O’Brien says the most enduring Vietnam stories are those that are between the absolutely unbelievable and the mundane. Rat Kiley, who has a reputation for exaggeration, tells a story of his first assignment in the mountains of Chu Lai, in a protected and isolated area where he ran an aid station with eight other men near a river called the Song Tra Bong. One day, Eddie Diamond, the highest ranking man in his company and a pleasure-seeker, jokingly suggests that the area is so unguarded and seemingly safe that you could even bring a girl to the camp there. A younger medic, Mark Fossie, seems interested in the idea and goes off to write a letter. Six weeks later, his elementary school sweetheart, Mary Anne Bell, arrives, carried in by helicopter with a resupply shipment. Fossie explains that getting her to camp was difficult but not impossible and for the next two weeks, they carry on like school children. Mary Anne is curious and a fast learner—she picks up some Vietnamese and learns how to cook. When four casualties come in, she isn’t afraid to tend to them, learning how to repair arteries and shoot morphine. She drops her fussy feminine habits and cuts her hair short.
After a while, Fossie suggests that Mary Anne think about going home, but she argues that she is content staying. She makes plans to travel before she and Fossie marry. She begins coming home later and a few times not at all. One night she is missing, and when Fossie goes out looking, he discovers that she has been out the entire night on an ambush, where she refused to carry a gun. The next morning, Fossie and Mary Anne exchange words and seem to have reached a new understanding. They become officially engaged and discuss wedding plans in the mess hall, but over the next several nights it becomes clear that there is a strain on their relationship. Fossie makes arrangements to send her home but Mary Anne is not pleased with the prospect—she becomes withdrawn, and she eventually disappears.
Mary Anne returns three weeks later, but she doesn’t even stop at her fiancé’s bunk—she goes straight to the Special Forces hut. The next morning, Fossie stations himself outside the Special Forces area, where he waits until after midnight. When Kiley and Eddie Diamond go to check on Fossie, he says he can hear Mary Anne singing. He lunges forward into the hut, and the two others follow. Inside they see dozens of candles burning and hear tribal music. On a post near the back of the bunk is the head of a leopard—its skin dangles from the rafters. When Fossie finally sees Mary Anne she is in the same outfit—pink sweater, white blouse, cotton skirt—that she was wearing when she arrived weeks before. But when he approaches her, he sees a necklace made of human tongues around her neck. She insists to Fossie that what she is doing isn’t bad and that he, in his sheltered camp, doesn’t understand Vietnam.
Kiley says that he never knew what happened with Mary Anne because three or four days later he received orders to join the Alpha Company. But he confesses that he loved Mary Anne—that everyone did. Two months after he left, when he ran into Eddie Diamond, he learned that Mary Anne delighted in night patrols and in the fire. She had crossed to the other side and had become part of the land.
In this story, O’Brien paints a highly stylized version of Vietnam as a world that profoundly affects the foreign Americans who inhabit it. He portrays a stark difference between the native world of Vietnam and the world of the Americans. Mary Anne Bell fully embraces Vietnamese culture, while Mark Fossie ignores it. The difference between their experiences sets up a world in which the separate cultures are completely foreign to, and incompatible with, each other. O’Brien does not suggest that one can assimilate elements of each culture into a comfortable mix. Rather, the characters must choose a single cultural identity.
“Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” refutes the idea of women as one-dimensional beings who serve only to offer comfort to men. Fossie assumes that if he brings Mary Anne over to the relatively comfortable quarters he and his men keep, he will gain her comfort and companionship and she will remain unaffected by her surroundings. This fantasy is immediately shattered as Mary Anne is instantly curious about the things surrounding her—from the language and the locals to the ammunition and the procedures and finally the nature of war itself. The irony of this story is that Mary Anne’s new reality agrees with her, perhaps more than her conventional life. She is enlivened and empowered by war: its influence prompts her to make plans for future travel and to attempt to steer her path away from the life she earlier considered desirable. Ironically, although her soldier boyfriend brings her over to be a comfort while he is in the midst of war, in the end, Mary Anne’s conversion makes her hungrier for adventure than he is.
Take the “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” Quick Quiz
"U.S. Marines in Operation Allen Brook in 1968" by U.S. Marines (Official Marine Corps Photo #371490) is in the public domain.
