Who lost the Vietnam War? By Vietnamese refugee turned U.S. Marine Pham’s account, it wasn’t the much-maligned South Vietnamese soldier.
Pham opens this slender memoir with both barrels blazing, voicing unkind thoughts about “six U.S. presidents, the U.S. Congress, arrogant Pentagon leaders from the supposed ‘greatest generation, [and] hippie antiwar protestors,” along with the press corps, the South Vietnamese leadership and, of course, the victorious Communists, who made him a refugee in 1975. He was luckier than his father, a South Vietnamese combat pilot who served a dozen years in hard-labor prison camps that were meant to reeducate him; when he was finally released and allowed to go to the United States, whose interest he had faithfully served, he “never received a welcome home, veteran’s benefits, or a pension.” Well, as we know, homegrown veterans of Vietnam have been ill served, too, and Pham, a veteran of a later conflict, discovered for himself that there’s a steady supply of dishonor in service: following in his father’s footsteps, this time as a pilot in the very unit for which his father flew support, he was taunted, called a Viet Cong and subjected to daily rations of racism. The tough Marine, who spices his narrative with due saltiness—replying to a columnist who asked during the 2004 election whether anyone still cares about Vietnam, Pham grumbles, “I fucking care”—admits to an ethnic blunder or two himself, once confusing a general’s Asian wife for a cleaning woman. But what he encounters in these pages is clearly a pattern of discrimination that drove him from the service after Gulf War I. “I could have gone as far as I wanted in the Corps,” he writes, “but it was no longer worth the stress.”
There are bad feelings aplenty in this angry memoir, not just with respect to Pham’s own experience but because of the fate of his homeland, which, he protests, should have been worth defending at least as much as South Korea—and, he adds, perhaps even Iraq.