the battle of iadrang

To make war all you need is intelligence.
But to win you need talent and material.

For whom the bell tolls – E. Hemingway

Col.Gen. Harold Moore and Col.Gen. Nguyễn Hữu An returned to the old battlefield, Oct, 1993, exchanging their diaries, maps, operational notes, memories and friendship.

The IaDrang Campaign was to the Vietnam War what the terrible Spanish Civil War of the 1930’s was to World War II – a dress rehearsal. The place where new tactics, techniques and weapons were tested, perfected and validated. In the IaDrang, both sides claimed victory and both sides drew lessons, some of them dangerously deceptive, which echoed and resonated throughout the decade of bloody fighting and bitter sacrifice that was to come.

While those who have never known war may fail to see the logic, this story also stands as tribute to the hundreds of young men of the 320th, 33rd and 66th regiments of the Peoples Army of Vietnam who died by our hand in that place. They, too, fought and died bravely. They were a worthy enemy.

Wild flowers now grow in those places of violent death. The IaDrang from PleiMe west is uninhabited except for a few montagnards who are/have been driven out to the east near PleiKu. The Ia Drang/Chu Pong area is now known as The forest of Screaming Souls and remains mysterious and beautiful.

Hoa dại giờ mọc đầy trên mảnh đất từng đầy rẫy chết chóc. Vùng IaDrang đến giờ vẫn không có ai cư trú, ngoại trừ một vài sắc dân miền núi đang được di dân về hướng đông gần PleiKu. IaDrang, ChưPrông nay được biết đến với cái tên Truông Gọi Hồn, vẫn nguyên vẹn huyền bí và đẹp đẽ như tự ngàn xưa.

ar, 1965, the first U.S troops arrived in Vietnam (Danang). 8 months later, their first major engagement with the VPA in a large battle (of regimental, divisional size) took place at the Valley of IaDrang, which is since then known as the Valley of Death. Feb, 1994, President Bill Clinton announced the normalization in relationship with Vietnam. In an action to bootstrap of the process, in 1993, a film was made featuring the old bloodshed battle of IaDrang. Thus, battle of IaDrang marks the begin and end of a long-time painful and bitter relationship between the two nations. Up to the present days, lots of people from both sides still can not get it right about what had really happened then and there. The story below tries to recall the truth.

But first, about the film: We were soldiers is based on We were soldiers once… and young, a book written by Harold Moore himself, as one of the direct commanders in the battle (on the American side). It’s a Randall Wallace‘s film, the famous director of Brave Heart, Pearl Harbor, and now We were soldiers, with Mel Gibson as Lt.Col. Hal Moore, and Đơn Dương as Lt.Col. Nguyễn Hữu An. To my disappointment, the film is no better than any other Hollywood’s films such as Black Hawk Down, solely made to demonstrate American heroism. Exactly as written in Harold Moore’s book: Hollywood got it wrong every damned time, whetting twisted political knives on the bones of our dead brothers.

The film is no exception, it takes many of the small facts of the book onto it, but only to falsely portray the historical events. In fact, the film is a distortion of facts that happened, of peoples involved in the battle, especially the figure of Lt.Col. Nguyễn Hữu An. In a sense, the film has undermined the author Hal Moore’s (and many other American veterans) sincerity and goodwill. Hal Moore is also a man of literature talent, the following line is written upon his revisiting the old battlefield, 1993, accompanied by general An, about the battle and his old enemy (column on the left).

Strictly speaking, Lt.Col. Harold Moore was not the corresponding counterpart of Lt.Col. Nguyễn Hữu An, he was one of the three direct commanders in the battle, a battalion under Thomas W. Brown. Nguyễn Hữu An was then the division commander of the 325th. But history has brought the two man into one battle and a rendezvous aftermath. Battle of IaDrang was actually two main battles in an operation which lasted for one month (between American 1st division and VPA’s 320th, 33rd and 66th regiments). The main confrontations were at the X-Ray and Albany landing zones, between the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd battalions of the 7th cavalry regiment of the U.S army with the 7th, 8th, 9th battalions of the 66th regiment (and one company of the 33th regiment) of the VPA. Hence, in formations’ numbers, the two sides have equal forces.

