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Requiem for a Ravaged Country

VIETNAM: Spirits of the Earth, By Frances FitzGerald, Photographs by Mary Cross, Bulfinch Press/Little, Brown: 208 pp., $50 THE MINDFUL MOMENT, By Tim Page, Thames & Hudson:, 240 pp., $50 ANOTHER VIETNAM: Pictures of the War from the Other Side, By Tim Page, Simon & Schuster/National Geographic Society: 264 pp., $50

January 27, 2002|GLORIA EMERSON

Frances FitzGerald is such an accomplished historian that anything she writes about Vietnam is of great interest to me and others who remember her 1972 classic, "Fire in the Lake." So her newest book, "Vietnam: Spirits of the Earth," is important to those who have loved that small country.

"What struck me after my long absence was not so much how the country has changed but the extent to which it has returned to itself," she writes. FitzGerald first went to Vietnam in 1966 as a journalist, and she reminds us that today, with its population approaching 78 million, it remains one of the poorest and most densely populated countries in the world.

Americans who have returned to Vietnam often tell me how much the country has changed: But that is because they spend time in Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi, not in the villages or near the rice fields. Cell phones, Honda motorbikes and the flashy clothes of the young do not tell the whole story.

The old rituals persist: At a Vietnamese funeral, the mourners leaving for the cemetery drop small gold papers so that the spirit of the departed may find its way home. And to leave one's village is so drastic and threatening that a bride on her journey to the groom's village may take a talisman to ward off the evil spirits.

FitzGerald reasons that although colonialism, war and revolution have altered the shape of society and the way people think, Vietnam has not changed as much as might be imagined--or as much as the advocates of modernization, communist and non-communist, surely hoped. The rites of ancestor worship are back, Buddhism is flourishing and, to a lesser degree, so is Catholicism, she reports.

Her text is divided into sections called "Mountains and Rivers," "Earth and Water," "Villages," "Families," "Women," "Buddhism" and "Silk Robes and Cell Phones." There is an excellent chronology of Vietnam's history, and Mary Cross' lovely photographs have exceptionally interesting captions.

Tim Page became famous in the pages of Michael Herr's "Dispatches," in which he emerges as the lunatic orphan boy from London who had worked in Laos and then drifted to Vietnam, where he loved it. "He was twenty-three when I met him and I can remember wishing that I'd known him when he was still young," Herr wrote. Few expected Page, scarred and bent, to make it out of the war after being wounded three times. But he did, half-dead, after the fourth catastrophic injury to his brain.

There are two new books by Page, whose name is already on eight earlier ones. "The Mindful Moment," with his text, brings together some of his harrowing pictures of the war and the rest from the 30-odd trips that he has made back, a man possessed. Some photographs show the human wreckage of the war long after it was over, and they take one's breath away. (I'm less interested in his writing than in his photographs, which he will take as an insult.)

The other book, "Another Vietnam," edited by Doug Niven, a fine photo editor, and Chris Riley, presents photographs taken by the Vietnamese we fought. Niven tracked down the old war photographers in the north, and Page interviewed them.

Many had poor equipment, and film was so scarce that one man was able to shoot only 70 pictures during the entire war. They developed film in bunkers or in the open air, using home-brewed chemicals. It is astonishing and marvelous and wrenching to see their work.

It is not the first time, however, that work by the photographers with the "enemy" army has been published. In 1998, a book called "Requiem" gave us the photographs of 135 men and women who were killed doing their job. They died in the French war, the American war and the Khmer Rouge attacks. "Requiem" was edited by Page, who had the idea for the book, and by Horst Faas, the legendary Associated Press photographer and bureau chief.

No one else had ever thought of doing what they did. The photographers were European, Vietnamese, Cambodian and, of course, American. So much effort and so much love went into "Requiem" and made it a masterpiece. "Another Vietnam" is a worthy reminder of Page and Faas' great earlier effort.

*

Gloria Emerson received the 1978 National Book Award for nonfiction for "Winners and Losers: Battles, Retreats, Gains, Losses and Ruins from the Vietnam War."

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