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Don't Mean Nothing: Short Stories of Vietnam
ISBN: 0-345-44608-9
By Susan O'Neill
Review by: Moira Richards

5/15/04

The US war in Vietnam has generated a mountain of writing in the decades since it was waged, but not much has been written by the women who were there. Don't Mean Nothing: Short Stories of Vietnam adds a perspective of the female non-combatants to the history of the war -- one that is still pertinent forty-odd years later, when the inhabitants of our world seem to be no more inclined towards living in a peaceful co-existence.

Susan O’Neill worked for a year as an army nurse in Vietnam during 1969 and 1970, but she only wrote these fictionalized accounts of her experiences many years later when she felt she had achieved sufficient distance to be able to do so. She writes in her introduction that her South Vietnam army hospital settings are true but that the characters and the stories that she tells about them are not, and I certainly found them to be no less real for being made up.

Her tales are centred on the army hospital personnel off duty and on, whose closest encounters with the enemy are never likely to be more than when they treat wounded POW’s. Try to imagine what it must be like for very young men and women, many not even medically trained, to be confronted daily with a stream of broken bodies, horribly maimed bodies, dying and dead bodies. The stories are about people who do whatever it is they must in order to survive the mad mad world they’ve found themselves in. Off duty hours they seek whatever comfort they can to try and numb their minds to the ugliness of their shifts -- alcohol, drugs, sex, perhaps even for a while, love. Some of them manage to cling to their faith in a just god, others lose that comfort after their first day's work, none of these people retains any vestige of faith in the integrity and wisdom of the politicians who created the mess that they spend their days trying to fix.

Don't Mean Nothing: Short Stories of Vietnam will also have you wondering about the what kind of human being are these safely, far-removed rulers who deploy army loads of men to kill each other as a means of resolving their differences. Are these leaders really unaware of what war is like for those who must do the killing and the dying? Or do they know very well the extent of the horror of war, and use it nonetheless as a tool of negotiation? As I said earlier, the questions raised by Susan O'Neill's book still need to be asked today just as much as they did then


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