2018 War Reading Challenge

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Where on earth did 2017 go? I hope you read some fantastic WWII books last year. There’s still time to link your reviews here.

Feel free to tweet @wargenerations on Twitter when you have a review up or reach out on Facebook through our Facebook page.

This year, we’re leaving the challenge wide open. We’d love for you to link up any fiction, nonfiction, poetry, middle-grade, children’s, or graphic novels you may be reading about war. WWII, Vietnam War, WWI, Korean War, French and Indiana War, War of 1812, the American Revolution, Gulf wars, and more.

Link up your reviews in the linky below:

Let us know in the comments what your personal reading goal is for the war challenge — one book, 10 books, 50 books. It’s up to you.

Have a great 2018!

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Interview with Cie Cie Tuyet Nguyen, author of Shock Peace

29779824Today marks the 61st anniversary of the start of the Vietnam War (Nov. 1, 1955).  In honor of those who lived through that period in history and to those who died during the war, we’d like to welcome Cie Cie Tuyet Nguyen to talk about the war and a new book, Shock Peace: The Search for Freedom.

Please provide the author with a warm welcome:

How did you view the Vietnam War as a young refugee?

The Vietnam War was always the background of my memories. The images of war, death, and other atrocities were always somewhere—on the television, billboards, streets, classroom. I was considered luckier than most because I was a Saigon dweller, living in the capital city of Vietnam. Like most capital cities, it was well protected. I was comfortable in my family environment, surrounded by as much tranquillity and civilization affordable to us at that time. Of course, it was constricted. We were never carefree in our movements or enjoyments, as I was often reminded by the adults or by awful news on the television or radios, from explosions or the terrible number of deaths in a rural primary school or at a rowdy Saigon bar. Alternatively, the bad news could be brought about by a distraught relative banging on the door in the middle of the night telling us that her husband had just perished in action during his last battle.

I was not a refugee during the war, but I often saw an exodus of battered refugees running away from the battle zone or from a lost city when I was little. Politics were bewildering to me and my understanding of the Vietnam War was never clear back then. However, I loved my country and I always wished for peace. I hated the Vietcong who kept pushing for war because I could not have what I wanted.

My father lost his son during the Tet Offensive in 1968. He was my half brother and in his early twenties when he died. I was only five or six then. A grenade exploded in a bar when he was having a beer with his friends while on his short leave from duty. As a mere soldier trying to enjoy a few moments before going back to his bloody battle, fate was unkind to him.

It was funny how I remember clearly those sad times.

I remember standing in front of my gate looking out. There was black smoke and fire on the horizon where the dense population of blue-collar workers lived.

There were people running wildly on the streets, some covered in blood. They cried and screamed. Children and mothers clung to each other in terror. I was scared, but I still wished I could go out and play like on a normal Tet day, oblivious of the gunfire. At first, I thought it was firecrackers on New Year’s Eve, but it was real gunfire and my parents were so upset. Then we were ordered to go to bed without any usual ceremony of a Tet day. I yearned for New Year to be able to wear new clothes, to receive lucky money, or li xi, and eat festive food like banh tet, or rice cakes, and thit kho, or slow cooked pork in coconut juice and fish sauce. And I cried so hard because I knew that was impossible. It hurt so much, but no one noticed and no one paid any attention. And I cried in bed that night.

Then I was so disappointed when it was just gunfire, bombing, and people running on the streets the next day. There were no firecrackers, no smiling, no wishing of good luck and best of health or prosperity, and no laughter. Just crying and screaming. I only thought of my disappointment, and I did not care if the children were scared to death out there, away from their homes. It was very selfish of me, wasn’t it?

I was scared of the cruelty the Vietcong had brought to the city of Hue in the Tet Offensive in 1968. Almost every year when Tet was near, the ghastly documentary film showing the brutal execution of many people or mass graves of people being buried alive was a long lasting, horrifying image for me. However, I did not fully believe those atrocities were true or the ideology of communism was absurd. We as Southerners were gullible and ignorant to the real threat of the communists because we were happy where we were. The war did bother us a lot, but we had our freedom and ‘relative’ democracy.

I only became a refugee three years after the fall of Saigon when peace finally arrived. A peace that came without happiness, love and forgiveness, reconstruction and reunion. Instead, it brought despair, hatred and revenge, destruction and separation, nightmares, brutality and the lot, to us all.

