Elizabeth Pond
Elizabeth Pond

Fellowship Title:

Portrait of a Revolutionary, Part I

Elizabeth Pond
September 21, 1970

Fellowship Year

“There are two things a revolutionary has to watch out for:” Anh Hai informed us in one of his more discursive moods, “tigers and snakes.” (There was some momentary confusion, as Mike initially thought the Vietnamese word was “monkey” rather than “tiger,” and for an instant we conjured up visions either of small rock-throwing impudents or of large megalomaniacal gorillas. The semantic mix-up was soon straightened out, though, and Hai continued). If you meet a tiger, the thing to do is to strike the ground, and the tiger will become frightened and run away. If he gets too scared and just curls up in a ball on the spot, however, then blow a whistle and he will depart.

We never had the opportunity (fortunately) to test this strategy firsthand, so we never did find out if this particular bit of counsel was gospel or whimsy. If anyone were to know how to deal with tigers, however, we were convinced it would be Anh Hai.

In his mid-forties, Hai was a 25-year veteran of the Vietnamese anti-French fight, of the National Liberation Front insurgency in South Vietnam, and now of the new insurgency in Cambodia. He was the oldest of the five Liberation Front soldiers assigned to guard and escort us during our anomalous five and a half weeks as part captives, part guests of Front forces in Cambodia. Hence his familial code name of Anh Hai, First Elder Brother. He was also the ideological spokesman of the group, expounding to us almost every day some aspect of revolutionary faith. We were three Western journalists who had strayed into Front-held territory in eastern Cambodia and had been captured there in early May: Richard Dudman of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Vietnamese-speaking Michael Morrow of Dispatch News Service International, and me.

Hai had a gray brush cut, a pug nose, and apple cheeks. He wore loose black peasant trousers and customarily kept his white undershirt rolled up around his chest for coolness. He had a habit of cracking his toes loudly and luxuriantly while sitting on the floor conversing. He was inseparable – or at least never very far away – from the Japanese radio that he carried in a blue nylon pouch with a shoulder strap. On it he would listen several times a day to Radio Hanoi, Liberation Radio, and, in the very early morning, to the BBC news. The BBC, he indicated, was the least biased of the Western stations.

When he washed – like the other soldiers, Hai bathed meticulously two or three times a day at the well – he would not dry his hair by toweling it. Rather, he would rub his fingers stiffly and rapidly over his head until his hair sprang from matted wetness to bristly dryness.

From his mixed accents, Hai was probably a North Vietnamese who had been in the South a long time with the NLF. Apparently, he had come to aid the Cambodian insurgency only after Prince Sihanouk was overthrown in Spring of 1970, as he did not yet speak Cambodian. In all he had been in 100-odd battles, including three B-52 bombings. He had been wounded three times.

Hai was the quintessential revolutionary. His own identification with the cause was so complete as to constitute his very identity. His personal life was totally sublimated to the revolution, and he was ready to pay whatever sacrifice was required for the faith.

The same single-mindedness reigned in the others too, but Hai was our best mentor. More seasoned than Anh Tu (Third Elder Brother, Hai’s understudy, in his early thirties), less aloof than Anh Ba (Second Elder Brother, a high-ranking professional soldier in his mid-thirties who was in charge of our security), less cynical than the outside interrogators, Anh Hai was for us the archetypal revolutionary.

An aside is perhaps in order here on the virtues and limitations of our observations.

To begin with, we had a rare chance to see the Front soldiers in their natural habitat. Living and eating with them in close quarters for five and a half weeks, fleeing threatening planes together, watching their split-second reactions in various emergencies, eavesdropping on their conversations with one another, and seeing a little of their relationships with villagers in some 10 villages over some 250 miles, all enabled us to know our guards with considerable intimacy. This is just the flesh and blood element that is usually missing in any academic construction of the Vietnamese revolutionary.

There are endless attempts to dissect this revolutionary. Why do forced conscripts into NLF ranks not infrequently turn out after a few months of indoctrination to be as fanatical fighters as the volunteers are? Why were the Communists in the French period – and why do they continue to be – the most successful proselytizers in Vietnamese jails? How does ideology come to have relevance to an illiterate peasant, to explain his world to him? Why do even NLF defectors of the sort who are genuinely disillusioned with the Communists often seem happy only when they are talking about their revolutionary past? What, in short, has motivated the Vietnamese insurgents and enabled them to stand off almost half a million U.S. troops with immense firepower and mobility in a country the size of Oklahoma?

One can answer romantically, and cite David vs. Goliath. Or one can answer analytically: nationalism above all else; merit promotions for peasants with little education; a dearth of attractive alternatives; selective terror (before it degenerates into indiscriminate terror). But the vital spark of real people living real lives is absent in either approach. Prisoner interrogations and defector interviews give an approximation, but they tend to be abstract. (For one thing, I don’t remember ever seeing genuine unguarded smiles on the faces of prisoners, defectors, or the one active NLF cadre I interviewed clandestinely one afternoon in early 1968. And the open faces, uninhibited smiles, and laughter of our escorts in Cambodia were at the very least reassuring of reality).

