A Liberation Doctor: Dang Thuy Tram

by Mark Chmiel

Last evening I had a conversation with my friend Suzanne, who is a playwright. I asked about her play, which deals with an Iraq war veteran and if she considered producing it a second time. She wondered aloud if the arts could truly speak to such a calamity as war, or are they only able to provide entertainment. I remembered a passage from one of Kafka’s letters and attempted to reassure her that plays—like books—could, indeed, be what we need precisely at this time:

“If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skull, why then do we read it? So that it shall makes us happy? Good God, we would also be happy if we had no books, and such books as make us happy we could, if need be, write ourselves. But what we must have are those books which come upon us like ill-fortune, and distress us deeply, like the death of one we love better than ourselves, like suicide. A book must be an ice-axe to break the sea frozen inside us.” {1}

Recently I have had just such an encounter with a book: Last Night I Dreamed of Peace: The Diary of Dang Thuy Tram. Published in English in 2007, it’s the diary of a young doctor from Hanoi who goes south to support the struggle against the U.S. occupation of South Vietnam in 1967. In the mountains of central Vietnam, she worked in hospitals and clinics, attending to wounded civilians and the revolutionary fighters. It’s hard to imagine being faithful to a diary under such excruciating and continually dangerous circumstances. Yet, throughout these pages, there are brilliant flashes of humanity, humility, compassion, indignation, and tenderness.

Thuy’s parents were doctors, too, and so, she faced the on-going tension of being of bourgeois origin while striving to be accepted by the Communist Party. A self-aware and committed revolutionary, marked by impressive self-discipline and drive, she nevertheless remained harshly critical of some comrades in her midst: “Ugly injustices happen all around me every day. There are worms and mites gnawing away within the Party; if those vermin are not eliminated, they will gradually erode the people’s faith and love for the Party.” [ p. 21] Later on, she makes clear her devotion to the authentic Communist revolutionaries: “Now I understand why people can sacrifice their whole lives for our cause, and how they can remain absolutely faithful to the revolution. The revolution has forged a noble people and bound them into a unit firmer and more solid than anything in this life. Could anything make one prouder than to be part of this family of revolutionaries?” [p. 61] {2}

While reading this book, I thought of so many of my students who are already practicing or going into medicine, like Neeta Shenai, Gina Meyer, Erin Nealon, Beth Schwab, Toria Rendell, Don Lassus, Theresa Drallmeier, Amy Nuismer, Charity Kaiser, and Nima Sheth. They aspire to be doctors with a strong commitment to justice. They are not interested in the high status and material comforts often available to U.S. physicians. Such young people could gain sobering insight on what it might mean to be a “liberation doctor” in the sense that Thuy is a part of a mobilized movement not for social improvements here and there, but for a whole new society.{3}

Thuy’s dedication to the revolution, freedom, and independence are daily tested amid the shock and death of war. Imagine trying to be a physician in the vicinity of “search and destroy” missions and “mopping up” operations. Imagine the military preponderance of the United States compared to those who live in tunnels and eat manioc and, occasionally, some rice. Thuy writes, “Death is so near and simple. What makes our lives surge forth so strongly? Is it the love between our people? Is it because the hope for tomorrow still burns in our hearts? Is that it, my beloved comrade?” [p. 185] Thuy’s heart is broken over and over by the agony see witnesses: “He died with a small notebook in his breast pocket. It held many pictures of a girl with a lovely smile and a letter assuring him of her steely resolution to wait for his return. On his chest, there was a little handkerchief with the embroidered words Waiting for You. Oh, that girl waiting for him! Your lover will never come back; the mourning veil on your young head will be heavy with pain. It will mark the crimes committed by the imperialist killers and my regret, the regret of a physician who could not save him when there was a chance.” [p. 100]

In Quang Ngai Province Thuy forms deep bonds of affection and solidarity with the people she serves. She appears to be the kind of person with whom it is easy to fall in love, given the number of men who proclaimed their devotion to her. However, she is scrupulous about not giving the wrong impression, as she must tell more than one young man that her love is fraternal, not romantic: “I want you to lead and teach me like a caring brother. It’s just that I don’t want people to think I am an easy girl, one who gives her heart readily, or that I want to have a relationship with high-level officials.” [p. 106] Several years earlier, Thuy had a relationship with an man who left Hanoi to join the resistance in the south. Referred to as “M.” in the diary, we can see her grappling with longing, loss, anger, and pride. She doesn’t think they will be reunited to have a normal life together even when the war ends, and so channels her energy toward her sisters and brothers in the struggle for independence, as here: “Late at night, I’m lying next to my comrades. They are sound asleep, their breaths are even. Outside, artillery shells explode all over the sky. Oh, my comrades, we breathe the same air on this fiery, smoky battlefield. Let’s love and care for one another. Death is so close now. Why be jealous and quarrel?” [p. 203]

