The Road to Hill 10
A veteran's return to Vietnam
We crossed the bridge over the Tuy Loan River and stopped the car on the other side. Sweet potatoes and manioc were drying in the sun. The smell of sugarcane filled the air. The old bridge had been blown up in 1974, and at first I wasn't sure where I was. On the north bank, where our bunkers had been, there was now a brick kiln. On the south bank, where I'd had my command post, two men dressed only in shorts were sitting in a shed, patiently sawing logs. Across the road, near where we had set up our recoilless rifle, was a small roadside stand selling tea, cigarettes, and drinks. It had all changed. But the bend in the river was the same, and so were the mountains beyond. I looked in the distance for the old French fort in the foothills where my platoon had often set its foxholes for the night. I was stunned when it rose out of the foreground, scarcely a mile away.
Vietnam was so much smaller than I had remembered. When I fought here as a Marine second lieutenant, in 1969, Da Nang was a world away; today the drive took fifteen minutes. The old French fort had seemed miles from the bridge; now clearly it was only a short walk, just across the rice paddies and along a tree line. But those paddies had once meant booby traps and mines and being caught in the open, and that tree line had meant ambush and death. Now the scene was a peaceful Asian landscape, a nice place to have a picnic. Then it had defined my entire world; now it was only a Chinese watercolor of river, paddies, and foothills in the shadow of the mountains—just another piece of Vietnam.
I got back into the car with my escort, a former Viet Cong captain, and we drove south, down the road that my battalion had swept for mines each morning. I pointed out a narrow gravel road and we followed it through the paddies toward the mountains. Where a refugee camp had been, there was now a cemetery for the war dead, filled with hundreds of graves, each marker bearing, in Vietnamese, the word hero. I stopped two old men who were walking along the road. One of them had been the president of the Viet Cong in a nearby village. “All this was a no-man's land,” he said, gesturing around the paddies and hills I knew so well. “We were very strong here. We lived underground right next to the American base on Hill 10. Our best fighters worked for the Americans; at night they joined us.”
Then a woman came up the road. Her name was Dong Thi San. I asked her if she had been here during the war. “Of course,” she said. “I was the wife of a guerrilla. He was killed in Bo Ban hamlet by an American Marine patrol in 1969. And he left four children.” She looked at me with steady eyes. In 1969 I had commanded a platoon of young Americans, their average age less than twenty. We had been through Bo Ban hamlet and had set out ambushes there. My platoon could have—I could have—killed her husband.
“But life goes on,” she said. “The war is over now.”
The last Americans fled Vietnam ten years ago this April, but for us the war never really ended, not for the men who fought it, and not for America. It was longer than the Civil War, the First World War, and the Second World War put together. We spent $140 billion and suffered 58,022 Americans killed, another 303,000 wounded. Perhaps a million and a half Vietnamese died. The war shook our confidence in America as a nation with a special mission, and it left the men who fought it orphans in their own country. It divided us then, and its memory divides us now. The debate over when and how to commit American power abroad is really a debate over how to avoid, at all costs, another Vietnam.
I spent four weeks there last fall. I drove hundreds of miles in North Vietnam and from the old DMZ to the Mekong Delta in the South, trying to come to terms with why we had fought there and how we lost, with the bravery and the lives wasted, with what we had done to Vietnam and what Vietnam had done to us. I had most wanted to see Hill 10, my old battalion base. It stood on a rocky hill in the path of the main route between the Ho Chi Minh Trail, in the mountains, and Da Nang, South Vietnam's second-largest city, a few miles to the east. Dozens of American bases in Vietnam were just like it. Hill 10 has no place in the history of the war and will most likely be remembered only by the men who fought each other in the rice paddies and the mountains that surround it. But I had seen the war there, and after all those years it was once again just around the curve in the gravel road, past the hamlet hidden in the trees. I got back into the car with my old enemy and we headed toward it.
The flight from Bangkok into Hanoi follows the route that the American F-105s and F-4s based in Thailand had taken out of Takhli and Korat, over the mountains that the pilots had called Thud Ridge (after the nickname for the F-105 Thunderchief). Instead of the hail of flak, the SAMs (surface-to-air missiles), and the MiG-21 fighters that had greeted the American pilots, I saw only typical Vietnamese villages, set amid the inevitable paddies and surrounded by thick walls of bamboo. Oxcarts trudged slowly around the perimeter of the airport. Men on bicycles crossed the tarmac. The passengers on my flight were the only ones in the tiny terminal. After I claimed my baggage, a young man introduced himself in formal English. His name was Tien, and he was from the Foreign Press Center. We loaded my bags into a brand-new Toyota and headed for Hanoi.
Thousands of people crowded the road between the airport and Hanoi. They were threshing rice, fixing bicycles, driving pigs, carrying rocks, playing games, getting their hair cut—all right on the pavement. There were fishermen and hunters and schoolchildren with briefcases and red scarves. There were oxcarts and cattle and flocks of ducks, and everywhere there were bicycles: bicycles being ridden by one, two, three, four, and even five people; bicycles carrying immense loads of rice, charcoal, lumber. livestock. There were a few trucks, but ours was the only car. Horn blaring, we charged through this sea of activity like a shark through a school of mackerel. This must have been how the French traveled when Vietnam was their colony, I thought—as if this thick broth of peasant life simply did not exist.
Out in the rice fields were armies of peasants—plowing, planting, weeding, reaping. Children rode water buffalo or bathed in the paddies; women bent over with their scythes, harvesting rice like insects taking tiny bites out of a huge golden cheese. Around each house dozens of people huddled, drinking tea, gesturing with cigarettes. There were brick kilns and charcoal racks and primitive sawmills. The effect was like that of a pre-industrial landscape by Breughel, in which each plane is filled with people engaged in dozens of activities, all centered on the agricultural pattern of plowing, planting, and harvest. In our hurtling car we were on some linear mission, but beyond us the world was revolving around something else—a cycle of history, always repeated, seldom changing, the harvest of life deeply rooted in the harvest of rice.
It was peaceful, bucolic. But it brought back less peaceful memories. I could close my eyes and see tracers coming at me; could hear the crack of rifles, the booming of artillery, the velvet thonk of an incoming mortar. And I could smell all those odors of war— gunpowder, excrement, fear. Soldiers on the highway wore the same uniforms as the NVA regulars had worn when we did our best to kill each other. When I saw them, I had to struggle with the impulse to flee, to take cover. For a brief moment I wanted a weapon.
It seemed incredible that this backward place could have taken those boys riding placidly on the backs of water buffalo and made them anti-aircraft gunners and platoon commanders, could have organized them to build and maintain a vast logistic network across more than 3,500 miles of trackless mountains and jungle, could have found ways to defeat every new technological weapon we developed. It simply didn't compute. In combat the North Vietnamese troops had seemed so motivated, as if history were riding on their shoulders. But this pastoral, timeless landscape that nurtured them seemed outside of history. Nothing, I thought, ever happens here.
Hanoi is a city built by foreigners. and it appears deceptively familiar. Its wide streets and low pink-stucco buildings with tile roofs and green shutters give Hanoi the look of a sleepy French provincial town. It is like a city of the plain—low, brooding, a large town really, nothing like a capital. The streets are clean, but there is a sense of crumbling, as if Hanoi's layer in some future archaeological dig were already prepared and the city were settling into it as fast as was seemly. Almost nothing remains of the ancient Vietnamese city, known as the Rising Dragon, and since the French left, in 1954, little seems to have been added. Visiting Hanoi is like coming upon an ancient city where the race that built it has vanished and another race inhabits the ruins. The Vietnamese themselves seem foreigners here; they have the air of people wearing someone else's clothes.
My hotel was the Thong Nhat, the Reunification Hotel, which under the French was the Metropole, the jewel of Hanoi. Its elevators have long since quit, and the plaster is cracked and peeling. The bar sells Russian wine, champagne, and vodka, as well as Heineken and Coke. The prices of souvenirs in the window displays are listed only in dollars, an example of how the dollar has conquered Vietnam. The hotel had a special cashier, known among the guests as Madame Dollar, who handled American currency. Whenever I paid in dollars anywhere in Vietnam, there would be an interlude during which each bill was subjected to intense scrutiny; if it had the slightest nick or mark, it was rejected. The bills that passed muster were entered by serial number in a special book. I half expected them to be carried away on a silk cushion.
On my first morning in Hanoi I went to the Foreign Press Center, which is housed in an old French villa not far from the hotel. I entered through the back gate; two women were squatting on the ground, cooking over a small charcoal brazier, and a chicken wandered, pecking among the cobblestones. In a reception room with high ceilings, French doors, and a large portrait of Ho Chi Minh, I met the men who would coordinate the details of my visit. Duong Minh is the acting director of the Foreign Press Center. A man in his late forties, he is a smooth and efficient diplomat with a wry sense of humor and a masterly command of English idiom. I also met Nguyen Van Thuan, one of Duong Minh's senior aides, who was to do the complicated advance work on my travels in the North. Thuan was a regular soldier during the war, and was seriously wounded in a B-52 strike. He asked me where I had fought, and when I told him, he squinted and a sly smile crossed his face. “I thought I recognized you,” he said, pointing at me in mock surprise.
Tien, the young man with a shy, formal manner who had met me at the airport, was serving an apprenticeship at the press center. He was to be my assistant guide. I was introduced to Lo Luong Minh, my guide and translator, who was to be with me throughout the trip and who would more than earn his meager 280 dong (about $1.20 at the black-market exchange rate) a month. Minh turned out to be a good traveling companion—a man well versed in political philosophy and also a poet and a hopeless romantic. On long drives he would recite his poetry to me (“My love is like the bamboo tree …”), or recount Vietnamese folk tales and legends, or discuss passages from various American political memoirs that pertained to Vietnam. He had spent five years at Vietnam's embassy in Canada. “I have seen all the West has to offer,” he told me. “All the material progress, all the consumer goods, the way of life. But my heart is in my village and my country. I would never think of being anywhere else. My father nor keeps the family altar. When he dies, as the eldest son I will keep it, I will light the candles, I will observe the feast days. I am a Communist, but I am also Vietnamese.”
That afternoon Tien took me to the military museum, where we watched a marvelous sand-table re-enactment of the battle of Dienbienphu: artillery thundered, planes took off and landed, a ring of red lights advanced inexorably on the French, and, finally, a Viet Minh flag popped up over the French headquarters. I was sitting next to a delegation of Cubans, so the narration was in Spanish. The Vietnamese officer escorting the Cubans was very nervous about my being there, but he relaxed as soon as Tien took a few of my American cigarettes and gave them to him. I was quickly learning how Vietnam worked.
Later we went to the Hanoi art museum. Virtually all of the art is rooted in the wars of Vietnam—the dau tranh, or struggle, that defines the Vietnamese as a nation. War is not an aberration; it is their central experience. They struggle, therefore they exist. I was struck by one painting, a depiction of an early patriot being tortured by Chinese soldiers. They have surrounded him and are piercing his body with a dozen lances. But he lies on his side, smiling, oblivious of the pain. The theme of martyrdom is everywhere. The pantheon of Vietnam is filled with heroes who were tortured, dismembered, and executed for the fatherland. The Vietnamese are intensely conscious of the atrocities committed against them; there are even “atrocity museums,” not unlike the Holocaust memorials in Jerusalem and Dachau, filled with photographs of Vietnamese maimed and killed during the war. “We have suffered much,” Tien told me as I gazed at the painting—but he smiled when he said it.