Contrary to many many sources, Lt.Col. Nguyễn Hữu An did not have any advantages in power comparison, even in number of man. All his infantry battalions are light-armed units, with just some mortars. On the adversary side are air assault and air mobility cavalry units, with superior fire power support. From the air, an average number of 300 sorties per day was made, with all available air units in south Vietnam, and on land, field artillery came in heavy use. So the ratio here is at least 3:1 with the weaker is the Vietnamese side. Some sources give intentionally wrong information like: the landing troop of 400 man was surrounded by 4,000 soldiers, in fact, 4,000 was number in the whole area (not each individual landing zone), in the same way, we can say: two VPA regiments confronted with forces of the 1st division (a typical American division has at least 20,000 personnel).

The battle witnessed extreme uses of fire power: for the first time in history, strategic bombers B52 are used for tactical roles, air mobility by helicopters reached the highest level ever since the start of WWII. The VPA learned that they could neutralize the effectiveness of that fire power by quickly engaging American forces at close range, thus turned the battle into a close-quarter struggles with mainly knife, bayonet and other small arms. A series of well-planed ambushes turned the American situation to desperate. Finally, they know that they can not deny or hide an obvious defeat, then dropped napalm bombs to clear all vestiges, sacrificing all, including man of their own. This is known as one of the most savage battle and can be considered as microcosm of the whole war.

The American casualties is about 700, the Vietnamese is about 1100, a victory to Lt.Col. Nguyễn Hữu An in consideration to forces participated in the confrontation. The battle set up, for the first time, an example in which a modern Calvary division can be defeated (Calvary division was then a new concept of air assault and air mobility units, formed firstly in the Vietnam war). In fact, the battle is blueprint of tactics successfully anticipated by Lt.Col. Nguyễn Hữu An, many interesting details can be found in his memoir (all details, facts, formations, numbers, estimations… in this post can be confirmed by both 2 memoirs from the 2 sides). He is named: the General of Battles for his exceptional talent in tactical problems. The man is among only a few number of generals in Vietnam who truly gained respect from the people, not only for his success in military career but also for his righteous attitude toward history and moral principles he’s practiced in life.

⓵⏎ Hemingway’s words were true in the Spanish civil war, but it’s not true anymore in the Vietnam war. Even with talent and material, you still can not win it.

⓶⏎ The phrase: The forest of Screaming Souls may have been first introduced in the famous Vietnamese novel The sorrow of war by Bảo Ninh. The author (also the main character Kiên in the novel) was also a soldier in this B3 (Central Highland) front.

to liberate the south

atching the famous film of Forest Gump, you would probably recognize dozens of war-protesting songs very popular the years of 60s, 70s in America: Blowin’ in the Wind (Bob Dylan), Where have all the flowers gone? (Pete Seeger), Mrs. Robinson (Simon & Garfunkel), Against the Wind (Bob Seger), Free Bird (Lynyrd Skynyrd)… American anti-war music, at its height in the Vietnam war, is only known to most of us (Vietnamese) through just some popular pieces.

Giải phóng miền Nam 
Giải phóng miền Nam (Joe Bangert) 
Italian lyric: Liberiamo il sud Vietnam 
Swedish lyric: Befria Södern 

My name is Joe Bangert. I’m a Philadelphia resident. I enlisted in the Marine Corps for four years in 1967. I went to Vietnam in 1968. My unit in Vietnam was Marine Observation Squadron Six with the First Marine Air Wing and my testimony will cover the slaughter of civilians, the skinning of a Vietnamese woman, the type of observing our squadron did in Vietnam and the crucifixion of Vietnamese either suspects or civilians in Vietnam. (from American thinker)

To my surprise, they also sang Vietnamese songs, such as this Giải phóng miền Nam (To Liberate the South), sang in Vietnamese by Joe Bangert, a famous Vietnam war veteran. It’s notable that the song is national anthem of the Republic of South Vietnam (1969 ~ 1976). If you understand the lyric, you would know how truthful and brave the men of Joe Bangert is, an American to sing: To liberate the South, we are determined to advance, to defeat the American Empire… Advance! The brave people of the South!… Let listen to the what he said prior to singing: It’s the song that they’d fought, it’s the song that they’d sung marching down the Ho Chi Minh trail…

the rain on the leaves

ome interesting recently – collected video documents: Phạm Duy with Steve Addiss on his song: Giọt mưa trên lá (the rain on the leaves) and Phạm Duy with the legendary Pete Seeger and the American folk song Clementine. Center image: the original poster of the song, and the original Vietnamese rendition (by the singer Thái Thanh) on the left.

