Friday, October 6, 2023


. . .
DUONG VAN MAI and most of her family had been part of the flood of refugees who fled North Vietnam for the South back in 1954. They settled in Saigon, where her father, who had been an important official in the French colonial regime, became a minor one in the Finance Ministry. Mai did well in school, won a scholarship to Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., spent three years there, and returned to Vietnam with an American fiancé, Army Sergeant David Elliott.
In 1964, Robert McNamara—genuinely puzzled by the stubbornness of the communists in the face of American power—had commissioned the RAND Corporation to do a study of defectors and enemy prisoners, seeking to know “Who are the Viet Cong? And what makes them tick?”
The Elliotts signed on with RAND, and Mai began interviewing subjects. She remembered that she’d been “brought up to believe that the communists were people who destroyed the family, destroyed religion, had no allegiance to our country but only to international communism.”
“My mother would describe them as đầu trâu mặt ngựa” she recalled. “Brutal subhumans with the head of a water buffalo and the face of a horse. But I knew that they also included people like my sister, Thang, and a lot of my cousins. I couldn’t quite reconcile the two images, but of the two, my mother’s image was stronger because I was so scared of them. That was the frame of mind I had when I started doing research into the communist movement. I remember my first interview. I was by myself. I was very young. I was going to this grim prison to interview this high-ranking cadre who had been captured. I went in thinking, ‘I’m going to meet this beast—this guy with a head of a water buffalo and the face of a horse’—but when I walked in he did not look like a brute.”
Duong Van Mai Elliott at the Can Tho Airport, on her way home after interviewing enemy prisoners and defectors, 1965
Instead, he was a dignified middle-aged man, she remembered, “with the authoritative demeanor of someone used to leading others.” She offered him an American cigarette, but he refused it—“he did not want to touch anything so American.” He answered her questions fully and patiently, and “had more integrity than anyone I had met in Saigon in a long time.
Five proud soldiers belonging to an NLF artillery company that had recently been awarded the title of “Hero Unit”
“He believed that the [Viet Cong] would free his country from foreign domination and reunify it under a regime that would bring social justice and equality to the poor,” she recalled. “He looked at himself as poor: a poor peasant who had been elevated to a position of leadership. Of course, one interview could not change my views right away. But it did raise troubling questions in my mind. Who were the good guys and who were the bad guys? I thought I knew. Now, the situation no longer seemed so black and white.”
When the first RAND report was presented to McNamara’s top deputies at the Pentagon, describing the Viet Cong as a dedicated enemy that “could only be defeated at enormous costs,” one of them said, “If what you say is true, we’re fighting on the wrong side, the side that’s going to lose this war.”
In the summer of 1966, Mai Elliott was asked to act as translator for the veteran American journalist Martha Gellhorn on a visit to an American hospital in South Vietnam. “I saw for the first time what the weapons were doing to real human beings,” she recalled. “I saw children and adults who had lost limbs. I saw eyes staring out of heads swathed in bloody bandages. I saw a woman who had been burned by a phosphorus bomb, with peeling skin showing pink and raw flesh underneath. I knew this was only a fraction of the toll in human misery. I left shaken and more convinced than before that it was unfair to make the peasants bear the brunt of the suffering to save my family and other middle-class families from a communist system they felt they could not live under.”
Still, Mai couldn’t bring herself to wish for an American withdrawal. “I hated the war and I wanted peace, but a peace that would keep the communists from winning. I feared that once the shield of American power was removed, the communists would sweep the hapless Saigon regime aside and my family would suffer with nowhere else to run and hide. I began to wish that the group of people dubbed ‘the Third Force,’ who were neither pro-America nor pro-communist, would succeed in rallying the people.”

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