I had expected Hanoi to have the devastated look of East Berlin in the 1950s. But the only visible damage was from decay and neglect. And so I asked to visit some of the areas that had been most heavily bombed. We set off in a black Russian Volga—the driver apologized for being unable to bring the Toyota. We drove to Kham Thien Street, which supposedly had been obliterated by B-52s during the Christmas bombing of 1972. We drove up and down the street looking for the monument to the bombing, but only after asking many vendors and shopkeepers did we learn where it was. The street itself is like every other busy street in Hanoi; there is nothing to show it was ever bombed.
Our next stop was Bach Mai hospital, which for years has been on the visitors' circuit. Jane Fonda was there after it was bombed, and my hosts proudly displayed pictures of her standing in the rubble. I spoke with Dr. Tran Do Trinh, the deputy director of the hospital, a kindly, competent-looking man. “It was the night before Christmas in 1972,” Dr. Trinh told me. “Most of the hospital had been evacuated, but about two hundred and fifty of us were still here. We lived and worked in the basement under the cardiology building. I was teaching a class about mitral stenosis when we heard the anti-aircraft guns begin to fire and then the terrible noise of the B-52 bombs coming toward us like thunder I kept lecturing—there was nothing else to do—and the students were taking notes when the bombs hit. The whole shelter collapsed. The living were mixed in with the dead. We had to break through the rubble that covered the entrances with our bare hands to remove the wounded. It tool; almost two weeks to extricate all the dead, and the smell of bodies filled the hospital. Three of the students in my lecture were killed.” He shrugged. “But war is war. We must go on.”
I spent some time touring the hospital. The doctors were particularly proud of some new ultrasound machinery from the Netherlands. “We found the first three cases of left-atrial myxoma in Vietnam with this machine,” one doctor said. But to a casual visitor the benefits of medical technology seemed woefully uneven. A few exotic heart diseases were being diagnosed, but there was no blood in the refrigerator in the lab. The patients lay, some of them two to a bed, in their own clothes. Several pieces of simple equipment stood dusty and inoperable. “For two hours each day the power goes out,” one doctor told me. “That's bad enough, but what's worse is we never know which two hours. It could be any time—right in the middle of surgery.” The hospital was a paradigm of Vietnam: a place of stoic suffering and maddening bureaucracy, where almost nothing works—except the people, and they work incredibly hard. How, I kept thinking, did they run the war?
Many American advocates of air power believe that we failed because we did not bomb enough, that we needlessly limited our bombing (for example, the MiG airfields were off limits until 1967), that we allowed the North Vietnamese to believe that they had survived the worst punishment we could deliver. Wayne W. Thompson. who is writing the official Air Force history of the air war over North Vietnam, told me that if we had sent B52s against Hanoi in 1965, instead of waiting until the Christmas bombing of 1972, “their will to fight could have seriously been crippled.” This argument is supported by the POWs who reported that their captors were panicked by the Christmas bombing. Certainly, it has its advocates among the men who fought the air war, who believe they were forced to take great risks, under complex restrictions, for dubious ends. But the argument has one basic flaw: whatever the price of winning the war—twenty more years of fighting, another million dead, the destruction of Hanoi—the North Vietnamese were willing to pay it.
American officers and military historians insist that the Christmas bombing hit “the same old targets” on the outskirts of Hanoi. According to Thompson, “B52s are less accurate than the fighter bombers we had used before. With the heavy flak and the SAMs coming up at them, they could be considerably off target; it's a great credit to the B-52 crews that there were as few civilian casualties as there were. The Vietnamese say they had about twelve hundred dead. From what I have discovered, that seems about right. And that figure proves our point, not theirs. Just one of those B-52 raids could have killed thousands of civilians, if that had been our goal. We could have firebombed, we could have hit the center of the city. If we had wanted to destroy Hanoi, we could have wiped it out.”
Having been to Hanoi, I believe he is right—the city itself was practically untouched. But the detached way in which Americans discuss the air war comes from having dropped the bombs; the Vietnamese have a very different view. To them, the B-52 was not simply a bigger and more terrible bomber; it was like the death star, flying so high and so fast as to be beyond sight, beyond hearing, beyond humanity. It attacked without warning. One moment all was peaceful; the next the ground erupted as if the very earth were exploding. To endure a B-52 attack was the ultimate experience of the war. To have been wounded by a B-52 was a special badge of honor. Over and over people volunteered the story of the time they were hit by a B-52; it was the one moment they would never forget. “The first time we shot down a B-52,” a general told me, “was during the Christmas bombing. It was an occasion of great celebration throughout the country.” The most popular exhibit at the war museum in Hanoi is the wreckage of a B-52 that lies in the courtyard beneath a MiG-17. Children gather around it throughout the day, staring, as if transfixed by the body of a slain beast.
Early one morning we left Hanoi for the Red River Delta, the agricultural heart of the North, a densely populated area south of Hanoi which was bombed frequently during the war. In the hotel restaurant I pondered what to have for breakfast. One of the waitresses gave me a small example of how a Vietnamese views the principle of consumer choice.
“Today, pho,” she said—pho being noodle soup.
“Okay,” I said. “I'll have pho and maybe an omelet.”
“No omelet. Pho.”
“Okay, I'll have pho and toast.”
“No toast. Pho,” she said.
“Okay, I think I'll just have pho.”
“You want pho, then?”
“Uh, yeah, pho sounds great.”
After a big bowl of pho we were on our way out of Hanoi, past the railroad yards with their museum-piece engines and railroad cars, across the venerable steel spans of the Paul Doumer Bridge, which stretches more than a mile across the Red River and was one of the most famous targets of the war. I asked Minh how badly we had hit it.
“You bombed it many times. You even knocked out a couple of spans. But usually we had it repaired within a few weeks—or else we just used a pontoon bridge. No problem.”
We inched over the bridge behind bicycles and pedestrians, the old women loping along with fifty or a hundred pounds of banana leaves, vegetables, or charcoal on poles over their shoulders. There is another bridge being built; it was started years ago by the Chinese and then, after the Chinese invasion of Vietnam in 1979, was taken over by the Russians. It is years behind schedule. “It will be finished this year,” Minh said proudly. There were no workers to be seen anywhere. The bridge looked like an ancient ruin. Not in our lifetime, I thought.
Nam Dinh, a provincial capital in the Red River Delta, is a textile town of about 200,000 people. During the war it was an obligatory stop for people like Harrison Salisbury and Tom Hayden, who were brought here to wring their hands over the effects of American bombing. I was to meet with the People's Committee, whose headquarters were in the old French administrative offices. I was escorted to a room with red walls and a large chrome bust of Ho Chi Minh. On the table were a white tablecloth and red flowers, along with a teacup at each place, and a bowl of fruit. The members of the People's Committee took their seats, opposite me, and the meeting began with the customary formality of exchanging cigarettes. They offered Dienbienphus and Flying A's from Laos. I offered Salems I had bought in Bangkok, solely because they were the favorite cigarette of South Vietnamese soldiers. They accepted the Salems only out of politeness. The cigarette of choice in the North is 555, a British make popularly believed to have been Ho Chi Minh's favorite brand.
There were two men and one woman, who was described as having compiled information on “U.S. war crimes.” These had been methodically divided into two files—“the crimes of the LBJ period” and “the crimes of the Nixon period.” The files looked worn, as if they had received a great deal of use. One of the men began to read from the LBJ file. “During this period Nam Dinh was bombed a hundred and seventy-eight times, including seventy-tow night raids. Sixty percent of the houses were destroyed.” Then he went on to describe particular raids, for example: “On April 14, 1966, there was a raid against Hang Thao Street at six-thirty in the morning. The children were getting ready for school. Many of them were among the forty-nine people killed; two hundred and forty homes were destroyed.” I asked if there had been a military target nearby. They smiled and said no, nothing, you can see for yourself.
Then they showed me photographs, each carefully labeled. I saw pictures of a woman crying over dead children, of a priest being pulled from the rubble of a church, of a destroyed school, of people digging in the wreckage.
The woman on the committee had been sitting quietly. Her hair was pulled back; her face was drawn and sad. She began to discuss the Nixon period: “This was worse than before. On June 12, 1972, we had the largest raid on Nam Dinh—twenty-four planes attacked at three P.M. They dropped a hundred and two bombs. Many people died.” I asked how she knew it was precisely 102 bombs; weren't they hard to count? “We kept careful records,” she replied. I asked her opinion on why we had bombed here. “The Americans would bomb whenever they saw lights or crowds or any sign of life. There were no military targets. It was just psychological. They destroyed dormitories, schools, kindergartens, hospitals.”
As it happens, Nam Dinh was not quite the helpless provincial town inexplicably attacked by American bombers that my hosts portrayed. “If Nam Dinh was so innocent,” one former American pilot said to me later, “how come it lit up like a Christmas tree every time we flew over it?” In Nam Dinh there were gasoline storage tanks, textile plants, heavy equipment, and some of the most powerful anti-aircraft batteries outside of Hanoi and Haiphong. And the Vietnamese were fighting total war: they were not naive or overly scrupulous. American pilots tell innumerable stories of bombing runs that missed their targets and by mistake struck schools or dormitories, which then blew up with huge secondary explosions—the Vietnamese had kept their ammunition there. Also, I would not be surprised if an American pilot, after long periods of being shot at from prohibited targets, had one day just decided that he was tired of seeing his buddies get shot down by anti-aircraft guns on the roof of a hospital, or from SAM sites parked next to a church. And the bombs—understandably, in the pilots' view, this being a war—would fall, just as they fell on the monastery at Monte Cassino when the Germans put a gun emplacement in its shadow during the Second World War.
My hosts brushed these points aside. “We would not have had anti-aircraft sites if you had not been bombing us,” one of the officials said. “We were not attacking your planes on their carriers. You were attacking us. We had to protect ourselves.”
“You know,” the vice-president of the People's Committee said, “we were bombed so much people began to be bored with it. The siren would go off and we wouldn't want to get out of bed or leave the table and go into the shelter. Not again, we'd think. Not down into that hole again.” The woman resumed her litany of bombings, of families killed, of children mutilated. The vice-president interrupted. “When you fight, you must have hatred. Whenever we needed someone for a dangerous mission or if in the South we needed a suicide fighter, we had to hold elections, because so many people wanted to sacrifice for the fatherland. When we were bombed, the best time to shoot down the planes was when they dove, but it was also the most dangerous. It took hatred to keep us out there, our fingers on the trigger, as the jets came in with their guns blazing.”
Whenever I asked what it was like to be out in the open, firing at the diving planes, I was told that it was terrifying but necessary; but when I kept probing, I usually discovered that the men and women who had done it had in truth loved it—it was a great sport, like shooting human skeet. They talked about shooting down American planes with a sort of childlike wonder about why the American pilots kept flying into their flak and their SAMs. There was admiration in their voices, but pity, too.
The next day we drove to another of the stops on Harrison Salisbury's 1966 trip, Phat Diem, one of the bishoprics of North Vietnam and the site of its most famous church. Along the road we passed women working on the railroad bed. Their faces were wreathed in checked scarves. They worked two to a shovel. One held the handle and filled the shovel; the other lifted it with a rope tied to the blade. Up, down, up, down, like metronomes, they dug. They were still at it, holding the same rhythm, when I returned, eight hours later. I passed a long line of bicycles, each loaded with five huge sacks of rice. One pole had been attached to the seat and another to the handlebars, so that a man walking alongside could steer. The men were moving with a rolling, steady gait. This is how they built the Ho Chi Minh Trail, I thought; this is how they repaired the bombing damage. and this is how they moved all those supplies south—bit by bit, shovel by shovel.