I was not a refugee of war. On the contrary, I was a refugee of peace!

And how do you view it now?

In hindsight, I came to understand the Vietnam War better as an adult. In my opinion (albeit the opinion of a mere war survivor!), the Vietnam War was handled badly by our leaders, both from the Vietnamese and the allied armed forces. It was a political war, but it not dealt with in a politically correct way. We tried to solve the conflicts by force and destruction, showing off our mighty power. Unfortunately, the world did not allow us to create total chaos and therefore, it was applied half-heartedly. We were stopped midway many times because the cry for humanity is always stronger than the need for brutality. To win a war, one might have to be a total savage. I think that was the original idea, annihilation in the shortest time possible. Sadly, it extended longer than necessary and in the end that strategy was outdated.

The Vietcong was smarter. They manipulated their people skilfully and consciously. They were making sure that their people only had one single goal: southward to liberate the Southerners. The power of the mind was stronger in comparison to the power of force and destruction. The Communists insinuated hostility and resentment into the peasants’ unsophisticated minds, along with the concept of anti-landlordism, anti-capitalism and anti-Americanism. They led them into believing the fight was for equal rights and freedom from foreign oppression.

To many Southerners, the frustration of defending their border was enough to tire them of the war. At heart, we are a peaceful and fun-loving people, gentle and simple. The majority of the Southern population are farmers and peasants. Their fertile land and extensive, intricate system of rivers and dams easily provided plenty of rice, freshwater fish, and prawns for the whole country in the past and even in wartime.

The complications of politics and power struggles were not in their best interest, and most of the time they left it to the people of the north or central regions. They were content with their lifestyle. That was their biggest weakness.

The majority of the Southern peasants had limited education. Unfortunately some literate ones were given freedom of choice, albeit partially. Nevertheless, they still had some freedom of speech and exerted their influence on others. However, they did not understand the sophisticated information given to them, that or it was not explained. So it was easily confused by the misinterpretation of Communist infiltrators. The peasants thought they would have equal rights and share wealth if they were living in the communist system. On one side, the South’s sole purpose was to defend the homeland, and on the other side was to attack, to take over. The Northerners were fed limited, distorted news or biased truth and were totally ignorant of the outside world for the entire duration of the civil war. Ho Chi Minh and his Communist Party were successful in misleading their people and exerting a powerful determination to “liberate South Vietnam and reunify the country.”

That was stressed by the name chosen for their army: the National Liberation Front, which included many patriots from the South who volunteered to follow Ho Chi Minh to the North after the anti-French revolution and the Geneva Agreement in 1954.

We were poorly led. Our leaders did not use politics as skilfully as they did. We should have had some goal. If the South had initiated the advance toward the North and put forward the great cause of liberating the people from Communism, then perhaps we would have had a greater chance of winning. It was a pity the South did not use that possibility. They were content and prosperous in their own land. Perhaps their selfishness prevented them from thinking that, as they might have had to share their wealth with the North once it had become their responsibility.

Our fertile land and high standard of living might have failed us in this last war. We did not see the need to fight. However, it was the opposite for the North. Their standard of living was always poorer. They never had a staple diet from their own food supply but relied heavily on the South in the undivided country of the past. Ho Chi Minh and his party
members relentlessly pushed forward solely for the profitable gain they were going to reap once they got hold of the South. On the pretext of a noble mission, the Vietnamese Communist Party led the whole nation into ghastly, prolonged bloodshed and the transformation of the North into a poor, undeveloped, and backward country. Everything seemed to stop growing or flourishing since his leadership began in 1954.

Then, because of the guerrilla fighting and the demoralisation of the GIs, the antiwar activists used this extensively and artfully in their campaigns. Obviously, they had won over the confidence of a small proportion of the South population, the U.S. citizens, and congressmen as well as the rest of the world over the prolonged period of fighting. Thus the cry for peace was louder than the real threat of communism, and so they had to give up! The troops had to leave us without help and support.

