Vietnam and the US: two nations held captive by a distant war
Thirty-three years after the last US Marines left Saigon, the Vietnam War continues to cast its long shadow on the American psyche. John McCain's campaign — built on the foundation of his POW heroism — has brought the war back into America's living rooms for yet another presidential election. But in Vietnam, where memories of the past are buried deep beneath hopes for the future, the story of Hanoi's most famous prisoner has vanished into thin air — along with the men who guarded him. Matt Steinglass on two nations held captive by a distant war.
When I moved to Hanoi in 2003 to work as a foreign correspondent, I began taking Vietnamese lessons from a teacher whose office was located just north of the city's Old Quarter. On the corner of the street stood a light-blue villa with a war propaganda frieze on its side, depicting anti-aircraft gunners firing at American planes. As my Vietnamese improved, I could read that the inscription commemorated the heroism of civil air defence forces defending Hanoi's electric power plant against a particular bombing raid. At some point, I jotted down the date on the frieze, which proved to be one of those crucial dates that inextricably bind America's political history to its war in Vietnam: October 26, 1967, the day John McCain was shot down.
As we near the end of McCain's second presidential campaign, there are scenes from his captivity that anyone who follows American politics can call up in vivid detail, like clips from a movie you've seen a dozen times. Here he is taking his A-4 in for a bombing run on the electric plant, when a Russian anti-aircraft missile blows the wing off his plane; here is McCain ejecting, knocked unconscious, breaking both arms and a leg, landing in the middle of Lake Truc Bach, where several Vietnamese pull him to shore and a mob beats him until they are restrained by a nurse, who treats his wounds and sends him to prison.
Here he is on July 4, 1968, refusing to accept early release, the furious camp commander snapping a pen in two and proclaiming: "They taught you too well, Mac Kane. They taught you too well." Here he is alone in a cell in the fall of 1968, squatting for hours on a stool with his arms roped tightly behind him as his captors try to torture him into recording an anti-American propaganda statement, when an anonymous guard enters and silently loosens the ropes to ease his pain. And here he is at Christmas that year, sitting in a courtyard with the same guard, who silently extends his foot and draws the sign of the cross in the dirt, to show he is a fellow Christian.
We see these scenes, of course, from McCain's point of view, because that is how they have been written. McCain first told his story shortly after the US ended its involvement in Vietnam, when he and the other 590 American POWs returned to the US and were promptly incorporated into the Nixon administration's public relations machine. The week after McCain's return in March 1973, Nixon asked an aide to collect the 10 best POW statements ("The peace with honour theme, basically. In other words, thanks for bringing us back on our feet rather than on our knees") and disseminate them to the media. That May, McCain wrote a long piece on his captivity for US News and World Report, concluding with a statement of support for Nixon. Over the next 25 years, McCain referred to his POW years only in passing, but in 1999, as he geared up for his first presidential campaign, his longtime speechwriter Mark Salter fleshed out the story in the memoir he wrote with McCain, Faith of My Fathers.
For two decades after McCain's release, it was impossible to obtain any information about the experiences of POWs beyond their own testimony: Vietnam in those years was a tight-lipped communist dictatorship. But much of that changed in the 1990s, and today Vietnam - on the surface, at least - is a reasonably open free-market society friendly with the United States. You would think that American journalists - who flocked to Alaska like gold prospectors after Sarah Palin was nominated - would be walking the streets of Hanoi to corroborate the stories on which McCain has based his run for the presidency.
But only a trickle of reporters have flowed through Hanoi, and those who have come have found little. When it comes to controversial subjects, the government is still prone to Soviet-style disinformation. Worse, ordinary Vietnamese, especially northerners, display a Confucian reluctance to speak their minds without prior approval. The official government stance is that prisoners were treated well, and that none of the beatings related by McCain and other POWs ever took place, making it impossible to elicit a meaningful response from the Vietnamese side to the American version of the POW story.
But in the interviews I have conducted with former POW camp personnel over the past several years, I have come to feel it is not simply a matter of political censorship. The stories that American POWs and Vietnamese camp officials tell are in some ways alike: they recount brief, charged scenes in cinematographic detail, leaving long periods of time vague. They repeat certain formulations and turns of phrase obsessively. And memories of the camps and the war stir up emotions which both former POWs and former camp officials find difficult to control.