At Phat Diem I was introduced to the vice-president of its People's Committee, the redoubtable Mrs. Yu Thi Que. She was dressed simply, in black trousers and a white shirt, her hair pulled back with a ribbon. She is a beautiful woman in her forties, typically formal and earnest, but with a trace of a smile underneath. During the war her husband was away, fighting in the South, for nine years. She received one letter from him. “That seems like a long time,” I said. “Everyone did it,” she replied, with a shrug. We had tea and rice wine and grapefruit while she told me about Phat Diem.
“We were bombed fiercely from 1965 to 1968, and again in 1972. We don't have a siren, like in Nam Dinh. We had only a bell in a tower. I can still hear it ringing, ringing, ringing. They tried to hit the transportation systems at first, but never did. Instead they bombed the marketplace, pagodas, schools, neighborhoods. And then in 1972 they bombed the church and the monastery. Many people were killed here.”
The main church is Oriental in architecture, as if pagodas had been dropped onto the towers of a Gothic church. It is some 250 feet long, built in the nineteenth century from local wood. The pillars were carved from massive trees; the altar is gold and bears pictures of missionaries' and priests, most of them French. Mrs. Que pointed out the damaged areas. “This was bombed August 15, 1972. The entire west wall was destroyed. So were three of the convents behind, and two of the schools.” I could not tell, except by some slight change in the shade of the stones around the church, that it had ever been bombed. The nearby chapels and other churches are a different story. They stand roofless, the steel skeletons of their rafters exposed to the sky. Walls are in rubble. It looks like Coventry. It was the only place in four weeks where I could actually see the effects of bombing.
As we were about to leave Phat Diem, an older man, who had been silent throughout the visit, spoke up. “I was in the war,” he said. “I was wounded twice at Dong Ha.” He pulled up his trouser leg to show me the scar on his leg, and then pulled up his shirt to exhibit a long scar on his back.
“How were the American soldiers?” I asked, expecting the usual answer—that we fought bravely but in the wrong cause.
He looked at me, knowing I had fought near where he was wounded. “Not good. Not good. They were afraid to leave their base, their helicopters, their artillery. They weren't brave.”
Only the night before, I had felt guilt about the bombing of Nam Dinh, had in fact apologized, for all the good it would do. But at this moment I felt something entirely different. Got you, though, didn't we? I said to myself.
Hanoi wakes up to a little music-box tune played on the loudspeaker. When I went running at 6:00 A.M., the park around the Lake of the Returned Sword, in the center of the city, was filled with people doing their morning exercises. Old couples swatted badminton birdies back and forth, men did tai chi, and runners circled the lake. My running shoes were of intense interest, since the Vietnamese were jogging in shower shoes, tennis shoes, or bare feet. I was constantly stopped, so that my watch, my clothes, and my running shoes could be examined. Some young men playing soccer invited me to come and play, which I did. After twenty minutes we took a break and one of them asked me, in English, “What is your nationality?” I bent down, in the stooped posture that came to seem natural in a world where almost no one was taller than my shoulder, and told him I was an American. His face relaxed and he smiled broadly. “Number one,” he said.
The most useful phrase of Vietnamese that I learned, the one that brought smiles and affection and opened doors for me everywhere, was “Khong phai Lien Xo”—“I am not a Russian.” At a small cafe near the lake in Hanoi two sullen Eastern Europeans were numbly pouring brandy from a paper sack into their coffee. The place was packed with bo doi, young Vietnamese soldiers in the uniform of my old enemies. “Lien Xo,” a soldier next to me said to his friend, gesturing at me in disgust.
“Khong phai Lien Xo,” I said.
“East German?” the soldier asked in Vietnamese, suspiciously.
“No, I'm an American,” I replied in Vietnamese. At once his and his friend's eyes lit up and their faces broke out in big grins. The soldiers bought me drinks and insisted that I try on their helmets and caps with the red stars on them. Over and over they kept saying, “America, Number One—Russia, Number Ten.” “American, tot!” (Good!). “Tot lam!” (Very good!) Similar scenes happened almost daily. In Hue I met a young man who had lived for six years in Moscow as a student and was part of the Communist Party elite. After giving me the familiar Party line, he changed the subject and began asking me about “this singer named Michael Jackson.” After all those years in the Soviet Union didn't he prefer Russian music? He made a face and turned up Laura Branigan. “This is music,” he said.
On one memorable evening a group of Russian tourists ate in silence while my driver played my tape of Bruce Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A. I called him over and suggested that he turn the tape down.
“They're Russians,” I said.
“You're right,” he replied, and turned the tape up as loud as it would go.
After dinner the Russians danced awkwardly to the single most popular tape in North Vietnam, Disco Hits of 1980. The next morning, Sunday, they had to endure breakfast while the waitresses played an American gospel program on Voice of America. I never ceased to find their immersion in American culture in the heart of Vietnam amusing, but the fact that their own culture does not travel well makes the Russians palatable allies for countries afraid of the attractions of the West. Pham Van Dong, the prime minister, need not worry that the alliance with the Soviets will end up tempting his faithful flock to stray from its old values; no one, after all, is going to start wearing Russian fashions, listening to Russian music, or adopting the Russian way of life.
But after the North, with Russian aid, conquered the South, a strange thing happened: the South, with its Western culture and consumer society, began to transform the North. And though we lost the war, our culture is clearly winning. At the official bookstores in Hanoi there are thousands of books in Russian, which no one seems to buy. The few books in English are snapped up at once, and sold for high prices on the black market. Anything American is highly prized, particularly clothes. I gave a government worker in Hanoi a black LA Raiders T-shirt, and for two days he wore it to work.
The old men in the politburo carry in their hearts a nostalgic vision of a country that during the war was a pure culture. Through the long years of war no foreign music was allowed, no clothes were seen except black trousers and white shirts and army uniforms, and no one had anything to speak of. Everyone suffered together, and suffered for a goal that everyone could understand. When Ho Chi Minh said that nothing was more precious than independence and freedom, he clearly meant to include motorcycles, blue jeans, and tape recorders. But when one young man in a village or a neighborhood gets a motorcycle, and when one girl gets a pair of jeans and some makeup, then that idyllic world where one is for all and all for one and everyone suffers together is on its way to the dustbin.
Two weeks after I arrived was the celebration of the thirtieth anniversary of the liberation of Hanoi from the French. There were performances of traditional and popular music, speeches, a parade (for which the French ambassador, rather sportingly, I thought, stood at attention, wearing a special medal issued for the occasion), fireworks, and a concert in Lenin Park. At the concert most of the singers were tentative and wooden, but at the end a group came out with long hair and sharp outfits. The lead singer had a modest version of Mick Jagger's moves down. The audience sat in rapt silence. I went backstage after the concert and discovered what I should have known—the first groups were from Hanoi, the last group was from Saigon. At another concert, when the rock music was over, a group began to play patriotic music. The crowd got up and left. It reminded me of what must surely be the worst of the politburo's fears—it reminded me of America. Of such events are moral majorities and cultural resolutions made.
In the Western press the divisions in the Vietnamese leadership are customarily referred to as between the ideologues and the pragmatists, and the phrase almost exclusively refers to matters of economics—the pragmatists want more individual incentive, the ideologues want less or none. But these battles are also being fought in culture, in the area of values. And America is going to be much more difficult to defeat in this battle than we were in the others: our clothes, our language, our movies, and our music—our way of life—are far more powerful than our bombs. We represent something else now—we represent a future that many Vietnamese want, and that everyone, from the Communist Party leader, Le Duan, to the simplest peasant, knows the Russians cannot give him.
Mondays at 5:30 there is joggling in Lenin Park. Tuesdays there are movies at the French Embassy. Fridays there's the Billabong Bar, behind the Australian Embassy. Saturdays is International House, where local bands play bad Abba imitations and there's a rare chance to mingle with some Vietnamese. Every third Saturday is the pinnacle of social life in Hanoi: the Swedish disco. The foreigners in Hanoi live a sort of cruise-ship life, with the Vietnamese the surrounding ocean, opaque and occasionally hostile. Their movements are restricted, their contacts with Vietnamese limited. They fight an impenetrable bureaucracy to do their jobs, and they have almost no idea of what is going on.
Among non-Communist diplomats and UN people there are few who remain enthusiastic about Vietnam. Most hate the police state, they hate the way their employees are treated, and they hate the bureaucracy. “The Vietnamese never throw anything away,” a young diplomat told me one evening over drinks. “So they've simply placed each new bureaucracy on top of the one before. The French bureaucracy was laid over the Confucian bureaucracy, and the Communist bureaucracy over that. It's impossible to figure out. Even the Vietnamese don't understand how it works.”
“The worst thing is what happens to your employees,” one UN official said, as we ate lunch with several aid officers. “They have to fill out reports on us: he talked to this person, he met with that person, he changed money at so-and-so's. They know everything about us. And they have to report on each other. And that produces real tragedies. If they don't like someone, they'll just say he's getting too close to the foreigners, give a few vague examples, and before you know it, that person is gone. It gets very tiring after a while.”
Another UN official interrupted. “We have been trying to do a project for three years. We were getting nowhere. Last month I discovered that all this time we had been arguing with the wrong agency—which no one bothered to tell us.”
“Nothing is ever decided,” said another. “You go out of a meeting and you feel you've accomplished something. Then the next day they start right back where you started the day before, as if it never happened. No one can approve anything. Everyone is afraid to take responsibility. So the smallest decisions get kicked all the way to the top.”
“One agency brought in a special computer,” a Western diplomat told me. “It was a gift for the Vietnamese government. But they impounded it in Saigon and insisted the agency pay $28,000 to transport it to Hanoi—and it was for them!”
The head of a voluntary agency, checking on its projects in Vietnam, shook his head and told me of his experience at a hospital: “They spent an hour attacking the capitalists, and then presented me with a list of what they wanted: a hundred thousand dollars' worth of audiovisual equipment for remote villages—where there's no electricity!”
During another conversation a European diplomat paused. looked out the window, and said in a flat voice: “All this is just bureaucracy. What matters is that they are evil, truly evil.” He said this softly but with such passion that the whole table became quiet. When the conversation picked up again, it centered on how to smuggle antiques out in diplomatic pouches.
This disillusionment is not just the carping of bored diplomats. It's a symptom of Vietnam's most serious problem. Like Israel, Vietnam was much more popular as a victim than it is as a regional power. Despite its martial success—or perhaps because of it—Vietnam is a terribly poor country. It has the fourth-largest army in the world and a per capita income lower than India's. Its people suffer from malnutrition and curable diseases “out of a nineteenth-century medical textbook,” as one Western doctor described them to me. These problems are compounded by a baby boom of enormous proportions: the population has exploded from some 38 million in the early 1970s to more than 60 million today. Vietnam desperately needs aid of all kinds, from medical supplies to developmental assistance, but the occupation of Cambodia has caused almost every country outside the Soviet bloc to terminate all direct aid. The United Nations projects continue, but even Sweden, Vietnam's staunchest friend in the West, is considering reducing its commitment.
Still, none of this pressure seems to have swayed the determination of the Vietnamese to stay in Cambodia; they have learned throughout their history that if they are stubborn enough, if they struggle long enough, they will get what they want. Sooner or later, they believe, the world will come around.