The Vietnam War was the longest and perhaps most unpopular war in United States history. It lasted twenty years, from November 1, 1955 to April 30, 1975. Despite the decades of resolve, billions of dollars, nearly 60,000 American lives and many more injuries, the United States failed to achieve its objectives.
The U.S. Enters the War
The Vietnam War was fought between the pro-Communist North Vietnamese and the anti-Communist South Vietnamese. The United States entered the war to support South Vietnam in order to stop the spread of communism and the threat of the communist revolutionary Ho Chi Minh. At the time the United States decided to enter the war, Ho Chi Minh had risen to become a popular leader in North Vietnam. He used his army to defeat the French, which had colonized Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh declared that he wanted to push out the French and unite all of Vietnam under Communist rule. He got the support of the Soviet Union, an enemy of the United States.
On August 2, 1964, gunboats of North Vietnam allegedly fired on ships of the United States Navy stationed in the Gulf of Tonkin. When reports came in that further firing occurred on August 4, President Johnson quickly asked Congress to respond. At the time, the United States subscribed to the “Domino Theory” of communism — a communist victory in Vietnam might lead to communist victories in Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Such a scenario was unthinkable to American diplomats.
So, with nearly unanimous consent, members of the Senate and House told Johnson to "take all necessary measures" to repel North Vietnamese aggression. The Tonkin Gulf Resolution gave the President a “blank check” to wage the war in Vietnam as he saw fit.Q1
A Difficult Battlefield
Between 1965 and 1968, the fighting escalated. Thousands of American soldiers were sent to fight in the unforgiving jungles of Vietnam, which had been booby-trapped by the Viet Cong, a pro-communist guerilla force led by Ho Chi Minh. The Viet Cong was hard to identify because they were not a conventional army force. They blended in with the native population and struck American forces by ambush, often at night.
Operation Rolling Thunder
In February 1965, the United States began a long program of sustained bombing of North Vietnamese targets known as Operation Rolling Thunder. At first only military targets were hit, but as months turned into years, civilian targets were also hit.
The United States also bombed the Ho Chi Minh trail, a supply line used by the North Vietnamese to aid the Viet Cong. The trail meandered through Laos and Cambodia, so the bombing was kept secret from the Congress and the American people. More bombs rained down on Vietnam than the Allies used on the Axis powers during the whole of World War II.
The United States used defoliating agents such as Agent Orange and napalm (essentially gasoline in gel form) to remove the jungle cover. However, this intense bombardment did little to deter the communists. They continued to use the Ho Chi Minh trail despite the grave risk. They burrowed underground, building 30,000 miles of tunnel networks to keep supply lines open.Q2
An Unpopular War
One factor that influenced the failure of the United States in Vietnam was lack of public support. Night after night, Americans turned on the news to see the bodies of their young flown home in bags. Young men were drafted to fight in the war, many of them having to defer a college education. The average age of the American soldier in Vietnam was nineteen. As the months of the war became years, the American public became impatient for a resolution. Some young people took to the streets to protest the war, and others — although only a very small percentage — came to sympathize with the Viet Cong.
By the late 1960s, many began to feel it was time to cut losses and leave Vietnam. Even the iconic CBS newscaster Walter Cronkite questioned aloud the efficacy of pursuing the war. He said, “We should be very careful believing that what we think is right in America is necessarily right for the rest of the world.”Q3
The End of the War
President Nixon signed a ceasefire in January 1973 that formally ended the hostilities. In 1975, communist forces from the north overran the south and unified the nation. Neighboring Cambodia and Laos also became communist dictatorships.
At home, returning Vietnam War veterans struggled to readjust to normal life; many suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Tens of thousands of Vietnamese people lost their homes and were shipped to refugee camps in the United States. In Vietnam, those that survived the war struggled to overcome the effects of Agent Orange, which, according to the Red Cross of Vietnam, caused health problems, disabilities, and birth defects in nearly 1 million people. The use of Agent Orange also destroyed 5 million acres of forests and crops, contributing to widespread famine and leaving hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese people malnourished or starving.Q4
"Introduction to the Vietnam War" by USHistory.org is licensed under CC BY 4.0.
a firm determination to do or accomplish something
a person who is not a member of the military, police, or firefighting force
to move in a direction with a lot of curves instead of going in a straight or direct line
to cause someone to decide not to do something or to prevent something from happening
the power to produce a desired result or effect; effectiveness