Views of Vietnam by a once-bitter American, a Briton with anti-U.S. bias

December 22, 1991|By Wayne Karlin



Frederick Downs. Norton.

pages. $22.95.


Justin Wintle.


464 pages. $25. In one of the most poignant and resonant scenes in "No Longer Enemies, Not Yet Friends" -- a book filled with poignant and resonant scenes -- Frederick Downs, who lost his left arm in Vietnam, is demonstrating the use of an adjustable plastic leg to Vietnamese officials in Hanoi. He is using four former North Vietnamese soldiers, amputees, as volunteers. When he asks one how he had lost his leg, the man says it happened while fighting the Americans and, in turn, asks Mr. Downs how he was injured.

Mr. Downs replies that his arm was blown off when he was fighting the North Vietnamese. As he touches the leg stump of his former enemy, "tracing the scars . . . I felt the nerves in my own stump tingled from phantom pain. . . . All of us amputees in the room were experiencing phantom pains. They had started . . . as we entered the room, thinking about our purpose."

Their purpose was healing. For both countries, the war, the soldiers who returned from it and those who didn't have become the phantom pain the ache in the night that webs us together.

Mr. Downs, director of Prosthetic and Sensory Aids Service for the Veterans Administration, lost his left arm to a Viet Cong mine in 1967; 20 years later, he reluctantly returned to Vietnam, again as a representative of his government. He made five trips during 1987-1989 on the mission led by retired Gen. John W. Vessey.

General Vessey was to get facts about POW/MIA's in Vietnam, while a separate team, which included Mr. Downs, was to make recommendations to U.S. non-governmental organizations for aid to Vietnamese hospitals and rehabilitation centers. There was to be no direct linkage between the issues, both defined as humanitarian rather than political, but clearly there was a hope. Indeed, according to Mr. Downs, a result was to get the Vietnamese moving on accounting for American MIA's and returning their remains.

That issue had been the central concern for those opposing normalization of relations with Vietnam, a position Mr. Downs shared. In two previous books about his experiences, he wrote of a soldier who had learned to hate the enemy and for whom nothing in his life, for 20 years after the war, contradicted that lesson. Before going back, Mr. Downs saw the Vietnamese as "dinks" and "ghouls" who wanted to trade the bodies of MIA's for assistance.

In the account of his return, Mr. Downs shows what brought him to understand the existence of a mirroring bitterness, a pain and a patriotism as deep and as understandable as his own on the other side, and the need for mutual extensions of mercy and generosity from both sides to allow each's traumatic loss to be acknowledged and healed. In extraordinary and often wrenching detail, he describes both the lives of ordinary people in Vietnam today and of the needs of veterans and other victims of war (1.4 million disabled and 500,000 orphans) who are enduring in filthy and primitive conditions because of the lack of basic services and equipment in a desperately poor country.

What Mr. Downs witnessed allowed him to see the Vietnamese not as enemies anymore, but as human beings, good and bad, but all linked inextricably to him, and to us, by the same war that had become a part of himself. "Once a man has contributed his blood and honor to a country," he writes, "he is always a part of what it becomes."

"No Longer Enemies, Not Yet Friends" is a powerful and searing odyssey that recounts an unrepentant warrior's return to the land of his enemy -- part of an official mission of reconciliation that comes to parallel a personal reconciliation that comes full circle and becomes a call for national healing. Mr. Downs "[saw] the people and walked the streets and lost [his] hate." His book allows us to do the same.

"Romancing Vietnam," by Briton Justin Wintle, also sets out to show the reality of Vietnam as opposed to Vietnam's mythological niche in the American psyche -- the "Vietnam" seen in movies and books that "were all preoccupied with American values, American soldiers, American experience. . . . Vietnam has come to mean . . . a nexus of sights and sounds that describe, simultaneously, American guilt and American prowess."

His self-imposed task was to show the real country, a laudable idea. But for the most part what we get is "Romancing Wintle": the author and the act of writing his book, more than the country, seem his main concern.

It's not that Mr. Wintle seems a bad fella. But do we really need another wandering Brit decrying American cultural imperialism (the phrase in Vietnamese that Mr. Wintle really wanted to learn, he tells us, was "Help, I am not an American") while reporting, ad nauseam, in a tone of supercilious amusement, the sometimes exasperating ways the locals just didn't get his program?

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