A Historical Literary Analysis: The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam by Bau Nihn

The 19th and 20th century experienced an avalanche of war and genocide worldwide with an estimated over 160 million people loosing their lives (Clodfelter).

Such a tragic fact is a testament to former President John F. Kennedy’s view that tyranny, poverty, disease, and war are indeed the four major ills that plague mankind and the universe. It was during his brief/ influential yet tragic presidency that the early phases of the Vietnam War commenced, one amongst the cadre of mass wars and destruction.

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A post Cold War era military conflict initiated by the French, the Vietnam War spanned November 1, 1955 to April 30, 1975 with the fall and capture of Saigon by the North Vietnamese. In 1973, the U.S. Congress passed the Case-Church Amendment which officially ended U.S.

military involvement in Vietnam. Vietnam or the Socialist Republic of Vietnam is an easternmost country situated on the Indochina Peninsula located in Southeast Asia. With over 89 million inhabitants ranking it the 13th most populated country in the world, Vietnam is bordered by the People’s Republic of China, Laos, Cambodia, and the South China Sea. Since its independence from China in 938 AD, Vietnam flourished and lived a relatively peaceful existence until 19th century French colonization which brought about politically divided country (North and South Vietnam). This political division ended with the 1975 North Vietnamese victory as well. An exact death toll of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians killed has been hard to determine however, historical data/statistics renders a staggering three million plus. 200,000–300,000 Cambodians, 20,000–200,000 Laotians, and 58,220 U.S.

servicemen and women lost their lives as well (Hirschman). Gender, age, creed, race, religion, etc., environment, key components of culture, affects how an individual perceives him or herself, others, situations – the world at large. In addition to these components, the entire infrastructure of people’s culture (political, economic, educational institutions, etc.) is interwoven with personal impressions, ideas, emotions, etc. Culture is conveyed thru many elements, with literature being one. Vietnamese literature for centuries was in the form folkloric tales and poems. Modernization came via exposure to Western culture in the 19th century.

The Vietnam War/massacre is the backdrop for the critically acclaimed 1995 novel, The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam by iconic Vietnamese novelist and short story writer, Bao Ninh. The Sorrow of War, winner of The Independent Foreign Fiction Award, is a superb and compelling example of a canon of world literature that brings understanding to and exposes the true fruits of war – unimaginable mass human suffering and land devastation coupled with incessant cruelties, atrocities, and abuses. It is also an excellent example of historical literary fiction which is based on actual historical events but the principal characters are fictional. These fictional characters participate in actual historical events and it is their observations and participation that affects the point of view of the story. Red Badge of Courage, Little Women, War and Peace, to name a few, is illustrative of the genre.

As Bao Ninh personally discovered war is futile. Born in the Nghe An province of Northern Vietnam, Bau Ninh was born Hoang Au Phuong on October 18, 1952. He catapulted to literary prominence as a successful short story writer and the publication of his first novel, The Destiny of Love (Hanoi – 1991) with The Sorrow of War as the English translation. Ninh, like many Vietnamese youth, fought in the Vietnam War having served with the Glorious 27th Youth Brigade. He joined the war effort in 1965 at the age 13 and quickly rose threw the ranks to command scout units in the Brigade. Of the 500 brigade members who participated in the 1969 military campaign, Ninh was one of ten to survive and of that ten who survived, six committed suicide.

His literary cadre is reflective of his experiences in the war and autobiographical in essence. A nonlinear or disjointed narrative told in the third person, The Sorrow of War chronicles the life of a Vietnamese soldier named Kien over a ten year period. The nonlinear narrative coupled with a series of reminiscences and flashbacks, enhances the realism of the story in that it is indicative of the human memory process and the mind’s ability to cope with and recant a cataclysmic event. Like the character Paul Baumer in All Quiet on the Western Front by German novelist Erich Maria Remarque (a World War I veteran), Kien’s sense of youth, innocence, love, family, tradition, and life itself has been destroyed by war the detriments of war. The novel contains many parallel stories such as his relationship with beautifully gifted and loving Phuong (his childhood sweetheart turned prostitute), his tenure at school to his job as a body-collector with the MIA (missing in action) in the Jungle of the Screaming Souls.

War is relentless. Ninh’s narrative and descriptive imagery/writing style is relentless and straightforward as exemplified by the following excerpts: The diamond–shaped glass clearing was piled high with bodies killed by helicopter gunships. Broken bodies, bodies blown apart, bodies vaporized. No jungle grew again in this clearing. No grass. No plants. “Better to die than surrender my brothers? Better to die?” the battalion commander yelled insanely; waving his pistol infront of Kien he blew his own brains out threw his ear.