This is not to create a false moral equivalence between Vietnamese camp guards and American POWs. The evidence is overwhelming that at least until 1969, camp officials systematically pressured American POWs to write and record anti-American propaganda statements, and that many prisoners were tortured for refusing to co-operate. But to understand why it is that Vietnamese seem unable to address John McCain's account of his years in Hanoi, it is important to understand where they are coming from. Vietnamese still consider the bombing campaign against the North a savage, illegal attack on the civilians of a country that had not provoked the US. People who lived in Hanoi during those years regard the American bombing with all the bitter outrage of Londoners who survived the Blitz. John McCain played a crucial role in Vietnam's rapprochement with the US in the 1990s, and the Vietnamese would never impugn his honesty. But they refuse to countenance accusations of torture from someone whom they consider a war criminal.
How does one deal with such conflicting emotions? For most former camp officials, as for most ex-POWs, the response has been to go silent - or, as in the case of the first former camp official I interviewed, Col Ta Hung, to disappear.
I first met Col Hung, the head of foreign relations at the Veterans' Association of the People's Army of Vietnam, two years ago while researching a story on American POWs. From 1969 to 1972, the colonel was a "propaganda officer" at Hoa Lo Prison (known to Americans as the "Hanoi Hilton"), charged with turning POWs against the war and recording anti-war statements for propaganda broadcasts. We met at the Veterans' Association building, located at the edge of Hanoi's ancient Citadel. The building is just down the street from the former site of the POW camp where McCain spent his first two years in Hanoi, which the Americans nicknamed "the Plantation". My interpreter and I were ushered into a tackily ornate Communist-kitsch meeting room. Hung, a short, alert man with a commanding manner, took my questions directly in English, but responded in Vietnamese, sometimes correcting my interpreter.
"We showed them articles from the Western press on the anti-war movement in the United States," Hung said when I asked what had been done to convince Americans to turn against the war. He said he introduced prisoners to Vietnamese history and culture, and took them out to see the effects of US bombing in residential areas in Hanoi. The accounts of McCain and other prisoners depict rather more forceful forms of persuasion, including solitary confinement, beatings and rope torture. Perhaps the fact that Hung arrived at the camp in 1969 explains the mildness of his story; according to POWs, treatment improved dramatically following the death of Ho Chi Minh in September 1969.
Or perhaps Hung was lying. I have no idea, because he declined even to gesture towards explaining the gap between his version of history and McCain's. When I gently asked whether interrogators responded differently to POWs who refused to co-operate, Hung brushed the question aside. Everyone was treated equally, he insisted. American POWs were guests. The Vietnamese simply tried to help them understand that America was waging an illegal war.
I left the interview feeling like I had spent 90 minutes beating my head against a softly padded brick wall. But in March, as McCain looked certain to prevail in the Republican primaries, I contacted the Veterans' Association to arrange another interview with Hung, who I thought might have some specific memories of McCain. The Veterans' Association, which had directed me to Hung in the first place, claimed to have no record of any Col Ta Hung.
I found this difficult to believe. I double-checked with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which was unable to help me. Finally, I asked Col Tran Trong Duyet, who was the commandant of Hoa Lo Prison from 1968 until the American POWs were released in 1973. "Ah, Ta Hung!" Duyet said, smiling. "I've lost touch with him. If you find him, can you tell me his phone number?" Why did it suddenly become so difficult to find Ta Hung? Since the early 1990s, John McCain has been a very good friend to Vietnam. In 1993, McCain played an instrumental role in Senate hearings that determined that Vietnam had not secretly held any American POWs after 1973 - a finding that paved the way for the end of the American trade boycott of Vietnam. Along with John Kerry and other Vietnam veterans in the Senate, McCain pushed for diplomatic recognition of Vietnam in 1995 and the passage of the US-Vietnam Bilateral Trade Agreement in 2000, which jump-started the last seven years of export-driven economic success in Vietnam.
