Kontum Diary: Captured Writings Bring Peace to a Vietnam Veteran
by Paul Reed and Ted Schwarz, SummitPublishing Group, Arlington, Texas, 1996, $22.95.
One of the great unanswered questions for most combat veterans is what was his counterpart on the other side of the line really like. What were his thoughts? What were his emotions? During the actual fighting, many front-line soldiers suppress such feelings by demonizing the enemy and seeing him as less than human. In World War I it was the “Hun,” in World War II the”dirty Nazi” or the “slant-eyed Jap.” In Korea it was the “gook,” a term carried over into the war in Vietnam.
But after the battle, the truth comes home to haunt. In his classic World War II novel The Naked and the Dead, Norman Mailer paints a poignant picture of an American soldier going through the personal effects of a Japanese prisoner his squad had just executed, and finding a man much like himself. That’s what belatedly happened to Paul Reed, a trooper in the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Vietnam, who was involved in some hard fighting against North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regulars in Kontum province in 1968.
Twenty-one years later, still nursing his hatred of the Vietnamese, he rediscovered in a box of souvenirs he had sent home from the war the diary of an NVA soldier he thought he had killed. Kontum Dairy is the story of how that diary changed his life. For one thing, he was to discover that its author, Lieutenant Nguyen Van Nghia of the NVA 304th Division, was still alive. For another, like Mailer’s soldier, he found by reading the diary that the hated enemy was much like himself.
In his reflections on the diary, Reed’s innocence–or more likely, the biases of his chronicler, professional writer Ted Schwarz–shows through. Reed’s statement that “the South had a dictatorship as brutal in its own way as that which existed in the North” would be ridiculed as hopelessly naive by both North and South Vietnamese alike. And his wonderment that the 304th NVA Division, veterans of the battle of Dien Bien Phu 24 years earlier, was not a”rag-tag guerrilla force who happened to get hold of sophisticated weapons” is hard to fathom, especially given Reed’s firsthand experience with those regulars in the fighting at Kontum. Be that as it may, Reed would travel to Vietnam to be reunited with his former adversary.
As General William C. Westmoreland says in his foreword to Kontum Diary, “Many soldiers…allow their hate and prejudices to fester throughout their lives, never seeing who they are and why they must each come to respect the others when the flowers again bloom in the killing fields of their past. For Paul Reed and Nguyen Van Nghia, a diary of thoughts and poetry bridged the hatreds of war.”
James H. Gaul