- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 10, 2002

Those who have read Stanley Karnow's paean to communism, "Vietnam, A History," will recognize Bui Tin, who, as a colonel in the North Vietnamese army, appears on the last page, exulting in Hanoi's victory over the Republic of South Vietnam. In 1990, fed up with the "backward, arbitrary, and undemocratic" government of Socialist Vietnam, Mr. Bui defected to the West to work for the restoration of freedom and democracy in his native land.

"From Enemy to Friend," constructed in the form of answers to questions often asked Mr. Bui in his conversations with Americans over the years, is his testament to the long odyssey that has converted him from a "freedom fighter" to a "freedom lover." It is also a plea that we Americans not "turn [our backs] on the little nation that is Vietnam."

It may be tempting to skip some of these dialogues in favor of others. Don't, they're all little gems that offer valuable insights into our enemy's perspective on the war. But I confess I read with great interest Mr. Bui's criticism of our strategies in Vietnam and his insights into how the Vietnamese communist leaders responded to them. "The American side," he writes, "played with its cards face-up while the Vietnamese side played its hand close to its chest." In other words, we played show-down while they played poker, one of the most succinct and penetrating analyses of our war effort ever written.

"From Enemy to Friend" is replete with delicious tidbits. For instance, I never knew until now that in 1973 Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap went down the Ho Chi Min Trail to Quang Tri province in South Vietnam accompanied by Fidel Castro. Mr. Bui's appraisal of Gen. Giap as a military commander, as well as many of the other prominent military and political leaders of communist Vietnam, is exceptionally informative.

The greatest weakness of the book is Mr. Bui's refusal to deal honestly with communist atrocities in Vietnam, from the hideous tortures inflicted on our POWs to the deliberate murder at Hue in 1968 of thousands of civilians whose names were taken off blacklists carried by the Viet Cong insurgents. Mr. Bui's justification for this horror the party line explanation that the discipline of the troops broke down under the intensity of the American bombardment, is like justifying the massacre at Babi Yar by saying the SS men just went wild from the stress of Hitler's invasion of Russia.

This, combined with Mr. Bui's reductionist admonition that both sides in the Vietnam War had justification for what they did, may lead some to question how anti-communist Mr. Bui really is. Since his own hands are clean, I think he just finds it difficult to admit the evil his comrades perpetrated against the people of South Vietnam.

Mr. Bui is very fortunate to have secured the services of Nguyen Ngoc Bich, a noted scholar-poet in his own right, as his translator, and James Webb, former secretary of the Navy, who wrote the introduction. Vietnamese literature, when properly translated, is among the best in the world, and some of Mr. Bui's writing in this book approaches that of the classics. Mr. Webb, whose experience in Vietnam goes back a long way, has written a forthright and well-balanced introduction to this book.

In his youth, Mr. Bui was an idealist with a gun, dedicated to reforming mankind. In his old age, he's an idealist with a bouquet of roses, dedicated to reconciling mankind. This is not an unusual ending to the careers of many who have passed through the bowels of communist indoctrination. I agree with him that we should put the Vietnam War behind us and that there is an affinity between the Vietnamese and American peoples that should override political concerns.

But should we trust the men who run Vietnam today? Bill Clinton, the essential Vietnam dove, set us on that course, for ill or good, so we are committed. But in our dealings with the government of Vietnam, we should always keep in mind the words of Nguyen Chi Thien, the "prison poet" of Vietnam (as translated by Nguyen Ngoc Bich): "From ape to man it took eons … / This government, this government / Turns man to beast in just three … days …"

Dan Cragg is the author, with Michael Lee Lanning, of "Inside the VC and NVA: The Real Story of North Vietnam's Armed Forces."

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