The Vietnamese government was not eager to help Western reporters contact former camp officials whose stories might contradict McCain. And it did not want to encourage discussion of McCain's detailed allegations of torture, which would force the Vietnamese to call McCain a liar. Let's back up a moment to Col Duyet. I first met Duyet in October, 2006, shortly after my interview with Ta Hung. Again, the Veterans' Association arranged the meeting. At that point Duyet had never spoken to an American reporter.
Duyet lives in a townhouse with a rambling garden in the port city of Haiphong, where he spent his postwar career as an administrator at the Maritime College. He shares the house with his 30-something daughter, a couple of grandchildren and a collection of deafening caged songbirds. We sat on a leather sofa in his living room, drinking glass after glass of green tea. I asked Duyet about the treatment of American POWs, citing McCain's accounts of torture as an example. Duyet flatly denied any abuse had occurred. He remembered meeting McCain two or three times, but insisted all they had were amiable conversations.
"He was a real hawk," Duyet told me. "He never gave up on his support for America's bombing of Vietnam." But Duyet thought him a good and honourable man. McCain used to give him English lessons, Duyet said, coaching him on his pronunciation of English words each time they met. And since the war, Duyet added, McCain had been a good friend to Vietnam. Like Ta Hung, Duyet refused to admit any abuse of American POWs. But Duyet went even further: he had constructed an alternative narrative of the camps, casting himself as their benevolent overseer. To bolster his version of events, he produced a thank-you letter from a German nurse held at the camp. (The nurse, a West German pacifist, had been taken prisoner by the Viet Cong in 1968, and most of her colleagues died in prison. In an August interview with the German tabloid Bild, she recalled only bitter memories of the Hanoi Hilton.)
But during our interview Duyet would sigh, look away and rock back and forth, and I imagined he was mulling memories he preferred not to discuss. Like all Vietnamese officials, he made sure to say repeatedly that the war was in the past, that Vietnamese prefer to look towards the future, and that the US and Vietnam are now friends. There was not much to do with such material, needless to say, and not much interest at the time in McCain's stories from Hanoi. But in May, as McCain's presidential campaign began to gather steam, the investigative journalist Jeffrey Klein, one of the founders of Mother Jones, decided to come to Hanoi to see what he could dig up. He asked me to help him out.
Klein is a classic big American, well over six feet, heavyset, with bright red hair and pale skin. His trip to Hanoi effectively replayed America's experience in the Vietnam War in miniature. He arrived with ambitious goals, and expected to achieve them through the application of firepower: he would gain access to the most important people and ask them aggressive questions. He wound up bogged down in a quagmire, unable to make connections or wring any reliable information out of an interview. Even the physical environment was all wrong for him, between the heat, the crowds, the narrow doors and low stools, the pedestrians and motorbikes flowing over sidewalks and streets.
Klein's first meeting was with two American graduate students, who said they had been trying to gain access to historical archives for years without success. Undeterred, he obtained access to an unreleased documentary film that contained extensive interviews with the former head of the Plantation, and was pushing to interview the man himself. But the connection failed to pan out. The few successful ventures we had were the result of street-level reporting by my news assistant, Khanh, a fantastic researcher with a natural gift for schmoozing. On our first day working together, the three of us rode over to the former site of the Plantation. The former POW camp, where dozens of American prisoners once sweated in solitary confinement and were beaten by guards, is now mostly occupied by the Army Cinema, a large purple multiplex featuring Hollywood fare like 27 Dresses. When we tried to search for the remains of the camp, a female guard waved us frantically away; the rest of the site is still a restricted Army area. The guard said the buildings that had housed the prisoners had been torn down to make way for a three-story building, which, she said suggestively, was full of "records".
Hoping to find someone in the area who remembered the war years, we sat down at a tea vendor's stand. Khanh chatted with the vendor, who suggested we talk to the retired former head of the Army Cinema, who lived nearby. After knocking on a few doors, we found retired Col Pham Van Hoa in a third-floor apartment just across the street from the former prison camp. It turned out Hoa had been the head of the Army Film Studio's technical department, and had been involved in filming the POWs.