Having been part of a foreign army in Southeast Asia whose presence was considered an outrage by much of the world, I have to confess to feeling that there is a certain satisfying irony in my old enemy's being hoist with its own petard. Also, it has been particularly interesting to see the disenchantment of the left, which all but canonized the North Vietnamese during the war with us. In Da Nang I watched a film about the Ho Chi Minh Trail with a group of West German tourists. One of them came up to me later, and we began to talk.
“I was one of the radicals in Berlin in 1968,” he said. “I was with Rudi Dutschke and Hans Magnus Enzensberger. Every waking moment was spent working against the American war here.”
“So how do you feel now?” I asked him.
“Very strange. Vietnam is not popular with the left anymore. After the reeducation camps, after the boat people, after Cambodia—the left feels betrayed. We fought so hard for them, and they let us down.”
To me, on the other hand, the Vietnamese were a formidable enemy, totally ruthless and fiercely committed. I was appalled by the boat people, by the reeducation camps, by the occupation of Cambodia, but I was not one bit surprised or disappointed. Now that I was back, I had discovered that Vietnam was bad—but not so bad as I had expected. For the politically committed, however, such distinctions are not emotionally satisfying and therefore not politically relevant: you are either a friend or an enemy, you can do no wrong or you can do no right. So the ex-protester and the ex-Marine sat in the hotel in Da Nang, he attacking the Vietnamese and I more or less defending them, far into the night.
In Hanoi I met military leaders who had fought and observed the war from a certain eminence. I wanted to find out what they thought were the reasons they won and we lost, and to test their perspective against my own and that of American generals and historians. The Foreign Ministry is perhaps the most beautiful of the old French colonial buildings. It sits in the shadow of the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, where normally Uncle Ho lies in eternal slumber. Unfortunately, he had been shipped off to Moscow, the world capital of embalming, for his annual refurbishment, and I was unable to view him. At the Foreign Ministry I did meet Hoang Anh Tuan, now the vice minister of foreign affairs but for many years a Viet Cong general in the South. General Tuan is from Hue. He joined the Viet Minh in 1945, when he was twenty.
He took my hand and put it to his face. “Feel that.” I felt some grainy lumps near his eye. “Japanese shrapnel. I lost an eye fighting them in 1945. And look at this.” He pulled up the leg on his perfectly tailored tan trousers. “I took a French bullet here. It's still there. Fortunately, you gave me no such souvenirs.”
After the defeat of the French he went north, in 1954, and came back south in 1960 to renew the struggle. General Tuan commanded the Viet Cong second division from headquarters in the Que Son Mountains, south of Da Nang. His forces were among the major enemy units where I fought. Once we had established that we had fought in the same area, our conversation became relaxed. I was no longer just a reporter; I was a fellow veteran. He slapped me on the knee and told me about the war.
“When the Americans entered the war, we spent all our time trying to figure out how to fight you. Everyone, from the lowest soldier to the highest general, talked about it constantly. It was a matter of life and death. The incredible density of your shelling and your mobility were our biggest concerns. I myself saw the first B-52 raid, on Highway 13, on June 18, 1965. I will never forget it. Twenty-six B-52s dropped their bombs about four kilometers from me. It was horrible. Two or three hectares of land were simply blown away. Our losses were huge. We had to admit you had a terrible strength. So how could we preserve our forces but still engage you? We decided we had to force you to fight our way—with chopsticks, piece by piece.
“And then it came to us that the way to fight the American was to grab him by his belt”—at which point Tuan did just that—“to get so close that your artillery and airpower were useless. The result was interesting—our logistic forces, who were farther from the Americans, took greater losses than the combat units, who engaged you.”
I asked him about the Tet offensive of 1968, when the Communists had launched attacks on cities and towns throughout Vietnam in an enormous surprise attack that is considered the turning point of the war.
“In the spring of 1967 Westmoreland began his second campaign. It was very fierce. Certain of our people were very discouraged. There was much discussion of the course of the war—should we continue main-force efforts or should we pull back into a more local strategy? But by the middle of 1967 we concluded that you had done your best and the strategic position had not changed. So we decided to carry out one decisive battle to force LBJ to de-escalate the war. You thought that battle was Khe Sanh. It was the Tet offensive.”
What about the view in America that Tet was a major military defeat for the Viet Cong forces?
“Listen,” he said, coming closer to me. “We didn't have to defeat you the way the Allies beat the Nazis. We only wanted you to withdraw so that we could settle our own affairs. That was our goal, and we achieved it.”
I asked him if that meant that they had won the war in 1968.
“Yes and no. Nixon began the withdrawal, but Vietnamization was a difficult period for us, at least in the beginning. Your years here, 1969 and 1970, were very hard. The fighting was fierce. We were often hungry. I was the division commander, and I went hungry for days. We had no rice to eat. For a while it was very bad.”
The Vietnamese call the period from Tet, in 1968, to the Paris Peace Agreement, in 1973, “fight and talk.” In 1969 they were on the defensive, as General Tuan admitted. But by then the talk was more important than the fight.
I met General Tran Cong Man, who is not the editor of the army's newspaper, in his office. He is a studious, professorial sort. He seemed very unmilitary, as if he had borrowed his uniform from someone else. I began by telling him about the controversy in the Westmoreland libel suit against CBS over whether to count the Viet Cong self-defense forces in figuring the strength of the enemy. General Man replied that to omit them would be unthinkable. In the Communists' view, their resources were seamless, from the armed regular soldier to the young boy who sold cigarettes and scouted American positions. “Our regular forces, compared with yours, were small, but everyone could fight—with whatever he had. You were near Da Nang. There were tens of thousands of American and puppet troops there. But we seldom had more than one regiment in regular forces. Why couldn't you defeat us? Because we had tens of thousands of others—scouts, minelayers, spies, political cadres.”
I said that I agreed up to a point: I was sure it made no difference to American soldiers if a soldier or a nine-year-old boy had laid the booby trap that killed them. Still, it seemed to me that while these units were far too important to have been discounted, they did not win the war. It took regular North Vietnamese troops in corps and army-sized units, fighting a mobile war like Hitler's blitzkrieg, to win the final victory.
“You are right,” he told me. “But that was possible only after you Americans had left. Without the self-defense forces we would never have gotten you out. If you were our commander and were told to attack the Da Nang air base and destroy the planes there, how many troops would you need? Several divisions, right? Well, we did precisely that with thirty men—thirty! It was a new kind of war, and it was impossible without the self-defense forces.”
I asked him how they had set out to fight the Americans.
“In 1964 we were on the verge of victory in the South,” he replied, “but we concluded that the Americans would not let the puppets be defeated. The politburo convened a special meeting to mobilize the people for a long war with the Americans, to plan strategies and lay the groundwork for the defense of the fatherland in both the North and the South.” In other words, in 1964 the North Vietnamese made the momentous decision to dispatch their own regular troops down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, giving the lie both to their claims during the early years of war that they had no troops fighting in the South and to their later claims that they sent troops only after the Americans did.
In the early years of the war, the American commanders—with the exception of the Marines— focused their major efforts against the main enemy forces: the North Vietnamese Army and the largest Viet Cong units. The Marines wanted to expand their beachheads by clearing out the local Viet Cong guerrilla units—the tactic of pacification. General Westmoreland's view, however, was that the Marines, like the Army, should “find the enemy's main forces and bring them to battle, thereby putting them on the run and reducing the threat they pose to the population.” Westmoreland's view prevailed, and the identification of the main forces as the primary enemy produced the tactic of “search and destroy”—seeking out the main units wherever they could be found and bringing all the weight of our firepower and mobility against them. And it led directly to the reinforcement of Khe Sanh, just south of the DMZ, near the Laotian border, as the precursor of a major battle with the NVA. Instead the major attacks at Tet came not from the NVA units in the mountains but from the local Viet Cong, to devastating effect.
I asked General Man about Khe Sanh.
“Westmoreland thought Khe Sanh was Dienbienphu,” he said. “But Dienbienphu was the strategic battle for us. We mobilized everything for it. At last we had a chance to have a favorable balance of forces against the French. We never had that at Khe Sanh; the situation would not allow it. We wanted to bring your forces away from the cities, to decoy them to the frontiers, to prepare for our great Tet offensive.”
Some American generals and historians agree with him; General Westmoreland, among others, does not. “They put too much into it for it to have been simply a feint,” Westmoreland told me after I returned from Vietnam. “They abandoned their attack because we made it impossible for them to win.” And Khe Sanh, for Westmoreland, was not simply bait for the NVA or a blocking position to prevent the North Vietnamese from attacking Hue and cutting off the two northern provinces of South Vietnam. It had a potential role of great importance as the base for the campaign that had been crucial to Westmoreland's own offensive strategy since early in the war: a major operation down Route 9 and into Laos, with the purpose of cutting the NVA's single most important asset—the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Without Khe Sanh astride Route 9 the attack would have been impossible; with Khe Sanh secure, Westmoreland could continue to hope that President Johnson would change his mind and allow a strike at the NVA's most vulnerable point. But Johnson never did, and Khe Sanh proved useless as a defensive position; during the Tet offensive the Communists ignored it and seized Hue anyway.
I asked General Man why the people hadn't risen up to join the Viet Cong during the Tet offensive, and if that didn't show that the Viet Cong had lacked the popular support they had always claimed they'd had.
“Not at all,” he said. “Uprisings were very successful in 1959 and 1960, the early years of the war. But it would have been suicide to ask the people to rise up unarmed against American soldiers. Uprisings are appropriate only after the armed enemy is paralyzed.”
“Why, then, did you call the Tet offensive ‘the general offensive/general uprising’?” I asked him. “Isn't an uprising what you expected?”
He looked at me, his eyes harder. “We expected to win, and we did,” he said.
Bui Tin is the Kilroy of Vietnam, who seems always to have been wherever history was being made—from Dienbienphu, where he was a regular soldier, to Saigon, where as a North Vietnamese officer and journalist in 1975 he was present at General Duong Van Minh's surrender. Today he is the military correspondent for the Communist Party newspaper. In his opinion, the Americans lost for three reasons. “One weak point was your rotation of soldiers. You were strangers here anyway, and as soon as someone began to learn the country you sent him home. Your second weak point was to try to win the hearts and minds of the people while you were using bombs to kill them. And finally, you had a very bad ally: ninety percent of the puppet army were corrupt, and the ten percent that were good soldiers were not enough.”
Bui Tin saw the best the Americans had—the astonishing mobility of helicopters, the terrifying power of artillery and B-52s, and the huge losses that such a modern army could inflict. To the Americans, who were measuring progress in the war by counting bodies, those losses meant we were winning. Our logic was the logic of the trenches of the First World War: if you kill enough of your enemy's troops, sooner or later he will realize that the price is too high and give up. That may be true in the rational world of game theory, but it had no appreciable effect on our enemy in this war. In fact it was true, but for us—we got to the point where our losses were too high, and we quit. The war was the equivalent of Muhammad Ali's Rope a Dope tactic: they let us pound them until we gave up.
I asked Bui Tin about the losses the Viet Cong suffered in the climactic battle of the war, the Tet offensive. “Some companies were wiped out,” he said, “and in Saigon and Hue we suffered terrible losses. But we did not lose even one third of all the Viet Cong forces.”
I said that seemed like a lot to me, the equivalent of the Americans' losing 180,000 men in one battle. Bui Tin brushed this aside, as every Vietnamese did every mention of the size of losses, underscoring how the American strategy of attrition was doomed to failure. “We had hundreds of thousands killed in this war. We would have sacrificed one or two million more if necessary. Every family has had relatives killed. I myself have closed the eyes on hundreds of my comrades. Many of my closest friends sacrificed their lives. But we had no choice!”
