Friday, March 7, 2014
A Chinese soldier Remember the Sino-Vietnam conflict
I went down to Vietnam in 1979 in January. The war started on the 29th of January. I was there for one month, from the 29th through the end of February. There were so many troops there. These troops were infantry troops located in Chengdu. That these were also fighting troops. We had railroad troops, construction troops, and these were fighting troops from the army. I think these troops, there were so many new soldiers that were enlisted. The civilians knew that it was a very intense situation along the Vietnam border and that their possibly would be a war, so they sent their sons to the military and they made sure their troops did not go into the Kunming, Chengdu or Guangzhou regiments which were on duty to fight in the border area. So if their children didn’t go to these armies under these commands, then they should be fine. These were the military headquarters. So it was the military regional headquarters. They made sure that the officers children weren’t there. They knew the inside story. The civilians didn’t. They had this trick where they could have all these soldiers transferred out. And so they took the children of the officers and the leading political powers and sent them to the northwest or the northeast far from the border area, but they sent the peasants there. The peasants wanted their children to go into the army to “grow height.” The peasants were so short, shorter than the city dwellers, because of their diet. But when they sent their sons into the army they had a good diet and they grew taller. So they always wanted their sons to go into the military to grow taller and become bigger people. So the peasants wanted army food and to grow to your full height. Then they switched. The rotated out the officers and soldiers from good families and rotated in peasants. But these new soldiers didn’t know they were going to the front. They panicked when they learned they were going to the front to fight. The first night they carried out the attack on the Vietnamese positions I was there. I was a war correspondent at that time.
They lacked war correspondents. I always wrote a nice diary or love stories or whatever. And they just had me in charge of writing about the war. They had put me in charge of the newspaper for our unit in Chengdu. These were sheets that were put on the wall with the news of the singing and dancing soldiers. I was in charge of the publicity for them.
I was sent in the morning, I was going to the military entertainment dance school, the to learn choreography each morning. I was 18 years old at the time. So for each thing I choreographed, I had to write the draft of the story line of the choreography, and sometimes the account was mingled with song, so in order to write the lyric, I had this skill and it came to me very naturally, and some of them were pretty good and they recognized me. They said your brain seems to work better than your body at this age, they found I was a better person to create things than to do things by order and the leader said, why don’t you just go ahead and create more. So my writing skill and all these things, then I applied for the job at the front, and said I was willing to go.
We were very close to the Vietnamese front and they were not posting much about it. But you heard things. When the fighting was about to break out, we could tell and this was all the talk of all the soldiers.
You don’t know exactly, but you kind of know, after New Year, Chinese New Year, there will be a war, and you know this, and you know suddenly the shortage of personnel as individuals are shipped off to the front. And officers from the headquarters newspaper came to our unit and talked to us and requested personnel for the approaching fight. That is when I volunteered. I didn’t know what fear was at that time. I still don’t know. Maybe fear of blood and guts, like Saving Private Ryan, but when it comes to the issue of losing life or dying, I had no concept of that nor did any of the others in our unit. There was a guy in the performing troop also who volunteered as a correspondent. His job in our unit was to write lyrics and to create ideas for the troop. The stories went to the newspaper, the War Banner, it’s always there, an old newspaper, it belonged to our military headquarters in Chengdu. Each headquarters had their own newspaper, we had military headquarter districts and each had its own newspaper. Beijing controlled Mongolia and Shanxi. Nanjing controlled Northeast and Anhui and Henan belonged to Guangzhou. Which controlled the sea and the south China Sea and Guanxi. Hainan island was controlled by Guangzhou. Xinjing belonged to Beijing. Getting to the front was easy. They gave us a special military special pass and you showed this to any train and they made a bed for you, you got the best compartment on the train, any train at any time. I went very fast and we didn’t have any trouble at all. We said we were told we would have everything provided for us when we reached the front. I just brought my military canvas bag. No money or anything. Everything is provided. We controlled the Kunming Front, called the Hong He front, the Red River front, from Yunnan province, the Red River front, but I didn’t go across the River into the other side. We had this military battlefield hospital on this bank of the Red River. That is where I needed to work and wanted to go. The battlefield was along the bank of the Red River. When I arrived there, I didn’t see many troops. I saw troops passing through by train with their artillery on the flat cars and I only saws many wounded soldiers coming back to the hospital. It was like 1000 soldiers were wounded the first night. But not many of them we noted, had lost their right arms below the forearms. We were told that the Vietnamese had mines hanging on the branches of the rain forest so when the soldiers were walking through the forest, they used their right hand pushing aside the forest growth and branches, and the branches had mines on them and exploded and blew off their arms. So many soldiers had their right arms missing. We knew this was a very cruel strategy. We were told that the Vietnamese never intended to kill the Chinese. What they sought to do was to maim Chinese and to send the handicapped people home to be a hardship to the remainder of society.