"We used to film them when they didn't know they were being filmed," Hoa said. He remembered McCain, who he said had seemed different from other prisoners, more commanding. The main point he wanted to make was that the prisoners had been treated better than ordinary Vietnamese. "Their food rations cost three times as much as ours," Hoa said. Did he remember nothing more specific? No, Hoa said, but there was someone who would - the former head of prisoner relations at the camp. He fumbled through his memory before coming up with the name: Minh Y. He couldn't remember the family name. He didn't have a phone number.
"Odd name," Khanh remarked. Not many ethnic-majority Vietnamese are named Y. Frustrated in our quest for information about the camps, we went looking for reminiscences of the day McCain was shot down. The most famous of the men who pulled McCain from the waters of Lake Truc Bach had died in 2002, and several other men who claimed to have been involved demanded money for interviews, suggesting that the McCain rescue-narrative business had become something of a neighbourhood scam. Khanh turned up one man, Tran Thanh, whose story of having been the first to reach McCain in the lake seemed genuine. But he had few revelations to offer, save for a long and involved shaggy-dog story concerning whether he or another local man had stolen McCain's silver necklace.
After six days, every other lead had come up empty. So we hired a car and headed off to interview Col Duyet again. Since my visit a year and a half earlier, Duyet had been interviewed by the Associated Press, Agence France-Presse, and CNN, and was expecting visits shortly from the BBC, Al-Jazeera, The Washington Post, and the International Herald-Tribune. But his tale, typically enough, had grown more colourful with each retelling: he now claimed McCain - who he considered "my friend" - had given him regular English lessons, and said he would vote for McCain if he could.
I ran down the litany of abuses and torture detailed by McCain in his memoir, and Duyet waved each of them off with a pre-emptive "no". By the time we left he was denying the existence of a well-known interview McCain gave to a Spanish Communist psychiatrist in 1970 - one that had been printed at the time in North Vietnamese newspapers. After the interview, Jeffrey announced he was leaving Vietnam a week early. There was nothing he could accomplish here. Duyet's responses, the impenetrable defensive wall of a Communist apparatchik, reminded him of Cuba and Russia, but worse. "This is the hardest country I've ever reported in," Klein said.
But in many ways Vietnam is an easy place to report: an hour after arriving at the Plantation we were talking to an elderly man living next door who had actually been involved in filming McCain. A running expat joke has it that in Hanoi there are only two degrees of separation. But for precisely this reason, no one will disclose sensitive information, because whatever they say will spread quickly. We found a handful of people involved in McCain's captivity, but all of them stuck to the same script: Vietnam treated its captives well. The war is over; Vietnam looks to the future. John McCain is a friend of Vietnam. Reporting in this environment is like pushing your way into a dense, sticky web.
How dense? A few days after Klein left Vietnam, a friend in New York e-mailed to tell me that her uncle was about to arrive in Hanoi with an American group that had walked from Ho Chi Minh City to raise money for Vietnamese victims of Agent Orange. We called to set up an interview, and were passed on to the head of international relations at the Vietnam Association of Victims of Agent Orange. He identified himself as Nguyen Minh Y.
Khanh did a double-take. It had to be the same Y, the former officer Hoa had mentioned at the Plantation. And so it was. We went to meet the "Orange Walkers", and located Y for a quiet chat. Y, a man of medium height with a wavy shock of white hair, said he had been recruited for the POW system because of his excellent English. He had learnt it from an American evangelical priest while growing up in Bangkok in the 1940s. He remembered McCain quite well. But he refused to talk about his experiences, insisting that he did not want to influence the American presidential election.
I had met three former POW camp officials, all of whom knew McCain. One had disappeared. Another was volubly repeating a fairy-tale story that lacked all credibility. And the third refused to talk at all. In September, I was invited to a reception at the US Ambassador's house for an American-backed mine removal program, and found myself standing across from a short, alert, strangely familiar Vietnamese man in informal military khakis. He shook my hand and asked how I was, though he seemed to be trying to place his memory of me as I did the same. I looked at his name tag. It was Col Ta Hung. He was still listed as director for external relations of the Veterans' Association of Vietnam. I didn't remind him of how we had initially met; I was afraid that if I said the word POW, he might vanish in a puff of red smoke and gold stars.
