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.

phạm mạnh cương

Thu ca - Thu Phương 
Thương hoài ngàn năm - Khánh Ly 

Phạm Mạnh Cương và vợ, Như Hảo

inh hoạt âm nhạc miền Nam trước 1975 có 3 ông họ Phạm nổi tiếng, ngoài Phạm Duy và Phạm Đình Chương ra còn có thêm Phạm Mạnh Cương (tuy vậy không bà con gì với hai ông Phạm trước). Sinh ra và lớn lên tại Huế, học Cao đẳng Sư phạm tại Hà Nội, và làm giáo viên môn Triết tại miền Nam (trường Petrus Ký, Sài gòn).

Con người suốt đời theo đuổi nghiệp giáo viên mô phạm này có những hoạt động trái nghề hết sức thành công: là một nhạc sĩ, một nhà sản xuất băng đĩa hát (nhiều băng nhạc trước 1975 là của hãng đĩa Tú Quỳnh, hãng do ông thành lập), và là người tổ chức những chương trình ca nhạc trên vô tuyến truyền hình đầu tiên tại miền Nam (chương trình mang tên Phạm Mạnh Cương, kéo dài từ 1966 đến 1975).

Ông có thể được xem như một người tiên phong trong việc thương mại hoá hoạt động âm nhạc. Xin trích giới thiệu hai tác phẩm nổi tiếng nhất của Phạm Mạnh Cương: Thu ca, bản tango thoáng một chút âm giai Nhật Bản, và Thương hoài ngàn năm, bản này chắc nhiều người biết vì mấy năm gần đây liên tục bị Mr. Đàm đem ra phá hôi! 😬

Một vài bìa nhạc Phạm Mạnh Cương:

hiểu quá hương giang





âu không trở lại chủ đề thơ chữ Hán của Cao Chu Thần. Con người ông tính khí ngang tàng, tư tưởng xã hội chính trị không có gì mới lạ, nhưng văn tài thì đúng là lạ lùng. Một trường hợp nổi bật hiếm hoi trong cổ văn Việt Nam. Đôi câu thơ giáo đầu ở trên: Thập tải luân giao cầu cổ kiếm, Nhất sinh đê thủ bái mai hoa (Mười năm giao du tìm bạn tri âm, khó như tìm cổ kiếm, Cả một đời chỉ biết cúi đầu trước hoa mai) vẫn thường được truyền tụng như chính cốt cách con người Mẫn Hiên – Cúc Đường vậy!

Hiểu quá Hương Giang

Vạn chướng như bôn nhiễu lục điền,
Trường giang như kiếm lập thanh thiên.
Sổ hàng ngư đĩnh liên thanh trạo,
Lưỡng cá sa cầm khuất túc miên.
Trần lộ du du song quyện nhãn,
Viễn tình hạo hạo nhất qui tiên.
Kiều đầu xa mã phi ngô sự,
Phả ái nam phong giác chẩm biền.

Buổi sáng qua sông Hương

Muôn núi quanh co diễu cánh đồng,
Trời xanh gươm dựng một dòng sông.
Giặm đò văng vẳng vài chài cá,
Co cẳng lim dim mấy chú mòng.
Dặm khánh mịt mờ đôi mắt mỏi,
Tình quê man mác chiếc roi vung.
Đầu cầu xe ngựa ta nào tưởng!
Tưởng trận nam phong quạt giấc nồng.

Xin đọc thêm về thơ Cao Bá Quát trong những post trước của tôi: Trà giang thu nguyệt ca, Sa hành đoản ca, Trệ vũ chung dạ cảm tác.

to liberate the south

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

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.

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

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

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.

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!

ô ăn quan

Có 50 quân dân, và 2 quân quan, mỗi quan tương đương 10 dân. Người chơi có quyền chọn di chuyển theo hướng bất kỳ, những game Mancala khác chỉ được di chuyển theo một chiều nhất định.

Ăn quân ở ô kế tiếp trong lượt đi chứ không phải ở ô đối diện của đối phương. Khi đến lượt mình mà không còn quân để đi thì phải bỏ 5 quân đã ăn được vào 5 ô của mình để tiếp tục chơi. Trường hợp không có đủ 5 quân thì phải vay của đối phương và trả lại khi trò chơi kết thúc.

rò chơi dân gian Việt Nam Ô ăn quan thuộc họ Mancala, có nguồn gốc châu Phi và có hàng chục biến thể khác nhau trên thế giới. Khi nhỏ, tôi có chơi trò này vài lần, gọi theo tên địa phương là Ô làng chứ không phải Ô ăn quan. Hôm nay thử nhìn cái game này dưới góc độ tin học xem sao! Ô ăn quan có một số luật khác với những game Mancala khác.