You have to live with so many wounded and handicapped forever, that’s going to be your burden forever. So and some soldiers had their legs blown off. Others were wounded by not so seriously. Very early in the fight they were wounded. Quickly. The military hospitals were filled with these soldiers. There was so much death. The surgeons had to be on duty for 72 hour shifts. And they couldn’t leave for the bathroom so they had them wear plastic pants so they could relieve themselves in the pants. Because you have no idea. They prepared enough surgeons, but they didn’t expect to see so many wounded soldiers. They didn’t expect the strategy to be like that, deliberately to maim you.
There was screaming and noise. But in a time, the soldiers didn’t make noise. If they could help it. But blood was so present, the floor was damp all the time and the weather was humid and hot. And the blood attracted so many red ants. And when the soldiers woke up from being wounded they found themselves covered with these red ants that were already devouring the blood and burrowing into their wounds. The smell of the blood attracted ants. One soldier had an arm missing, but he managed to crawl back, his jaw was missing. All down his throat, he couldn’t close his mouth, and ants had all crawled down his throat and covered his face and he was choking when he came in, crawled back from the front. He crawled for 11 hours, they said. I was so touched and moved. And it reflected to me, why is it necessary for these boys who are my age, 18 and 19, just out of high school and peasants. Why are they here? It was so quick it happened so quickly they had no time to respond to what was happening. It was our invasion, we invaded Vietnam, across the Red river. When I arrived, the first battle was already finished. But in the background there was always the rumble and rattle of guns. It never occured to me that we might be overrun. There were very few females around, most of the soldiers were boys. The females were not supposed to be sent into combat. They were male doctors and nurses, primarily.
I went to the front in March. I went a second time to a hospital, which was much nicer. After the first treatment they transport the soldiers to the military hospitals far from the battlefields, in safer places. These would be in Yunnan and Sichuan province, along the highways. These places, these soldiers, were much more sophisticated and knew how to complain when the food was too bad. I met a person who was a very experienced correspondent from the PLA Daily. When the wounded soldiers protested for the food, he was the leader. All the fresh food went to the visitors and the correspondents, people who came from higher power. And some officers made appearances, and they had the good food, they came to show their care and comfort, and all the fresh food went to these people, which we called the comforting group. Sometimes they were led by high ranking officers. So the military hospitals, each night they had big banquets for these comforting groups. So the soldiers ended up eating canned food or powdered eggs and stuff like that. All the fresh food and fresh meat and fresh fruit was transported to them from all over the country, just for them, but they didn’t get to eat it, they had only canned food. So this correspondent from the PLA Daily plotted this big protest and parade, he organized the soldiers, he was also wounded and lost his right arm. And I think then he got himself into trouble. Because some officers from much higher power got him removed from the hospital the right after this protest. They didn’t like anyone to agitate with the soldiers, they were considered treason. The result was that there was a compromise, they improved the soldiers food for a couple of days. When the noise died down, of course, they went back to the way they had been, the original standard. And I saw a soldier who was 19 or 20, who was a first lieutenant, just out of military school, infantry school. He had been an orphan and adopted by this farmer’s family. The farmer’s daughter was his childhood friend and when he grew up, the parents, made a decision that they should marry each other, these two children. They were getting along very well, they loved each other. So this man had put all his hope, all of his dreams into this family and some day marrying this girl and having his own family at last. He didn’t have family or anything else to comfort him. During the war he stepped on a mine and he got his testicles blown off. He was so depressed, he didn’t want to write to his fiancé and said, if I cannot marry