Kien screamed soundlessly in his throat at the sigh , as the Americans attacked the submachine guns, sending bullets buzzing like deadly bees around him. Then Kien lowered his machine gun, and fell, rolling slowly down the bank of a shallow stream, hot blood trailing down the slope after him (Ninh, 5). When the flood receded everything dried in the heat of the sun into thick mud and stinking rotting meat. And down the bank and along the stream Kien dragged himself, bleeding from the mouth and his body wound. The blood was cold and sticky, like blood from a corpse.

Snakes and centipedes crawled over him, and he felt death’s hand on him. After that battle no one mentioned Battalion 27 any more, though numerous souls of ghosts and devils were born in that deadly defeat. They were still loose, wandering in every corner and bush in the jungle, drifting along the stream, refusing to depart for the Other World. From then on it was called the Jungle of Screaming Souls (Ninh, 6). The Sorrow of War is ardently an anti-war and anti-communist novel.

Above all, however, it is simply anti-mass destruction and human suffering. The Vietnam War profoundly impacted Vietnam, affecting all aspects of Vietnamese life from an historical, political, and environmental as well humanistic perspective. Images – aided by movies and novels such as Apocalypse Now, Coming Home, Fourth of July, First Blood, Saigon, The Quiet American, etc. – which usually come to mind about the war are U.S.

anti-war protests and its affect on American society and people. With Nihn’s novel a relevant and obvious point of view comes is brought to the forefront – what about war’s impact/toll on the Vietnamese people. Kien is a survivor who miraculously manages to defeat death at all turns. But despite such a feat, he has witnessed much death and destruction causing him to search for personal salvation, self respect and identity. Thru such a search Ninh suggests a glimmer of hope does exist and prevails even in the most horrific of circumstances. How can one truly believe in life and the quality thereof after witnessing such atrocities? These are the underlying questions of Ninh’s novel.

Prior to the publication of Sorrow, most Vietnamese accounts were in the form patriotic poems, memoirs, etc. In Vietnam or for that matter the world at large, expose/focus of the above mentioned factors/questions was minimal compared to the U.S. Knowingly or unknowingly, negative portrayals of the Vietnamese were perpetuated. Nihn humanizes the Vietnamese people, attesting a commonality among mankind, that we are all human. Most importantly, the novel conveys the love and pride the Vietnamese had for their country. As evidence by Kien’s battalion commander, rather than surrender they were willing to die.

They did not succumb to the military might of the U.S., using jungle warfare to their advantage. Jungle warfare came to prominence in World War II and reached a level of refinement during the Vietnam War. From a military tactical standpoint, American forces mastered jungle warfare in Vietnam. They failed, however, to win a jungle-based insurgency war due to lack of a successful strategic program, thereby losing the political war in Vietnam. As the above death toll statistics reveal aided by Ninh’s novel, no one was victorious.

“Controversial, unflinching, powerful, dramatic” are the descriptive adjectives that dawn the book’s cover with a picture of distant Vietnamese walking down an orange burnt road/pathway bordered by tall brooding bamboo trees. Such adjectives confirm the impact of book and are further substantiated by the critical reviews in the book’s jacket cover. All the more remarkable for being an honest account of the conflict in Vietnam…from the winning side…The realities of war are a frenzied, dehumanizing aggression, and the creation of an unnatural thirst for killing and wanton cruelty…The pain of the Vietnam conflict has been told and retold in the West. A few propaganda films aside, North Vietnam has remained silent. Until Now. (The Economist).

This remarkable war novel from North Vietnam is a tribute to the sheer spirit of the Vietnamese (Irish Press). This hauntingly beautiful novel, written by a North Vietnamese army veteran, manages to humanize completely a people until now have usually been cast as robotic fanatics (The Sunday Times – London). History is in essence a written, oral, preserved chronological order of past events (Lemon). It is the mechanism through which the human experience is put into perspective – past, present, and future. History assists in understanding past tragedies as well triumphs and is a tool to measure success and failure.

Without knowledge of the past, mankind cannot live a successful life. History is a measuring rod to ascertain natural feelings and desires – how one thinks. The essential key to understanding the importance of history is who the authors are and what is their agenda. Are they committed to truth or have they put their personal spin/slant on it and for what reason? Bau Ninh was committed to telling the truth about the Vietnamese experience and his personal slant was governed by his experience making The Sorrow of War’s impact indelible.

Tragically war continues to plague the earth and all mankind. One of the key producers of today’s genetically modified food is Monsanto, the creators of Agent Orange – the U.S.’s germ warfare during the Vietnam War. Will we ever learn?


Clodfelter, Michael. Warfare and Armed Conflicts: A Statistical Reference to Casualty and Other Figures, 1618-1991; Mcfarland & Co Inc Pub, 1992.

Hirschman, Charles et al. “Vietnamese Casualties During the American War: A New Estimate,” Population and Development Review, December 1995. Lemon, Michael C. The Discipline of History and the History of Thought. Routledge, 1995. Ninh, Bau.

The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam. Pantheon Books, 1995


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