Giọt mưa trên lá - Thái Thanh 
The rain on the leaves 
Steve Addiss & Phạm Duy

It’s not an abnormal thing to see church – music – influential songs like this to be the first to catch notices from Westerners (the Vietnamese – native pentatonic is harder to digest however). Indeed the song has been thought by some as a translation of a certain American folk song, which is absolutely not. The same is applied to several other Vietnamese songs, such as this Scents of Yesteryears, which easily touch the hearts of listeners outside VN.

thị xã trong tầm tay

To remember soldiers of the 3rd division,
who heroically defended the town, Feb ~ Mar, 1979.

xactly 30 years ago… things as seen aftermath, when the bloodshed battles have just been over… Film name: Thị xã trong tầm tay, screenplayer & director: Đặng Nhật Minh, type: 35mm black and white film, year of production: 1982, music, lyric & dialogue: Trịnh Công Sơn & Hoàng Phủ Ngọc Tường.

3rd division (nickname: Yellow Star, official number: 359th) is an elite (but not regular!) formation of the VPA (Vietnam People Army), originally formed and served in the 5th military region (central of Vietnam). For its exceptional performance in the Vietnam war, in 1976, the unit was deployed to the 1st military region in preparation for any threats from the north. The responsibility was to defend Lạng Sơn province, with the historical positions: Đồng Đăng, Kỳ Lừa, Chi Lăng…

When it happened 3 years later, nominally, no regular formation had been committed to battle, the Strategic Army’s 1st and 2nd Corps still stationed around Hà Nội, behind the Như Nguyệt river (aka Cầu river) defence perimeter, in case of any deeper penetrations. Only local militia units took charges of absorbing the offensive forces. In reality, some of the most combat – hardened units, such as the 3rd (359th), the 346th divisions, had already engaged in.

At the outbreak of the Sino – Vietnam war, Feb, Mar, 1979, facing an enemy roughly 9 times outnumbered (against the Chinese 127th, 128th, 148th, 161th, 163th, 164th, 165th infantry divisions with their supporting artillery and tank units), Yellow Star fiercely defended a line of 60 km in width, only permitted the enemy to advance less than 30 km in depth, at an average rate of 0.8 km per day, and at an huge price of loss (about 11.000 Chinese casualties on only this front, to the overall number of 60.000)!

The division’s personnel also helped in training other defending units the following years. The final offensive had been carefully planned and prepared, but canceled due to the opponent’s unilateral withdrawal and other political reasons, thus denying the unit an evident victory. However, that’s enough for the division to receive great fear and respect from the adversary side! What was left is the completely destroyed provincial capital town of Lạng Sơn, no house is known to stand inside the town, the spaces recalled by the film!

songs for free men

…The reasoning behind his persecution centered not only on his beliefs in socialism and friendship with the peoples of the Soviet Union but also his tireless work towards the liberation of the colonial peoples of Africa, the Caribbean and Asia, his support of the International Brigades…

istening to Paul Robeson’s album: Songs for free men… a very lovely basso profondo concert singer (he was one of the few true basses in American music), performing spirituals. Despite being a very famous and successful singer & performer, the man was kept under strict surveillance by US and UK governments for his international activities in Labor and Anti – Colonialist movements. It’s believed that he was unsuccessfully murdered by the CIA while in Moscow. He is now deserved a position in mainstream history by various posthumous recognitions.

The USSR anthem - Paul Robeson 

In the background video above (1945 victory parade in Moscow), Robeson presents the Soviet Union’s national anthem with a translated English lyric (let read the verses). I think, though it’s a very subjective idea, the song is the best anthem in the world, much more impressive than French’s La Marseillaise. The music’s still used as national anthem in Russia now, with a new lyric.

Don’t know why, but the music reminds me of spaces in the mesmerized text of Ernest Hemingway’s For whom the bell tolls (yet another American activist). As a child, I adored Hemingway’s writing style, and remembered many excerpts from his novel by heart, the spirits of International Brigades! The paragraph quoted on the left had been given a wonderful Vietnamese translation, it describes El Sordo’s final fighting on a hill, his thoughts on life and death, yet another picturesque Song for free men!

life photo archive

he LIFE photo archive has been hosted by Google for several months. Just spent some time skimming through the historical photos and images. All comparisons below are taken from the archive, just take a look, the pictures say it all… how propaganda works. I believe a lot more examples could be found! (Click all each thumbnail to view full version).

VPA’s general Võ Nguyên Giáp, in picture and as depicted on Time magazine’s cover.

Soviet Union’s Marshall Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov illustrated by Time and in a real photo.

French’s general de Lattre de Tassigny, seem a bit satirized on this montage.

US’ five star general and later president Dwight David Eisenhower.

British field marshal Bernard Montgomery.

