From the moment I saw the cover on this book, I was mesmerized by the rice patties in the foreground, the mountains in the background and the smiling young woman in the cone-shaped hat. The lush green landscape looked eerily familiar. So did the young woman. Last Night I dreamed of Peace is the diary of Dang Thuy Tram, a 25-year-old North Vietnamese doctor who goes to South Vietnam during the war to serve in jungle clinics near Duc Pho. Her diary chronicles her life from 1968 to 1970, which was one of the bloodiest periods in the Vietnam War.
Thuy writes of her heart-wrenching days in the clinics where she is sometimes forced to operate on patients without anesthesia. To add to her despair, her clinics were often bombed and strafed by American aircraft and sometimes attacked and destroyed by ground forces. If American troops were seen approaching the clinic, Thuy, her staff and patients fled into the jungle or climbed up into the mountains. Sometimes, when there was no time to flee, they crawled into hidden underground tunnels where they anxiously waited as American soldiers searched the jungle above them.
I was captivated by Thuy’s diary because I also saw the horrors of this war, but from the “other side.” I was a U.S. Army supply sergeant for a light infantry company, also stationed in Duc Pho, at the same time as Thuy. It’s quite possible that some of her patients were wounded by soldiers from my company.
As I read Thuy’s diary, I was also struck by her sentiments, which were so similar my own. Enemies in war often share a common likeness, and this becomes evident in Thuy’s diary. She longs for the comforts and safety of her home in North Vietnam. She misses her Mom and Dad, her siblings and her friends.
Despite these familiar emotions, Thuy’s diary is not always easy reading. Her friendships with others on the medical staff, the soldiers and villagers are often referred to as Big Brother or Little Brother, or Big Sister and so forth, ranked according to the intimacy of their friendship and their position in Vietnamese society. Her boyfriend, whom she grew to love as a teenager in Hanoi and still longs for, is simply referred to as Mr. M.
In her daily writings, Thuy often struggles with her bourgeois past. She came from a family of educated intellectuals. Thuy’s father was a surgeon and her mother a university lecturer. Thuy followed in her father’s footsteps, becoming a doctor, and she volunteered to go to the South as soon as she finished medical school. Some thought she was too fragile for such arduous and dangerous work, but Thuy was determined to succeed.
This determination constantly emerges in her daily writings, but she continues to questions her bourgeois past and what influence it might have on her relationships with others. Many of Thuy’s patients, and the villagers who sheltered her, were probably uneducated peasants.
Frances Fitzgerald, who covered the Vietnam War for the New Yorker, wrote an introduction to Thuy’s diary. She describes Quang Nghai Province, where Duc Pho is located, as a guerrilla stronghold. The Saigon government had long since given up control of the province to the rebels when the Americans arrived in the 1960s. The American’s began a campaign to pacify the area, but they had little success. As the fighting dragged on and casualties mounted, the tactics of war became much more brutal.
October 21, 1969
Thuy writes, “The situation is extremely tense. At Mo Duc, military vehicles plowed through the hamlets, The villagers fled. Many cadres perished, crushed in their shelters by the enemy vehicles.”
Thuy often expresses her intense hatred toward the Americans. She asks, “What joy is there when the American bandits are trampling our nation and killing our countrymen?” As the war drags on, Thuy’s despair also seems to grow in her diary. Still, she never gives up her dream of peace.
Meanwhile, the daily horrors of war for this young doctor. Many of her patients are sent back into battle shortly after she heals their wounds. She tells of one encounter with such a solder named Bon whom she treated for a shoulder wound. Thuy spots Bon marching with an AK-47 on his shoulder and he shouts, “Greetings doctor! My arm is as good as new!” Thuy is overjoyed to see Bon’s recovery, but days later he is brought back to her clinic, this time his leg mauled by a mine. “He lies motionless and silent, without a single moan,” she writes. Thuy amputates the leg in an attempt to save Bon, but he later dies.
Despite the often horrific scenes in her clinic, Thuy’s writing lacks much description. She writes mostly in a matter-of-fact style. But then this is Thuy’s diary and she probably did not intend for it be a novel.
Still, the reader cannot help but visualize the blood and the pain on the faces of her patients — and the despair on Thuy’s face as she tries to save them. Thuy’s writing, at times, becomes graphic. She tells of a young man, severely burned by a phosphorous bomb, who is brought to her clinic. His charred body is still smoldering as she begins to examine him.
Last Night I Dreamed of Peace is a diary not only full of hope, but also filled with horrific realism. In her writings, Thuy also questions whether she will survive the war, and there is a sense of coming dread in her daily chronicles. Thuy writes her last entry in her diary on June 20, 1970. Days later, Thuy was shot in the head by an American solder as she and a group of communist troops walked down a jungle path. Thuy abruptly became another statistic, a wasted life in a long and brutal war. She laid dead in the jungle, her conscious dream of peace vanquished, but her written dream of peace, her diary, survived.
It should be noted that had the two groups of enemy combatants been transposed that day, Thuy might have survived. Had Thuy and her troops been the ones hiding in the jungle, with the American soldiers approaching on the trail, the Americans would have died that day.
War is always a sadistic game of life or death, with a brutality that can never be fully understood by those who don’t experience it.
Thuy’s diary, however, moves the reader beyond the horrors of war. Thuy dares to dream of peace. In her diary, she sometimes paused at the end of a long day at the clinic and gazed across the lush, green Vietnam countryside. “Sunset on the rice fields always holds a certain poetic sway, regardless of the day’s horrors,” she wrote.
This is why I was mesmerized by Thuy’s diary. As a young American soldier, I too would pause at the end of a long day and gaze across the rice fields toward the distant mountains. And like Thuy and so many others, I also dreamed of peace.