Unbound Fray: Why You Should Read "Mourning Headband For Hue"
Mourning Headband for Hue
An Account of the Battle for Hue, Vietnam 1968
Indiana University Press
Originally Published in Vietnamese in 1969; English Translation Published in 2014
There are many who had immediate reason to get Olga Dror’s English translation of Nhã Ca’s classic firsthand account of the 1968 Battle for Huế. Scholars of the region were likely aware of the original Vietnamese work even if they were not able to read it directly. Veterans who felt their participation in Vietnam forever altered by the events of that Lunar New Year and other assorted “Vietnam War buffs" will understandably be drawn to the work. Generations of Vietnamese raised abroad may hear in its pages a deep echo of experiences shared by aging family members who did so with reluctance and a struggle for words.
Many such homes and offices likely own a well-thumbed edition of the work.
Unfortunately, the same qualities that flag it as relevant for said groups also threaten to give others a tacit permission to ignore it. Another war memoir. The war from “their” perspective. A university press translation of an obscure work from a conflict 40 years in the past. It is one of those books read by people who pick it up knowing some measure of its significance. The rest of us can pass on it.
That would be a mistake.
While Mourning Headband for Hue is formally all the things typically mentioned in the blurbs announcing its publication, its actual execution is not so easily compartmentalized.
Poet and author Trần Thị Thu Vân returned to Huế from Saigon just before the Lunar New Year (Tết) in 1968 to attend her father’s funeral.
Immediately following his burial, she and numerous extended family members found themselves in the month-long crossfire of the Tết Offensive. When she eventually escaped with her life back to Sài Gòn, she documented the experiences of her devastated home city under her pen name, Nhã Ca.
It is tempting to say her account provides a new perspective on one of the 20th Century’s most important military episodes, but that would be both true and a nearly indefensible portrayal of her work. What she and her family experience is not a military episode; it is the complete destruction of all they know.
During the earliest hours of the battle, they themselves attempt to think episodically. It is not the first time the Việt Cộng has entered Huế, and Nhã Ca repeatedly asks her younger cousin, Thaí (a Huế resident employed by the Nationalist Army), for some sort of confirmation that the sounds they hear are typical of previous incidents, that they represent a perverse sort of order in their own right, that they will end. Whether she is answered with confident affirmation or growing doubts, she keeps asking, desperate to understand the outlines of something she is stuck deeply within.
As the stable and familiar shatters all around her, we find her shifting back and forth between that searching for signs of order and being overcome with the immediate physicality of her new existence. The scent of an overturned chamber pot. The sounds that move through her family’s house as the earth buckles beneath it. The tremors of fear felt through the flesh of young relations.
The search for a new foundation is ever-present and heartbreaking. With each firefight or round of shelling that encroaches on them, we see her family all reluctantly drill down deeper into thoughts of what might be happening to them. Indiscriminate violence has taken over. They are faced with the choice of perishing with their surroundings or letting something inside themselves die in order to see another day. They resist. They hold out for a sign of the familiar until they are overcome. Then, they run. They are unraveling along with their cherished city.
It is tempting to say that her account offers an everyday person’s view on the horrors of war, but such a statement would be true to the point of rendering itself absurd. She had her very person pulled apart by a sequence of convergent circumstances that left her alive for no reason she will ever be able to discern; this was no simple viewing.
Once it is clear that their physical home is no longer sheltering them, they attempt to move. It is the first of many harrowing relocations, crossing back and forth over the same river, searching for shelter, for news of lost relatives, for a perspective on what has happened. Respite from the fighting is always temporary, and any silencing of the guns leaves them to confront the suffering of those around them. It is unclear which threatens their well-being more.
They trace a path through a series of sacred spaces — their own family’s ancestral worship house, the church of the Most Holy Redeemer, An Đinh Palace — and each falls, sending them running once again into the unknown. Even before the Việt Cộng’s rocket propelled grenades and American bombs reduced these once grand structures to scattered bricks and tiles, each space overflowed with the profane. Slow bleeding deaths. Rotting flesh. Hunger. Recriminations. Babbling insanity. In the pull between her trying to affirm the value of life — her life, her family’s life — and the deadening of her sensitivities, a great space opens where the abject sufferings of those around her echo and amplify.
It is tempting to seek out some sort of political message in her portrayal, especially in these days when Vietnam has become the go-to allegory for all manner of ideological position, but few works so subtly inhabit the margins between assumed political categories. Despite the likely antipathy the Việt Cộng would express toward her as a “southern” intellectual and the positions some of her own family members held in the mostly southern administrated city of Huế, she wrote not from any idealized position but from the raging moral vacuum that settled over Huế as the era’s big ideas fought over the city’s presumed loyalty.
Her family’s first encounters with the northern army following the initial days of fighting is marked by cold formality. A man is executed. Rice is appropriated. They’ve been shelled and shot at for days. And yet, the northern cadres insist on quibbling over what familial pronouns are used between them. The superficially casual nature of the exchange only heightens the tension.
The Việt Cộng occupy a region, then hours later it is the Nationalists or the Americans. The family is constantly pivoting, trying to ensure that neither side mistakes them for an enemy sympathizer. There is no neutral position, as an ambiguity of allegiance could prove fatal under the doubting eyes of either army. The constant switching back and forth, the mimicry and exaggerated expressions of loyalty, they make a farce of it all…a deadly farce, but a farce all the same. Few have anything like an overtly political thought beyond, “What might be interpreted as political and get me killed?”
It is political theater as survival mechanism. There are obviously many things Mourning Headband for Hue cannot be reduced to. Its narrator and her world are in constant motion throughout the book. Each move is a seeking out of something firm and recognizable. Virtually nothing is to be found, and we see her fray right along with her city.
Her own takeaway from the ordeal is perhaps the most nuanced. She is overwhelmed by a sense of responsibility. This single solitary woman — a young mother of two, a poet, a grieving daughter — who we see becoming the living embodiment of helplessness, threatened on all sides by armies who care nothing of her existence, all but begs her readers’ forgiveness.
While the first shots of the Battle for Huế may not have been fired until the Lunar New Year of 1968, Nhã Ca is keenly aware that the ground was prepared much earlier. She clearly knew the politics her nation wrestled with before the events of 1968, but perhaps without the urgency that would haunt her following her city’s destruction.
As former classmates and acquaintances reappeared in Huế during the fighting as Communist operatives commanding soldiers and handing down judgements on former neighbors, it becomes clear to her that the relative calm preceding the more dramatic outbreaks of war had themselves been filled with countless decisive moments, turning points neglected until their aggregate consequences overwhelmed.
“A lot of salvoes of artillery, a lot of death and grief exploded and destroyed Huế. I don’t know the origins of this, but regardless of the causes, it is precisely our generation, it is precisely our time that should bear responsibility for the crime of destroying such a historic city as Huế.”
Those words were written nearly two years after the events depicted, and in them we see her mind continuing on the same search for a foundation that we witnessed in her desperate weeks of survival. Anything so massive, so forceful must have causes, and if caused, must be preventable. In her assuming of responsibility, she reminds us all to take ownership of our respective milieus before a multitude of easily ignored decisions coalesce into something irreversible and beyond regret.