What war?

The death of Vietnam's most famous protest singer -- who was abused by authorities both North and South -- inspires historical amnesia.

Published August 3, 2001 7:00PM (EDT)

Family, friends and fans of the late Trinh Cong Son gathered last month in California's Little Saigon for a concert honoring the singer-songwriter/painter-poet Joan Baez called "the Bob Dylan of Vietnam." But instead of celebrating the life and legacy of Southeast Asia's best-known musician, those arriving at the La Mirada Theater in La Mirada, California on July 15 found themselves reliving the internal battles that decades ago had helped tear Vietnam apart. Hundreds of demonstrators had shown up, many of them veterans of the South Vietnamese Army, and were protesting the performance of songs by someone they still consider a pro-communist traitor.

Son, a slight man with a wispy beard and mustache, died in April at 62 from multiple disorders exacerbated by a history of heavy drinking. His tragic saga in many ways mirrored the evolution of the still-emerging Vietnamese state, as well as the lives of its citizens who fled to the United States after the war.

"I drink because I'm lonely," said the much-adored but never-married artist, whose soaring anthems and haunting ballads galvanized the South Vietnamese student-led opposition to the war. "If I don't drink I can't sleep."

During the war years, Son performed to vast throngs of university students. The students, in turn, shielded him from South Vietnamese police seeking to arrest him for draft dodging. When not surrounded by such supporters, Son lived in hiding to avoid being taken into custody.

At a time when just the wrong tone toward the government could result in imprisonment or even "disappearance," Son spoke out publicly and frankly, articulating the sentiments of a large portion of the country's students and becoming a hero to many of them.

"Even the most intelligent of [politicians] are imbeciles," he said. "I call them inspired murderers ... I only speak of what I dream: Call it a revolution with bare hands."

Given Son's immense popularity, which far exceeded that of any South Vietnamese military or political figure, successive governments in Saigon believed heavy-handed action against him might lead to an uprising. Instead, the secret police subjected Son to a covert campaign of nearly unending harassment. Nevertheless, the singer-songwriter eventually became so influential that the government decided to take its chances: It banned Son's public performances, radio and television broadcasts of him and the distribution of his recordings. Son was even forbidden to enter Saigon, where most of his audience resided. But despite these efforts, a thriving illicit market for his material developed.

In April, tens of thousands escorted the funeral cortege including a U.S.-made, Vietnam War-era Dodge van carrying Son's body to a Buddhist burial ground -- the contradictions and ironies of his legacy hung heavy in the hot and humid air. Hue, the once glorious cultural and intellectual center of Vietnam, has gone to seed and sadness in the last half-century -- first in the jaws of Western militarism and lately in the arms of global mercantilism.

In his early years, Son watched his recordings confiscated and destroyed initially by South, then North, Vietnamese authorities. His antiwar themes, which questioned the justice of the war on both sides and the value of war in general, "weakened the people's fighting spirit," in the words of the administration in Saigon, and were "defeatist," according to the regime in Hanoi. In his final years, Son again saw his songs and sheet music snatched up by the government -- this time because Vietnam's increasing integration into the world economy required that it comply with international capitalism's insistence on the enforcement of intellectual property laws. It was apparently beside the point that few in Vietnam can afford "official" rather than bootleg products.

"Now [Vietnamese] are in pursuit of the good life; everyone is chasing money," said Son, who, with the exception of his legendary drinking and five-pack-a-day smoking habit, had long pursued a nearly ascetic simplicity in his external life and affairs.

When Saigon fell on April 30, 1975, the National Liberation Front and the North Vietnamese immediately seized Radio Saigon, renamed it Ho Chi Minh City People's Voice Radio and, for days, repeatedly broadcast Son's reconciliation song, "Joining Great Arms." Although this seemed to signal the victors' approval of Son, the regime subsequently turned against him and songs such as "Vast Sky Smoke," "Big Arms Links" and "Artillery Lulls the Night" -- they were "insufficiently progressive," "unrealistically pacific" and "lacking national spirit." Instead of becoming the bard of a reunited Vietnam, Son was banished to an isolated, rural reeducation camp in the North. There, for four years, he farmed land littered with land mines to "learn what peasant's work was like and understand its value," as he later put it.

Meanwhile, in what had been North Vietnam, Son's recordings were being smuggled back into the territory and clandestinely copied by returning soldiers. In an effort to staunch the spread of their sentiments -- the lyrics questioned the war conduct of both North and South, and allegedly exemplified the sort of Western cultural influence some non-Western Communist states have sought to eradicate à la Mao's Cultural Revolution -- the government cracked down brutally on this black market, driving listeners deep underground.

Having nearly eliminated the awareness of his music, the government freed Son, who soon began recording and releasing material again. His new work, though, was curiously devoid of the fiery political content that had been his trademark. When asked why he was writing love songs instead of the incisive social critique that had made him the most admired musician in Southeast Asia, he replied in what seemed to some riddles, but sounded to others like a thinly veiled admission that this new tack had been a condition of his release.

"I had a painful choice -- I chose tranquillity and peace of soul," said Son, who had also begun painting, an art form that may have allowed him to mask his meaning more effectively than music did. "I am marginal and I protect myself," he said. "I am another now; I hide my treasure ... [There are] forbidden zones."

But unlike many of his fellow artists and family members, he refused to flee the country. "If I leave my land, I am nothing," said Son, whose decision to stay and near silence about the government elicited accusations from many South Vietnamese émigrés that he had become a Communist collaborator -- accusations that have yet to disappear even now.

"One doesn't protest, it's useless; one waits," he replied.

Among the postwar generation, Son was a much-admired writer of songs about love and loss. His latter-day catalog became standard fare among the newly emerging female vocalists whose romantic "Doi Moi" music now dominates the Vietnamese charts. But because he was not permitted to perform his political songs and they remained largely out of circulation, his newer fans were generally unfamiliar with the music of his past.

Not long before Son's death, the government -- its stability now more firmly established -- sponsored a concert of Son's protest songs, hosted by the Ho Chi Minh Youth Party. It was the first time since war's end that the singer was allowed to publicly showcase his pre-1975 repertoire. The audience, most of them born after 1975, listened to the unfamiliar material politely.

"The young people now don't understand what was happening in the war," Son said. "It has no meaning for them."

Still, news of his death was featured on the front page of the government's official "young people" paper. The headline read "Crying for Trinh Cong Son," and the accompanying article did not even allude to his time in the reeducation camp.

"After the war everyone forgets," Son once said.

This despite the fact that more than a million Vietnamese soldiers and 2 million Vietnamese civilians died in the hostilities; that more than 2 million Vietnamese were disabled, a number that grows as remaining land mines continue to wreak havoc in the countryside, usually on the lives and limbs of children; that the Mekong Delta forest -- before the war the largest in the world after the Amazon -- is less than half its original size as a result of Agent Orange; and that that same defoliant has resulted in dioxin levels in many Vietnamese that are 50 times normal.

Perhaps the recent discussions about the war -- in the U.S. due to revelations about the war conduct of recently retired Sen. Bob Kerrey, and in Vietnam and Little Saigon due to the death of Son -- can provide an opportunity for the young to learn about, and for their elders to remember and reevaluate, a war of which Trinh Cong Son once said: "It is for nothing and it is idiotic."

By Adam Miller

Adam Miller is a New York-based writer who has lived in Southeast Asia.

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