There were, of course, limitations to the universality of our observations. Obviously, we could not choose where we went or whom we talked with, nor could we press questions that the Front did not care to answer. (Our requests to Interview Prince Sihanouk and civilian refugees and to visit areas where there had been heavy bombing were denied). Our continuing contacts were confined to our five guards, who were no doubt carefully selected to be with us. (This was especially true of Hai, who joined us only after a few days. The other four had been picked with more haste, within a time span of an hour or so, from soldiers immediately at hand).

Given the circumstances, what was surprising, however, was that there were so few efforts at Potemkin shows. There was little attempt, for example, to hide the leading Vietnamese role in the Cambodian fighting. When referred to formally, the Front in Cambodia was always termed the United Front of the Khmer Nation under Norodom Sihanouk. And the Vietnamese soldiers described themselves as having come to Cambodia at the invitation of the Cambodians. But it was no secret that the ethnic Cambodian component of the Front was only in the early building stages. The North Vietnamese role was minimized in specifics if not in generalities, and Hai did claim to come from South Vietnam, which we did not believe. But the highest commander we were to meet – briefly, three times – was North Vietnamese, and this did not appear to embarrass anyone. Furthermore, the formal (and polemical) interview we had with a Cambodian commander at the end of our stay was carried out more in the spirit of giving face to the Cambodians than of persuading us that the Cambodians were really in charge. After the interview was finished, one of our escorts leaned over, slapped Mike on the knee, and exclaimed, “Well, that’s done with!” and we got on with other things.

Likewise, there was no attempt to present us with a battery of -Cambodian village chiefs – even though this could no doubt have been done legitimately in some villages we were in, and even though we inquired specifically about local administration. The only time that village chiefs did pay us a formal courtesy call was apparently initiated by the two local village chiefs themselves, as it caught our escorts by surprise.

Finally, the heavy and unpredictable fighting in the areas we were in certainly precluded much staging of what we would see. Our frequent moves seemed to be dictated almost entirely by the necessity of leaving areas coming under attack, sometimes on an emergency basis.

All in all, our experience was probably much less selective and more representative than, say, the usual American journalist’s visit to North Vietnam or the usual American Senator’s visit to South Vietnam.

But back to Hai.

Anh Hai must have been a member of the Communist Party, though he spoke of Communism as such very little. And we assumed he was of fairly high rank, for two reasons.

The first was his assurance in dealing with us. He was at his ease and was ready to use rather than fear a certain camaraderie. (Until Hai took the lead in becoming, friendly, the younger soldiers seemed unsure of how far they might go). Anh Hai appeared to be the one, in fact, who made the primary judgment – once the initial week of hostile questioning was over – as to the degree to which friendliness might be carried with us.

Thus, while the first rapprochement between us was offered by Tu and bore all the earmarks of prior calculation, the second came from Hai and was spontaneous, in that the manner and timing clearly originated with Hai himself. The first move came on Ho Chi Minh’s birthday, May 19. The three of us were invited out of our cubbyhole in the huge house we were then staying in to join the soldiers and our host family in the airier and lighter main living area. In the evening Anh Tu, a little self-consciously, showed us his copy of Ho’s thoughts and discoursed to us on Uncle Ho’s greatness. (That, I believe, was also the evening when Tu asked Mike what languages he was going to teach his children, a comment we took to be a hopeful portent of our eventual release).

The next move in the warming up of our relations came a few days later, on May 23. In mid-morning our escorts got word of an imminent American or South Vietnamese attack, and we all took off cross country on the double to flee the approaching planes. We hid in the woods all day while bombing went on a few kilometers away and American foot soldiers entered the village we had just vacated. In the afternoon, after the bombing stopped, Hai split a cigarette with his fingers and gave half of it to me, with the air of men who have shared danger with each other. That evening, for the first time, the three of us did not eat by ourselves but joined the soldiers and host family for supper, which included – also for the first time – rice wine.

On another occasion Hai characteristically referred to Prince Sihanouk with a levity that a junior officer would hardly have ventured. In answer to our inquiry as to whether Sihanouk might come to Cambodia, Hai smiled his cherubic smile and said the revolutionaries would have to capture an airfield first, as the prince didn’t like to walk.

The second reason we deemed Hai a man of some standing stemmed from an incident in a chance meeting with an unknown local Vietnamese revolutionary. It was late afternoon and still light, and we three journalists were walking home from the woods where we had spent the day to the house we were currently living in. We were accompanied by Hai and the Cambodian soldier among our escorts. The Vietnamese stranger stopped our Cambodian soldier, who was in the lead, and would have arrested all of us on suspicion – despite the Cambodian’s explanations – but for Hai’s intervention. After a brief conversation the stranger acknowledged Hai’s authority and allowed us to continue on our way. Significantly, this was in an area new to Hai.

Hai was reserved in giving us any details of his own background. He was a peasant, originally a poor rubber plantation worker, one of the other soldiers told us, perhaps a bit too pointedly. Hai explained that he had had no education before 17 or 18, when he had managed to begin elementary school. There he had encountered anti-French nationalism for the first time. He had joined the struggle immediately.