Late one afternoon, as the light was fading, I met with General Nguyen Xuan Hoang, the principal army historian of the war. He had joined the fight against the French in Hanoi in 1945. He fought at Dienbienphu and in 1965 was the aide to the general commanding the North Vietnamese forces at the first big battle with the Americans, the battle of the Ia Drang, in the central highlands, near the Cambodian border.
“I look back on that time with sadness,” he told me. “By the end of 1964 our forces in the South had defeated the puppet troops. The war could have ended then, without so much bloodshed and suffering.” (Later, in Saigon, a veteran of the Viet Cong told me the same thing, with an added barb. “If you had not come in,” he said, “we Southerners could have won the war and set up our own government. Thanks to you, the Northerners had to come to our aid. They took over the war, and now they have taken over the country. And you are to blame.”)
I asked General Hoang about the battle of the Ia Drang, which had done so much to shape the war's future tactics. He had fought there, and he told me how the thinking had developed.
“We could not indulge in wishful thinking. We were facing a modern army, very mobile, never short of firepower. When you sent the 1st Cavalry to attack us at the Ia Drang, it gave us headaches trying to figure out what to do. General Man [the NVA commander] and I were very close to the front, and several times the American troops came very near us. With the helicopters you could strike deep into our rear without warning. It was very effective. But your troops were never really prepared. The 1st Cavalry came out to fight us with one day's food, a week's ammunition. They sent their clothes back to Saigon to be washed. They depended on water in cans, brought in by helicopter.
“Our mobility was only our feet, so we had to lure your troops into areas where helicopters and artillery would be of little use. And we tried to turn those advantages against you, to make you so dependent on them that you would never develop the ability to meet us on our terms—on foot, lightly armed, in the jungle. Because you depended on artillery, you built fire bases and seldom went beyond their range. And once you had built a fire base, you didn't move it. So we knew how to stay away from your artillery, or how to get so close you couldn't use it. Also, you seldom knew where we were, and you seldom had a clear goal. So your great advantages ended up being wasted, and you spent so much of your firepower against empty jungle. You fell into our trap. Our guerrillas served to keep you divided. You could not concentrate your forces on our regular troops, so your advantages were dissipated.”
I replied that we had been more effective than that: the Viet Cong had been destroyed after Tet, and by 1969 pacification was working. The Communists were unable to mount a single major offensive in 1969, and much of the countryside was secure. Also, whenever American troops faced Communist regular forces in major battles, either we were clearly victorious or the outcome was a draw.
He smiled indulgently at me. “Of course we had many losses, suffered many defeats. But we never stopped winning the war. Time was on our side. We did not have to defeat you militarily; we had only to avoid losing. A victory by your brave soldiers meant nothing, did nothing to change the balance of forces or to bring you any closer to victory. That was because the people, the Viet Cong, and our regular forces were inseparable. If you had a temporary success against one, the other would take up the battle.”
There was much tragedy in these bland words. The origins of John Kennedy's and Lyndon Johnson's war at least were understandable: the legacy of Korea and Cuba; Johnson's fears of being vulnerable from the right on the Great Society; our belief that we could do anything we set our minds to. But we were wrong: our commitments exceeded our ability—or at least our will—to meet them. We were tied to an unreliable ally in a country we did not understand; the premises had all changed, and after Tet it was clear that we could not win. Johnson realized that, and at the price of his presidency admitted defeat.
The Nixon years of the war are much harder to accept, both in the larger arena of strategy and in the dirty corners where the war was fought. After the spring of 1968 the war had lost its idealistic goals. We could no longer realistically believe that we were fighting and dying to save South Vietnam or to preserve democracy or even to stop the spread of communism, as we had in Korea. We were fighting, as Henry Kissinger put it, for “negotiating objectives,” and to protect our credibility as an ally. And we were there because it was easier to continue than to admit failure and deal with the consequences. Before Richard Nixon was inaugurated, Clark Clifford told Kissinger that the new President had a rare opportunity to end the war at once, to put it behind us before it became his war, too, as it had been Johnson's. But Clifford's plea fell on deaf ears. Virtually half of the American deaths were still to come, along with hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese deaths.
The veterans who fought in 1965 and in 1971 might as well have been in two different wars. The veterans of Nixon's war are much more bitter; they know that they were sent to die for diplomacy, nothing more. In 1969 we could have negotiated a departure not unlike that of the French. We had many cards to play, many ways to protect those who had depended on us. But we chose to fight for four more years, which meant that Richard Nixon's share of the war lasted longer than America's share of the Second World War. And we left in ignominy anyway, the Marine helicopters churning on the roof of the Embassy, the people who had depended on us left to the mercy of the victors.
“In the first analysis,” John Kennedy said in 1963, “it is their war. They are the ones who have to win it or lose it.” In the end it was their war, and all our dead and wounded, all our billions of dollars, all our resourcefulness and energy, changed nothing that would have happened in 1964 if we had never sent combat troops. What changed, instead, was that Southeast Asia was permanently destabilized. In Vietnam the heart and strength of the Southern guerrillas was destroyed, giving the North, our original enemy, far more influence than it would ever have had. Cambodia was brought into the war to become first a charnel house and then a Vietnamese colony. And the original fear that had started it all, the fear of Chinese expansion? Well, we are now China's most important ally; and its bitterest enemy, the staunchest foe of its expansion into Southeast Asia, is of course Vietnam.
When I returned from Vietnam, l went to Washington to see Edwin Simmons, a retired Marine brigadier general who for the past thirteen years has been in charge of writing the official Marine Corps history of the war. During the last few months of my time in Vietnam I had been his aide. I told him what the North Vietnamese had said about the war. “Much of what they say is true,” he said. “We violated many of the basic principles of war. We had no clear objective. Since we didn't have a clear objective, we had to measure our performance by statistics. We had no unity of command. We never had the initiative. The most common phrase was ‘reaction force’—we were always reacting to them. Our forces were divided and diffused.
“I went back in 1970, and everything was just as I had left it in 1966. The same hamlets were giving us trouble. the same units were in the same place. The only difference was that macadam and plywood had replaced mud and canvas. Our base camps and fire-support bases had become fortified islands. Our helicopter mobility worked against us. The rule of thumb was, if it was more than four kilometers, you went by helicopter. This gave the illusion of controlling ground which we didn't really control.”
Still, some American strategists believe that we could have won—on the battlefield, at least—if only we had had a clear strategy, if only we had not had so many political constraints, if only we could have used our great strength and gone for the jugular with enormous force, and not with piecemeal escalation. If only …
The most articulate proponent of this view is Colonel Harry G. Summers, Jr., of the Army War College. He is the author of On Strategy, an application of the principles of Clausewitz to the Vietnam War, which is becoming a bible among younger officers. Summers ignores the debate between Westmoreland and the Marines about pacification, and instead insists that Westmoreland paid too much attention to pacification, which in Summers's view was contusing the cape, the Viet Cong, with the bullfighter, the North Vietnamese. He contends that we should have fought the way we did in Korea: leave the pacification to the South Vietnamese and strive to isolate the battlefield by concentrating on the invading army, in this case the North Vietnamese. Summers suggests, for example, that we should have focused American troops on cutting the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Westmoreland had, in face wanted to do just that as early as 1964; he also suggested an amphibious landing in North Vietnam like General MacArthur's landing at Inchon, in Korea. But President Johnson would never agree to widen the war.
I asked General Hoang whether this strategy might have worked.
“We considered those possibilities from the beginning,” he said. "We were even prepared for an invasion in 1975. during the final battle. But this wasn't Korea. You couldn't ignore the fact that our forces weren't just in the North— they were everywhere, on the spot. You yourself were in Da Nang; you know that wherever you were, we were. Cutting the Ho Chi Minh Trail would not hare been easy; we had some of our strongest forces there. And it would have done no good; the puppets could never have fought us alone in the South. An invasion of the North would have caused us difficulties, we would have suffered losses, but you would have had to pay a far more terrible price, and it would never have worked.”
“You know,” he said, “your mistake was not in your tactics or even your strategy. You simply should not have gotten into this war in the first place. It is far easier to start a war than to end one—that is a valuable lesson.”
The thought preys on the mind: there may still be some Americans there. Did we commit the soldier's cardinal sin—did we leave comrades on the battlefield? Two recent movies, Uncommon Valor and Missing in Action, have played upon that nagging doubt and, in bursts of satisfying action, sent their heroes in to save American POWs and, belatedly, our honor. The voice of Charlton Heston is on the phone across the country raising money for Operation Skyhook II, an organization dedicated to bringing home American POWs. When an admiral representing the White House spoke at a candlelight ceremony at the Washington Monument on the eve of Veterans Day, he was shouted down by a crowd of veterans yelling, “Bring them home!”
In Bangkok, before I entered Vietnam, l arranged an appointment with the men running the Joint Casualty Resolution Center (JCRC), which since 1973 has been in charge of investigating whether any American POWs are still held by Vietnam. I spoke to Lieutenant Colonel Paul Mather, an Air Force officer who has been negotiating with the Vietnamese off and on for more than ten years.
“We get down to work every morning, open our case files, and the war's on again,” Mather told me. “I really don't know if there is anyone still there. There's so much mythology about this, but we have no proof that would stand up in court. We hear hundreds of secondhand accounts. We're always traveling up to the refugee camps to check the stories out. But we never seem to be able to find the guy who'll say, ‘I'm the one who saw them.’ The possibility is there; we operate on the assumption that it could be. And we're not just keeping a vigil here. We're getting results, particularly on returning the remains of our dead.”
As I left the office of the JCRC, it came to me that the vast American war effort had been reduced to a few small offices, with copying machines and some computer printouts, where a handful of men come to work, open some files, and try to tie up nagging loose ends while everyone else goes on with his ambition and his career. There is something almost religious about their work, the attempt each day to raise Lazarus from the dead. But their operation is a backwater, one of those emotional, symbolic issues like the fate of the Kurds or the Baltic nations, that cool diplomats would just as soon have go away.
In Hanoi I met a Canadian named Michel Amiot, who has traveled all over Vietnam setting up family-planning clinics for the UN. He believes he has seen two Americans in postwar Vietnam. The first, a black woman, was in my opinion most likely a métis from the French war, not unlike women I saw outside Saigon. But the second fascinated me. “I was in a boat in the delta,” Michel said, “when I saw this blond-haired white man in shorts walking along the bank. At first I thought he was a Russian, but he was muttering to himself, and as I came closer I could hear that he was muttering in English.”
I was on the edge of my chain He took a sip of his coffee. “So what happened?” I asked.
He smiled. “When he saw me watching,” he said, “he ducked into some bushes and was gone.”
I heard several other stories like this: of a black man wandering about near the Swedish paper mill in Bao Bang, also muttering to himself in English; of the UNICEF man digging water wells in the delta who has seen “a few” Americans in hamlets. But as intriguing. as these stories are, they might all concern men who simply stayed behind. There are many GIs who never left Thailand; it is not unlikely that of the almost three million Americans who served in Vietnam a handful might have decided to stay. During the war there were Americans living in the back alleys of Saigon, junkies and hustlers and black-market kings acting out some Conrad fantasy; others may have fallen in love and moved into hamlets with their new families, disappearing beneath the opaque surface of Asia.
In Hue the vice-president of the provincial People's Committee told me an astonishing story. “We had young women who worked as prostitutes who opened up lines of communications with Americans. I would send them pamphlets and letters. After many months I had persuaded seven to join us. They left their posts and were traveling with us to the North, but we were caught by B-52s, and six were killed. The seventh fled back to the American lines. I heard he was severely punished, but I never saw him again.”
