Beyond Enemy Lines


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.

After she published her first short story in 1969 she became a government war correspondent. Ms. Le now works as an editor for the publishing house of the Vietnam Writer's Association in Hanoi, a government-sponsored organization. A telephone interview with her could not be arranged in time for publication of this story.

Even before there was a book in the works, Ms. Le and Mr. Truong met at Mr. Truong's spacious suburban home in 1993 under the auspices of the Indochina Project, a relief program run by the Vietnam Veterans of America. The two established a rapport in their mutual love of literature.

This was no small feat, given their backgrounds. Whatever bitterness Americans may feel toward the Vietnamese, it pales in comparison to the resentment between the vanquished southerners and victorious northerners of Vietnam.

"My God, I can tell you, the hatred is still there," Mr. Truong says, shaking his head. "I'm still a little bit angry."

Mr. Truong, 53, a NASA aerospace engineer, was teaching mathematics at a college in South Vietnam when the war ended in April 1975.

The following March, after learning the Communists planned to send him to a re-education camp, Mr. Truong escaped with four nephews to the Philippines on a 30-foot wooden fishing boat. The 800-mile trip across the South China Sea took eight days.

After spending months in a refugee camp in the Philippines, Mr. Truong came to the United States. His wife and five children could not join him in Maryland until 1985.

Mr. Truong, who served in an administrative position in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, has not been back to his home country since he fled.

Mr. Karlin had not been back since he finished his 13-month tour of duty in April 1967. As part of his work as lead editor on "The Other Side of Heaven," he visited Vietnam for the first time last December, spending two weeks in Hanoi and nearby provinces.

He met with officials of the Writer's Association hoping to get their cooperation in compiling the book and with writers to get permission to publish their stories. Planning for the book made news in Vietnam, says Mr. Karlin, who was interviewed by television crews along the way.

"This had never been done before. It was all new ground," he says. At the Writer's Association offices in Hanoi, he says, "I felt like Kissinger sitting there at these round tables with the flags and the pictures on the walls."

It proved easier to get the cooperation of the Vietnamese than to find an American publisher interested in the book. Mr. Karlin, who has co-edited one Vietnam fiction anthology and published four novels and several short stories, was turned down by several big publishers.

All gave similar replies: "Nobody wants to read this," says Mr. Karlin.

Alexander Taylor, co-director of Curbstone Press, a small, 20-year-old, nonprofit company in Willimantic, Conn., says he immediately liked the idea.

"It's a historic occasion, that former enemies would sit down and try to edit an anthology together," says Mr. Taylor.

He says 10,000 copies have been printed, about three times the usual run at Curbstone. Mr. Karlin says there are plans to publish the book in Vietnam. Proceeds from book sales will be donated to support a pediatric and obstetrics and gynecology clinic in Hue, Vietnam.

The book has already been favorably reviewed by Publishers Weekly, which called it "stunning in both scope and content."

Marc Leepson, arts editor and book reviewer for The VVA Veteran, the monthly newspaper of the Vietnam Veterans Association, says he's never seen a book like this one and considers the quality of the stories "uniformly excellent."

Mr. Karlin says he was surprised at first by the stories from writers of the north. He was expecting Communist propaganda. What he got were human stories that bore striking similarities to the stories written by American veterans and others in the United States whose lives were affected by the war.

North Vietnamese Army veteran Nguyen Quang Lap contributed "The Sound of Harness Bells," a tale of a childless middle-aged married couple united after 21 years of wartime separation. Their hope in the future, their desire to put war behind them, is embodied in their effort to have a baby. The story ends as the exuberant new father celebrates outside the hospital. But he has not yet seen his newborn son, who is horribly deformed because of his wife's exposure to the jungle plant-killer Agent Orange.

There are stories of hauntings by the ghosts of war dead, stories of people trapped by grief. A South Vietnamese veteran contributed a story of two wounded veterans -- a blind man from the north, and an amputee from the south -- talking in a cafe.

Mr. Leepson says writing by Vietnamese authors is "one of the outstanding blanks" in a genre otherwise overflowing with material.

Mr. Karlin himself has contributed two Vietnam genre novels and several short stories. Sometimes he says he grows weary of the subject. So does Ms. Le, he says.

"I asked her if she still wrote about the war," he says. "She said yes, but she's sick of it. I laughed and I said, 'I feel the same way.' But, you know, she always came back to what choice do we have about it. . . . I know in my case and I think in her case also, we would have been writers whatever particular life experience we had, but we were handed this one. When you're handed that, there's kind of an obligation to deal with it. That obligation is not just because it was a vivid experience, it's because there are now a lot of dead people involved. And there's something that's owed."

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