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Almost Noble: A Review of 'Punji Trap'

The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s breakthrough 2015 novel, is a fictional tale of a North Vietnamese spy working inside the South Vietnamese army during the last legs of the American War. Duality and split lives occupy the core of the novel, almost in a Kafkaesque fashion. Luke Hunt’s recently published Punji Trap — Pham Xuan An: The Spy Who Didn’t Love Us considers the same questions of morality in a Vietnamese spy, only this time it is not fictional.

Pham Xuan An joined the Viet Minh as a teenager to fight against the Japanese occupation of Vietnam during the Second World War, later taking his fight to the French, who tried to recolonize the country afterward. Giving up arms a few years later, he found bureaucratic work in Saigon, later becoming a translator and researcher for Western-backed forces, eventually rising to secretary of South Vietnam’s Psychological Warfare Department. However, An decided on a career in journalism, a move supported by his Northern mentors.

On October 10, 1957, An flew to the United States to study at Orange Coast College in Orange County, California, while also working as an intern at the Sacramento Bee, a daily newspaper. Once his studies were completed, he returned to Vietnam, first working for foreign wire-services, namely Reuters, before joining Time magazine. Over the years, he became one of the most respected journalists in Vietnam, writing for some of the world’s top publications; however, throughout, he was secretly spying for North Vietnam under the alter-ego, Hai Trung.

Through his extensive contacts, An learned of American and South Vietnamese troop movements and relayed them to the North, which saved many National Liberation Front (NLF) commanders from certain death. Meanwhile, he received news from the North about their own military intentions in order to confuse American and South Vietnamese intelligence through misinformation.

With the 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive commemorations starting last month, it is only natural, then, that his exploits during this period should come to typify his role. In print and in gossip to other reporters, Hunt writes: “An advanced the theory that [NLF] and North Vietnamese forces would strike at Khe Sanh,” a remote part of Quang Tri Province. This only confirmed the opinions of American intelligence, and US commanders began moving soldiers and artillery into the region. But it was a ruse to distract these troops from larger attacks elsewhere in South Vietnam. After the Tet Offensive ended, An was awarded one of his four Liberation Exploit Medals by Hanoi for his role in the operation.

Shane Worrell, in reviewing this book for the Diplomat, referenced a quote given by An, which was used in his New York Times obituary. “One truth is that for 10 years I was a staff correspondent for Time magazine, and before that Reuters,” he told a CBS correspondent. “The other truth is that I joined the [revolutionary] movement in 1944 and in one way or another have been part of it ever since. Two truths – both truths are true.”

From this, Worrell extrapolated that “it’s the kind of explanation that doesn’t seem out of place in 2018’s world of so-called ‘alternative facts’.” However, I believe the reverse is also true: the present-day world of “alternative facts” doesn’t seem out of place in history. In another way, An wasn’t conflating falsehoods with reality, but instead, he understood the two were distinct entities, one of which (truth) he had to provide to his North Vietnamese colleagues and the other (lies) in print to American readers and fellow journalists. Indeed, one fundamental point that occupies the edges of Hunt’s text is An’s belief that there was such a thing as objective truth, yet in his capacity as one of the most trusted journalists covering the war, he could decide when to be objective, and when not to be.

Hunt, in the name of full disclosure, is a fellow contributor to the Diplomat, where I work as a columnist, and we sit on the same foreign-journalism board in Phnom Penh. He has reported from across the world, including the Middle East, and has written for the likes of the New York Times, The Economist and The Times of London. Punji Trap — Pham Xuan An: The Spy Who Didn’t Love Us was published last month by the Pannasastra University of Cambodia, where Hunt works as a senior lecturer.

In Punji Trap, Hunt provides a fine summation of Vietnamese history – before, during and after the American War – that is invaluable for a novice reader of the country’s past. But where his historical acumen excels, and far more comprehensively than can be gleaned from reporters’ memoirs of the period, is in his thorough analysis of the journalistic history of the war. As a former wire-service reporter himself, Hunt understands the role wires play in laying out the "facts" that newspaper and magazine writers then convey in larger narratives.

One of An’s two “great lies” – the first being his work for the North – was using his journalism “to convey an ever more sickening picture of American and South Vietnamese barbarism,” according to Hunt. He reveals that An concocted a story and set in print that NLF prisoners were being decapitated and their brains extracted in front of others.

This is crucial not only to Hunt’s book but also to the conflict itself. “An was convinced the Americans could only be defeated at home, that is politically, through continued fueling of antiwar sentiment in the United States. This meant ensuring a continuous flow of news feeds showing the war’s futility,” Hunt writes.

One question I am left with from the book is what proved more decisive for the North’s ultimate success: An’s 'spying' that allowed him to pass on enemy movements, positions and plans to his commanders, or his 'journalism' that forged a narrative in the minds of American readers, greatly enlivening the anti-war movement that eventually led to Nixon’s retreat – the so-called 'Peace with Honor' – in 1973?

While An’s story has been told before in articles or as part of journalists’ memoirs, Hunt’s work provides the first comprehensive biography of his life. Hunt’s subtitle – “The Spy Who Didn’t Love Us” - is meant as a rejoinder to a 2005 article in The New Yorker titled “The Spy Who Loved Us,” which, at the time, was the “most serious attempt” to understand An’s life, according to Hunt.

The information that An shared with Hunt over a number of decades – the latter began researching the former while a student in Australia – was disclosed on the condition that it would remain off-the-record until An’s death, which occurred in 2006. Hunt nobly stood by his promise.  

Like all good characters in a drama, An is rich in pathos and humor. Hunt portrays him as a fallible person, albeit one who was highly intelligent and cunning, but also a man who wasn’t guided by ideology, as much as by nationalism and humanism.

An’s loyalty to his fellow journalists – those he was deceiving – places a question mark over his sincerity, though it doesn’t appear in Hunt’s telling that An was simply making friends with colleagues so that he could use them for his own purposes. Of course, that was one purpose, but he also showed bravery in helping save a number of colleagues from likely death.

David Hutt is the Southeast Asia Columnist for the Diplomat in addition to writing regularly for the Asia Times and Forbes.

[Top image: Left: Provided by David Hutt. Right: Thanh Nien]

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