Like the case of Bobby Garwood, this story nags at the imagination. Garwood was a Marine private who disappeared outside Da Nang in 1965 and then turned up again at a hotel in Hanoi in 1979. He became the only American POW tried for aiding the enemy. Garwood himself recently told The Wall Street Journal that he knew of at least 70 Americans still held captive—a claim he chose to make five years after his return. When Garwood was negotiating his departure from Vietnam, he said he knew of other captive Americans, but he later recanted that story, saying he had offered it only to make the Americans want to get him out. When I was talking to Vo Thi Lien, a survivor of My Lai, in Da Nang, one of her co-workers, Major Nguven Be, casually mentioned that he had led a scout unit near Da Nang and that he had spent a good deal of time with POWs. “Garwood was with me for a year,” he said. “He was with us as a liberation fighter. He lived better than my other men, but he was always sick. We kept trying to send him to the North, but he refused.”
Garwood has consistently claimed that he did not collaborate with the Viet Cong, that he was a prisoner like all the other Americans, but that his ability to speak Vietnamese forced him into a no-man's-land, where he was not trusted by the guards or the prisoners. But I had just been told casually that he had actively worked with the Viet Cong. Were there others like him. What had happened to them? Are there any left? I had dozens of questions, but I got no more answers. It was as if the curtain had been raised for an instant and I had seen a shadow of what lay behind it—but no more.
Co Dinh Ba is in charge of North American affairs at the Foreign Ministry. The MIA issue is his responsibility. Nor surprisingly, he dismissed the possibility that America, POWs were still in Southeast Asia. “They have all been released. There may be a handful who chose to stay here; the local authorities would know about them. But no one is being held here against his will.”
“Finding information about the remains of MlAs is very difficult,” he went on to say. “More than seventy-eight thousand Americans missing in the Second World War were never found. That's more than twenty-two percent of all the American dead. In Vietnam you say you have twenty-five hundred MIAs. That's only five percent of your dead. Still, we want to help. It is the humanitarian thing to do.”
I asked why none of the remains of Americans on the original died-in-captivity list in the South had been returned, while all the names on the list in the North had been accounted for. “The fighting was very fierce there. The people are still bitter. And, listen, have you seen all those cemeteries of our heroes, all over Vietnam? Most of the bodies aren't buried there. Many thousands of our own dead were never found. Do we tell the people that the bodies of Americans are more important than the bodies of their own husbands and sons who died because of the Americans? We will keep looking, but frankly, it would help if we had better relations, if the people did not believe you were helping the Chinese in their—”
“Multifaceted war of aggression?” I said, echoing the phrase I had heard wherever I went.
“Exactly,” he replied, with the air of a man congratulating a good pupil. Irony is an underdeveloped trait here.
Just off the Street of Victory Over the B-52s, in Hanoi, is a walled compound that holds the offices of FaFim, the agency that markets Vietnamese newsreels and documentaries. Inside are graceful one-story buildings of blue-green stucco and red tile roofs. Well-kept rosebushes surround a large pool. In one doorway a chicken strutted back and forth; in another two men in shorts were sharing a bamboo pipe, puffing contentedly. A young woman in high heels and jeans took me into a large room where I was shown movies about the bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong, including some brief clips of American POWs looking unrepentant. My interest in the films was genuine, but I was even more interested in where I was seeing them—in what had been the main room of the infamous POW prison known as “the Zoo.”
Whenever I brought up the POWs, I invariably heard how well they had been treated. Bui Tin told me that on Christmas he would take ox or a turkey and a guitar and sit around singing folk songs. Pham Tuan, a jet pilot, said that he had visited POWs and shared informal talk about flying. Co Dinh Ba insisted that they got better rations than their guards. “Go and ask them yourself,” said Pham Tuan. “They will tell you they were treated fairly.”
Well, not exactly. The POWs have given eloquent and depressing accounts of their treatment in the Zoo and the “Hanoi Hilton”—the isolation, the interrogations, the torture, the forced confessions, the prisoners beaten to death. It is not a record that makes one feel comfortable about the fate of any Americans who might still be in Vietnam.
I returned from my trip believing that even if POWs were once there, they probably aren't there now. Live American POWs have long since lost any value to the Vietnamese, would in fact be an embarrassment—how, after all these years, would the Vietnamese explain them? Despite their ingrained inability to throw anything away, their determination to hang on to everything until, someday, it has a use, even the Vietnamese recognize when something has out-lived all possible value. And when they realize that, they, like anyone else, get rid of it. This is my rational conclusion. But just as I was leaving Saigon, I learned that the Vietnamese had “discovered” a tourist from Hong Gong whom they had captured in 1975, and who—unknown to the world—had been lost in their prisons for almost ten years. Who else, comes the nagging thought, is in there?
When I came to Da Nang in 1969, the airport was one of the busiest in the world. Fighters and transport planes competed with airliners on the runways, and in the sky helicopters of every description buzzed like swarms of dragonflies. The noise was deafening. The airport itself was crammed with American soldiers and Marines. The waiting rooms were jammed with Americans waiting for flights, sleeping on their duff bags. The parking lots and surrounding roads were choked with traffic. In the background from time to time we could hear the sounds of shelling. On this trip, when I landed, there was only a strange, pre-modern silence.
During the war Da Nang had been a mini-Saigon— loud, raucous, and teeming with refugees, mutilated beggars, hustlers. Now it was obviously less crowded; it was, in fact, back to a population of 350,000, its size before the refugees swelled it to more than a million people in 1970. We drove north from the city, with “Gloria” playing on the driver's stereo. We crossed the Nam O Bridge and began the climb up to Hai Van Pass. High up on a switchback I asked the driver to stop. I got out, the wet sea air in my face, and looked back on Da Nang. I could see almost the entire area of my unit, the 1st Marine Division—from Elephant Valley out Route 37 in the north, stretching south past Ba Na Mountain, Charlie Ridge, and the Arizona Territory, and down the coast past Marble Mountain and beyond the Que Son Mountains, visible only as a dim smudge on the southern horizon. Beyond the narrow stretch of coastal plain, where the Tuy Loan and other rivers flowed out in a wide delta, were the mountains, hidden in clouds. On the mountain behind me waterfalls coursed down through tropical foliage; hundreds of feet below me gentle swells broke on deserted beaches scalloped from the rocks. It was one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen. It seemed unthinkable that so much war had been here.
From the car the only clue to the presence of an old American base was a sudden increase in scrap metal for sale in the houses along the road. We passed Phu Bai, the first American base built between the DMZ and Da Nang. All that remained was some rubble, a lonely, abandoned watchtower, and a few strands of rusty barbed wire. And so it was with all the trappings of what had been a vast American civilization in Vietnam: Red Beach, Marble Mountain airfield, Camp Eagle—all gone. The huge staging areas, the movie theaters, the ice-cream parlors, the officers' clubs—built to last forever—have all vanished. At none of the old bases does anything grow; the bare red dirt lies on the earth like a scar.
We drove north from Hue toward the DMZ, into some of the most fiercely contested areas of the war. Among veterans of the war this is the heart of the beast, where names that have now faded into obscurity then told of the war's most brutal fighting: Hill 881, Con Thien, the Rockpile, Dong Ha, Quang Tri, the A Shau Valley, Hamburger Hill, Lang Vei, Firebase Ripcord, Khe Sanh. Stacks of old shell casings were everywhere, to be recycled into tools. Along the road and fields were stands of newly planted eucalyptus and falao pine. Throughout the war virtually the entire region had been a free-fire zone. The people had been evacuated, the fields abandoned, and the trees and houses blasted into the mud. Even Quang Tri, the one town of any size, had been obliterated in 1972, during the 138 days the Communists had held it against some of the heaviest bombing of the war. Now the people are back, and rice is being harvested and brought in from the fields.
Long before we should have arrived at the DMZ—my mind being attuned to the old travel times in military vehicles along less than secure roads—we were there. Some sampans floated idly in the Ben Hai River, for twenty-one years the boundary between the two Vietnams and for more than ten years a fearsome no-man's-land of bitter fighting. Without ceremony we crossed the bridge to their side. On the south side—our side—were rice paddies, a few houses, a boy on a water buffalo. Three women were wading slowly in the river, gathering water potatoes and oysters. An old Dodge van, converted to a bus, lumbered across the bridge from the south and stopped by our car. Five or six children poured out and ran off down a narrow trail, chattering and carrying their satchels from school. The wind made patterns in the yellowing rice. The mountains were gray in the distance. From the sea, clouds were blowing in. There was simply nothing to do but get in the car and go back.
After dinner we went for a drive around the darkened streets of Hue. A mass was in progress at the Hue cathedral, rebuilt as a strikingly modern structure grafted onto the Gothic architecture of the Hue seminary. In a field behind the church, during the Tet offensive, the Communists executed a young USIA employee named Stephen Miller. I am sure they did this as brutally and as matter-of-factly as General Loan executed the Viet Cong terrorist in the streets of Saigon. That execution, so dramatically caught on film—the captive being led up, the pistol being raised to his head and fired, the man falling over, blood spurting on the pavement—became a visual metaphor for the brutality of the whole war. Stephen Miller died no less brutally, but his death wasn't theater, and therefore in the practical terms of politics it might as well never have happened. While my guides smoked in the car, I stood in the field and bore him silent witness.
That night a hurricane blew in from the South China Sea. The wind beat against the windows of my room, the power, of course, went out, and the Perfume River rose steadily, churning with debris. The next day I had lunch with Nguyen Minh Ky, the vice-president of the province's People's Committee. Ky has the wavy hair and the good looks of a movie star. It was impossible for me to imagine that he had spent fifteen years living in the jungle. The Viet Cong whom we captured or who defected to us were tough, dedicated people, but they had the look of peasants who had just come from the fields. Ky looked as if he had just come from discussing a movie deal.
We ate lunch—the most lavish meal of my trip—on the roof of the hotel, overlooking the river, which by now was roiled and angry. The old city was barely visible through the storm, but I could see sampans balanced precariously against the howling winds in the center of the flood, the children on board searching for anything of value in the debris being swept past them. A young waitress in a yellow ao dai laid out giant prawns.
I asked Ky if he had been in Hue during the Tet offensive. He beamed. “Oh, yes. I was here for twenty-four days and nights. I was in the Citadel; I was everywhere in the city. The Americans and the puppets bombed us with everything they had, but we made them fight for every street. It was very fierce. The people had been living under oppression for fourteen years. Many of our fighters had not seen their families since 1954. They hugged each other and cried. It was glorious.”
Ky asked me if I had seen the PBS program Vietnam: A Television History. “Everyone here saw it,” he said. “I remember watching American troops throwing grenades into shelters. I thought of so many places I had seen such crimes. Those poor people were just peasants and laborers—they only wanted to plant rice, and they were killed. I could have cried.”
As he talked, my own memories came back. In 1970 I had spent several weeks teaching English at night in Da Nang. One of my students told me this story: “My parents were living in Hue in 1968. when the Viet Cong took the city. They were schoolteachers. The Viet Cong came to the door and took them away. They told my grandmother they had to ask them some questions. My parents never came back. They found their bodies near the imperial tombs. They had been tied up and strangled.”