Pessimism was only made worse by the evacuation operations from the U.S. embassy. An act that seemed helpful and humane from their point of view, but in reality, it destroyed the spirit of all the Southerners. They were lifting Vietnamese civilians among their citizens. Then, everyone wanted to be safe, to get away from this war zone, to arrive at a peaceful destination. Then, no one wanted to fight anymore. Why fight if you are the only one left standing? Why fight if they see a hope of leaving all this horror behind? Who can blame them?

Many of them just wanted to return home to take care of their families and to be rescued by the U.S. embassy. Being safe and away from the danger zone suddenly became the priority, rather than the urgency of defending the last frontiers of the South.

Without a backward glance, the Americans left in haste and in doing so created a vacuum for the Vietcong to easily take over Vietnam. We were poorly prepared by our leaders and we surrendered because we had had no moral support. Our leaders left us high and dry!

What were the most shocking results of the war for you?

Strangely, I had a real shock with the arrival of peace. Everything was taken away swiftly. Freedom, prosperity and dignity were destroyed and replaced with oppression, poverty, degradation, and revenge that left peace a lonely part in my peculiar jigsaw puzzle, like a pitiful hostess in an empty house full of ghosts. I could not understand it at all. Without realizing it, what I had wished for dearly had obliterated everything I valued most.

However, from my understanding of it now, the death of two million civilians, more than one million Northern troops and a quarter of a million South Vietnamese combatants, was also shocking.

What advice would you give government leaders about current conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere?

Oh dear! I really would like to answer this question very much if I were a war expert or had chosen politics as a subject in my career! I am a mere pharmacist who has gone through a troubled childhood in a war torn country and a refugee who had survived the challenges of rising from nothingness. I do not think I have any confidence to discuss that topic.

However, speaking from my humble views about the American involvement in Vietnam back in the 70s, I would say that in any conflicts between a mighty and a mousy party, the latter is usually in favour of the public. People always seem to lean toward a weaker group. Their chivalrous inclination is to protect the mousy one and condemn the mighty, especially the younger and radical groups. The Vietcong used that concept exclusively in their war. They always tried to appear humble and bullied. Similarly, that is how I think the terrorists gain ground with sympathisers.

I believe in natural evolution. The Darwinism theory of biological evolution developed by the English naturalist Charles Darwin states that all species of organisms rise and develop through the natural selection of small, inherited variations that increase the individual’s ability to compete, survive, and reproduce. Social and religious evolutions are very similar. However, those evolutions can only happen if information is available to feed enough fuel for change. People can only differentiate living conditions, science, and mythology by education. Ignorance is dangerous. Outdated social or religious rules would eventually be destroyed over time with enough information, same as outdated ideology. Whether we are patient enough to wait for it happen naturally or force it by violence is the cause of war.

How has your experience as a refugee of war impacted your life for the better?

I remember how we could laugh and cry at the same time. With stoic endurance and a strong will to survive, I think the human race could manage to go through any crisis in their life as long as they refuse to give up.

What do you want Americans to know about the Vietnam War and their government’s involvement?

The Americans got involved out of the kindness of their hearts, but they put their people into our war needlessly. They should have only provided help and advice without actually sending their troops onto our land. Their presence gave the Vietnamese Communists a strong motivation for their war, the noble thrust of patriotism in their people’s hearts to throw the Americans off our land and regain independence. They won because of that too, I think.

With skillful propaganda, the Communists formed resistant guerrilla units scattered throughout the length of Vietnam that brought havoc and vexation to the Americans and the South Vietnamese Army into terrorist combat. The horror and dread of not knowing who were friends or foes in the guerrilla war was enough to discourage many of the Vietnamese soldiers and U.S. GIs.

The cultural differences were barriers that prevented comradeship between the armed forces personnel and the civilians, I think. I remember the adults were always referring to the Americans in an objectionable term.

I remember being wary of the Americans, too. We, ‘decent girls,’ did not want to have anything to do with them. The Western culture was a hundred miles away in contrast to mine. My minimal knowledge and understanding did not help. The Southerners did not hate them as the Northerners were taught to, but we were not pleased at their presence. It seemed to me they were destroying women’s dignity by disregarding our Oriental culture. Perhaps part of it was the stigma the U.S. GIs thrust upon us by giving rise to prostitution and wild nightlife, which lead to children born in neglect between them and the Vietnamese women.

