (James Stewart’s character’s) recently topped the decennial Sight & Sound list of greatest movies, so had better be atop this list! Along with Stewart’s relentlessness and Kim Novak’s vulnerability, this has a lot of San Francisco sites, including the top of Telegraph Hill, Madge’s Russian Hill apartment, the Legion of Honor, the Mission Dolores cemetery (where the alcalde after whom my street is named is buried), the long-gone Ernie’s and the mission at San Juan Bautista with a tower (not an insignificant plot element!) added.And the Bernard Hermann romantic score!

Bullitt (1968) 7.5


The chase makes no geographic sense, but I like that it includes my neighborhood (Potrero Hill). Steve McQueen is dour (supposed to be cool). I don’t remember the plot except that the smarmy Robert Vaughan is not to be trusted.

Dark Passage (1947) 7.6


I most love the ending, which is set far south of San Francisco (or Hollywood, for that matter), and the nightmare trek up and down outside stairways and Lauren Bacall’s (character’s) apartment.

The Lady from Shanghai (1948) 7.7


Playland had burned down before I moved to San Francisco, but the hall of mirrors shootout is forever. As is the glamour of Rita Hayworth, as in “Gilda.” Somehow I believe her character, but not Orson Welles’s.

The Conversation (1974) 7.9


An aural stakeout in Union Square with a then-unknown Harrison Ford, plus Gene Hackman becoming unhinged for Francis Ford Coppola (a short walk from Zoetrope).

Thieves’ Highway (1949) 7.7


Another vanished location: the waterfront produce market in Jules Dassin’s noir with Lee J. Cobb practicing for “On the Waterfront” and Richard Conte trying to be a leading man.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) 7.4

invasion lc.jpeg

I used to have a desk with a view across Grove Street of City Hall (home of what we called “the dome mentality”), where the pods take over in Philip Kaufman’s stylish remake that featured Leonard Nimoy (starred Donald Sutherland).

D.O.A. (1950) 7.4


Edmond O’Brien wanders the streets of The City (as we like to capitalize it), knowing that he has taken a lethal dose of poison in Rudolf Maté’s noir/thriller. O’Brien plays an accountant from Banning (inland southern California) on vacation. The movie begins with a tracking shot in police HQ (before the Hall of Justice was built). Much of the movie was shot in LA…

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) 7.3


This installment was inspired by Humphrey, the hump-backed whale that wandered into the Bay migrating from Baja to Alaska, and is fun for all, but especially for San Franciscans.

“What’s Up, Doc?” (1972) 7.8


I don’t remember much about Barbara Streisand’s second movie, a screwball comedy directed by Peter Bogdanovich with Babs channeling the actress who tied with her Oscar for her first movie and Ryan O’Neal trying to channel Cary Grant. In addition to the “Bring Up Baby” resonances, there was Madeline Kahn’s debut. There is a parody of the “Bullit” chase and the TWA facilities of SFO’s South Terminal (now Terminal 1 with no TWA).

 and ten more:

Pal Joey (1957) 6.8 (Rita Hayorth’s character’s yacht)

Interview with the Vampire (1994) 7.6 (the interview itself)

Petulia (1968) 7.3

Sudden Fear (1952) 7.5

Experiment in Terror (1962) 7.3 the then-new, now demolished Candlestick Park

House on Telegraph Hill (1951) 7

Zodiac (2007) 7.7

Point Blank (1967) 7.4

48 Hours (1982) 6.9


Where Danger Lives (1950) 6.7

Time After Time (1979) 7.2

Towering Inferno (1974) 6.9

Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) 7.2

Blue Jasmine (2013) 7.3