The last two figures all tend to represent “good guys”, compared to the first two 😬.

mùa xuân đầu tiên

hêm một bài trong chuỗi những điệu valse chào xuân. Một bài hát mà ai cũng biết: Mùa xuân đầu tiên. Mùa xuân đầu tiên là mùa xuân nào? Xin thưa đó là mùa xuân 1976, 20 năm kể từ sau vụ án Nhân Văn Giai Phẩm, nhạc sĩ Văn Cao mới sáng tác trở lại. Và cũng mất chừng ấy thời gian nữa để bài hát được chính thức công bố với công chúng (năm 1996 với tiếng hát Thanh Thuý).

Mùa xuân đầu tiên - Thanh Thuý 

Mà tại sao lại gọi là Mùa xuân đầu tiên, tại sao lại là năm 1976, tại sao lại có những lời ca: từ đây người biết yêu người, mùa xuân mơ ước ấy xưa có về đâu…? Thật tội nghiệp con người nghệ sĩ Văn Cao, ông mong mỏi rằng mọi khổ đau đã qua đi, trong khi thực sự chúng mới bắt đầu!

Một vài bìa nhạc Văn Cao:

nhạc vàng – nhạc đỏ

ài Lời người ra đi này sáng tác năm 1949 trong kháng chiến 9 năm, của tác giả Trần Hoàn, nguyên bộ trưởng Bộ Văn hoá Thông tin. Thời gian ấy, lòng người còn lý tưởng, tâm hồn còn tươi trẻ, những Lời người ra đi, Sơn nữ ca… là những ca khúc đẹp, để rồi sau 1975, tác giả không còn sáng tác được một bài hát nào cho ra hồn nữa.

Khí nhạc: Nguyễn Đình Nghĩa 
Thanh nhạc: Ngọc Cẩm & Nguyễn Hữu Thiết 

Hãy nghe lại dáng nhạc ca khúc này, qua hai phần trình bày, phần thanh nhạc của cặp song ca Ngọc Cẩm & Nguyễn Hữu Thiết (tôi rất thích những phong cách trình bày rất Vietnamese – native như thế này), và nhất là phần khí nhạc của sáo thần Nguyễn Đình Nghĩa. Nhạc vàng, nhạc đỏ, dù vàng hay đỏ cũng là hai mầu của lá cờ, dù là cờ của bên nào – hay – bên thì ít vàng nhiều đỏ, bên thì đỏ ít vàng nhiều – Việt cộng, Việt kiều, hai Việt cũng đều chỉ là Việt cả mà thôi! 😬

hồ trường



gâm thơ là một loại hình kết hợp giữa văn chương và ca nhạc, và là loại hình nghệ thuật tôi hoàn toàn không biết gì. Những điệu ngâm Sa mạc, Bồng mạc, ca trù, ngâm Kiều, Tao đàn… tôi hoàn toàn mù mịt, dù trong nhà từ nhỏ được không ít lần thưởng thức ngâm thơ. Xin post ở đây một bản ngâm thơ tôi được biết, cũng là bài ba tôi thường ngâm mỗi lúc cao hứng, ngà ngà say. Đây là một bài thơ rất có giá trị trong văn học sử Việt Nam cận đại, và câu chuyện về người tác giả (dịch giả) của nó cũng bị cố tình lãng quên, không mấy ai được biết đến!

Hồ trường - Tôn Nữ Lệ Ba 

Đại trượng phu không hay xé gan bẻ cật phù cương thường, Hà tất tiêu dao bốn bể lưu lạc tha phương. Trời Nam nghìn dặm thẳm. Non nước một màu sương. Chí chưa thành, danh chưa đạt. Trai trẻ bao lăm mà đầu bạc? Trăm năm thân thế bóng tà dương.

Vỗ gươm mà hát. Nghiêng bầu mà hỏi. Đất trời mang mang ai người tri kỷ? Lại đây cùng ta cạn một hồ trường.

Hồ trường! Hồ trường! Ta biết rót về đâu? Rót về Đông phương, nước biển Đông chảy xiết sinh cuồng loạn! Rót về Tây phương, mưa Tây phương từng trận chứa chan. Rót về Bắc phương, ngọn Bắc phong vi vút cát chạy đá dương! Rót về Nam phương, trời Nam mù mịt có người quá chén như điên như cuồng.

Nào ai tỉnh, nào ai say? Lòng ta ta biết, chí ta ta hay. Nam nhi sự nghiệp ư hồ thỉ, Hà tất cùng sầu đối cỏ cây!

