The Sorrow of War is a unique war novel in that it places special attention on the different parts of the lives of its characters: before the war, and after. The main character, Kien, takes up most of the book with his life stories. However, there are several other characters who have their post war stories told in this novel. Such characters include Phuong, Lan, and Sinh. The course of their lives after the war are very significant to the meaning and purpose of this novel.
Kien was already known to live in his pre-war past. The book tends to occasionally focus on the better days of his life, when he was still young and innocent. However, the war had jaded and scarred him, both in body and mind. The horrors and atrocities stayed with all of the soldiers who had the misfortune of surviving the war: “. . . psychological scars of the war will remain forever” (193). Even the memories of battles torture the souls of soldiers, just like Kien. He uses many different examples in the novel: the three girls in the farmhouse, the brutal death of Quang, the rape and sacrifice of Hoa. These are only few of the graphic depictions of loss and suffering in war. Things like these stay with the men and women forever, coming back in the form of PTSD that forces them to relive the horrific events. This is shown in Kien, as he admits that he had no choice but to write the things that were going through his head as he remembered such events, or he might have gone insane. At some point feelings become numbed, as Kien says, “One was totally devoid of feeling and had no regard for the clever or the stupid, the brave or the cowardly, commanders or privates, friend of foe, or death, happiness or sadness. It was all the same; it amounted to nothing” (213). After the war, Kien lived bleakly and meaninglessly. He visited people of his past, wrote down his memories, and waited for Phoung. He represents the lack of purpose many soldiers find upon their return home from a long war. He had joined the war as a young man, and grew up into an adult through the heat of battle, leaving no time for him to build a life to return to when the fighting was over. The atrocious war had been his life, a cruel and hard one. Kien’s life after the war was one of no purpose, direction, or joy.
Phoung had been a young and beautiful young woman, as described by Kien. She had long black hair and pale smooth skin. Free-spirited and rebellious, she was a model for youthful perfection. She had an angelic voice, and had a talent for the guitar and piano. But she was also very delicate, like an easily breakable fine China teacup. Her mother had predicted a drastic change that would befall Phoung. She said, “The girl’s soul would become warped and twisted when she played in the mainstream of life” (201). This was true, but much worse than her mother must have imagined, as the “mainstream” of life for women had become hellish during and after the war. She had undergone the first break in her soul on the first day of the attacks, after she decided to accompany Kien to the front lines. There she was separated from him, and attacked and raped by multiple men, only to have to see the one person she could have trusted lose his mind and brutally murder a man right in front of her. In a single day she had gone from being an innocent kind young woman, to a damaged rape victim. After the event, she was instantly jaded. She lost her sense of personal value, seeing herself as unclean and impure: “‘. . . even if I do bathe, even if I peel my entire skin away, I’ll be just as unclean’” (217). Phoung hadn’t even been a soldier in the war, yet she was already a victim of it. Rape is a huge and common problem in times of war, where men forget any sense of civility or compassion, and lose themselves to savagery. Phoung represents a large majority of women who fell victims to such men. Whose lives were forever changed, damaged. At that time, there was a very slim chance of Phoung finding the love and support she needed to recover, and feel her self-worth again. She lost herself and did not have any care for whom she slept with, or what happened to her. War had left her empty, and alone, with no hope of recovery. Phuong’s life after the war was one of self-hatred and desolation.
Lan had been a shy girl from the countryside when Kien first met her during his years as a recruit. After the war, he decided to pay her and her mother a visit, only to find that she was alone. The war had taken her family from her. First, it had taken her elder brother, and then her second. Her mother had received the news in the same day with the second death certificate courier coming only a few hours later with the horrible news. The heartache was too much for the older woman, so she collapsed in a faint, then slipped into a coma. It lasted three days before she died. The the war had taken Lan’s husband only six months after he left to fight. She received a letter from his comrade with the news. Finally, the war had taken her two-day-old infant as well. The stress of her loss caused by the war most likely affected the child in her womb, weakening it, so that after birth, it couldn’t survive. It was a surprise that Lan herself was able to survive such loss without any support. “‘First my brothers, then my mother, then my husband, then my son. No wonder I feel weaker every year. I live in this shell of loneliness, going from house to hill, hill to house, and around the hamlet, with no one paying any attention to me and me not noticing others’” (54). Lan represents the agony of loss that is caused by war. The agony many experienced when their loved ones never returned home, leaving a void where they once were. Lan’s life after the war was one of lonely emptiness, one that was impossible to fill.
Sinh was a childhood friend of Kien and Phoung. He had joined the army after Kien, but was wounded and sent back home. He seemed in decent shape, and had developed plans for the future, like marriage, before his body slowly, became paralyzed. It started from his left leg, then his right, as it slowly made its way up his body. During his time in the hospital, he tried to remain enthusiastic, never complaining about his plight, and making sure his visitors felt comfortable. When Kien visited, he talked to him about the good days when they were young, and other, more pleasant things, as long as they didn’t have anything to do with his current situation. Sinh wanted to remain himself as long as he could, his passionate, poetic, and optimistic self. That, however, didn’t last. He was sent home from the hospital to await his death. His health deteriorated, and soon he was no longer the old Sinh. By Kien’s next visit, his lungs had collapsed, his hair had fallen out, and his face was as sunken and bony as a skeleton’s. By then Kien could tell that he had lost his will to live, he was just a soul trapped in a dying body, waiting to be released. His life had reached a terrible end. Rather than a quick death, he was condemned to die slowly. To have the life sucked out of him, along with what made him who he was. “‘. . . I wish I could kill myself and end everything quickly. War has robbed me of the liberty I deserve’” (79). His death had taken four years before its bitter end. His fate was shared by many others who weren’t lucky enough for a swift death. Men who returned home with damaged paralyzed spines. Men who were left forgotten in ditches, slowly bleeding out over a span of days. Men whose wounds became infected, poisoning their blood, only for them to slowly die in a septic haze. Sinhs life after the war, like countless others, ended slowly and painfully.
Even after the war had been won, the lives of many had been destroyed or lost in the process. The victory against the South wouldn’t restore their lives and bring back their loved ones who had been taken by the violence. People who survived were forced to live with whatever was left of their lives after the war, be it loneliness, hatred, emptiness, or loss. As Kien had said, “Justice may have won, but cruelty, death, and inhuman violence have also won” (193).