Lives To Remember

Cao Van Vien | 1921-2008

By Donna St. George
Friday, January 2, 2009; 11:07 AM

It started as an ordinary day in Saigon. Cao Van Vien was working as a commander of the airborne brigade, South Vietnam's most elite combat unit, when he was called to military headquarters. This was not unusual for a high-ranking officer, and Vien did not give it much thought.

Vien was 41 at the time, a well-regarded colonel who had trained in the United States and whose great hope for South Vietnam was a professionalized military that would stand apart from the turbulence of politics. He was a handsome man, forthright but tactful. His great passion was joining his paratroopers as they rushed out the jump ramps of planes.

But at headquarters on Nov. 1, 1963, Vien soon discovered that leaders of a coup were lying in wait. He was led to a room, where he was confronted about his views while an aide to one of the plotters held a carbine to his back. Vien refused to support the overthrow.

He passed many hours certain he would be killed.

By the next day, President Ngo Dinh Diem had been assassinated. The coup had succeeded, and its leaders were installed in the government. But in the surprising way that even the bleakest hours can draw to an end, Vien's life was spared without explanation, which he later attributed to his friendship with one of the men involved in the coup.

Vien was briefly detained and stripped of his command, but he soon returned to the airborne brigade and to a military career that took him to its highest ranks, as commander of the South Vietnamese armed forces during the final decade of the Vietnam War. Historians say the four-star general was a reliable, apolitical military leader during a volatile period in South Vietnam. Vien, 87, died of sudden cardiac arrest last January in an Annandale nursing home, not far from the Falls Church community that had become his adopted home.

The 1963 coup that had left his country in chaos left him with a deeper sense of his own beliefs. "He understood that if death comes, it comes, but he would not do something he did not believe in to save himself," said his daughter, Lan Cao, a professor at the College of William and Mary's law school. "There is a self-awareness that only comes when you face a moment like that. I think that was a big revelation for him."

His sense of reflectiveness was clear at his home in Cholon, near Saigon, where Vien lived with his wife and three children. Other senior military leaders resided at a compound in Saigon, but Vien favored his longtime neighborhood, a hodgepodge of shacks and villas not far from the din of the area's bustling markets. His house, on a street with big tamarind trees, was made of stone and concrete, and had open, interior gardens with lush foliage. Here, Vien, a Buddhist, passed quiet hours the way he might have passed his life, if it were not for the moment and place of his birth. He lived in a time of war and became defined by it.

But many evenings, he retreated into an upstairs room that he had built for himself, tiny and austere, over the garage. He meditated. He did yoga. He did not speak but walked back and forth in loose cotton pants and a tunic, barefoot on the cool granite floor. His polished military boots were stowed in a corner.

He told his daughter, who was allowed in the room and who would sit and watch with wonder, that life was like a sculpture -- that what was important was to brush away all the excess clay to get down to what was meaningful, what was essential. "In his life, what he wanted to do was to remove the excess to get to the core," she said.

Cao recalled that her father always had birds flying in and out of their house, and on the birthday of the Buddha, he would buy 100 birds from the pet store and release them one by one from brown paper bags, setting each on his daughter's head as a blessing before it was liberated. "It was a way to create good karma," she said.

This was his home life across many years of war -- a strikingly calm contrast to so much of what he did.

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