In 2007, the diary of Dang Thuy Tram was published as Last Night I Dreamed of Peace. She had been a doctor during the Vietnam War. I'd come across the book based on a news story on NPR. As they noted, an American soldier and his interpreter were burning documents believed to have no military value. As the story goes:
"Whitehurst and Nguyen Trung Hieu, his South Vietnamese interpreter, were standing by a 55-gallon drum.Publisher's Weekly noted:
"I'm throwing things in there and they're burning, and over my left shoulder, and I remember this, Nguyen Trung Hieu was looking at the diary and said, 'Fred, don't burn this. It has fire in it already,'" Whitehurst says.
The diary was that of 27-year-old Dang Thuy Tram.
"My interpreter was a very loyal soldier to the southern government," Whitehurst says. "The fact that he would put himself at risk by saying 'Don't destroy her words' was very impressive to me. And if you read just very quickly into the diary four and five pages, you can see this is something that needs to be preserved."
In 1970, while sifting through war documents in Vietnam, Fred Whitehurst, an American lawyer serving with a military intelligence dispatch, found a diary no bigger than a pack of cigarettes, its pages handsewn together. Written between 1968 and '70 by Tram, a young, passionate doctor who served on the front lines, it chronicled the strife she witnessed until the day she was shot by American soldiers earlier that year at age 27. Whitehurst, who was greatly moved by the diary and smuggled it out of the country, returned it to Thuy's family in 2005; soon after, it was published as a book in Vietnam, selling nearly half a million copies within a year and a half. The diary is valuable for the perspective it offers on war—Thuy is not obsessed with military maneuvers but rather the damage, both physical and emotional, that the war is inflicting on her country. Thuy also speaks poignantly about her patients and the compassion she feels for them. Unfortunately, the writing, composed largely of breathless questions and exclamations, is monotonous at times, somewhat diminishing the book's power.
This is one of those texts where I think it's still worthwhile to consider it and to see what lessons might be extracted from the experience. If you're in the middle of the war, see how much your writing sounds like Shakespeare or Tolstoy while you're getting bombed.
A question for me would be how will we gather the stories of the men and women who served in similar capacities during the Laotian Civil War? Particularly the stories of Hmong, Khmu, Tai Dam and Iu Mien, among others whose stories might seem to fall outside of the traditional narratives.