Những luật bên, nhất là luật thêm & mượn quân làm Ô ăn quan phức tạp hơn nhiều so với những biến thể Mancala khác. Viết một chương trình cho máy tính chơi Ô ăn quan không phải là quá dễ dàng, dùng những heuristic đơn giản (hill-climbing, min-max, hay brute-force đến một độ sâu nhất định…) không đủ bảo đảm máy tính sẽ thắng trong nhiều trường hợp.

Trên internet, tôi không tìm được game Ô ăn quan nào theo đúng luật Việt Nam. Một số là những biến thể gần giống Ô ăn quan, một số tác giả claim là đã viết Ô ăn quan nhưng không cung cấp được link download. Có vẻ như game này không dể như khi vừa mới nghĩ đến! Bạn nào có ý kiến về chiến thuật chơi game này xin được trao đổi để cùng phát triển một trò chơi hoàn chỉnh.

Bên đây là screenshot của một Java applet tôi vừa viết trong vài tiếng đồng hồ, cho phép 2 người chơi với nhau (máy tính chỉ kiểm luật, chưa phải là một chương trình cho máy tính chơi thực sự). Những hiệu ứng đồ họa: di chuyển quân, ăn quân nhìn rất giống thật, graphics được vẽ bằng Photoshop: những viên sỏi và bàn chơi được vẽ bằng phấn trên mặt sân xi-măng… gợi lại những kỷ niệm thủa nhỏ.

old house


gôi nhà này, tôi chỉ ở thường trực trong thời gian khoảng 3, 4 năm, nhưng trở lại thường xuyên mười mấy năm sau đó. Sơn trắng, ốp gạch đỏ, nền xanh, ngôi nhà thân thương này nay đã thuộc về người khác, giờ thì: tha nhật tương phùng thị lộ nhân – ngày sau gặp lại xem như người qua đường rồi 😢! Những bức hình này (hơi mờ do scan từ ảnh giấy) đều được thực hiện bởi “phó nháy” danh tiếng Hồ Xuân Bổn (chủ tịch hội nhiếp ảnh tp. Đà Nẵng).

for whom the bell tolls

Men of five still alive through the raging glow.
Gone insane from the pain that they surely know.


xcerpts from the 1943 film following Hemingway’s novel. In some aspects, this is a great film, highly symbolic and dramatical, beautiful staging and casting, but still nowhere closed to the book. So read the book here (zipped text file)! It’s said that Hemingway handpicked the actors and actresses himself for the roles, but he greatly disliked the film due to it’s political content removal.

Excerpt 1: The old guerilla man of El Sordo and his last four men make their last stand on a dead-end hilltop. They’re waiting for their fate to come, and the young Joaquin does the praying when the Russian machine gun barrel turns hot on his shoulder as the planes approach: Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death, Amen!.

…Dying was nothing and he had no picture of it nor fear of it in his mind. But living was a field of grain blowing in the wind on the side of a hill. Living was a hawk in the sky. Living was an earthen jar of water in the dust of the threshing with the grain flailed out and the chaff blowing. Living was a horse between your legs and a carbine under one leg and a hill and a valley and a stream with trees along it and the far side of the valley and the hills beyond…

Excerpt 2: Robert Jordan, severely wounded on the way retreat after the mission, says farewell to his lover María. He stays behind to cover the enemy for others to safely escape. The scene removes the detail of Agustín asks if Jordan need a shot or he can manage himself once left behind. Counting the last minutes of his life, in such moment, one can hear the bell tolling for his soul!

Lieutenant Berrendo, watching the trail, came riding up, his thin face serious and grave. His submachine gun lay across his saddle in the crook of his left arm. Robert Jordan lay behind the tree, holding onto himself very carefully and delicately to keep his hands steady. He was waiting until the officer reached the sunlit place where the first trees of the pine forest joined the green slope of the meadow. He could feel his heart beating against the pine needle floor of the forest.

Robert Jordan, as illustrated on this Vietnamese translate book cover, using a Lewis gun, or just called a mácquina as in the book.

songs for free men

The USSR anthem - Paul Robeson 

…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.

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!