Thanh’s Compassion

Several readers have recently told me that the most interesting character in Last of the Annamese is the South Vietnamese Marine Colonel Pham Ngoc Thanh. Once a monk, now a warrior, Thanh is at once fierce and merciful, courageous and spiritual, strong and gentle. Early in the story, he decides that he will stay in South Vietnam when it falls to the North Vietnamese whom he hates. He feels that it is both his duty and his destiny to face the conquerors he had sacrificed everything to defeat. He knows he will face torture and execution, but he refuses to be evacuated.

Those same readers have pointed out one passage that, for them, sums up Thanh’s character. I quote it below:

With the onset of darkness, Thanh dismissed the junior officers but signaled Chuck to follow him. “We go to the infirmary tent.”

A woman stood outside the entrance lamenting, her voice rising to a shriek. Thanh questioned three other women standing nearby, took the woman in his arms. As the woman’s cries subsided, Chuck heard another sound, a steady scream halted from time to time by an intake of breath. The voice was shattered, broken by constant use but forced to operate in spite of itself, like a machine driven to ruin. Chuck followed Thanh into the tent.

Inside was an overflow of human wreckage—battered, dismembered men, alive only because death, taken by surprise, hadn’t gotten to them yet. Chuck stopped breathing to ward off the stench and locked his throat to keep from vomiting. But he couldn’t block out the screaming.

The source was a man at the far end. His skin was charred and bloody, his body a mangled parody of human form. His eyes, with no eyelids to protect them, started from his skull. His mouth was forced open to its limit. His teeth were broken and blackened.

Thanh knelt beside him. He gathered the burned body in his arms and spoke in a sing-song, almost a lullaby. The screaming stopped. The body ceased moving. Thanh straightened. He pulled a stained sheet over the man’s face. Without getting to his feet, he turned to the next mat and spoke to the soldier lying on it.

Chuck watched from the narrow aisle between mats. Thanh moved through the tent and talked to each man. Before Thanh had finished, Chuck, feeling as though he was witnessing death rituals too intimate for a stranger’s eyes, walked from the tent.

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