Remembering Heaven’s Face
This memoir of John Balaban’s years in war-ravaged Vietnam is one of that war’s few legacies of beauty. If anyone doubts whether tragedy can be turned to hope, whether suffering can be turned to joy, let that person read Remembering Heaven’s Face. It is, on many levels, a love story.
Because Balaban performed alternative service in Vietnam as a conscientious objector, his experiences and perspectives on the war are quite different from the now-familiar ones of the combat veteran or the journalist. Because he was drawn to learn about the people—their customs and language—he provides insights that transcend the tourist variety. Because his mission was largely personal, his account owes nothing to institutional purposes. Because he is a gifted and painstaking wordsmith, his memoir ranks among the finest pieces of writing to come out of the war.
In fact, it ranks right up there with his own earlier efforts. These include three volumes of poetry in which Balaban’s reflections on the war are found among poems on a wide range of topics: After Our War (1974); Blue Mountain (1982); and Words for My Daughter (1991). His Coming Down Again (1985), a novel set in Southeast Asia at the war’s end, parallels, in its spellbinding descriptive power, many of the evocations of place and the narrative assurance of Remembering Heaven’s Face. Balaban’s text for a collection of photographs of Vietnam (Geoffrey Clifford’s Vietnam: The Land We Never Knew, 1989) marks again his acceptance of the truth uttered late in the memoir: “As the years have passed since the end of the war, much of my life has been threaded through the needle of Vietnam.”
Mostly, however, the power of Balaban’s story, a story told at a distance of twenty years, is the power of his compassion, the power of his generous heart.
Some of the themes found in Remembering Heaven’s Face are already well known, such as self-serving bureaucracies (both American and Vietnamese) that reduce human issues to statistics and arcane ceremonies of paperwork. Such matters are depressing enough in the context of requisitioning military supplies or assessing the progress of the war (body counts)—the usual stuff of Vietnam narratives. When, however, one is trying to save the lives of innocent children, as Balaban was, the absurdities of abstraction and procedure become tragic.
Balaban performed his compensatory service for two private organizations whose activities were sanctioned (though not always supported) by the U.S. government. During his first tour, for International Voluntary Services (IVS), he taught linguistics at a Vietnamese university in Can Tho. His housing arrangements, travels, and work brought him into contact with various U.S. officials and, more important, with the Vietnamese. Always ready to go beyond the narrow range of prescribed duties, Balaban let his curiosity and his desire to help pull him further and further into the lives of ordinary people. He quickly discovered that there was no shortage of pain to be relieved. Sadly, he also discovered that his work for IVS could be counterproductive. To the extent that such organizations served American propaganda purposes, they indirectly supported the U.S. war effort. Balaban, along with other IVS personnel, protested.
Less susceptible to such manipulation were the endeavors of the newly formed Committee of Responsibility to Save War-Burned and War-Injured Children (COR), a group that Balaban joined next in order to complete his Selective Service obligation in a less compromised situation.
His work for COR is the heart of the book. Balaban’s remembrance of intimate connection with the maimed and burned innocents of the war is recorded with such moving intensity that no reader is likely to forget it. As we make the rounds of the first group of children designated for transport to U.S. hospitals, we enter a world on the fringe of combat exploding with all the emotions that war accelerates. We meet not only the horribly damaged children but also their confused, suffering families. We meet Balaban’s COR associates, the personnel of various Vietnamese hospitals, and the hierarchy of approval- givers (or refusers). We encounter, as Balaban did, the extremes of self-interest and generosity as the children temporarily become hostages to the politics of war.
Balaban’s “moral witness” is nowhere more striking than in his account of these children, though it is equaled perhaps by that of his search, twenty years later, to find what had become of them. Among the victims is “Dao Thi Thai, a fifteen-year-old girl, scalped by boat propeller blades after tumbling into the water during a mortar attack. The incident left her with an exposed skull cap as well as a fractured humerus in her left arm.” Most of the children, of course, were injured directly by either enemy or “friendly” fire.
Working against deadlines, Balaban and his associates processed dozens of forms requiring...
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