And I remembered a Viet Cong attack in 1970 on a hamlet south of Da Nang called Thanh My. The Viet Cong had gone from bunker to bunker, throwing in satchel charges. Anyone who tried to flee was shot—old men, women, young children. When I got there the next morning, the mangled bunkers mere still smoldering, the bodies were laid out in long rows, and a few survivors with blank faces were poking in the rubble. They were “just peasants and laborers—they only wanted to plant rice.” And I could have cried too, and did.
“I remember two things about Hue,” I said. “I remember your flag flying from the Citadel, and I remember the bodies of all the innocent people the Viet Cong killed.”
A shadow crossed Ky's face, a fleeting moment of hardness that made me glad I was his guest and not his prisoner. Then the smile returned. “That was a total fabrication,” he said. “It was completely to the contrary. We were the people. How could we kill ourselves?”
Having proved to his own satisfaction that such a massacre was, in metaphysical terms at least, impossible, he went on: “Since 1959 the puppets had brought the guillotine to every corner of our country. They tied us up and rubbed chili pepper into our mouths, noses, and eyes.” He warmed to his theme. “They ran electric current into women's private parts. They nailed your fingers down and then tore out the fingernails. They put out your eyes and cut off your ears and wore them around their necks—for publicity. The ripped open your belly and tore out your heart and liven They cut open the womb and yanked out the baby inside, then stomped it into the dust.” He paused “Wow, that was terrible. If they could do that, they could make up any lie about us.”
I asked him if he meant to say that his forces had not executed any civilians.
“That is correct,” he replied, reaching across the table for some more prawns.
“Then where did all those bodies come from?”
He looked at me with sympathy. “It was a very chaotic time. A few criminals may have been spontaneously eliminated by the people, like stepping on a snake. But most of those bodies—if there were any—were probably patriots who helped us and were murdered by the puppets after we came into Hue during the war I pretended I was a fisherman, or a student, or a peasant coming to market. The Americans would come right up to me. They'd pat me on the back and offer me cigarettes.”
“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 over. 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.
We were leaving Marble Mountain when I saw her. She was a girl in her early teens, working at one of the small stands selling marble bracelets, carved Buddhas, busts of Ho Chi Minh, and other souvenirs. For a moment I didn't know why she had caught my eye, but there was something about her, about the way she stood, about her features, something different … And then Minh, who didn't miss much, noticed my stare. “So you've seen the Amerasian girl?” he said.
She was the first Amerasian I had seen on the trip. I hadn't been prepared for how powerful the experience would be. I had become conditioned to Vietnam as it was, and she was a living link to the past I had lived here. We Americans were all gone, but we had left behind a new generation neither American nor Vietnamese—outsiders, wearing history on their faces—as if the power of sexuality had proved stronger than all our armies, all our weapons, all our technology. She had been raised a Vietnamese, had spent all her life in a hamlet, but still I felt a bond with her. I felt guilt when I saw her, guilt and fascination.
Her name was Huynh Thi Dien. She was fourteen years old, a student in the seventh grade. That afternoon she had been at a meeting of the Good Nieces and Nephews of Uncle Ho. We were sitting at the table inside her house, which was behind the souvenir stand. There was only one room. Her mother sat on the bed; her grandfather, an old man with a wispy beard, dressed in white cotton, slowly moved about the room, preparing tea, and then sat down in a corner and smoked the cigarette I had given him.
Her mother began to talk about Dien's father. “I remember his name but not his address,” she said. “He was in the military police. He returned to the U.S. in 1971; he wanted us to come with him, but my mother was sick and we couldn't go. I had a letter in 1974, but I haven't heard from him since.”
She had applied for a visa for herself and her daughter to go to America; they were waiting for it to come through. I asked Dien if she wanted to go to the United States. She looked at the marble bracelet on her arm and said nothing. Tears began to flow down her face. The house had gradually filled up with villagers. More than forty people had crowded into all the available spaces, pressing around us. It was suffocating, claustrophobic. No one made a sound.
I asked her if she was crying because she wanted to go or because she wanted to stay.
“Both,” she said. “I have a father …” She began to cry again. “And I have my native land …” She paused. Her mother watched her from the bed. The room was quiet. Her dilemma was public; I had unwittingly asked her to choose between the country of a father who had abandoned her, which and whom she had never seen, and Vietnam, the people around her, the only world she had ever known—and to do so in full view of the whole hamlet. “But I don't know my father,” she said, and then she began to sob, her shoulders shaking. I squeezed her hand, told her that she would like America, that it would be different but that she would like it. Minh translated as the girl cried. The villagers listened in silence.
On the way back to Da Lang I told Minh that I blamed the father, that he had behaved as irresponsibly with the mother as we had with our Vietnamese allies. Minh didn't agree. “You can't blame the father,” he said. “He was a soldier, far from home. I'm sure he didn't intend to create such a sad situation.” No, he probably didn't intend to, any more than we intended to make a whole people dependent upon us and then abandon them. But he had done it, and so had we; he had walked away from it, and so had we.
The Viet Cong veterans I met had been bombed by B-52s, shelled by battleships, pounded by artillery, incinerated by napalm and white phosphorus, and drenched in defoliants. They had been strafed by jets, rocketed by Huey Cobras, and attacked by AC-47 “Spooky”s with their array of mini-guns, each firing up to 6,000 rounds a minute. I went down into one of their tunnels at Cu Chi, in the Iron Triangle, northwest of Saigon. It was cramped and claustrophobic and wet; furry creatures ran over my hands. After half an hour I was desperate to get out. They lived in such tunnels for years, under intense bombing, coming out only at night. They had taken terrible losses and when they were wounded had only the most rudimentary medical care. Their rations had been a few balls of rice. And they had been separated from their families and homes, many for ten or even twenty years.
Our experience could hardly have been more different. We controlled the air, so we were able to maintain headquarters areas and bases in reasonable security. We were never bombed. We had hot meals and mail and Bob Hope and R & R. And we stayed only a year. Officers normally had only six months in combat. Yet many Americans returned with serious emotional problems, many of which survive to this day. The Vietnamese I met, including a number of doctors, agreed that such emotional problems had by and large faded away for them. One woman, for example, told me that for a few years after the war whenever she heard a helicopter she would fall to the ground. Then again, she said, she didn't hear all that many helicopters anymore. But even Vo Thi Lien, who survived My Lai, told me that she no longer had nightmares. “Everyone suffered,” she told me, “none of us more than anyone else.” Even the Vietnamese vocabulary reflects this attitude. The word sacrifice is used only to mean death, as in “Many of my comrades sacrificed.” For them, only death is worthy of the word; every other hardship and suffering was simply the common lot and therefore unremarkable.
I talked to Viet Cong veterans several times about American veterans. I tried to explain post-traumatic stress syndrome—the flashbacks, the blackouts, the bitterness, the paralysis of will, that still seem to afflict many Americans. It was incomprehensible to them. “We had to rebuild our country. We had too much to do to think that adjusting to peace was a problem,” Tran Hien, a former Viet Cong company commander, told me. “Life goes on.” Simple ideas, believed without question, sustained men like Hien then, and sustain them now. Truly nothing, in their minds. is more important than independence and freedom. Then memories of war are remarkably unconfused. I had the sense of being with men and women who had done extreme and even terrible things but whose consciences and hearts are limpidly clear. They do not look into their selves and see angst or guilt or confusion, if they look into their selves, in our Western, self-infatuated way, at all. They did their duty, like everybody else. For them, the war is over. Life does go on.
In Duy Xuyen, over coffee and beer, I talked to Viet Cong veterans about their comrades. “When we were in the jungle and in the mountains,” one said, “the bonds of comradeship weren't only in fighting but in everything. The strong would help the weak. We carried each other's burdens, cooked each other's meals, did everything together. If one of us was wounded, we would risk our lives to bring him back. When you have gone through such things together, you have a bond that can never be broken.”
Hien had been sitting quietly. He took one of my 555 cigarettes, lit it, and said, in a soft voice, “It was a pure world. Those who had more gave to those in need. We shared the same bamboo bed, we shared the same shirt or blanket. That kind of sentiment, so pure, was even more than I have for my blood brother. And when we lost our comrades, when they sacrificed, the pain gave us strength in fighting.”
Two days later Hien and I were waiting at the airport, sipping tea amid the eerie silence. Through the window I could see the old hangars. One still bore a huge sign that said VIKINGS. It was almost fifteen years to the day since I had arrived here for the first time. I asked Hien if he ever saw the men from his unit.
“At Tet and other feast days my men and I still try to get together,” Hien said. “We have a lot of memories: when we had to fight an enemy ten times stronger; when we were so hungry we had to chew uncooked rice; when we were surrounded and had to fight day and night, once for twenty-four days and nights, against constant artillery and bombs and helicopters firing rockets; when the days and nights ran together in hails of fire and fatigue. But we never gave up. We can't forget any of that. But above all we will never forget the day we came into Da Nang as victors, the day we liberated our home. That will be with us always.”
As I listened to his memories, my own memories came back: of ambushes and booby traps and days and nights in the jungle looking for Hien, for an enemy we never seemed to find; of all those men, so young and brave, being wasted for nothing. All in all, I would rather have his war memories than mine.
Hien asked me politely how the airport had changed since I was last here.
“It's a lot quieter,” I said. “And it's yours.”
I first saw Saigon in the spring of 1970, its late Baroque period. The graceful French city had by then been smothered by a sprawling, energetic American one. Coming to Saigon from the war was almost the same as going to Bangkok, except that there was a curfew and more barbed wire in Saigon. Otherwise it was next to impossible to detect that a war was going on. In part that was because the war was the least of what was occupying Saigon. What occupied Saigon then, as now, was opportunity. Today many of Saigon's most blatant excesses have been suppressed, but beneath the surface it is the same city. Saigon is, in fact, the government's number-one problem. It is a direct challenge to party ideology and morality. Under the emperor, under the French and the Japanese, under the Americans, it survived on its own terms, but today, under the Communists, it seems finally to be gasping for breath. Not that the Communists have been particularly successful in Saigon: any issue of than Dan, the official Communist Party newspaper, is filled with accounts of corruption in the city, of plots and counterplots, of the latest outrages committed by “subversive” and “antisocial” elements. Still, the Communists need Saigon almost as desperately as they hate it. Even they recognize that beneath Saigon's “antisocial” exterior are the most efficient and successful economic institutions in the country.
Everything is still for sale—everything. Within five blocks of my hotel I was offered Buddhas plundered from Cambodia, rare Chinese antiques, gold jewelry, sex with male or female prostitutes, heroin, and—my favorite—a stamp collection (which, in fact, I bought). I was asked to change money, buy cigarettes, get my shoes shined, sell my camera. I saw markets selling everything from U.S. Navy silverware and American weapons to the latest cameras and stereos.
But more impressive, everything works. The clerks at the hotel speak excellent English. The elevator noes up and down. The orange juice in the morning is fresh squeezed, the croissants hot and newly baked, the coffee superb. If other foreigners had not begun conversations with me by saying, “I saw they had two cops following you today,” I could almost have imagined that I was back in civilization. In Saigon one meets many cultured people, familiar with the West—good conversationalists. Unfortunately, in most cases they are not the people who won the war.