The one American reporter who did manage to elicit some valuable information in Hanoi was Michael Dobbs of The Washington Post. Nguyen Minh Y wouldn't talk to Dobbs either, but Dobbs, citing the accounts of former POWs, managed to identify him as the translator the POWs called "The Rabbit". I confirmed this identification with another ex-POW. In Faith of My Fathers, McCain calls Y a "torturer who enjoyed his work," and claims he was the translator at the crucial meeting where McCain finally turned down the offer of early release, cementing his status as a war hero. In McCain's account, after the camp commander snapped his pen in two and stormed out, Y said, "Now things will be very bad for you, Mac Kane," and sent him back to his room.
I called Y the day after Dobbs's piece was published. He again confirmed he had been an interpreter at the camps. As to McCain's allegation of torture, Y laughed and used a Vietnamese expression for ungratefulness: "He eats the rice and kicks the bowl." And that was all he would say on the record. Y continued to insist that he would not comment on American politics, but protested that our conversations were aggravating his high blood pressure. When I contacted him again this week, I was informed he had checked into the hospital - Military Hospital 108, the same one where McCain was treated. Y's family is extremely concerned about his condition, and will not allow me to contact him.
Y is hardly the only person whose blood pressure goes through the roof when his account of the camps is questioned. That kind of anxiety is the rule among both former camp officials and former POWs - including John McCain. In Y's case, part of the anxiety clearly stems from his desire to adhere to a government policy of avoiding comment on John McCain and the POW experience. But the more I speak with Y and other former POW camp officials, the more I wonder whether the political prohibition is not partially an excuse for an emotional issue. Americans and Vietnamese have taken diametrically opposite paths towards coping with the memory of the war. America treated the Vietnam War as a trauma, and has addressed its memory of the war as a therapeutic process: dredging up everything it can remember, working through those memories, trying to fit them into a meaningful narrative. As a result, the US is now entering its fifth straight presidential election overshadowed by memories of the Vietnam War.
The Vietnamese have tried to bury the war, to forget it. In the US, the mantra repeated by every Vietnamese who lived through the war - "that was the past, Vietnam prefers to look to the future" - would earn you an instant diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. In the 1990s some psychiatrists argued that PTSD was a problematic diagnosis because it encouraged survivors of trauma to dwell in the past. After watching Duyet rock back and forth and sigh as he insisted McCain was his friend, and witnessing Y hospitalised over the prospect of talking about the camps, I doubt that burying the memories works any better.
What, after all, might a Vietnamese POW camp official say if he were to speak openly? Based on what I have heard in less guarded moments from such officials and other older northern Vietnamese, it would run something like this: We were hungry every day. You cannot know what such hunger is like. We had nothing. And then they came in their planes and said they would bomb us back to the stone age. They said they wanted to break the will of North Vietnam to fight, so they deliberately targeted civilians. They did this based on a lie, the Tonkin Gulf resolution, which said we had attacked them, when we never did. We understood why the GIs fought in the South. They were poor Americans, drafted and sent to do the bidding of their officers. But the pilots, like McCain, were not poor, and they volunteered for their missions. They knew they were bombing civilians, they had to know. Would you not call such a person a war criminal? And then we captured them. And we, who were hungry, had to find food for them - more food than for ourselves, because they were bigger. We, who had only traditional herbs when we were wounded, had to find antibiotics for them. We, who had no houses, had to find places to keep them. When shown the evidence of their atrocities, the houses they bombed and the families of those they killed, some repented, but others refused. And today the ones who never apologised accuse us of torturing them! Perhaps a few guards did beat prisoners, though never as a matter of policy; but what right have war criminals to complain?
The Vietnamese have no interest in making such a speech, and Vietnamese culture mitigates against it. Were they to make it, few Americans would be interested in listening. The United States and Vietnam are friends today, tied together by strange bonds of guilt, relief, and false absolution. The US has coped with the trauma of war by externalising it, inventing pat stories that are retold, ad nauseam, until they lose the power to disturb. Vietnam has responded by burying the disturbing elements of the past, pretending they don't exist. And the two countries will never be able to agree on what took place in the camps, or what happened to John McCain. They can't even talk about it.
Matt Steinglass is the Hanoi correspondent of the German wire news service DPA. His work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Nation, and the Boston Globe.
Updated: October 17, 2008 04:00 AM