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Book Review

A Prisoner Duped by Lies but Driven to Reveal Party's Evil

PRISONER OF THE WORD. A Memoir of the Vietnamese Reeducation Camps By Le Huu Tri;

Black Heron Press $25.95, 270 pages

February 27, 2001|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

We never heard about the second U.S. invasion of Vietnam--about how, in 1977, waves of B-52s bombed Cam Ranh Bay, landing forces there annihilated a Vietnamese division, and additional landings were mounted at Vung Tau and Da Nang. We never heard that negotiators were settling on a "glorious day" when prisoners taken by the United States would be exchanged for former South Vietnamese army officers held in reeducation camps since Saigon fell in 1975.

That's because none of this happened, of course. But Le Huu Tri and his fellow prisoners in the camps heard about it, thanks to rumors deliberately floated by the Communist cadre who guarded them, worked them to exhaustion clearing forest land for agriculture, half-starved them and failed to treat the sick. Pining for the "glorious day," the prisoners tolerated their privations and didn't try to escape.

When Le was released in 1980 after nearly six years in the camps, he discovered that the Communists were using rumors in a similar way to control the civilian population. In one instance, news reports blared that a comet was about to hit the Earth. Rice farmers who were being impoverished by agricultural "reforms" felt less anger about their plight, knowing the world was about to end. Then, when the government's purposes were served, a retraction came: It was only Halley's Comet, approaching harmlessly every 76 years.

Le, now a resident of Seattle, Wash., was a young lieutenant when the "Old Government" was overthrown. He tells how he, like the other prisoners, was manipulated by promises of early release or family visits in return for good behavior, and by threats of adjustments in rations or work quotas, and occasional shootings. Usually, only a handful of guards was needed to control hundreds of prisoners, he reports. Some of the camps weren't fenced, and opportunities for escape were plentiful. Yet few escaped.

Le's awareness that he was being duped, even after he thought he had figured out his captors' techniques, rankled worse than the physical hardships. He became obsessed with documenting the process. He took notes for "Prisoner of the Word" in his head, wrote it down in Vietnamese after he came to the United States in 1987 and translated it as he learned English.

He had no literary ambitions. "Prisoner" is a bald, chronological account of how details of the camp regime changed every few months as the cadre implemented another "production battle" plan to increase or lighten the workload for the prisoners. "I recalled everything I'd experienced in the camps," Le says. "I guessed the cadre's intentions and deduced whether or not we had reacted the way they intended us to."

His writing is exact rather than descriptive. His recall of facts is remarkable, but we learn little about Le himself or his fellow prisoners. Their feelings are stated tersely and stoically ("We were relieved." "We were depressed. . ."), as if Le were writing something closer to a military guidebook for future inmates than a personal memoir.

It's up to us to guess at the depth of his humiliation by considering the effort it took him to produce this book and by recalling similar experiences in our own lives. Few of us have suffered as Le did, but most know what it's like to work for a corporation in the throes of the latest management fad, and many have been recruits in the armed forces.

Remember when it dawned on you that boot camp wasn't just a blur of fatigue and harassment but something figured out in advance that was molding you even as you watched? In the end, standing tall and walking proud, you may have thought it was worth it, but you also knew you'd been played.

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