I cannot thank them enough for their involvement and help and I feel deeply for their losses; more than fifty-eight thousand members of the U.S. armed forces were dead or missing. I understand the anger and frustration of families who had lost their fathers, brothers, and sons. My heart goes out to every mother who suffered. I empathise with the
post-traumatic syndromes of the Vietnam War veterans, as well as the terrible ordeals disabled veterans have to face in their daily lives. I apologise for the barbaric treatment of the Vietcong upon the Americans in captivity and their backward hostility in dealing with missing in action American GIs. And I wish there were not a needless war that lasted too long!

However, the American’s presence in the Vietnam War demoralized the Southerners’ spirit and cause.

headshotAbout the Author:

CieCie Tuyet Nguyen was born in Saigon and witnessed its fall in 1975 when she was 13-years- old. After continuing to live there for three years under the communist regime, she escaped with her family by boat to Malaysia in 1978. After staying in a Pulau Besar Refugee camp for three months, she resettled in Sydney, Australia, where she has remained ever since. She graduated with a bachelor of pharmacy in 1985 from Sydney University and has operated her own pharmacy since 1989. Nguyen has self- published two short stories and memoirs in Vietnamese, one in 2011 and one in 2016. Shock Peace: The Search for Freedom is her first novel.

For more information about Shock Peace: The Search for Freedom, please visit Nguyen’s website or Facebook page.

Honoring Our Veterans, Today and Every Day

Memorial Day 2015

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Memorial Day is a federal day of remembrance. It began as a way to remember those who died during the U.S. Civil War, but now it is a day to remember all who have served in the military, including our current troops.

Many people take the time to visit the graves of their loved ones who were veterans of war, while some have just placed flags on graves for those who served, even without knowing those soldiers personally. This is a day of remembrance for those who lost their lives in war.

While I agree that these men and women should be remembered, I also urge you to remember those who currently serve (and yes, they are celebrated in November). But I think the sacrifices these troops make, and in some cases, the legacy that they continue, is just as important as those who have passed before us.

I’m lucky to know many current members of the military who have bravely fought, served, and returned home in one piece, but there are so many who are still emotionally, psychologically, and physically scarred. These men deserve our care and consideration on this day. Rather than have a cookout or place a flag on a grave — though you can still do those things, too — why not volunteer in a VA for an hour or take some hard-earned cash and donate it to a veterans organization, like the Wounded Warrior Project.

Enjoy the time you have off with veterans and family. Make the most of it before it’s gone.

Final Week: Going After Cacciato Read-a-Long

Welcome to the final week of the 2014 War Through the Generations With a Twist Read-a-Long of Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien. For this discussion, we read Ch. 25-the end.

In a blend of reality and fantasy, this novel tells the story of a young soldier who one day lays down his rifle and sets off on a quixotic journey from the jungles of Indochina to the streets of Paris. In its memorable evocation of men both fleeing from and meeting the demands of battle, Going After Cacciato stands as much more than just a great war novel. Ultimately it’s about the forces of fear and heroism that do battle in the hearts of us all.

Here’s the reading schedule and discussion dates:

Serena: Do you think the use of the surreal and fantasy helps illustrate the process soldiers go through in coming to terms with their actions in war?

Anna: Yes, I think O’Brien does a great job showing the coping mechanisms that are needed for them to keep going after all they’ve seen and done. After the description of Cacciato dumping Buff’s face out of his helmet, I knew the whole story must be a daydream, which goes back to the quote before the opening of the novel: “Soldiers are dreamers.” Paul Berlin needed something to push these images out of his mind. And there were clues all along the way that things weren’t what they seemed.

Were you surprised about that aspect of the story? What do you think happened to Cacciato?

Serena: I wasn’t surprised so much that it was all a dream, and that Berlin had to create a fanciful story to make it through his daily missions.

Cacciato is the catalyst for Berlin’s daydream and it gives him hope that there is something beyond these jungles and the war. That there will be life after his time as a soldier. The helmet scene still disturbs me now!

What do you think about Doc’s position that war is war no matter the perspective and Berlin’s comments that you cannot outrun the consequences of running even the consequences of imagination?

Anna: Exactly. I didn’t feel cheated by it having been a dream because of the idea of hope and the sadness of the whole situation. The soldiers were just boys, and how can they not be haunted by it all?

