The Road to Hill 10

A veteran's return to Vietnam

"And what did you do?" I asked him, as the table was being cleared and the coffee brought.

He looked at me with a sly smile. "I just said, 'GI, GI, number one.'" With that he pushed back his chair and said good-bye. The flood was rising, and the rice harvest was in danger In today's Vietnam, where the people barely have enough rice to survive, nothing is more serious. Outside, the storm had abated. The trees that had blown over had already been cut up and carried away for firewood.

Milan Kundera writes about a Czech leader whose usefulness to the state had ended. For the leader to remain in official photographs of the period raised too many questions; it was inconvenient. So he was simply airbrushed out: he no longer existed. The massacre of civilians at Hue, the massacres at places like Thanh My, are now inconvenient, so they have been airbrushed out of history: they no longer exist. The Vietnamese stand in the flood of history and pluck from the water only what is useful; the rest flows out to sea. History is like the toppled trees of Hue, to be Cut Up and used to heat and light the present.

The next day we drove south to Duy Xuyen District, a once bitterly contested area about twelve miles south of Da Nang. The district headquarters was in a low stucco building; I had been there before, during the war I was greeted by a delegation of officials and offered tea, beer, and fruit. I began to talk to Nguyen Truong Nai, the vice-president of the People's Committee. He had been part of the Viet Cong local forces during the war. He had joined the guerrillas in 1964, when he was seventeen. During the long years of the war he had been wounded eight times. He began to show me his scans— "This one, on my arm, was in 1967. This one, on my leg, was in 1972. This one, my hand and my head, was in 1969, this one.... " His body was like a history of the war, written with M-16 bullets, artillery shrapnel, rockets, and bomb pellets from B-52s.

The worst year was 1969, he said, confirming what General Tuan had told me in Hanoi. "The situation was terrible. This whole district was a no-man's-land. There were thousands of Americans, Koreans, and puppet troops in the area, but there were only four of us left out of all the local guerrilla forces. Only four. We were hungry There was nothing to eat. I was the commanded We all gave serious thought to surrender. But each time, we talked about our traditions, about our country, and we kept on fighting."

Two young men from the rice cooperative who had been out fighting the flood arrived. One of the men seemed very young, too young to have been in the war. But he had been fighting since 1969, when he was nine. "I went to school during the day and helped the guerrillas at night.

We were scouts. We watched the Americans, sold them cigarettes and talked to them, and then reported back." He went on and almost idly pulled off a bit of the veil of kitsch that surrounds Vietnamese accounts of the war. "Part of my job was to identify the leaders of the strategic hamlets." I asked what happened then. "I helped work out ways to kill them," he said, smiling pleasantly, as if he were discussing the school fundraising auction. When history is on your side, killing a village official, even if he has been your neighbor all your life, is simply not a matter of much consequence.

"The tasks facing us after the war were enormous." said one of the officials. "The land had lain fallow for many years. We had to organize cooperatives, clear the fields of mines and bombs, develop irrigation and electric projects, plow and plant and begin to harvest. We had to plant trees and build houses and schools and clinics. And it was hard at first. All our lives we had been guerrillas. War is simple; our problems now are more complicated. We had, in truth, to start oven And we are far from finished."

I had been in Duy Xuyen during the war. Part of it had been known as Go Noi Island, which by 1970 had been cleared of all signs of life, like an apple peeled of its skin. There was nothing, literally nothing, there. No trees, no cemeteries, no houses, no fields, no people. It was the archetypal free-fire zone. In 1970 we began resettlement work. Land was set aside for villages, and some of the old residents were brought back and lodged in rows of houses with tin roofs-set beneath the blazing sun. It was not a bad effort, and it flowed from some of our best motives. But we were taking a terrible situation and trying to heal it with Band-Aids. We were trying to rebuild the land we had destroyed, in the name of the Vietnamese people, and wanting them to love us for it.

During the war I had flown over this area in a helicopter day after day. I had been struck by the thought of how beautiful it must have been, a fertile green blanket between the mountains and the sea, before it had been pockmarked by bombs and cleared of people. Now the people were back. Trees by the thousands had been planted. The free-fire zones of Go Noi and the Arizona Territory were again rice paddies, as they had been for centuries. Children on their way to school walked giggling down trails where Marine patrols had been ambushed, and rice dried on roads where tanks and halftracks had churned up dust.

