VIETNAMESE WOMEN IN THE WAR: A REVIEW

Dr. Ernest Bolt, University of Richmond

 

Many Americans who are more or less familiar with our Vietnam Experience know less about American women in the war. Many think all American women who were in Vietnam were nurses. Later our class will focus more on American women, but the People's War materials must certainly include Vietnamese women and the war. Yet this is probably the least known and the last-studied aspect of the Vietnam Wars.

This has begun to change, however, and our Duiker text, Sacred War, is a good example of such change. Even better indicators of scholarly interest in Vietnamese women in the war are two recently published works by historians.

 
Dr. Karen G. Turner is an East Asia scholar at Holy Cross College who published, with the assistance of Hanoi journalist-interpreter Thanh Hao Phan, Even the Women Must Fight: Memories of War from North Vietnam (1998). 

From army reports, diaries, and oral interviews, Turner and Thanh offer the reader a sampling of stories told by North Vietnamese women who fought in the Vietnamese wars against both the French and the Americans. One interesting outcome of their work was production of a map showing places of significance to these women -- places they fought and survived and places where others died. The map, on page xii, shows some already familiar places but also some less well known to other scholars of the war.

The Turner-Thanh study is also well-illustrated with photos of women veterans who were interviewed as well as many from the Vietnam Women's Museum in Hanoi. This is a museum which honors the roles of women from both the north, from the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, and the south -- from the Republic of Vietnam.

Students and other readers of Even the Women Must Fight will also become familiar with Vietnamese heroines. Among them is Madame Nguyen Thi Dinh, who is featured on this People's War module.

Others, not as frequently noted by historians and political scientists, include Nguyen Thi Duc Hoan, actress-director and film maker in Hanoi. Several of her films deal with Hanoi youth and war-related service and/or women's issues: "From a Jungle" (1978), "Love and Distance" (1980s), "Obsession" (1978), "Love Story by a River" (1991).

She left home as a young girl to participate in the anti-French resistance and was a guerrilla fighter by the time the Americans came in large numbers. Her daughter by then, in the 1960s, trained in the militia. Turner quotes from her interview of Duc Hoan: "At no other time in Vietnam's history was the will of the people more necessary for national survival. When even the gentlest Vietnamese woman could be inspired to enter the male world of violence for her country and when she learned to do the job well, the war had become in reality a total people's war." (p. 47)

Another Vietnamese woman whom Turner profiles is Ngo Thi Tuyen. Her heroism relates to her key role, in April 1965, in the supplying of Vietnamese defense of Dragon's Jaw Bridge, a key point on the Highway 1 north-south artery in Vietnam. Rebuilt and dedicated in 1964, American air attacks the next year failed to destroy it; it was not until 1972 that American bombing efforts accomplished that goal. Ngo Thi Tuyen had helped down some of the attacking American planes on April 3 and 4, 1965. Until the present day, she has been honored with badges and frequent celebrations of her heroism. Turner effectively mixes and compares Vietnamese accounts and American accounts of the April 4 U.S. efforts -- reported as the dropping of over 300 bombs. She concludes that this was one of the frequent tests of wills.

Turner relates Ngo Thi Tuyen's story, based on her 1997 interview with the former militia woman. The setting was the local "commemoration house," a type of local museum which depicts the bridge and the role of Tuyen and others to defend it. She told of the recent visit of former American POW Jeremiah Denton, one of the pilots shot down and captured during the mission in which Tuyen had figured so prominently.

The Vietnamese today have many museums, and I have visited some of them. The ones in Thanh Hoa Province, however, are among those I still must visit. This was the province in which the Dragon bridge was located, a province with a thousand-year revolutionary history. Many young men and women in the province contributed to the war effort in the Volunteer Youth Corps, working on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, or in local militia forces.