There are consequences to every action, whether running or imagining that you are. It made me think about what the consequences might be for Berlin related to his imagination. He could lose himself (and his mind) in those dreams, lose his ability to see clearly, and lose his life as a result. And in a way, imagining that he was running was another form of running away from the war.

As for what Doc says, maybe he means that running or not running or dreaming about running, it’s all part of the war. The soldiers each come from a different place, have different perspectives, internalize what they see differently, but it doesn’t matter, because when it comes down to it, they’re all fighting the war.

What do you think was the significance of O’Brien calling him “Paul Berlin” throughout, never just “Paul” (or not that I recall anyway)?

Serena: I agree, even running away in his mind is a kind of desertion that would have consequences…but even then Berlin says that he never thought he would be a good soldier or even effective. I wonder if in that way he’s worse than Cacciato who gave it a go and just left.

I’m not sure why he was consistently referred to as Paul Berlin — there is some reference when he’s promoted to WWII and all of that, but I’m really not sure what to make of it. What are your thoughts on it?

Anna: I honestly don’t have a clue. There must be some significance because he’s the only character referred to by first and last name. For most of the other characters, you either know their first or last or a nickname but not both.

Do you think Sarkin Aung Wan was the girl with the gold hoop earrings that Paul Berlin wanted to like him, to see he had no malice in his soul? I know he’d kept saying how young she was throughout, but I didn’t make the connection between the two until after he described the girl with the gold hoops and then later described Sarkin Aung Wan taking hers off. O’Brien was very subtle in the clues he gave that the journey was a figment of Paul Berlin’s imagination.

Serena: I think Sarkin Aung Wan was the young girl with the earrings, but that’s why I’m a bit disturbed by his kissing her. While he clearly wanted more from her, there relationship seems pretty chaste. She also seems to be some kind of lifeline to hope — like if he can get her out of the war and to Paris, life will resume a more normal path, not like the crazy unpredictability of war.

There are so many moving elements in this book, fantasy and reality. What did you think about those Observation Post chapters? Did you think they were merely anchors to reality for readers? Or do you think they were something more?

Anna: I wasn’t so disturbed by the kiss, because based on all the talk about girls and sex, even with the kiss, their relationship was pretty chaste. Plus, he never says how old either girl is, and I just assumed she might be slightly younger than him. She’s young enough to be excited about beauty products, but old enough to understand that the lieutenant needs someone to care for him. He might have been attracted to the young village girl’s innocence, and that gave him hope.

The Observation Post chapters were interesting in that you knew they were taking place after the whole thing with Cacciato. I think those earlier OP chapters gave me the first inclination that the chapters in which they moved from country to country were a fantasy. So maybe they were a way to ground readers, to get them to see Paul Berlin’s state of mind as he contemplates it all when he’s alone in the dark of night.

Serena: I think you’re right about that.

Thanks, everyone, for joining us for this discussion. See you in 2015.

Week 1: Going After Cacciato Read-a-Long

Welcome to the first week of the 2014 War Through the Generations With a Twist Read-a-Long of Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien. For this discussion, we read through Chapter 24.

In a blend of reality and fantasy, this novel tells the story of a young soldier who one day lays down his rifle and sets off on a quixotic journey from the jungles of Indochina to the streets of Paris. In its memorable evocation of men both fleeing from and meeting the demands of battle, Going After Cacciato stands as much more than just a great war novel. Ultimately it’s about the forces of fear and heroism that do battle in the hearts of us all.

Here’s the reading schedule and discussion dates:

  • Friday, Dec. 12: Discussion of Chapters 1-24
  • Friday, Dec. 19: Discussion of Chapter 25-the end

Serena: What are your initial thoughts on the more surreal and real elements of the novel so far?

Anna: I can’t wait to find out more about why Cacciato left the war in the first place, but I was surprised by how surreal the novel is.  The shift in the time line between chapters was pretty jarring at first, but I do like that O’Brien goes back to fill in the gaps from the very first paragraph of the novel where he lists all the soldiers who died.  I’m still waiting to find out how the chapters in the observation post fit into the story, as they seem to occur after the whole business with Cacciato ends, though how it ends is still anyone’s guess.

