Last Night I Dreamed of Peace
The Diary of Dang Thuy Tram
By Dang Thuy Tram, translated by Andrew X. Pham
Harmony / 227 pages / $19.95
Nonfiction books about the war in Vietnam have been written mainly by Americans, usually journalists, historians and former soldiers. Over the past 40 years their interpretations and memoirs have shaped (along with Hollywood movies) the way Americans think about the war. While these perspectives are vital, one crucial aspect tends to go missing: the voice of the Vietnamese and, even more so, the voice of the "other side" - the North Vietnamese. The publication of Last Night I Dreamed of Peace: The Diary of Dang Thuy Tram, translated by Catfish and Mandala author Andrew X. Pham, helps fill this gap and presents a major contribution to the literature of the Vietnam War.
Dang Thuy Tram, or Thuy as she calls herself in her diary, volunteered as a doctor for the National Liberation Front, or Viet Cong, from 1967 to 1970. She did not survive the war, but her words did.
In 1970, Fred Whitehurst, an American officer who had served three tours and worked with military intelligence in Vietnam, was sorting and destroying captured war documents when he came across the pages of Thuy's small, sewn-together diary. "Don't burn this one, Fred," an interpreter told him. "It has fire in it already."
Moved by Thuy's writing, Whitehurst kept the pages, and over the years he and his brother, also a Vietnam veteran, worked on translating them and finding Thuy's family. In 2005 the diary was returned to her family in Hanoi. Published in Vietnam that year, it became an instant best-seller.
Last Night I Dreamed of Peace begins two months after the Tet Offensive in 1968. The year before, Thuy was 24 and fresh out of medical school when she left the comfort of her Hanoi family to join a clinic in Quang Ngai, a battle-torn province 300 miles north of Saigon. Thuy took care of wounded North Vietnamese soldiers, performed operations and amputations, trained medical staff and helped keep the unit on the move from air raids and attacks.
In her diary, she is concise ("Operated on one case of appendicitis with inadequate anesthesia") and impassioned ("Must I keep filling my small diary with pages of blood? But Thuy! Let's record, record completely all the blood and bones.") She describes the war in vivid, personal detail: "Thanh was shot right at the stream on the path that led to my house. ... The grave is not yet finished, but people are already carrying Thanh back. A day has passed, but blood still seeps from his body, soaking the wrapping sheet red."
While the diary can stand alone as a document of the horrors of war, it also reveals the heart and mind of a young woman dealing with duty and uncertainty.
Thuy wants to be a good doctor and Communist Party member, yet she also admits to loneliness, longings and self-doubt. She frequently scolds herself: "I demand too much of life, don't I? Answer that, Thuy, Miss Stubborn, difficult to please."
She is a captivating character, at once brave, wistful and utterly human. She is bothered by the idea of people disliking her, joyous at receiving praise and concerned that her friendships with soldiers, whom she calls "brothers," not be perceived as romantic. Vacillating between hope and sorrow, Thuy often writes directly to those close to her, addressing them as "you:" "I have a frantic fear that the war will not spare anyone, that even you may fall while fulfilling your duties. Then ... what can I do, young brother?" For Thuy, duty and idealism take the lead.
All these strands - violence, death, Thuy's role as a doctor, responsibilities and desires - create a tense and complex portrait of war, its demands and consequences. Thuy dreams of returning home to her family in Hanoi but remains committed to her work and to the party, even as her escapes from danger become narrower.
"All day and night, the sounds of bombs, jet planes, gunships, and HU-1As circling above are deafening," she writes. "The forest is gouged and scarred by bombs, the remaining trees stained yellow by toxic chemicals." On March 29, 1970: "Artillery bombardment from Chop Mountain falls near our shelter. Huge shrapnel shatters a tree trunk in the middle of the operating room. A question reverberates in my mind: If the enemy comes, how can we move the injured in time?"
Three months later, after deciding to stay in a bombed-out temporary clinic to take care of five wounded men, Thuy was shot and killed while walking down a trail.
With this translation of Thuy's diary, Pham - who explains in the preface that his father helped translate the book but refused any credit - has given us an important and seldom-heard point of view on the Vietnam War. His judicious notes provide historical and cultural context to Thuy's life and the timeline of the war. Along with Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Frances FitzGerald's wonderfully comprehensive introduction, they bring even greater depth and resonance to Thuy's story.
Last Night I Dreamed of Peace is a book to be read by all and included in any course on the literature of war.
Bich Minh Nguyen, who was a baby when her family fled Vietnam in 1975, is the author of the memoir "Stealing Buddha's Dinner." She teaches literature and creative writing at Purdue University. A version of this review appeared in The Chicago Tribune.