Work on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, in fact, is the subject of three chapters, one-third of Even the Women Must Fight. Due to the importance of this trail and its significance in helping to determine the outcome of the Vietnam War with the U.S., this emphasis is justified. The author engages in thick description and uses many examples of women (and men) who worked on the trail. Teenagers with shovels and AK-47s kept the trail cleared and repaired following constant bombing attacks. They worked under severe hardships and relied on local support rather than significant government and army support. According to Turner, citing Vietnamese media attention recently, they have also not received the postwar services that they deserve. Turner's examples of women she interviewed, road builders, members of the Youth Corps, and veterans of special groups (such as Troop C814), are numerous, and the testimony of most was similar. They performed war duties not to defend socialism or to win a global struggle; rather they defended their homeland as a "place to raise future generations." As Turner puts it, they left home to "save home." (p. 82)

One of the best features of this study is the use of several postwar paintings by Nguyen Ngoc Tuan, a militia woman during the war. It is also interesting to note evidence, once more, that the Vietnamese write and treasure poetry. Examples of Vietnamese writing furnished in this study also include womens' memoir writings. Some writings of women warriors used by Turner are in the Combined Document Exploitation Center (CDEC) in Saigon. She utilized those records of life and service data to draw examples and to find meanings of women's war experiences. Those materials, according to Turner, reflect greater evidence of discrimination against women than is often recalled from memory today. The CDEC records cover the 1966 to 1973 period and remain a little-used resource for examining individual war experiences.

When dealing with "Meanings," Turner turns more and more to an analysis of the 1990s based upon her broader observations in Hanoi and northern Vietnam while engaged in her research and interviews. She relates, for example, her visit to Dien Bien Phu and the memorials in the Vietnamese cemetery there. One of the most interesting statues to her is that of two women standing and shielding a young soldier. There is also a stone mural commemorating the role of women porters. From selected examples in recent Vietnamese literature by men and women writers, she also draws meanings, including the postwar treatment of war mothers as martyrs and symbols of Vietnamese endurance and sacrifice. She also connects her sources and analysis to present women's issues in Vietnam, concluding that "the (women) survivors who live poorly have become potent symbols of the costs of war." (p. 179)

Dr. Sandra C. Taylor, Professor of History at the University of Utah, is the author of the most-recent book on Vietnamese women in the war. Vietnamese Women at War: Fighting for Ho Chi Minh and the Revolution (1999) is a brief but excellent study and is part of the Modern War Studies series of University Press of Kansas. 

 

Taylor, as does Turner, uses many interviews chiefly to preserve and attempt to understand the stories of women at war. Her sample, she acknowledges, is not a "valid" one, but it is a broader one than that of Turner. Professor Taylor's interviews are with more women warriors who were part of the southern insurgency and fewer of her subjects fought in the north. She regards her work, therefore, a "preliminary attempt to understand the women warriors," (p. 7) as "the tip of an iceberg" (p. 165). Taylor's book, however, is well-grounded in her knowledge of the Vietnam Wars, and she has engaged in field research in Vietnam for more than a dozen years. Among her sources is the large and quite rich Pike Collection, now housed in Texas Tech's Vietnam Archives, where Douglas Pike is located. Some of her eighteen pages of photographs are also from that collection.

Because women played such an important role along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, Taylor's study also frequently provides a focus on that angle. Her most thoroughly treated women warriors, however, include Nguyen Thi Dinh, one of the original "long-haired warriors," warrior-diplomat Nguyen Thi Binh, Cu Chi guerrilla Ho Thi Bi, and warrior-physician Duong Quynh Hoa.

Taylor's major examples are among the "long-haired warriors" in the southern revolutionary movement and opposition to the Republic of Vietnam and the U.S. Students would profit from reading just chapter four on that group of women. This subject should be of interest to students especially because both Turner and Taylor recognize the importance of emphasizing the youthfulness of Vietnam's warriors. Recommended, therefore, is Taylor's chapter five, "Youth at War."
Other excellent features of Taylor's book include her comments on poetry and her discussion of memory theory in relation to use of oral history -- both her own and previously-collected interviews by our military. Students should especially note her conclusions concerning the stories told to her (p. 18). As in the case of Turner, Taylor finds Vietnamese poetry "a living testimony to the will power of the insurgents" whom we fought (p. 15).

Read together, these two recent books will inform the reader and yet still leave some unanswered questions. Perhaps the result for students in this course will be further reading or research on women's roles in Vietnam's wars.

 

Go to Further Reading Suggestions: Vietnamese Women at War

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