Brothers in Arms <i> A Journey From War to Peace by William Broyles Jr. (Knopf: $17.95; 283 pp.) </i>
Kim Phuuc’s name doesn’t mean much to most of us, but she does; or she did once. I am thinking of a photograph of her that, more than any speech or article, subtracted Americans from the Vietnam War. It showed her as a little girl running naked towards us, screaming, after a napalm attack.
That picture was worth many more than the proverbial thousand words. Pictures can be too powerful to be quite true. They stop time, whereas truth lives in time. Truth asks for an “and then.”
William Broyles Jr. visited Vietnam two years ago to talk to those whom, as a soldier, he had known only as lethal shadows. His account, “Brothers in Arms,” would be worthwhile if it did nothing more than bring us 13 words that re-insert the photograph of Kim Phuuc into time passing.
He met her in Hanoi. She is studying to be a doctor but does not know whether her stamina and her badly burned arms will let her make it. It is one of her two ambitions, she told Broyles, and she also told him of the other one: “I would like just once to be able to wear a short-sleeved shirt.”
“A Journey From War to Peace” is the subtitle for Broyles’ mix of conversations and observations in 1984, along with reflections and recollections from his war a dozen years earlier. Its achievement is to link the Vietnam that lives in our minds as a historic moment--a crisis, a catastrophe, a symbol, a photograph--to the Vietnam that goes on living today in the history we all share.
Do not look for brilliant style or systematic profundity. Broyles has some arresting perceptions but he is not a theorist. He can be orotund when he contemplates the empty site of some former American fire-base and compares it to flattened Carthage. And he can be very flat.
Formerly editor of Newsweek, Broyles is a superb reporter. He gave himself an imaginative and original assignment. Find out how the war, fading fast in our own memory, looked to those who fought us, and what it means to them today.
He won permission and facilities to travel about Vietnam, north and south. He met former generals and privates, pilots and anti-aircraft gunners, tunnel rats and infiltrators, Viet Cong squad leaders and even a South Vietnamese general who chose to stay behind when the communists won.
More than meeting them, he persevered through suspicion, defenses and ideological thicketry and got them to open up remarkably.
“Instead of drying up the sea,” the former ARVN general remarked, referring to the sea-and-fishes theory of anti-guerrilla warfare, “you simply moved it around.” The shock of American tactics, in other words, created new patches of support even while eradicating the old ones.
Broyles knew what to ask and what to listen for; when to argue and when to subside in puzzled silence. He counted on the traditional bond that unites those who fight together and, years later, those who fought each other. “War is the closest many of us ever come to a Utopian experience,” he writes, speaking of the companionship.
He can press the aesthetics of war too far. He does it deliberately, in order to puncture the complacent ignorance maintained by our civilian world about those who fight for it. But, to write of the “fulsome elegance” of white phosphorus comes awfully close to Mussolini’s son-in-law comparing the sight of bombs dropped on the Ethiopians to flowers opening.
Broyles’ travels deliver a remarkable and often unexpected picture of Vietnam a dozen years after the communist victory.
He finds Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, as sensual and unredeemed as ever. “It was like flying from Moscow to Los Angeles,” he writes of his flight from Hanoi. He finds an indomitable and often scabrous private economy going on, with drugs, fake Buddhas and women peddled within five blocks of his hotel. He comes across the melancholy of former Viet Cong cadres, their struggle and authority preempted by the communists from the north. Northern officials tell him frankly of their failure to impose Marxist ideology in the south.
Everywhere he went, he encountered a great deal of friendliness, particularly after people realized he was American and not Russian. He went jogging the first day, and a group of soldiers invited him to join them. They ran far longer than he did; on the other hand, he could do more push-ups. Which leads him to reflect that legs are everything in jungle warfare; and upper body strength is secondary.
Everything leads back to Broyles’ search for military understanding, military memories, and the comradeship of old enmities. He recalls the planeloads of American troops shipped home after a year’s tour of duty. Conversation after conversation reminds him that, for the other side, “war was their home.”
A northern veteran speaks of his emotion at the cheering when his unit took Da Nang. By contrast, the author recalls how out-of-place he felt in his uniform when he returned to the United States. “It was as if we fought two different wars,” he muses.
Perhaps nothing conveys the difference of those wars better than a conversation one night with a former northern officer. He and Broyles fell to comparing the Soviet-supplied AK-47 automatic weapon with the American M-16. The Marines thought the AK-47 far sturdier and more efficient, Broyles remarks. Yes, the other said, but we preferred the M-16. Why? Because ammunition was so easily available. The Soviet ammunition had to be shipped in. But the Americans would leave theirs strewn about. And the South Vietnamese would sell it.