As I hold my baby daughter at four in the morning, feeling the softness of her cheek against my own…
War traditionally conjures up imagery of a specific type of violence. Inevitably, these images are masculinised: men in fatigues, riding tanks, raising flags, assault rifles slung over their shoulders – these are heuristics for heroism. Men are seen to pull the strings and make the decisions, inflicting brutality on to each other on the battlefield. Military defeat is the purest form of emasculation. But the symbolism of women in wartime is subject to different interpretations.
Conventional conceptions of gender reign: talk of the ‘motherland’ invokes feminine attributes of innocence and virtue. Womanhood entails sacrifice. But the realities on the ground are more complex. Women are often subjected to war’s atrocities, but they can also be willing participants in it.
The Vietnam War is a case in point. “[Women] did everything…we climbed mountains, we hid under rivers. We captured prisoners. We carried ammunition…We were the guides, we were the spies,” a female former guerrilla leader, Second Harvest, says in Lady Borton’s memoir After Sorrow: An American Among the Vietnamese. It seems the US military underestimated Vietnamese women at its peril, or perhaps saw them as passive (rather than active) combatants.
Historical accounts suggest Vietnamese women played a vital role in maintaining communication and distribution networks for the Viet Cong. They provided intelligence and smuggled weaponry in kegs of fish sauce. They were human chameleons, hiding their allegiance to the resistance by assuming different identities and changing the colour of their clothes.
In a way, Vietnamese women were a soundtrack to the war, their presence subtle yet inescapable. During wartime the voice of North Vietnam came from a woman, Trinh Thi Ngo. Like her predecessors Tokyo Rose, Axis Sally, and Seoul City Sue, she was engaged in a battle to conquer the hearts and minds of the enemy. Her saccharine voice belied the trauma of warfare, both physical and psychological. A bruised morale is as revealing as a body count. Trinh Thi Ngo, who learned English through repeat viewings of Gone with the Wind, referred to herself by the alias Thu Huong, ‘The Fragrance of Autumn’, while US soldiers called her the ‘Dragon Lady’ or ‘Hanoi Hannah’. She began each broadcast the same way: “This is Thu Huong calling American servicemen in South Vietnam.”
Trinh Thi Ngo would soon build up a reputation for her apparent omniscience. Each Friday she would read a list of American soldiers killed in the war, information she gleaned from US military newspaper Stars and Stripes. Her broadcasts were said to contain military intelligence about Viet Cong offensives and the battle-readiness and precise coordinates of US military units. She announced the names of soldiers whose girlfriends were supposedly cheating on them back home – and sometimes, according to Vietnam veteran and journalist Don North, their fears were confirmed by the arrival of a ‘Dear John’ letter.
Sentiment in the US had soured against the Vietnam War, though they wouldn’t have known it from listening to official channels. When they listened to Armed Forces Radio it was as if they were tuning into an alternate reality. There the music was censored, the field reports sanitised. One segment, which has been archived on soundboard.com for posterity, cheerfully quizzes soldiers about their VD – “not vitamin deficiency”, a voiceover helpfully informs the listener – while a whimsical jazz score plays in the background. The increasingly protracted conflict brought with it a swelling list of casualties and some soldiers, perhaps, felt a sense of futility more acutely.
In contrast, Trinh Thi Ngo’s broadcasts contained a sliver of truth, even if GI Joes had to decipher Radio Hanoi’s mixed signals. Important clues could be found by sifting through propaganda and wildly exaggerated accounts of the conflict. Anti-war sentiment seeped through songs like Connie Francis’s I Almost Lost my Mind, which was banned from US Armed Forces radio. Progressive rock and soul music figured prominently. What was her endgame? In an interview with the LA Times in 1998, she said her imperatives were driven by a sense of moralism. “My goal was to tell GIs they shouldn’t participate in a war that wasn’t theirs,” she says now. “I tried to be friendly and convincing. I didn’t want to be shrill or aggressive. For instance, I referred to the Americans as the adversary. I never called them the enemy.”
Nevertheless, she did not fear provocation and, as the war escalated, she upped the ante. “It seems to me that most of you are poorly informed about the going of the war, to say nothing about a correct explanation of your presence over here,” she said in June 1967. “Nothing is more confused than to be ordered into a war to die or to be maimed for life without the faintest idea of what’s going on.” More damning was her message in 1970: “Your government has betrayed you. There is nothing noble about your mission. There is no reason why you should be here. You will never defeat the forces of our Fatherland. The French never learned. Will you?”
It’s fitting that the face of the Viet Cong, Nguyen Thi Binh, was also female. Newspaper reports at the time were instructive: many referred to her ‘toughness’ and small stature, depicting her as a formidable, if unlikely, aggressor. A New York Times article from 1988 recalls her “dark hair, “purposeful air, [and] few smiles”, while a New Yorker essay by Seymour Hersh mentions her “willingness to speak bluntly” and “striking good looks”. Gender aside, Madame Binh’s achievements in political activism were singular. Before taking to the global political stage in the early 1970s, she was a member of the Viet Minh, helping to mobilise political forces against French imperialism. She was imprisoned for her actions. Later, she was a vice-chairperson of the South Vietnam Women’s Liberation Association. Now in her late eighties, she remains involved in charities, aiding Vietnamese afflicted by the fallout of chemical agents such as Agent Orange.
As Vietnam’s chief negotiator at the Paris peace talks and the country’s former vice-president, Madame Binh’s rise was seen as a portent of the evolving status of Vietnamese women in broader societal and political life. ‘Warrior women’, of course, have loomed large in Vietnamese folklore: the Trung sisters, backed by an army of some 80,000 male and female soldiers, led the first successful revolt against the Chinese Han dynasty in 39AD and reigned for three years before their defeat in 43AD. (Some scholars at the time framed the rebellion as a simple matter of avenging the death of the elder Trung’s husband, rather than an act of nationalism.)
War is typically less emboldening for ordinary women, especially those on the margins. It may be too grand a claim to suggest the war ushered in a golden era of gender equality, but it seems a shift did take place. It forced the public to recalibrate its conception of traditional gender roles – they had at least become more complex, even contradictory. No longer was womanhood confined to the domestic realm. Women dug trenches and pulled triggers. Docility was no longer read as meekness, but a mask for resilience and inner strength. As Madame Binh put it: “They have derived therefrom their exceptional endurance and tenacity, their ability to survive and to persist in their full identity through the storms of life, just like the Vietnamese bamboo tree, which is supple but unbreakable, which bends under the wind but does not break, and which afterwards, stand again as straight and proud as before.” It’s a remarkable image, one not easily forgotten: an army of women hiding in plain sight.