Sunday, November 14, 2010



While at Harvard doing research for a book on Agent Orange, I came across a book given to Matt Meselson by Dr. John Constable. It was written by Le Cao Dai, a Vietnamese surgeon and published in English (Memoirs of War—The Central Highlands: a North Vietnamese Journal of Life on the Ho Chi Minh Trail 1965-1973 Hanoi, The Gioi, 2004). Dr. Constable was a friend of Dr. Dai and helped the Vietnamese establish plastic surgery units before, during, and after, the Vietnamese war. Dr Dai’s book is based on a journal he kept to be given to his wife in case he was killed. Dr Dai and his fellow soldiers were instructed to be like Robinson Crusoe once they left North Vietnam. They would have to improvise from the resources of the tropical rain forest after they established their portable field hospital.

This they did. They quickly learned to keep dry by sleeping in hammocks. If two trees were not close enough, they tied one end of the hammock to the spokes of a parked bicycle. For their trucks they always made sure to carry a pole cut from a young tree so that if the truck tipped over in the muddy terrain, they could right it, using the pole as a lever. They made their own sandals from unrepairable automobile or truck tires. They brewed their own alcohol from a plant with high sugar content and thus could carry out antiseptic surgery. They kept hospital records on the backs of can labels when they ran out of paper. They never assembled more than ten people in any one location and the last person in a marching column would erase the footprints of the group on the trail. They preserved rice and beans from rotting by storing them in tied condoms. They covered their flashlights and punched a hole in the cover allowing a spaghetti thin beam to see their way in the dark. They set up decoy smoking hearths in areas that would then be sprayed, sparing their own covert position. If they did happened to get sprayed, they could dismantle their field hospital and move it to a new location in a matter of hours, long before the herbicides caused the leaves to fall.

One of the important lessons frequently ignored in war, is not to underestimate the enemy. When we thought of the Vietnamese as “gooks” and reduced their personalities to their (or our) worst propaganda, we erred by failing to see them as resourceful human beings like us. Just as we enjoyed reading Robinson Crusoe as children, so did our Vietnamese adversaries, either in Vietnamese or French (as French Indochina before their civil war began, they were bilingual). The other important lesson is that everything is connected. Daniel Defoe read the story of Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish adventurer who was abandoned on an island in the Atlantic Ocean and who was rescued several years later. Had Defoe not embellished Selkirk’s story, turning him into the memorable character Robinson Crusoe, we would probably never have heard of Selkirk’s adventure. But as a literary classic written more than 200 years ago, it lives on around the world and captured the imaginations of the Viet Cong living in the Ho Chi Minh Trail as vividly as it did to each of us when as a youngster we thrilled to Robinson Crusoe’s resourcefulness, courage, and passion to live. .

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