BOOK REVIEW: Nha Ca’s Mourning Headband for Hue


Nha Ca, Mourning Headband for Hue: An Account of the Battle of Hue, Vietnam 1968 (1970) (translation by Olga Dror, University of Indiana Press, 2014).

Gareth Porter, “The 1968 ‘Hue Massacre,’” Indochina Chronicle, No. 33. June 24, 1974.

Lien-Hang Nguyen, “The War Politburo: North Vietnam’s Diplomatic and Political Road to the Tet Offensive,” Journal of Vietnamese Studies, vol.1, nos. 1-2, (Fall 2006).

Merle Pribenow, “General Vo Nguyen Giap and the Mysterious Evolution of the Plan for the 1968 Tet Offensive,” Journal of Vietnamese Studies, vol. 3, no.2 (Summer 2008).

This week’s readings approach the narrative of the 1968 Tet Offensive from three different directions: as result of diplomatic and political decisions, as a journalistic reinvention, and as a traumatic lived experience. In the political and military history of the Vietnam War, 1968 Tet Offensive has become a key marker for the progress of the war. Shortly after the Tet Offensive, the United States began to engage in peace negotiations with the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and newly elected Richard Nixon initiated America’s withdrawal and ‘Vietnamization’ of the military effort. This simple timeline of events further shrouds the actual event of the Tet offensive within narratives of American defeat and Communist road to victory. Providing a ‘Vietnam-centric’ approach to understanding the Tet Offensive, Lien-Hang Nguyen and Merle Pribenow center the DRV political leaders to understand the decision making process and planning for the Tet Offensive. Pribenow’s analysis of the internal opposition to the ideas and execution of the general offensive and general insurrection complicates the DRV politburo as a unified, anonymous war machine. Pribenow carefully examines how DRV plans for a ‘big battle’ evolved over time based on DRV leadership and how DRV strategy took into consideration US domestic events, RVN political instability, and the 1960s war stalemate. Lien-Hang Nguyen adds another dimension to contextualize plans for the Tet Offensive by examining the DRV’s overall challenges to balance domestic policy, war strategy, and relations with China and the Soviet Union. Lien-Hang breaks down the Vietnamese politburo into hawks and doves with different and at times conflicting ideological priorities. Like Pribenow’s article, Lien-Hang’s well-researched essay adds new dimensions to understanding the Vietnamese politburo as a group of diverse personalities contending for power.

Gareth Porter exposes the ways in which the ‘Hue massacre’ was reinvented and mythologized as a bloodbath by the media. He does not refute the occurrence of the killings during the 1968 NLF occupation of Hue, but challenges the Saigon and American reporting of the events as a prearranged widespread purge and civilian massacre. In his essay “The 1968 Hue Massacre”, Porter vehemently condemns Douglas Pike as the “Media manipulator par excellence” whose mistranslation of Communist documents and misreporting of civilian death tolls produced a version of events very far from the truth. Porter does not necessarily fall within ‘Vietnam-centric’ approaches to understanding the Hue massacre, but is more disturbed by state manipulated reporting. However, if this was his primary concern, he should have critically explored and contextualized the political reasons behind the fabrication of data.

These accounts of the Tet Offensive begin to explore why the Tet Offensive occurred and how the events were represented, but lack a thorough discussion of what exactly happened. Similar to last week’s discussion on American atrocities, this seemingly basic narrative of what happened in Hue is complicated and shrouded by politicized reporting, moral judgment, and the dominance of American perspectives. How would our understanding of American atrocities such as that in Ha My and My Laid differ with a detailed Vietnamese account? Memoirs, such as Nha Ca’s Mourning Headband for Hue, provide an important ‘Vietnam-centric’, alternative perspective on Vietnamese civilian experience of killings and war. This is especially crucial since the memoir focuses on the Tet Offensive, a topic that the Vietnamese state continues to keep ambiguous and valorized within nationalist history. However, memoirs must also be taken into historical context and recognized as a narrativized form of memory. Olga Dror does not acknowledge this, but instead situates her role as an apolitical translator. She vaguely and inadequately explains her motivations for translating this text in order to “make our consideration of the war more inclusive and to encourage anyone who wants to thin about this issue to have a broader basis for reaching his or her own conclusion.” (Lvi)

Nha Ca publishes Mourning Headband for Hue in serialized form in 1969, after she ‘takes a pause’ to remove herself from thinking about Hue. In her introduction, she explains how after a bit of a distance from the events, she is able to remember, reminisce, grieve, and mourn the ‘death of a city.’ Her lament and accusation is a collective one, and she calls the ‘generation’ to take responsibility for Hue and their homeland. It seems as though she is directing this call to a specific audience, but Olga Dror does not expand on this point. In the final chapter, Nha Ca describes the overwhelming feeling of defeat, loss, and anger. Her description of American soldiers shooting senselessly at a dog symbolically represents her own anger, resentment, and sadness. In contrast to Vo Phien’s commentary about Nha Ca’s anti-communist, and anti-American sentiment, this moment embodies her overall anti-war stance. Mourning Headband for Hue is an important contribution to understanding not only the Tet Offensive, but also the experience of war by Vietnamese civilians. This alternative viewpoint of the war is epitomized in her retelling of the feelings of confusion, fear, and anger at the French journalists photographing her and other refugees in the church. Thus, Nha Ca provides the human experience of war behind the endless war photographs, newsreels, and reports of death tolls of anonymous Vietnamese.

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