Cũng lại là một người con của làng Bảo An, Điện Bàn, Quảng Nam, vùng đất địa linh nhân kiệt số một Việt Nam, Nguyễn Bá Trác tham gia phong trào Đông Du, trở về nước năm 1914, ông cùng Phạm Quỳnh duy trì tờ Nam Phong tạp chí. Sau đó, ông làm Tuần phủ Quãng Ngãi, rồi Tổng đốc Thanh Hóa, Bình Định. Ông bị Việt Minh xử bắn lúc họ cướp chính quyền, ở Huế năm 1945. Tên tuổi Nguyễn Bá Trác không được “chính sử” nhắc đến, nhưng chỉ nhờ vào một bài thơ Hồ Trường, cốt cách, chí khí con người ông vẫn còn được truyền tụng và ngưỡng mộ đâu đấy, như đại diện của một lớp “những người muôn năm cũ”.

Đến nay, đã có đủ cơ sở để tầm nguyên lời thơ Hồ Trường. Có thể đọc nguyên văn phần nghiên cứu của tác giả Phạm Hoàng Quân ở đây. Bài thơ Hồ trường – hóa ra lại là phần lời của một bài hát không tên, tạm gọi là Nam Phương ca khúc – được đăng tải trong thiên ký sự Hạn mạn du ký của tác giả Nguyễn Bá Trác trên Nam Phong tạp chí, phần chữ Hán (từ số 22 đến số 35, năm 1919 – 1920); sau đó thiên ký sự này được chính tác giả dịch sang chữ Việt và đăng tải ở phần chữ Việt của Nam Phong (từ số 38 đến số 43, năm 1920 – 1921). Nam phương ca khúc nằm ở chương 10 trong thiên ký sự này.

Vào khoảng năm 1912, khi lưu lạc ở Thượng Hải, tác giả gặp một người đồng hương cùng chí hướng, người này có giọng hát hay (giọng Quảng Đông). Một đêm nọ, hai người đi uống rượu. Rượu ngà ngà, Nguyên quân đứng dậy mà hát, ở bàn bên cạnh, một võ quan họ Lưu, người Trực Lệ, nghe điệu hát, sang hỏi là điệu gì, được trả lời: Ấy là một điệu đặc biệt ở phương nam, họ Lưu nói: nghe tiếng bi mà tráng, nhiều hơi khảng khái, nam phương mà có điệu hát đến thế ru? Sau đó họ Lưu xin người hát chép ra giấy lời ca ấy để giữ xem.

Nam phương ca khúc là một bài ca ấy không rõ tựa đề, không biết tác giả, Nguyễn Bá Trác đã chép lại toàn vẹn trong Hạn mạn du ký. Và khi Hạn mạn du ký được sang chữ Việt thì lời ca này đã được dịch rất thoát, linh động nương theo âm điệu tiếng Việt và có chỗ thêm tứ có chỗ bớt lời, khéo giữ được cái thần thái hào sảng của nguyên tác để có được một bài Hồ Trường như chúng ta được biết. (Hình bên phải: phần lời Hán văn của Nam Phương ca khúc, in trong Nam Phong tạp chí).

the sorrow of war – bảo ninh

In your head, in your head, they’re still fighting
(The Cranberries)

chance of having a (not-so-) free week at home rereading the old books… The sorrow of war (or Nỗi buồn chiến tranh in Vietnamese). It’s the same dizzy and chilling feelings like 15 years before while the me-child was reading. Considered one of the best post-war Vietnamese novel, the author recalls and recites all experiences of a young soldier throughout the war, how he did survive through the blooding hell and the peace days thereafter.

Born to be the son of a famous linguist, the author has been very successful in using a narrative style to reflect all insides of the him-young soldier in battles. Though the techniques and motifs are not quite new (at least in my view), this is a unique writing in it’s own perspective.

Soldiers, guns, tanks – that is all normal to the Vietnamese. There is nothing special about war. War is what is normal. But peace? Peace is something very very special. As we had won, Kien thought, then that meant justice had won; that had been some consolation. Or had it? Think carefully; look at your own existence. Look carefully now at the peace we have, painful, bitter and sad. And look at who won the war… Justice may have won, but cruelty, death and inhuman violence had also won.

Have you ever asked yourself why we’re keep talking about war and keep acting as we’re in war all the time, don’t we have any better new things to think about? Why we still keep fighting with ourselves and with every others on every things in every moments. The answer is: with our Vietnamese, “war is normal, and peace’s a strange thing”, the “mother’s heritage” is so big and it is still passing to at least some more generations.