this girl I have no family and no hope. My life is worth nothing any more. So the doctors in the hospital and the political officer said to me, You are a woman, you tell him how rich and fortunate he is. You must tell him that many women are dying to marry him and his fiancé will not care if he has testicles or not. You have to convince him of that. I was only 19 and I didn’t know these things. I didn’t think I should be talking about anything like this, even being told this. I thought I would be embarrassed to death. This officer said that this solder was hiding a broken surgery blade somewhere in the room and they felt that he might try to kill himself. They said they wanted to encourage him and that it was my political duty to talk to him and cheer him up and to save his life. So I finally agreed and I went to this soldier’s ward and he was very quiet and very nice, very timid. He was so small, I thought, and he seemed even younger than I was and shy. I was about to cry when I sat beside him. The tears were rolling down my face and I could not speak. And before I could utter any word an old nurse came and she was giving him a check up and a bath. And she tickled him a little and he burst out laughing. She kept tickling him and he brushed her hand away and laughed like a little child. So I watched this and I thought, OK he doesn’t need to hear my bullshit. So I said OK you should get a good rest and you’re such a nice boy. I didn’t say anything about what I was supposed to say. Next morning I heard that he had sliced his own throat during the night and died. Bled to death. I should have said something. I thought I could have saved him. And the officers came to me and said, did he say anything to you last night about wanting to take his life, and what dcd he say when you talked to him and told him that any woman would want to marry him. And when you talked to him, what did he say? Was there any hint about his feeling? No, I said, he seemed to be very happy? They asked, did you say what you were told to say, I lied to them and said, I did. I said what you told me to say. And? And he believed me and I thought he gave up that idea. What did you say to him? I said, if I were your fiancé I would marry you and live happy my whole life. But I think he made up his mind he wanted to go. Nobody could save him. And from this experience I really had misgivings about the war. I thought maybe a lot of lives were sacrificed, and for what? These two countries were friends? These two countries are supposed to have eternal friendship and they supported each other and were both communist for so long, why all of a sudden they turn guns on each other and kill each other. While they are still fighting in the border areas, If I have no match, no match, a soldier on the other side will throw a box of matches. They were so still so very used to good relations. But they were confused to fight each other on the front. So young lives are lost for no good cause that I could see.
I wrote short stories, two short stories, and three poems about life at the front. One poem was published in the PLA Daily and a short story published in our headquarters newspaper. Others were criticized and returned with criticism. You are making a sharp knife dull, they said, they accused me of making soldiers at the front cowards rather than heroes. I had made a sharp knife dull.
One story was a story was of a soldier who was stationed on the border before the war broke out, stationed there in the time when we had a good relationship. He met this Vietnamese girl and they went to the same street bazaars, and the same theater to watch movies. And during the war the girl was killed and by one of his comrades at the front. Just a very short story to express the irony of war and the fact that people are so used to peace and good times that they shared here. And they are so confused when they are fighting. So the army had to remove all of these soldiers that were border guards and to use others, because they had friendly relations with others on the other side and they could not bring themselves to fight. And they replaced them with peasants from outside the area. The more confused the better, when it comes to soldiers.
When I was sent to the place, the peasants were all removed from the area. So the people there had no disagreement. But the soldiers didn’t voice disillusionment, but from their facial expressions, they seemed all the time to be dumbounded or stunned by what they experienced. What is this, they seemed to ask. They could not figure out what was going on. They didn’t understand it.