Two miles southeast of Da Nang had been The Marble Mountain airfield, a large recreational area called China Beach, and the headquarters of the 1st Marine Regiment, an area notorious for its booby traps. We drove out to China Beach. Where once Red Cross doughnut dollies and Army nurses in bathing suits had drawn the hungry stares of thousands of lonely men, there was only one old woman, gathering seaweed. Driving along the beach, we passed some shacks. Inside one of them two men were playing chess. They were fishermen, uninvolved in politics. The older man, Phung Tha, was thirty. "We were all in the Viet Cong," he said. "All the boys and girls I knew fought the Americans here." An old woman, whose teeth were stained with betel, cackled. "All of us fought. Some of us, like me, fought with our mouths." I mentioned that she seemed a bit old for that sort of thing. "I am fifty-two," she said—she looked at least seventy— "and I fought for my country and for my husband." She gestured at a photograph that stood in the place of honor on a handmade shelf, the only piece of furniture in the house besides a bed and the table. "He was killed by the Americans." I asked them whether, after all that, ordinary life wasn't empty. They laughed. "We are fishermen. All we have ever wanted to do is fish. Now we do. So we are happy."

When I was here during the war, the Marines in this area had been commanded by Colonel P. X. Kelley, an intelligent, aggressive officer with a subtle grasp of politics, a dedication to excellence, and even a sense of humor. When I had left Vietnam, he had given me an eight-by-ten picture of himself, signed "Semper Fi, P. X. Kelley." He is now the commandant of the Marine Corps. On the days when he and the other colonels, the really good ones, were up at division headquarters, I would think that there was nothing we couldn't do. But today the area where we did our best for him, ourselves, and our country is the domain of fishermen and old women with stained teeth who gather seaweed on the beach.

Just inland from China Beach five mountains of solid marble tower up out of the dunes like the snouts of whales breaching out of the ocean. Pagodas and Buddhist monasteries are hidden away on the largest mountain, and around the base are hamlets of marble cutters who patiently carve Buddhas, bracelets, and little statues of roaring lions and dragons. On weekends during the war Marines would occasionally go there to visit a pagoda and buy some marble souvenirs. But there were several caves and pagodas on the mountain that were off limits. We supposed that the religious sensibilities of the Vietnamese would be deeply offended if we were to go there.

I had always been curious about the mountain; it had loomed over our area like a brooding shrine, honeycombed with caves and mysteries. Minh and I climbed up steep steps to the first pagoda. We then made our way along a narrow path, past gardens kept by monks, and came upon a grotto. We entered, and saw that it opened into a huge cave, seventy-five feet high, dimly lit through a hole in the ceiling. Statues of Buddhas, some twenty feet tall, had been carved out of the rock. Incense burned at several altars. There were other, smaller statues of soldiers and guards painted in dramatic reds, blues, and yellows. In one corner was a small shrine and next to it a plaque, which seemed oddly official in what was so clearly a religious place.

I asked Minh to translate it, and then I knew why it had been inappropriate for Americans to visit here, even though the cave was only three miles from the center of Da Nang and was square in the middle of one of the largest concentrations of American troops in Vietnam. The plaque said that this cave had been a field hospital for the Viet Cong. Now it was empty and the only sound was that of water dripping from the hole in the roof. I walked out of the cave, and a few steps away I could look directly down on the main road that had led to the 1st Marine Regiment's headquarters. We had driven right by here on our way to China Beach. The Viet Cong in the hospital must have heard our trucks, and the helicopters from the airfield, every day. No doubt they could listen to the parties at the airfield or China Beach—the Filipino bands singing "Proud Mary" and "We Gotta Get Out of This Place."

How little we knew. And our enemy had been so certain of our ignorance, so confident that we would learn nothing, that he had hidden his hospital in plain sight, like Poe's purloined letter. To have been defeated was bad enough. To have been treated with such contempt seemed far worse.

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