The war came to Ho Dang Hoa when he was a child, as the first American bombs fell on his hometown of Hanoi in 1966. “I was a curious boy,” he recalls. “I used to run to see the fires and the people killed.” Nine years later, he was a student learning Russian and planning to study in the Soviet Union when the North Vietnamese Army drafted him as part of the call-up for its final push against South Vietnam. He served for 13 years, at first in the anti-air artillery, then the air force as an intelligence officer.
But it took two Americans, he says, to give him the chance to see the war in its full light. Ho’s relationship with the United States had been as long and twisted as his country’s. As a child, he thought of the Americans only as invaders; as an adult, the army taught him the enemy’s language in order to study its war plans; once released from the military, he became one of Vietnam’s Fulbright scholars in 1993, studying for an MBA at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, before returning to Vietnam as a lecturer himself. In 2011, Ho began working with Lynn Novick and Ken Burns on the epic documentary series The Vietnam War, released on PBS this September, that traces the stories of Vietnamese fighters. “These people had disappeared when the war ended,” he says. “Tracking them down, I found stories I had never heard.”
Ho was introduced to Novick and Burns by Thomas Vallely, a U.S. Marine veteran who runs Harvard University’s Vietnam program and was an advisor on the series. The filmmakers wanted Ho to be another bridge to Vietnam, emphasizing their desire to tell the war from both sides, giving the series’s American audience a chance to see the conflict through the eyes of the Vietnamese.
Ho is modest about his own role, but his work was critical for the film. He shaped the Vietnamese side of the story, finding individuals who had played roles unknown to Americans and aspects of the war forgotten even in Vietnam. The scope of interviewees he collected ranged from North Vietnamese propaganda artists to veterans of the anti-French war in the 1950s, who had taken the skills they learned fighting one occupier and passed them down to a new generation of soldiers.
In Vietnam, the war gets plenty of attention — but largely as a matter of patriotic monuments and victory celebrations, not individual stories. “I was looking for the Vietnamese soldiers who had fought on Hill 875 [at the Battle of Dak To in 1967],” Ho says. His quest took him from one end to the other of Vietnam, in what was often a winding and complex investigation: “I found the name of the unit, and a veteran gave me the name of one of the survivors of the battle. So I went to a mountain village to talk to him, and it turned out he’d joined afterward, but he gave me the name of another man, in the south. I went down to see him, and he’d been wounded just before the battle and evacuated. But he gave me one more name — in Hanoi. That was the actual veteran of the battle, and he lived a mile away from my house.”
In contrast, America’s vision of the war has too often been an exercise in self-reflection; the needless deaths of young men in muddy rice fields half a world away or the students at Kent State. Vietnamese were mostly in the background, the body count mere numbers. The Vietnam War strives to correct this; the audience hears the cracking voices of soldiers who lost comrades, parents who lost children, and South Vietnamese who lost their country. In September, after the series aired, Vallely told a reporter that a friend had called it “the re-education camp for America.”
Like all of his generation, Ho’s whole life was shaped by the war, from his lost education to his memories of the dead. Being a part of this series was not an end to that story, but perhaps an unexpected addendum that brings a new kind of clarity. “Americans are good people — kind, friendly, interesting,” Ho says. “We should have been friends 50 years ago — there should never have been a war. And I hope the sons and daughters of Americans no longer have to go to die in foreign countries.”
James Palmer is Asia editor at Foreign Policy.