From the beginning of the hostilities, Le Ly’s father tells her that the only true enemy is the war itself. During her experience in the war, Le Ly fights and befriends both the Americans and the Viet Cong. She suffers brutalities from many different fronts: cruel punishment from Republican guards, rape and near death from the Viet Cong, and brutality and degradation from American GIs. She also has positive experiences with all sides, making it difficult for her to determine who was the enemy. With her father’s death, Le Ly begins to truly understand this. By comprehending that war is the enemy, Le Ly is able to forgive those who wrong her and to heal her own war wounds. Her perspective of the war leaves her hopeful and strong, and although she never forgets the atrocities that took place, she is able to forgive and find peace in her own life.
Le Ly’s relationships with her family—especially her mother and father—inform her beliefs throughout the war and beyond. She and her sisters take care of each other in many ways. Even though there are problems between family members—Ba and Huyen have differences over the gifts, Le Ly and Sau Ban over ideology—the family remains connected. Seeking to reestablish this connection with her family, Le Ly returns to her homeland after an absence of seventeen years. The result of her journey is her discovery that despite war wounds and different life paths, the strength and bond of family is unshakable. The war separates and displaces many families and disconnects people from their ancestors, but at the end, Le Ly finds a deeper connection with her family and draws strength from it.
Le Ly’s identity transforms numerous times due to the war: from daughter to mother, dependent to provider, country to city girl, Viet Cong spy to black market profiteer. Her father changes from a strong father of six to a single man living alone. Ultimately, he kills himself because he cannot handle this change. Rich men become beggars in the village. Many lose their homes, their farms, their children, and their lives. Farmers become soldiers and children become spies. On her return to Vietnam, Le Ly sees the continuation of the changes: Anh transforms from a rich business man to an impoverished worker, her sisters changes from proud farmers into market vendors, and her brother changes from a friend into a suspicious stranger.
The mistreatment of women by men is one of the byproducts of the total abuse of war. Throughout her life, Le Ly is abused by men. As a teenager, she is tortured and raped by two former friends and Viet Cong members. In Saigon, she is assaulted by a family friend and some boys on the street. During her time in Danang, Le Ly has many American boyfriends, all of whom treat her poorly. Even her loving relationship with Anh becomes bitter when he abandons her. Le Ly is not alone in such abuse, as there are many other examples of rape, forced prostitution, and abuse toward women. Single mothers are left to care for families, and young girls are forced into prostitution, all versions of the woman warrior fighting in her own way. Yet Le Ly is able to forgive those who abused and harmed her, believing that the war forced people to do horrible things.
At the beginning of the war, Le Ly notes that the Communists told the villagers that they are fighting in order to preserve their Buddhist traditions from the Catholic republicans and foreigners. These traditions—respecting the land and worshipping one’s ancestors—are cornerstones to the villagers’ way of life. Trong best represents the connection of the villagers to the Buddhist tradition. However, as the war progresses, the Viet Cong makes it harder for the villagers to practice their traditions. The reasons for fighting change and people desert traditions. Despite this, Le Ly returns again and again to her Buddhist traditions, mainly through the advice and teachings of her father. The rituals and rites of Buddhism continue throughout Le Ly’s life and help support her during the war, as well as show her a way to cope with the horrors around her.
Throughout her life in Vietnam, Le Ly is connected to and supported by her family. Relatives connected to either the Republican or Communist side help her out of jail; her sisters find her jobs and give her a place to live; her parents provide and care for her. In turn, she cares for and supports her family members when she can. However, the war erodes these familial networks, making family members unable or unwilling to help each other, and infusing fear and mistrust in the family unit. When Le Ly returns to Vietnam, she sees how this mistrust had found a place in her family between herself and her brother, and between her mother and Ba. Still, Le Ly promotes building trust where it had been destroyed. On a small scale, she rebuilds the trust within her own family. On a larger scale, she hopes to re-establish the trust between Vietnam and the United States so that everyone can finally heal from the war.
Le Ly often compares the brute strength and sheer force of the American military to an elephant, and the stealthier, more secretive Viet Cong to ants. While the elephant may stamp about on the ground, destroying everything, the ants will hide underground and wait to attack. The ants, although small, are able to defeat the elephant. Despite its technological advancements and brute strength, the United States was unable to defeat the North Vietnamese forces and the Viet Cong. One reason for this is because the Viet Cong were using guerrilla tactics. They built intricate underground hideouts and used a network of villagers and children to supply them. The symbols of the elephant and ant represent the United States’s misunderstanding of the type of war In which they were involved, similar to an elephant using the wrong tactics. This symbol also represents the sense of unity of the Vietnamese. Alone, they feel small and defenseless, but together—as promised by the Viet Cong—they feel strong. This mentality of community strength is important in unifying a nation under a Communist ideology.
Rice is an essential crop for the Vietnamese people. Rice connects the people to the land and to the past, but during the war, the rice paddies became war zones. They no longer produced life-giving rice but instead death and destruction, symbolic of the Vietnamese people and their way of life. Le Ly explains the difficult nature of rice through a legend in which God intended rice to grow easily everywhere and grass to need a lot of care and planning. However, the messenger who brought rice and grass to Earth mistakenly switched the two, making rice a labor-intensive crop and grass a ubiquitous plant. As punishment, the messenger is turned into a beetle and made to crawl through grass for eternity. Le Ly’s whole family helps in the planting, growing, harvesting and preparation of rice. From a young age, Le Ly helps her mother in their rice paddies and it was in these paddies that many important events in her life take place. In the rice paddies, her mother and father both teach her important life lessons and stories of their ancestors.
As a young girl, Le Ly idolizes the legendary female warrior in the stories her father told her. She professes that she too would like to be a warrior, fighting for her country. This desire leads to her involvement with the Viet Cong and, after her exile from the village, her anger and unrest at being unable to fight. The image of the strong female warrior stays with Le Ly through her experiences in Saigon and Danang; in fact, memories of this image encourage her to become involved with the war. However, from the moment that he tells his young daughter the fable of the woman warrior, Trong laughs at Le Ly’s insistence that she can be a woman warrior. Trong tells her that her purpose in this life is not to fight: it is to have a family and raise children to carry on the family traditions.
Trong later reiterates this idea when Le Ly again feels anxious to fight. Trong reminds her that Vietnam does not need more people who are ready to fight; rather, it needs people who are willing to live, to find peace and continue the traditions of land and family. Le Ly eventually comes to understand her father’s words. However, she does not give up the image of the woman warrior, but rather, becomes a woman warrior in her own way: instead of fighting with guns and bombs, she fights war with ideas of peace, hate with forgiveness, death of too many civilians and soldiers with the lives of her children. Le Ly reinvents the image of the woman warrior and transforms herself into one.
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