A reader of this blog just made the comment that “it’s fascinating to look at period newspapers, because there often are bits of evidence that enrich, reposition and sometimes refute the accepted dogma of a time, or more precisely the dogma of the current understanding or memory of a time.”
Those are exactly the ideas that were in my head (although not articulated as clearly) as I read a letter this morning that a reader sent in to Sài Gòn giải phóng in May 1975.
I think everyone has heard the stories about how after entering Saigon, some North Vietnamese soldiers (bộ đội) supposedly used water from toilets to bathe (or in some accounts to drink) because they had never seen flush toilets before.
The same information was reported about some of the Khmer Rouge soldiers who occupied Phnom Penh. The image below is a detail from a larger photograph in Roland Neveu’s The Fall of Phnom Penh, 17 April 1975 where we see a young KR soldier eating ice probably for the first time, and another looking inquisitively into the camera (which perhaps he had never seen before). This picture gives us a sense of how alien the city must have been to these country kids.
Related to this moment of interaction between cities and soldiers from the countryside in the aftermath of war, today I found a letter that a reader of Sài Gòn giải phóng wrote to that paper (and published on 31 May 1975) in which he complained about how some Saigon residents were ripping off bộ đội.
This person noted that some people were selling soldiers fake watches and radios at inflated prices.
The writer then pointed out that in the past it was ok to deceive American and other foreign soldiers because they had simply been mercenaries with a lot of money. They had not been idealistic (không lý tưởng).
In reading this, I was immediately reminded of a photograph I like. Taken in Saigon, it shows what I’m assuming is an American soldier being pick-pocketed by a Vietnamese girl.
I’ve never really felt bad for this guy, but not because I see him as a mercenary. I realize that looks can be very deceiving, so my assessment of this guy could be wrong, but in this picture he just does not look like he knows what he’s doing. . . He’s in a fast-paced urban environment but he looks like he’s walking around in a country fair. And when you’re out of your element, bad things can happen to you. I’m sure he probably smartened up after this.
In any case, this letter in Sài Gòn giải phóng points to a lot of fascinating issues, and raises many interesting questions (about war, ethics, idealism, etc.). You can use it to examine the specific case of the Vietnam/American War, or you can abstract it to a larger level and think about wars and human nature in general.
It’s on that larger more abstract level that I think I have the biggest question. Maybe I’ve been influenced too much by this iconic image from the end of World War II. . .
. . . but even though I grew up in the countryside. . . if I had just fought in a war and found myself in a city at war’s end, of all the things I might think of doing at that point. . . buying a watch (be it real or fake) is just not something that I can imagine myself wanting to do. . . In fact, I don’t think I’d want to buy anything. I’d just want to do something like what this guy in Times Square did. . .
So yes, cheating bộ đội was not good, but what the heck were they doing buying watches in the first place? The war’s over! Go find a pretty girl to kiss!!