Love, Truth, and Vietnam

by Michael Potemra

Who wants to reopen the wounds of Vietnam? But the heartbreak of that country still has lessons for all of us. Uwe Siemon-Netto was a war correspondent there, and he has just published a memoir about it, Duc: A Reporter’s Love for the Wounded People of Vietnam. As is so often the case with really good memoirs, it’s the small details that best vivify the big picture. Siemon-Netto points out that North Vietnam was East Germany’s chief military client state outside Europe, supplying it with lethal landmines known as PPM-2s. Driving on Vietnam’s National Route 19, he noticed that most of those killed by these PPM-2s were women and children, because civilians tended to travel in much more vulnerable vehicles than did the soldiers who were the landmines’ ostensible targets.

And Siemon-Netto was more than merely a distant observer of the civilian casualties in that war. He recounts a visit to a German-run clinic for civilians in Vietnam, even as a battle was raging:

A young German doctor was working frantically to save lives. On a makeshift operating table I saw an unconscious woman with her bowels spilling out of a huge wound on her left side.

“Are you a doctor?” he asked.

“No, a journalist.”

“Never mind, I need help now. There’s nobody left here to give me a hand. The VC kidnapped them all. Go wash your hands over there, put on some surgical gloves, and make yourself useful.”

In order to put the woman’s organs back in their place, [the doctor] had to cut her belly open. Then he needed an extra pair of hands to first push her innards back into the open wound on her left side. That was my job. . . .

Another theme of Siemon-Netto’s that comes through loud and clear is how easy it is for people to build up a carapace of resistance to truth. Many years after the Vietnam War, Siemon-Netto was in Germany:

I attended the morning conference of a highbrow German newspaper where I worked as an editorial consultant. My job was to help its editors and publishers modernize this fuddy-duddy publication in the hope that it would become the leading broadsheet of reunified Germany. . . .

The discussion turned to topics for feature stories from the former East Germany.

“Here is an idea,” I said. “How about producing an in-depth report on the East German manufacturers of PPM-2 mines, the remnants of whose victims I saw all over Route 19 in Vietnam? How about searching East German archives for material about the propaganda mill that accused West Germany of complicity in the Vietnam War, probably resulting in the death of our doctors and nurses in Vietnam?”

Oh, did I step into a hornet’s nest by suggesting this! . . . This was not supposed to be a left-wing paper, but several of its smug younger editors became so irate that I wondered if Communist East Germany had really disappeared. So much had the ideology of the 1968 student movement that glorified Ho Chi Minh taken root among that generation of German university graduates that any suggestion of inhuman behavior on the Communist side was considered a heresy.

It didn’t surprise me that the older editors, who should have known better, found it imprudent to come to my support. Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once bemoaned the “dearth of civil courage” in his country when the Nazis were in power. . . . That deficiency was definitely lingering on in certain places.

It’s not just a German thing, of course: It’s a universal human tendency to hate the bringer of bad news, and when the anger against the messenger gets too hot, even people who know better will fail to come to the messenger’s defense. It makes people think twice about opening their mouth; and even the really courageous person might not have the courage to tell all the truth all the time. But Siemon-Netto’s book is a testament to the need to keep trying. The people of Vietnam were discarded by the West, back in the 1970s; they remain oppressed today; but their story is not over.  Siemon-Netto concludes: “I know that [the Vietnamese people] will ultimately find the right peaceful means and the leaders to rid themselves of their despots. It might take generations, but it will happen.”

On this last point: Hope is a powerful thing. I first became interested in politics as a boy, way back in the 1970s, largely because I thought the Cold War struggle against Communism was an existentially important one. If millions of Americans take this seriously, and work really hard, I thought, it’s just possible that our generation might lay the groundwork for the eventual victory of some future generation, and the ultimate defeat of the Soviet Empire.

I wasn’t even out of my 20s yet, when it happened for real.

Before this book, I knew Siemon-Netto’s work only through his religion writing for UPI, and through his participation in intra-Lutheran debates. (He is a respected Lutheran theologian.) While this book is an important achievement in a rather different field, it is imbued with the humanitarian and religious principles of his work as a whole. It is, as his subtitle says, a work grounded in love.

The Corner

The one and only.