The Enemy in War Is War Itself
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.
The Importance of Family Bonds
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.
War’s Effect on Identity
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.
More main ideas from When Heaven and Earth Changed Places
1. The special gift of suffering, I have learned, is how to be strong while we are weak, how to be brave when we are afraid, how to be wise in the midst of confusion, and how to let go of that which we can no longer hold. In this way, anger can teach us forgiveness, hate can teach us love, and war can teach us peace.
In the Prologue, Le Ly outlines her intention of writing a memoir about growing up in Vietnam during the war. Through her experience in Vietnam, she sees that the war and its atrocities wound people physically and emotionally. The war leaves many people in Vietnam and the United States angry, confused, and at a loss for meaning. Her experience and world view help her create meaning from the awful atrocities she endured. This outlook enables Le Ly to find a positive outcome from the negative experiences of war. Her pregnancy, although difficult because she is young and alone, makes her realize that family is more important than fighting. She loses many things during the war—her home, her beloved brother, the father of her child, and her childhood— but she learns to live for the future and for her children. In doing so, she is able to avoid growing burdened by the past. She is able to find a new life in the homeland of the aggressors who attack her village, and find a friendship with her brother, who works for the government that tried to kill her.
Not all of the characters are able to extract such meaning from the war. Upon returning to Vietnam, Le Ly is amazed to see the transformation of her countrymen from generous to petty, and even more shocked to see such behavior in her own family. Leading by her own example of forgiveness, Le Ly is able to influence her mother to forgive Ba. This is a small start to the larger project of mending the hurt inflicted by the war. Her perspective on war is a prescription for others who suffer from the war; it is a recipe for peace and healing.
2. “No,” my father replied sadly, “don’t hate Chin - and don’t hate Ba for marrying him. Hate the war for doing what it did to them both.”
This quotation occurs in Chapter 6, when Trong comforts an enraged Le Ly with these words. The husband of Le Ly’s older sister, Ba, leaves for Hanoi to train and enlist with the Viet Cong. During his absence, his cousin Chin starts to make inappropriate advances toward Ba. Chin, being a Republican official, is able to abuse his office and position as a way to spend time with Ba. After threatening her with imprisonment, Ba agrees to marry him and forget her first husband.
Although he is explicitly discussing his daughter’s unfortunate situation, Trong’s words apply to all of the people affected by the war. For Trong, there is no right side and no wrong side; the enemy is not the Americans or the Republicans or the Viet Cong. The enemy is always war. His perception of the war is rooted in his strong Buddhist beliefs that the purpose of life is to care for your family, your land, and the memories of your ancestors. War is antagonistic to this way of life. This is one of the most valuable lessons that Le Ly’s father taught her. War is the villain that made neighbors report on each other, made soldiers kill children, made wives abandon their husbands and children their parents. By understanding that wars—not people—are the enemy, Le Ly is able to forgive those who wronged her and to find peace in her life.
3. “My little peach blossom - haven’t you learned yet that fate or luck or god works in its own way, and reveals its secrets in its own time? When has it ever paid you to turn your face from life? Keep your faith, Bay Ly: Look those deepest, darkest, most terrible fears in the face and learn the lessons they’ve come to teach -”
In Chapter 6, upon arriving in Danang, Le Ly settles into her hotel and her thoughts turn to the worst. She imagines that her mother had already died, that her brother and sisters will not see her, and that the Communist government is waiting to imprison her. She then hears her father’s voice, which soothes her. Le Ly often returns to her father’s words and philosophy for support and guidance. Trong is the most devoutly religious Buddhist in Le Ly’s life and his belief system—that wars, not people, are the enemy—is what she ultimately accepts as her own way to deal with living through hardships. Her father’s words give Le Ly strength when she is unsure and help her look at her own life and realize her own strength. Having already survived years of war, escape, and life in a new country, she knows that she would be able to face her family and whatever was in store for her in her homeland. Her father’s words also imply that she should let fate guide her if she is open to it.
Le Ly is soothed by these words that she attributes to her father, but they have also become her own words. She has already taken the advice of learning from her hardships and difficult experiences and turning those lessons into something positive. She has put this advice into practice: returning to her homeland to mend her internal pain and that of her family, writing a memoir in order to explain and illuminate her and other’s experiences of war, and planning to become more involved in rebuilding the ties between Vietnam and the United States.
4. Vietnam already had too many people who were ready to die for their beliefs. What it needed was men and women - brothers and sisters - who refused to accept either death or death-dealing as a solution to their problems. If you keep compassion in your heart, I discovered, I discovered, you never long for death yourself. From my father’s death, I had finally learned how to live.
This passage appears in Chapter 7. Trong tells Le Ly legends of famous Vietnamese women warriors when she is a young girl. As a child, Le Ly wants to be a warrior, to fight like men, giving up their lives for a cause. However, her father tells her that her role is far greater: to have children and care for them as a mother, teaching them about their ancestors, the land, and peace. Despite her father’s philosophy, Le Ly feels that her role is to fight alongside the Viet Cong. After her expulsion from her village and from the Viet Cong, she is confused about her purpose. The entire country, including her family and friends, is caught up in war and she believed that it is her duty to fight.
Yet her father’s death brings her an inner peace and understanding about her role in life; it marks a turning point for Le Ly. She starts appreciating what she has and works hard to get out of Vietnam. Her outlook shifts from feeling hopeless to feeling like a warrior who would overcome the hardships, protect her children, and survive. Fighting, politics, and honor were no longer important. Her duty is to her son, to her family, and to preserving them for the future. Her anger toward the Viet Cong and the village that expelled her, toward her rapists, toward the man she loved who abandoned her, and toward the drunken GIs, all dissipate. Her father’s philosophy helps her see that these people were not the enemy: their fear and hatred brought on by war was the enemy. When she comes understand her father’s view of humanity, she is able to forgive all sides for their atrocities during the war. This philosophy—war, not people, is the enemy—is the backbone for her mission to heal the wounds caused by the war to all involved. Her memoir is her forgiveness in action, a return to the war-torn country in an attempt to start to mend some of the damage done.
5. Like they say, Mot cau mhin, chin car lanh (One word of forgiveness brings back nine gentle favors).
This passage, from Chapter 14, is a village saying that is rooted in Buddhism. Le Ly, despite the places that she traveled and the roles in life that she fulfilled, remained at heart a peasant girl from a rich Buddhist tradition. Her roots in this tradition help her find the guidance and methods in order to make sense of the war and what the war does to her family. This saying is anchored in Buddhist thought. It demonstrates the central and ongoing importance of family and ancestral tradition to Le Ly’s life and work. Forgiveness, an important theme in her life, is a lesson learned from the war. For Le Ly, the only way in which to overcome the horrors of the war and to find peace is through forgiveness. She demonstrates this adage in her own life. When she is touring the countryside with the icy Communist Party inspectors, Le Ly forgives them their treatment of her and buys them a special lunch. In return for this act of forgiveness and kindness, the officers share with her many anecdotes and real stories of what happened to her homeland in her absence. Another example is her forgiveness of Anh for his abandonment of her and their child. In return, he becomes a trusted and true friend, helping her many years later. Her examples and attitude of forgiveness prompt her mother to act in kind, and she forgives Ba for hoarding all of the gifts that Le Ly sent from the United States. In addition, her goal in writing her memoir of the war is to teach to a larger audience the lessons of forgiveness and, by doing so, help mend the war wounds of two nations.