It might well be that Hai was trying to bury a bourgeois background. But just statistically, the chances were greater that he really was a peasant. In any case, his origins didn’t matter much. His synthesis of revolutionary tenets was very much peasant-oriented, and this was the important thing.

Hai never referred to wife or children and answered so tersely the one time I started to ask him about his family that I did not pursue the question. Certainly, he preached the necessity of foregoing family life until the revolution was victorious. He had not seen his wife, it appeared, for a decade or so.

The only time I ever saw Hai in what might have been personal introspection occurred one day when he was absorbed in reading a letter and became totally oblivious to his surroundings. The only time I ever saw him lose even a little of his composure occurred one evening when the Cambodian soldier was feeling especially exuberant. The Cambodian good-naturedly jostled Hai into Indian wrestling, which the Cambodian promptly won, and then into some flowing Cambodian dancing around the room. Hai fell in with it – no one could resist the Cambodian’s enthusiasm – but neither Indian wrestling nor dancing was his forte. He grinned an ill-disguised embarrassment and sat down again as soon as he could do so judiciously.

As far as any idiosyncrasies were concerned – well, let’s just say that bad cooking was Hai’s bane, getting tipsy was his rare pleasure, and chess was his passion.

Anh Hai was definitely less stoical about the cooking than the rest of our party. What with the extra riels allotted the group because of us Westerners, we all got more meat than the soldiers usually got. So, there was no complaint there. But the nurse assigned to us, once she was over being sick herself, doubled as cook, and Hai just didn’t like her cuisine. He was much happier when the nurse left and the youngest of our guards took over the culinary duties. Even so, Hai would frequently be the one to whip up an extra impromptu snack, whether gruel from leftover rice or roasted water buffalo jerky (the latter, of course, only if the Cambodian householder was absent, as he didn’t approve of eating water buffalo).

In drinking, Hai was as restrained as the other soldiers on the few occasions when families offered us rice wine. But on one of our long nocturnal rides in the Land Rover he did recount to the other soldiers, with great glee, his experience in getting dead drunk one time and returning home, with no memory of how it had happened, with all his clothes on inside out. Spurred on by his companions’ enjoyment of the tale, Hai then went on to tell of the time when the NLF had failed to capture the capitol of Kien Hoa and the soldiers had countered their disappointment by dreaming up nonsense ministries that they would be named to when they were successful. (That was also the night, as I recall, when two or three refugee women and their children and bundles were shoehorned into the back of the car along with the soldiers, us, and the load of rifles we were transporting. One indignant chicken, who was feeling as cramped as everyone else but was more willing to give vent to her discontent, but Mike. The Cambodian guard, in protecting Mike, kept stepping on the unfortunate malcontent every time she squawked, until she eventually expired).

On chess. the only adequate way to describe Hai would be to say that he was an out-and-out addict. In nothing, perhaps, was his revolutionary spirit exemplified more than in this. Before our advent none of our soldiers had been acquainted with “Western” (though it originated in India) chess. We had whittled a chess set, however, and had taught our escorts how to play. Hai took to it instantly. Only the most insistent overflight of American planes could wrench him from his game to the door long enough to size up the danger.

Hai’s development as a player was retrogressive, however. Because of his training, no doubt, in such guerilla principles as striking where the enemy is weak and yielding where the enemy is strong, Hai quickly and intuitively grasped the strategy of chess. Within a few days he was almost beating Mike. (Not quite, however. Mike, who nurtured his chess skill since boyhood, would permit our escorts to win at other games or contests, but he drew the line at chess). Curiously, Anh Hai’s game deteriorated when he began playing less with Mike and more with Tu. Anh Tu, another neophyte at chess, tended to play promptly and recklessly, and Hai responded in kind.

As Hai’s calculations diminished, his reliance on the force of seniority increased. When Hai would make a wrong move and Tu would rush to take the exposed piece, Hai would vigorously intercept Tu’s hand in mid-move and retract his own move. Tu would laugh and not object. Nor did Hai ever accept the concept of a stalemate. In games in which he and Tu had bludgeoned each other so that only three men remained on the board, Hai would play on inconclusively for a while, then suddenly lay Tu’s king down on its side to try to get Tu to concede. Tu would laugh and just set his king upright again.

When we three journalists presented small gifts (a penknife, a scarf, and the like) to our five escorts at the end of our sojourn, Anh Hai became, by tacit understanding, the spokesman for the group. He thanked us warmly, even dabbing his eyes a few times impatiently with a cloth, but he declined the gifts, saying we would need these things ourselves. Except for the one thing we had not brought with us to Cambodia but had made during our stay there – the chess set. That gift was accepted.

At the end Hai’s goodbye to us was brusque. He came to our cubby-hole, and Mike expressed our regrets that we were departing to safety while leaving Hai behind in the danger we had seen. “You don’t know what danger is,” Hai replied. Mike and Dick gave him bear hugs, and I asserted my prerogative as a Western woman and kissed him on the cheek.

Received in New York on September 21, 1970.

©1970 Elizabeth Pond

Miss Pond is an Alicia Patterson Fund award winner on leave from the Christian Science Monitor. This article may be published with credit to Miss Pond, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Alicia Patterson Fund