“Hue is the most beautiful city in the world,” a Vietnamese woman tells Marine Lieutenant Kramer, a central character in Robert Roth's Vietnam War novel, Sand in the Wind. Published in 1973, five years after the sweeping Tet Offensive had reduced Hue to rubble, Sand in the Wind set the city within a complex meditation upon beauty and its relation to human desire, history, the vagaries of chance, ephemerality of happiness, and ineluctability of loss. Though ambitious in intent, Sand in the Wind has not been widely acclaimed. Except for John Hellmann's close reading, it has usually been referred to passingly or overlooked. Thomas Myers dismissed it as a “sterile mural,” a static work fixed upon a wall. I prefer to think of it as “walking point” — an action Myers ascribed to Vietnam War fiction he endorsed for “cutting trails” (227). Like the pointman of a patrol who clears a path for others to follow, the Vietnam War novel, Myers argued, opened a way into tangled historic territory — the territory of war now inhabited by literature. I propose to enter this forbidding area through Sand in the Wind, for I believe that like the novels Myers lauded it too secures a way, a unique way, of engaging safely with the Vietnam War and the losses it entailed.
The lives of an estimated 5,713 soldiers, American and Vietnamese, were lost in the battle at Hue, as were almost 3,000 civilian lives. That the “longest and bloodiest” battle of the Offensive took place in Hue during the festive days of Tet was particularly shocking, for Hue was commonly considered an open city, and Tet, the lunar New Year, a time of peace and renewal. Traditionally, Tet Nguyen Dan ushered in the new year with three days of festivity, days of respite during which communal bonds were strengthened. Family members and their relatives renewed the bond of blood by gathering together for an exchange of gifts and good wishes; ancestral bonds were renewed by visits to family graves. Rice farmers plowing their paddies renewed the bond between man and nature.