I asked one young soldier, What did you do to the other side. What did we do to them? We did to them what the Japanese did to us. We killed their chickens and boiled them and ate them. We killed people when we saw them. We pierced all their farm animals with our bayonets and we took everything we didn’t kill. Just like we had seen in the movies of the Japanese. We cooked the chickens in our helmets.
He was sarcastic. He was very cynical. That was in March when they were already quieting down and suspicious about the government’s goals.
Well, it was like overall, what we were told is that we had to stop the Vietnamese in Cambodia because that is our friend. So we have to divide their military strength so we can pull them back and help a friend. They have to deal with us, so that will give Cambodia a chance. There were no fear of the Soviet Union, we were told that the Soviet Union equipped the Vietnamese, and they had better weapons than we did, actually. And the irony is that so many high ranking officers in Vietnam were trained by Chinese schools, in Beijing, where you have all the very high generals trained, not just Chinese but from all over, from the National Defense University. Vietnamese generals had been trained in that school and so they knew all of our military strategy. That is why they were so tough to deal with.
16, 17, 18, 19, those were the ages of the soldiers. Most were 18. But some young kids were so eager to join the army that they lied about their age. I lied about my age, too. I said I was 14 but actually I was 12 when I joined the Army. Since they didn’t get my civilian identification card, they didn’t know.
I was never afraid near the front. It was funny. When I had this patriotic feeling it was like nothing can touch me. I wanted to go right away. When I was told to return to my base at Chengdu, I went back. We could not talk on the phone or use the telegraph. You had to carry all of your correspondence back. They didn’t have telephone lines. All of them were occupied by the military for their use.
We didn’t use the air force, we were told, as that this would escalate the war. We only used infantry, level 3, and air force would be level 1, four dimensional war, and we didn’t want that. The Vietnamese also didn’t use an air force. But we used tanks.
I visited soldiers in the hospitals near the front. Some soldiers were wounded and lying in the hallways. And I said I didn’t see you yesterday, how did you get here. And they said we can’t talk about it. I tried to find out what had happened and discovered they were wounded by our own troops, and they felt dishonored and didn’t want anyone to know. They were casualties of friendly fire. They said they didn’t teach us that each tank should be followed by a squad of soldiers, when the tank attacks it is after the soldiers go to occupy the place. We walked by the tanks, rushed by them. And the soldiers in the tanks yelled, hey what are you doing and we said we don’t know we were just told to advance, so they passed the tank, we passed the tanks, and then the tanks received the command they should shoot the soldiers in front of them, so they shot the soldiers, these soldiers were supposed to stick with the tanks, they didn’t know, they were so ignorant of military maneuvers that they were not trained soldiers, they were so far ahead of the tanks, and in the evening when they saw these men on the horizon, they fired. Their own men, they were supposed to work with, miscommunication and inexperience. So many wounded and killed by these tanks.
The weather there was very humid and hot with lots of mosquitoes and big ants, and lots of fields of growing sugar cane, and the soldiers broke these and ate it. When I came back from the front, I went there twice, the second time I was awakened. And soldiers were from the front, when they went back to Chengdu to give talks to high school students and they made themselves out to be heroes, but in private they told us horrible and frightening stories. They talked about the soldiers and generals transferred to other areas right before the war. They really expressed their doubts and their cynicism toward war. They joked about everything. They still lied, however, to the high school students. When you were supposed to talk in public it was always different. Just they talked to raise moral, patriotic education. When they got back, they were not like the soldiers going to the front anymore. They became hoodlums. They had experienced life and death. When they returned to Chengdu and other cities, they ordered things in the restaurants without payin.g They would eat big meals and drink and when they got the bills they behaved like party officials. You want money from guys like us, they would say. I almost gave my life for you. What are you doing? Go charge the party secretary of the county, he will pay. So they were bold, very demanding, when they went to the public bathhouse they refused to stand in line, You want me to stand in line. Do you know how many medals I have. I went to fight for you, you pigs. So they became like bad news to the cities, trouble and problems.
From all these, they were, yes, they fought for no reason and no cause, no big cause, but for something they totally didn’t understand. So they came back with such tempers, you know.