A voice, lost

A quick note on the power of a journal.

Over the past few days, I’ve found myself tuning out the sports radio blather I often used to gravitate towards, instead turning the dial towards our local public radio channel. I don’t know why this is happening, but it is. I suspect it’s because I’m tired of listening to radio personalities yell at each other about why the Jets are sunk and why the SEC is a better football conference. But that’s a subject for another day

Yesterday I heard a piece on All Things Considered about a wartime diary that was discovered in Vietnam. In it, the author, a young Vietnamese woman who had joined the VC as a doctor, describes the horror and fright of living in wartime Vietnam, including her own views on communism and war and graphic details about the injuries she found.

It’s an amazing story, not because of it’s content, but because of the beauty of the writing. It’s simple, but passionate – a true philosophical, anatomical, and personal journal from one of the world’s most mistake-ridden and violent wars. It’s not written by a soldier, or by a historian – it’s written by a young woman, Dang Thuy Tram. A person. A voice from deep inside the “trenches.”

From the diary:

April 8, 1968: Today I did an appendectomy without enough medicine, just a few tubes of Novocain. But the wounded young soldier never cried out or yelled. He just kept smiling, to encourage me. I felt so sorry for him, because his stomach is infected. I would like to tell him, ‘Patients like you, who I cannot cure, cause me the most sorrow.’

It was discovered, and surprisingly saved, by a member of the U.S. Military — Frederick Whitehurst, assigned to the 635th Military Intelligence Detachment — a person who was charged with burning seemingly worthless Vietnamese documents after finding an abandoned house. From the article (which, actually, you should read in full):

Whitehurst and Nguyen Trung Hieu, his South Vietnamese interpreter, were standing by a 55-gallon drum.

“I’m throwing things in there and they’re burning, and over my left shoulder, and I remember this, Nguyen Trung Hieu was looking at the diary and said, ‘Fred, don’t burn this. It has fire in it already,'” Whitehurst says.

Whitehurst kept the diary. He smuggled it out of Vietnam, knowing its importance. He started working for the FBI and couldn’t do anything with it – communist countries and FBI agents aren’t supposed to visit, after all. Finally, years later, he found a taker – the Vietnam Center at Texas Tech University. They located the diarist’s mother, and the two were united.

What is the power of a lost voice? When diaries like this are found, what insight can be given to the horrific events that shaped them? When a young woman describes the atrocities of war – the bloodshed and the fear and the false hope – what is she leaving behind for the rest of us? A greater understanding?

Think of how important Anne Frank’s holocaust diary is. Think of what Tram’s diary – with its strong anti-communist slant and its reality laden comments – will mean to generations of future Vietnam citizens. It has already sold over 400,000 copies in a country that usually runs a printing cycle of 2,000. It’s coming to the United States soon. I will be reading it when it gets here.

We all jot our thoughts down from day to day, whether it’s on paper, or on the Internet, or just as a series of mental notes. Often, it’s not even meant to be read. But it’s these thoughts that serve to shape our lives for the future generations we may not even get a chance to meet. Journaling isn’t just a self-righteous way to talk about you – in certain situations, it can be an important slice of life.

What are you writing about? Is it going to change the world? Is it casting a light on a sticky subject, or is it just the random musings of your boring life? Either way, it’s necessary. Because we never know what our thoughts will mean when moved to the future. We never know when we’ll be given a chance to really speak. To really let our lives be known.

This was lovingly handwritten on November 16th, 2006