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The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam by Bảo Ninh

Justice may have won, but cruelty, death, and inhuman violence have also won.
~Bảo Ninh, The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam

I picked up the book, The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam, in my ongoing quest to read around the world, to read books not originally published in English, to help me grow a fuller understanding of the human mind and cultural nuances by filling in my blind spots. That it was about the Vietnam war added to the allure.

I have been anti Vietnam War for as long as I can remember. The war and the suitability of Tricky Dick Nixon to be president were the first of many political issues about which my father and I took polar opposite factions. In my mind, the war and Nixon, including his lies to escalate the war, are inextricably linked. And are two of the greatest embarrassments to ever befall our nation. (Trump may make it a trio but that future is yet to be told.)

The American Perspective

Everything I have ever read or watched about that horror experience in US history has been from the American perspective. American politicians sitting comfortably in spacious offices extolling the need to stop godless communism in sad attempts to justifying the deaths of so many innocents on both sides, American protestors dressed in countercultural clothing shouting anti-establishment epithets during anti-war rallies and protests marches, American servicemen being spit at, being called baby killers by vile protestors losing focus that the real enemy was those hiding behind desks creating the no-win situation in which they condemned the soldiers, American made movies portraying the damage to the psyche of American soldiers from months dodging bullets and seeing friends mutilated by artillery in the rain drenched jungles.

Not quite everything. There are a couple of images of the Vietnamese seared into my brain by the sheer magnitude of their horror that I will never forget. A young, naked girl running down the streets crying with soldiers in the background and the cold blooded execution of a suspected North Vietnamese officer. These images affected me greatly and I was just a kid on the sidelines. I can’t imaging the damage absorbed by people living the carnage daily for years.

The apparition of a naked girl appeared before him, her chest white, her hair messy, her dark eyes swarming with ants, and on her lips a terrible twisted smile.
~ Bảo Ninh, The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam

The depictions of the NVA, North Vietnamese Army, were almost always as non entities. Little men running around in flips carrying weapons speaking a language I could not understand killing Americans in sneaky ways. They were depicted as a pestilence needing to be wiped out for the sake of the free world.

Walk In Another Shoes

What we forget about the Vietnam War or, as the Vietnamese called it, the American War, is that for the Vietnamese, it was a fight for freedom, a fight for independence, a fight to unify their country, a fight to escape the outdated stranglehold of colonialism. It was their equivalent of our Revolutionary War, a war whose victory we celebrate every Independence Day as the time a band of guerrilla warriors conquered an imperialist army throwing off the yoke of autocratic British imperialism.

Had this been a small David nation fighting Goliath Russia, we would have thrown our support behind on David. In this instance, we were the Goliath, a concept we as a Christian nation could not wrap our heads around.

The Winners Were Also Losers

Having never been alive during a time when the US actually won a war as in the surrender of the other nation, I never gave much thought to the mental anguish of the victors. The movies and stories from WWII never focused on the damage to the soldiers psyche. It seemed everyone came home and jumped into a wonderful life. The impression is victory victory washes away all the psychological stains.

The author, Bảo Ninh, quickly dispels that myth as he draws on his own horrifying experiences during the war and his struggle along with his comrades struggles to cope in the aftermath. They never recover, at least, not in the book. As physical scars never heal, nor do psychological scars. It’s not possible to unsee, to unsmell, to unfeel, to undo, to scrape together the scattered body parts including the bits draped on your body from a loved one torn apart by an explosion and reanimate them. Death can’t be undone. They are experiences forever scalded into the psyche.

Losses can be made good, damage can be repaired, and wounds will heal in time. But the psychological scars of the war will remain forever.
~ Bảo Ninh, The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam

The Book

Bảo interweaves war horrors with beauty along a nonlinear time line. Though nonlinear, it is easy to follow. The points of beauty, many based on the girlfriend he left when deployed, help to balance the carnage. Rage is tempered by love which, in the end, seems to give way to an overall inability to feel. It’s as if the parts of the mind that feel were cauterized to ensure survival. The result is a man wandering the planet in a state followed by a shadow of despair.

A thread I found particularly interesting was his repeated referral to a place he called The Jungle of Screaming Souls. In 1969, his 27th Battalion was surrounded and almost completely wiped out save for 10 soldiers after a barbarous battle. Many of the dead refused to pass to the Other World becoming ghosts and devils forever haunting the jungle.

Whenever he returned, as he did years later while a member of a body reclamation troop, he could hear their anguished cries. Perhaps they wanted to ensure the world never forgot that war is horrible. This book will help ensure the horror is perpetuated.


This book validates my belief there is value in reading books penned by authors in other parts of the world as it opened my eyes to a perspective of the Vietnam War I would never have understood. It is important for publishers to translate works so people can experience life through another’s eyes, another’s emotions.  And, hopefully, develop an empathy that can be channeled into political action and prevent these tragedies from repeating.

I highly recommend reading this book.


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