copyright 1998, James Waldron Design, all rights reserved
In 1966 I was six years old, and just beginning to understand things going on around me. I grew up in a sleepy bedroom neighborhood surrounded by apple orchards and lightly tangled forests, but every night the real world visited through the medium of television and the evening news. Each night there was a report about the war in Vietnam, with grainy images of dust, and jungle, and body bags. This was my image of Vietnam.
Not much changed in my neighborhood over the next nine years. The war still seemed far away, despite the fact that the dads of two families on our block were flying missions over there every day. The news reports always had the same mortality figures, information about our advances or retreats. I was too young to honestly understand the significance of either. Anti-war activism doesn't really hit 12 year-old suburban kids, unless you count our wearing tie-dye and fringed suede vests in our school pictures. We were still blissfully unaware of the daily battles and their human toll 9000 miles away. I remember MIA bracelets worn by the high-schoolers, each inscribed with the name, identification number, and date when the soldier went missing over there. That might have been the first time I began to make a connection between the war and actual humans fighting in it.
In 1975, at fifteen years old, I was more concerned with studying for my drivers education exams than the fall of Saigon and the frantic escape of Americans from their former stronghold. We lost the war, our first loss, but not much impact was reflected in our growing little town. No one I knew had died. No one was storming through our local apple orchards in tanks. There were not streams of bedraggled refugees coming down Old Westford Road. So the end really made no significant difference in my world.
Still, there was a large pocket in my brain filled with images of the far-away battlefields. Popular culture and movies slowly came in to remind us. I went to see The Deerhunter with my good friend Carl. The film starred Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep. That film was the first time I saw how the war effected a town where it really made a difference, the lives of a small group of friends who were brought together and torn apart by their personal involvement in Vietnam. That film shook me up for days, it triggered all the data in the back of my mind and brought it into a context I'd never conceived of before.
In the twenty years since then Americans have been innundated with stories about Vietnam. Soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder, cancers from Agent Orange, families ruined through men who came back profoundly different from when they left. There have been documentaries about our military folly, movies about heroics and disasters, comedies, books about politics, studies on the effects of the country's damaged psyche.
All of this information created a dark image of Vietnam in me. During my around-the-world trip I swung between wanting to visit and see what it is like today, and leaving well-enough alone. I didn't think it would be painful, because despite all of data I've consumed about the country, it's history and it's relationship with America, the country is still something I don't have to deal with. Just like when I was a kid.
I made a decision and have just returned to Bangkok after a month in Vietnam. I was most interested in the war, to see the aftermath, to walk in the battlefields, to meet the people who were there and lived through it all. It wasn't my express reason to visit, but always the undercurrent of my daily routine.
I'd been in Asia for five months which softens the cultural difference overload compared to if I had just arrived from Boston, or Seattle. I'm used to seeing ramshackle brick, wood and thatch houses jumbled along broken roadways, people washing themselves in muddy brown canals and livestock on the front porch. Vietnam is full of the same, and it was most likely much more primitive in the 70's. So I focused on the propaganda and tourist tours of the war sites.
I went to the Cu Chi tunnels, a secret Viet Cong base in the Mekong Delta, the War Remnants museum, toured machine gun emplacements on the beach, visited Khe Sanh, the Rock Pile, the Demilitarized Zone, and the Vin Loc Tunnels. Each of these places have been cleaned up, prepared to different extents for tourists, and usually are accompanied by some literature. I also talked to some former South Vietnamese soldiers, now relegated to bicycle taxi driving by the government after a few years of forced "re education."
My impression has been influenced by hindsight and years of negative publicity, but my first impression of the country was a disbelief that we ever thought we could win a war here.
This thought was especially strong when visiting the Cu Chi tunnels. Cu Chi is a village about 30 kilometers from Saigon, deep inside South Vietnam, the country we were helping defend from the Communists. The insurgents had carved nearly 250 kilometers of tunnels through the region, and over the years housed 16,000 troops there. They used the tunnels to pop up anywhere, make a short attack, and then disappear again into the ground. After attacks from the South, the VC would recycle unexploded bombs into mines and munitions used against us again. They even used our empty ammunition cases, well sealed against the elements, as latrines when they could not come above ground due to hostile activity. Throughout the region they placed many varieties of handmade wooden booby traps, most of which were designed to impale some sort of body part on sharpened bamboo spikes, usually covered in urine or local poison to infect any wounds that weren't fatal. In places entire villages were consumed with the war effort: grannies, children, anyone able to help out.
Not all the villagers were on the side of the Viet Cong, most were loyal to South Vietnam. But everyone has the same color skin, the same eyes, the same smiles. Picture yourself a 19 year-old American boy who has just completed basic training in the United States, flown over to Vietnam, pointed towards a dense jungle and instructed, "the bad guys are in there, go get them." How do you tell the friendlies from the enemy? How do you eradicate the bad ones from the good when everyone looks the same?
I can see the point of view of the American armed forces and politicians. We had massively overwhelming firepower. But the Vietnamese people were happy to defend their turf using sticks and knowledge of the local land. I'm not sure my neighborhood could do a better job defending our local apple orchards from marauding enemy forces.
And it's hot. There are snakes, bugs, animals, trees, swamps, terrain you would never encounter back home. Everywhere there is somewhere to hide, and someone there who might like to kill you. Even having visited I can't imagine what it was like to be in that situation, but I have a better understanding about why it changed the men who fought there. The average age of the U.S. soldier was 19, and their stay was a year unless too badly hurt to continue fighting.
The next big impression I had of the country was completely unexpected. It's beautiful. There are great mountains, crystal clear seasides, huge fleets of fishing boats, lovely women, vast expanses of green rice fields teeming with workers and livestock. Thirty years of war images did not prepare me for these feelings. Its a lovely tropical country, lacking only a smooth infrastructure with which to travel around.
In the last few days of my stay I visited one of the most famous battle sites from the war, Khe Sanh. Now it's only a bumpy, slightly overgrown flat space out in between rolling hills. Five hundred Americans and ten thousand North Vietnamese died fighting here in 1967-68. Unexploded munitions found by the villagers are collected here and removed by the Army monthly for disposal. The less lethal bits are used for scrap metal and souveniers for the daily tour busses. I was most intrigued by the hundreds of military dog tags for sale by the young boys. They look real, though they might be reproductions, and I chose ten at random.
Lawrence M. Ente
Maybe these guys are real, maybe they are dead, but maybe I can find them and get another perspective to help me fill out my feelings about the country and the war. It's worth the effort to try. My visit to the country seems like just a small part of understanding something that ran along the course of my life but rarely intersected it.