Beyond Enemy Lines

September 18, 1995|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

Wayne Karlin would have killed her, of course. Had he spotted Le Minh Khue down in the jungle by the Ho Chi Minh Trail he'd have aimed the machine gun out the side of the helicopter and opened fire.

This occurred to the former U.S. Marine as he looked at Ms. Le, erstwhile member of a North Vietnamese Army Brigade, seated before him at breakfast in a house just south of Boston. Both had come to New England as fellow writers and veterans to a conference on war and writing about war.

Suddenly there was the enemy's face, which Mr. Karlin had never seen in 13 months at war in South Vietnam.

"I looked across the table then and saw her face, as if, after 20 years, it was at last emerging from the jungle canopy. She looked across at me and saw the same. It was that look, that sudden mutual seeing of the humanness we held in common ... that led to this book."

The passage appears in the introduction Mr. Karlin wrote to "The Other Side of Heaven," a powerful short story collection published this month. In the ever-expanding ocean of Vietnam War literature, this anthology stands alone. It was edited by former enemies and brings together the voices of veterans living in the United States and Vietnam for the first time.

The 393-page book -- which includes work by such American notables in the field as Tim O'Brien, Philip Caputo, Bobbie Ann Mason, Larry Heinemann and Robert Olen Butler -- eschews battlefield sagas and politics in favor of tales of shared loss and hope of reconciliation, of people trying to piece their lives back together after the chaos of war.

Such sentiments have for years motivated some American veterans to travel to Vietnam, visit old battlegrounds and seek some peace with themselves and former foes.

Earlier this year President Clinton took a big step toward reconciliation when he decided to restore full diplomatic relations with Vietnam. The timing of the book is purely coincidental to the renewed diplomatic ties; the anthology has been in the works since that writers' conference in Dorchester, Mass., in June 1993.

"We all felt this connection that happened much beyond the official program and that something ought to happen out of it," says Mr. Karlin, a novelist and short-story writer who lives in St. Mary's County and teaches at Charles County Community College. "The natural thing to come out of that is to write."

For two years Mr. Karlin worked as lead editor on the book with Ms. Le, a writer and editor living in Hanoi, and Truong Vu, a veteran of the South Vietnamese army who lives in Bowie and serves on the editorial boards of two Vietnamese language magazines published in California. Mr. Karlin met Mr. Truong through other writers and asked him to work on the book, thus assuring representation from all nations involved in the war.

The three wrote letters, sent faxes, mailed stories back and forth for translation and consultation. The logistics were complicated, as were the emotions each one brought to the table.

Mr. Karlin and Ms. Le met during the conference sponsored by the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences at the University of Massachusetts. For several weeks, writers from the United States and Vietnam gathered in two houses for workshops, seminars, late-night drinking and talking.

Early in the conference, as Mr. Karlin and Ms. Le sat at the kitchen table one morning, the conversation being conducted through an interpreter inevitably turned to what each had done in the war.

"I said, 'Well, helicopter gunner for a time,' " Mr. Karlin recalls. "And then she gave me a look that was, actually, hatred."

Both were stationed near the border of North and South Vietnam at times in 1966 and early 1967. Mr. Karlin, 50, was variously assigned as a clerk, a guard along the camp perimeter in Quang Tri province and a helicopter machine gunner.

Ms. Le, 45, worked in a youth brigade on the network of rough-hewn roads in western Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. After the American bombings, the brigades would move in to fill craters and keep the roads open.

"They particularly hated the helicopters because they'd come down and they'd strafe anything on the ground, which is why she looked at me that way," says Mr. Karlin. "We would fire down into places where the Ho Chi Minh Trail was supposed to be. I never saw anything down there . . . I just had this picture suddenly of this person, you know, crouching down there. And it really moved me terribly. Because I thought, what a waste, what a terrible thing it would have been if I had killed this person. I knew if I'd seen her on the ground I would have shot her without hesitation."

She dropped out of high school to join the army at 15, along with the rest of her class. She was one of the few to survive the war, she told Mr. Karlin.

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