My review for the book 'On the Ho Chi Minh Trail: The Blood Road, The Women Who Defended It, The Legacy'
My friend Sherry Buchanan just this month published a brilliant book, On the Ho Chi Minh Trail: The Blood Road, The Women Who Defended It, The Legacy. Below is my review:
Buchanan tells the powerful story of the women who defended the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a network of roads and trails used by the North Vietnamese to supply their troops, defeat the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies, and unify the country. A journalist, expert on Vietnamese art and an historian, Buchanan has deep insight and understanding that flows through this historical reminiscence and travelogue. She took a trip down the “Blood Road” in December 2014, just as I began my term as U.S. ambassador in Hanoi.
At the center of Buchanan’s tale are the women who built and rebuilt the Trail. Courageous, often young, and certainly unheralded, they were part of a generation that was largely wiped out during the terrible war years. General Võ Nguyên Giáp used the same principles that had worked for Vietnam in its many wars with China and its long war with France in a successful effort to drive the United States out of Vietnam. Giáp told historian Stanley Karnow in 1990 that his principal concern had been victory. When Karnow asked how long he would have resisted the U.S. onslaught, he replied, “Twenty years, maybe 100 years – as long as it took to win, regardless of cost.” And the human toll was horrendous. In addition to 58,000 Americans, three million North and South Vietnamese soldiers and civilians perished.
Buchanan’s voice is lyrical. “I thought of how peaceful the once deadly Quảng Trị Province appeared in the evening light. I agreed with the artist Lương Xuan Đoàn. The ‘wandering souls’ protected Trail travelers. As I visited the shrines and listened to the stories of the women who had defended the Trail, something unexpected had happened on this road to war: I became a pilgrim. I, who no longer said prayers and had forgotten the words, ‘prayed’ at the mountain shrines for those who had died too young: from the North, the South, and from across the Pacific, fighting on opposing sides but united by youth, love, adventure, and patriotic beliefs.”
And the deaths continued even after the war’s end. Buchanan relates the story of 45-year-old Ngô Thiện Khiết, a father and husband who spent his days doing dangerous work that would save the lives of his fellow citizens. Nine months after I met him, while directing his demining team in an area where cluster bombs had been found, Mr. Khiết was killed in an explosion. I was angry and sad when I wrote my condolences to Khiết’s widow. America should never have dropped those bombs in the first place.
It is not possible to have true reconciliation between northern and southern Vietnam, or between the Americans of Vietnamese origin and the citizens of Vietnam, without speaking and writing truthfully about the horrors of war and what was lost -- and what continues to be lost. By grounding her modern meditations on the Trail in an historic context, Buchanan has contributed to that process of gradual, person-by-person, healing and reconciliation.