At first the shifts in the time line had me confused, but I’m starting to understand the structure more.  I’m enjoying that I have no idea how it’s all going to play out.  However, the whole mission of finding Cacciato is a bit bizarre and hard to buy into, especially once they cross the border into Laos and seem to be more like civilians on vacation.  Of course, I can understand them looking for a way to escape the war, even if only for a little while.  I find myself just trying to go with the flow at this point.  It seems like a lot of the novel is about Paul Berlin and what at this point appears to be a breakdown in his mental state.

What do you think about it all?

Serena:  I think I’m at an advantage because I remembered parts of the novel being surreal and dream like — almost like a fantasy.  I think that at this point, Paul Berlin has definitely had a break with reality and perhaps all the stuff about Laos and “being on vacation” is just a fantasy he created to replace what really happened on the mission to get Cacciato.

All of these men in the unit seem to be eccentric, don’t they?  I find their personalities all over the place, with the one tough guy who handles it all with force and the burned out Lt. who is trying to keep as many people alive as he can but still complete the missions.

What did you think about Doc’s diagnosis of Berlin as having too many fear biles?

Anna: I was thinking that it might all be made up in his head. I hope we find out what really happened by the end if that’s the case.

Well, I’m sure the amount of pot they smoke on a daily basis helps contribute to those eccentricities. I do like how O’Brien gives them all distinct personalities, though, so that even though there are a lot of characters to remember, it’s fairly easy to tell them apart.

Doc is an especially interesting character because his diagnoses all seem to be from the 1800s, with all the talk about fear biles. Though when you take the “biles” out of the equation, what he has to say is pretty interesting.

What do you think of Paul’s relationship with the refugee girl? She’s definitely an interesting character, who seems both strong and flighty.

Serena: I agree about Doc and his remedies. They do seem to be pre-modern medicine. Perhaps he’s not really a medic at all, but the only one they have close enough to being one.

As for the refugee girl — I don’t remember from a previous reading — she could also be a fantasy of Berlin’s, especially if he saw her in town when he was on leave. Perhaps he paid for her services or she was just a girl who was nice to him at one point, and he’s got a rescue fantasy going on about her now. Regardless, she seems strong but still looking for someone to save her — which could be related to his perception of her.

I found the part in the tunnel system interesting, with the guy sentences to 10 years in the tunnels as a punishment. What are your thoughts on that guy?

I do like how O’Brien blends the surreal and real in these alternating chapters. It keeps the reader guessing.

Anna: Well, since this is my first time reading this novel, I’m just going with the flow. I know the story isn’t what it seems, and the quote from the very beginning of the book — “Soldiers are dreamers” — seems to be a big clue. I don’t want to spoil for myself the twist I sense coming, so I just file these little tidbits away while I wait for all the pieces to come together.

The section in the tunnel was probably the most surreal so far, especially the descriptions of them all falling through the hole in the road. I don’t know what to make of the prisoner in the tunnel, especially since it didn’t seem too hard for Paul Berlin’s group to get out of the tunnel system in the end. Maybe his story is symbolic of those dreams where you look for a way out but can’t find one.

And the whole thing about Cacciato is odd and doesn’t add up. He’s not just AWOL, but leading them somewhere, even warning them about the hole under the road before they fall through. He could have got away so many times, yet he’s always only one step ahead of them, almost like he’s taunting them. So it’s obvious there’s more to this story.

Serena: I agree there is a lot going on in this book, and I cannot wait to see how it all pans out — again!

What are your thoughts up through Ch. 24? Please chime in with your thoughts and questions. We’d love to hear from you.

For next week’s discussion, we’ll be reading the second half of the book. We hope you’ll join us.

December Read-a-Long of Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien

As part of the War Through The Generations 2014 Reading Challenge with a Twist, we’ll be hosting our final read-a-long in December for the Vietnam War.

For December, we’ll be reading Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien.

Discussion questions will be posted on Friday for the designated chapters.  Here’s the reading schedule and discussion dates:

 

  • Friday, Dec. 12: Discussion of Chapters 1-24
  • Friday, Dec. 19: Discussion of Chapter 25-the end

While we know that the final chapters fall on the say after Christmas for most of us, you can feel free to add to the discussion long after the holiday.

We hope you’ll be joining us next month for our final read-a-long.

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