Thuy is not only moved by love and compassion. There is something altogether fierce about her. What will be hard for some Americans to come to terms with is Thuy’s characterization of the U.S. military. Her diary is sprinkled with such expressions as “bandits” and “devils.” After one successful operation, she reflected: “The bleeding has stopped; the patient’s urine has become clear and normal. A life saved should be a great joy, but somehow I feel apathetic and inadequate before my smiling patient, unmoved by his respectful eyes. It is because I know I have stemmed by one bloodflow while countless others are still bleeding? I must mend all the wounds of our nation. The Americans are upon us like bloodthirsty devils, stealthily sinking their fangs into our bodies. Only when we have chased them all out of Vietnam will our blood stop pouring into the earth.” [p. 47] How could she not experience the gamut of extreme emotions living in a cruel context? She admits that the letters she sends home to her beloved family don’t begin to go into how it really is. While totally committed to the struggle for victory, she also craves normalcy, which is manifested in a dream: “If only I had wings to fly back to our beautiful house on Lo Duc Street, to eat with Dad, Mom, and my siblings, one simple meal with watercress and one night’s sleep under the old cotton blanket. Last night I dreamed that Peace was established, I came back and saw everybody. Oh, the dream of Peace and Independence has burned in the hearts of thirty million people for so long. For Peace and Independence, we have sacrificed everything. So many people have volunteered to sacrifice their whole lives for two words: Independence and Liberty. I, too, have scarified my life for that grandiose fulfillment.” [27]

In June 1970 while moving her clinic yet again due to increased hostility in the area, Thuy and her companions were shot and killed by American soldiers. U.S. intelligence Fred Whitehurst was going through the remains to keep what was of military value, the rest to be burned. A Vietnamese translator urged him not to throw Thuy’s diary into a fire. Violating military protocol, Whitehurst kept the diary and took it home to the U.S. Decades later, he figured out a way to return it to Thuy’s family. It was eventually published in Vietnam and sold phenomenally well.

Many of us have probably never encountered such a stirring piece of writing before of a Vietnamese person whole-heartedly committed to the independence of her people from foreign occupiers. (How many of us—in the present—have read or heard the voices of Iraqis now resisting yet another U.S.—made catastrophe, another U.S. occupation?) We as a people have not truly reckoned with the American War in Vietnam. How many of us can articulate what the war was about? How many of us know—even roughly—the death toll of the Vietnamese, not simply the 58,000 plus Americans who died there? How many of us could state with any accuracy parallels between U.S. involvement then in Vietnam and now in Iraq? Were the Vietnam period brought up in conversation, how many of us might say instinctively, “Oh, that’s ancient history!”? How many of us have either forgotten that chapter of our recent past or are totally ignorant of it (as U.S. history high school classes don’t seem to make it to the Vietnam period before school’s out for summer)? How many of us know or remember what the war must have been like for the Vietnamese? After all, the devastation took place on their land.{4}

While there is a Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington along with the Vietnam Veterans Wall, there is no memorial project addressing our war crimes in and destruction of Vietnam. Irving Greenberg, a Jewish theologian whom I first read in the 1980s, once wrote about those who testified about the Holocaust: “The Scriptures of the new era are hidden. They do not present themselves as Scripture but as history, fact, and sometimes, as anti-Scripture. …They are the accounts that tell and retell the event, draw its conclusions and orient the living. In the Warsaw Ghetto, Chaim Kaplan wrote in his journal: ‘I will write a scroll of agony in order to remember the past in the future.’”{5}

Dang Thuy Tram’s diary is such a scripture, a scroll of agony and passion that has the power four decades later to orient us in the present, which means making ourselves accountable to our past and our present.

A foundation in Thuy’s memory has been established and one of its projects has been to start a clinic in the area in which she worked.

{1} Quoted in George Steiner, Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature, and the Inhuman (New York: Atheneum, 1967), 67.

{2} Acknowledging the superior commitment of the Vietnamese resistance, one Vietnamese soldier observed: “If you compare the conditions of the American soldiers with ours, theirs were better. They had water for showers brought in by helicopter—when we saw that, we knew they would never win the war.” See Martha Hess, Then the Americans Came: Voices from Vietnam (New York: Seven Stories Press, 1993), 236.

{3} I’m adapting here from a comment made by Jon Sobrino to Mev Puleo; see Mark Chmiel, The Book of Mev (Xlibris, 2005), 54.

{4} In 1977 President Jimmy Carter stated that there was no need for the U.S. to make reparations to Vietnam because “the destruction was mutual.”

{5} Quoted in Marc H. Ellis, Towards a Jewish Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1987), 35.


Dang Thuy Tram