And then there is the matter of its new name: Ho Chi Minh City The renaming of things is the essence of conquest. Hotels, streets, and landmarks all have new names, and some have new uses. Graham Greene's Continental Palace hotel is closed to the public. The bars on Tu Do Street are gone, replaced by the ubiquitous antique shops. Soul Alley, where dark-skinned Cambodians and métis from the French war catered to black soldiers, is no more. The American Embassy is now the headquarters for the petroleum agency, the Cercle Sportif a youth recreation club. The Majestic Hotel is the Cuu Long, Tu Do Street is Dong Khoi Street, and so on. Some of the names have actually taken hold—but although I rarely heard the name Tu Do I often heard the same street's name from a previous conquest: Rue Catinat. Except from a few top-ranking functionaries, however, I almost never heard the name Ho Chi Minh City. Granted, that name was written on all my documents, the airlines used it, I could say Ho Chi Minh City and be understood; but given all that, the city is still Saigon.
One relic of the old Saigon still tolerated by the government is the Rex nightclub. I rode up in the elevator with two Russians who were busily combing their hair, turning up their collars, and checking each other's clothes. The Rex is a classic nightclub, dark, with discreet waiters who whisper, “Would you like a taxi girl, sir?” after they take the drink order The music was stunningly professional; a woman named Cam Van sang basic nightclub songs in an eerily perfect imitation of Linda Ronstadt. The women were fashionably dressed and spoke good English; they were even good dancers.
The puritan world of Hanoi could have been on another planet. “Many men have fallen in love here,” my companion told me. Officially, everything is chaste; the women all go home alone. But I spoke with several men who had arranged private meetings; as everywhere in Saigon, anything is possible. I asked one of the women to dance. The first thing she said was, “Can you help me get to America?”
Throughout North Vietnam, and even in Da Nang and Hue, I had felt I was in a basically stable culture, beset with problems and apprehensive about the future, but committed to it. In Da Nang on my walks I had encountered a few people who had asked me to help them get out. But Saigon—well, as always, Saigon was totally different. Saigon felt like an occupied city. Everyone seemed to be whispering to me—about the government, about the police, about how bad things were, and, most of all, about how they wanted out. “Sometimes I think that all anyone does here is plot to leave,” a visitor from Hanoi said. Even the wife and children of the government press coordinator in Saigon live in Los Angeles.
More than a million Vietnamese have fled their country since the fall of Saigon, and another million are trying to get out by legal means. When the news spread in Saigon that I was an American, I became a walking mailbox. Wherever I went, people would stuff letters in my bag, my pockets, my hand. Their desperation was undeniable: they wanted out, and they wanted help to make it. There were letters to relatives, letters to congressmen, letters to President Reagan, but mostly there were letters to the Orderly Departure Program (ODP) office in Bangkok. The ODP was established in 1979 in response to the plight of the boat people, who were fleeing Vietnam and dying by the thousands in the South China Sea and at the hands of Thai pirates. The ODP is under the UN, but the countries that are the most common destinations—the United States. Canada, France, and Australia—run their own programs. The Vietnamese government has been the crucial link in making the program work. Eager to erase the image of the boat people, it has processed tens of thousands of exit visas for Amerasian children and Vietnamese citizens with relatives abroad. As of October, according to Vietnamese officials, there were 70,000 Vietnamese with exit visas waiting for approval from host countries.
Of the 500,000 people currently on file in the American ODP office registered as wanting to leave Vietnam, barely 13,000 made it out in 1984, up from less than 10,000 in 1983. At that rate, just to clear every person in the current files would take forty or fifty years, not to mention all the new cases that come in among the 100,000 letters the ODP gets in a year. Many of the people trying to get out were committed to us, worked for us, risked their lives for us. When we left in such inexcusable panic, in 1975, we left them behind. The gate out of Vietnam could be closed any day, as the gate out of Berlin was, as gates everywhere else have been. Vietnam often gives exit visas to people who don't meet our entry requirements, and denies visas to some people who do. But for our part, the U.S. government continues to do the bureaucratic slow shuffle. We agreed to take more Amerasian children and their families, but then we reduced the number of other refugees from Vietnam we would accept. At Tan Son Nhut airport, in Saigon, when I was leaving Vietnam, I listened to Canadian ODP officials boast good-naturedly to their American counterparts that, not counting the special Amerasian program, Canada was on the verge of accepting more refugees than the United States was taking. It was one of the worst things I heard on my entire trip.
Peace is better than war, and for that reason alone the people of Vietnam are better off than they were when we were there. In the barren wastelands of free-fire zones crops are being planted and children go to school. People no longer live in caves and tunnels, their babies tucked away on shelves in the clay, to avoid bombs. Millions of refugees have returned to their villages. The air-raid siren no longer screams its call to shelters and antiaircraft batteries. The cycle of rice planting and harvesting again dominates the lives of the peasants.
But underneath the surface is another reality. A driver in Hanoi complains that he is sick but can't even get into the hospital unless he bribes the clerks and the doctors. A restaurant owner groans about his high “taxes.” A woman in Da Nang grabs up her child and flees when I sit down, saying, “If they see me talking to you, they'll kill me.” Policemen at a ceremony designed to inspire young people to patriotism casually beat back uninvited young people with bamboo sticks, as if they were shooing away stray dogs. Foreigners who work in Vietnam tell endless stories about their employees reporting on them, and each other, to the police, and their fears that they will be sent away to reeducation camps on the slightest suspicion. The refugees who have fled the country since reunification have their own stories of corruption and repression, to which the hardships they braved to get out are eloquent witness.
Vietnam has no independent news, no freedom of speech; information is much more rigidly controlled than in the more liberal Soviet satellites of Eastern Europe. One crusading newspaper, however, regularly publishes stories about corruption and mismanagement, about abuses of the peasants and the people, about failures of the government and the Party. It is, oddly, Nhan Dan, the Party newspaper. In each issue its readers learn about kick-backs and bribes, about insensitivity and brutality, about mistakes in ideology, policy, and practice. Case studies of the problems of establishing cooperatives and collectives openly discuss opposition from peasants and failures of leadership. There are stories of zealous tax collectors seizing personal property of Party members running smuggling rings, of payoffs for jobs, exit visas, apartments.
Two themes run throughout these accounts. The first is that the power of the central government is far from absolute. A Party member confirmed this for me. “The old saying that the power of the emperor stops at the gates of the village is still true. Even on the province level they basically do what they want to do. Cables get ‘lost,’ orders get ‘misunderstood.’ In most cases of practical government we cannot simply give orders and expect that they will be followed; we have to persuade. At the level of the village and the cooperative that is even more true. We cannot command allegiance; we must earn it.” The second theme is that the transformation of the South into the socialist model of the North has been far more difficult than the regime ever expected. Ten years have passed since liberation, and still the North and the South might well be two countries. “The politburo believes that so far as the South goes it's now or never,” a senior diplomat told me. “And they've decided that it's never.”
In Vietnam, ideology has always come in by the back door. “The Communist Party inspired the people to fight out of patriotism,” said Xuan Oanh, one of Hanoi's leading authorities on America. “Then, when we had their allegiance, we could persuade them of our ideology.” That worked against the French, and it worked against the Americans. The goals were transcendent: drive out the foreigners, unite the country. If Communist ideology was the price that had to be paid for that—and if it would get rid of the landlords too—then the people would pay it. But today no more epic battles for independence and freedom are left to be won. Now the only incentive is the Party's own authority: you will follow this ideology not because it is the only way to liberate the country but because we say so. “After the war,” I was told, “we expected the same spirit of patriotism to continue. We expected it to pervade the South. We overestimated the fervor. It was a serious mistake.”
Having organized the Vietnamese in a heroic effort to drive out the foreigners and unite the country, the leadership seems less capable of inspiring its people to improve their lot. Part of the problem is the legacy of one of the longest and most destructive wars in history. But the single biggest stumbling block to mobilizing the country's naturally industrious and entrepreneurial people has been the bankrupt Marxist ideology, which has little to offer a country wishing to create a modern economy. This problem has not escaped the Party leadership. Without the drama of Deng Xiaoping's headlong dash away from Marxism in China, they have begun to disengage themselves from the centralized, state-planning approach to economics that is the Soviet model. The talk is still of three incentives: for the suite, for the collective, and for the individual—but almost all the attention is going to the last two. The pragmatists have discovered that the desire for personal betterment—the capitalist vice of acquisitiveness—is a much more effective motivation for hard work and economic growth than exhortations about social good. The evidence is undeniable: the countryside is better off than the cities, because the peasants have been allowed more opportunity to produce for themselves; the South is better off than the North, because in the South the desire and the ability to create wealth still exist. But once the leadership committed itself to improving the lot of the people, and accepted that only with more individual motivation would it bring that about, it got more than it bargained for. The loosening of economic ties to allow individuals to produce more has inevitable loosened social ties as well.
To the casual visitor North Vietnam seems almost a religious state. Public morality influences all behavior. And although there is a ubiquitous network of informers, much of the behavior seems not imposed but internal, built in. At the same time, there is a good deal of evidence that even in the North the belief that society is more important than the individual is no longer universal.
There are robberies in Hanoi now; even five Ears ago they would have been virtually unthinkable. The black market is rampant. High officials try to insist that this is a problem only in the South. but even they have trouble keeping a straight face as they say so. From clerks to ministers, every government worker must sell his rationed food, cigarettes, and clothing on the black market in order to survive. A government worker makes about 300 dong (roughly $1.30 at the black-market exchange rate) a month; a doctor about 400 dong ($1.70). A bowl of soup is 30 dong, a grapefruit 20 dong, a pack of cheap cigarettes 35 dong. If a worker buys one of each of these a day, as most workers seem to do, he will have spent his entire month's salary in less than four days. And so everyone holds several jobs—sweeping out pagodas, teaching night classes, weaving mats, stringing beads; and everyone has to work the black market, often selling rationed rice on the black market and going without even a basic level of food to do so .
Vietnam is a society accustomed to sacrifice on the verge of having sacrificed enough. To ease those sacrifices the country must grow economically, but that means opening the door to all the Western social effects that old Party members find so threatening. So far the Westernizers like Communist Party leader Le Duan are winning, but the purists are watching and waiting. On several occasions I heard people mutter, “Did we fight the war for this?” Until the leadership can answer the question of what comes after independence and freedom, until they can truly convert their warrior culture to peace, their victory will remain bittersweet.
As we approached Hill 10, we came upon a ditch cut through the road. Beyond the ditch, where the base had been, was only a red scar on the hilltop. I got out and walked up to it. I could remember perfectly how it had been: where everyone had lived and worked, where everything in that little world had happened. I walked over to where the command post had been, where the Filipino bands had sung, where the PX and the enlisted-men's club had stood, where the showers and the mess hall had greeted us when we came in from the bush. This hill had been a little piece of America, our connection to the world, to reality. Now there were only the paddies, the mountains beyond, and the silence.
Hien, the former Viet Cong company commander, my old enemy, the man we had built all the Hill 10s in Vietnam to kill, walked quietly up to me and stood at my side as I stared toward the mountains. With a stick he drew diagrams in the dirt of how his company could have attacked Hill 10. I watched with interest, but there was really nothing left to say. In the end he didn't have to attack it; all he had to do was survive until we left, and then the country was his.
Four months before my trip to Vietnam, Americans of another generation revisited their battlefields on the beaches of Normandy. President Reagan spoke, his voice quavering. The veterans and their relatives cried. The American flag flew over a cemetery where crosses stretched as far as the eve could see. It was a powerful, patriotic moment. I thought of that moment as I stood on Hill 10. I did not feel patriotic; I simply felt sad.
“It is easier to start a war,” the North Vietnamese general had told me, “than to end one.” A valuable lesson, seldom learned. The cost of that lesson is beyond calculation: the long black wall in Washington, with all its names of young Americans who died so far from home; the cemetery just down the road, with its headstones bearing the word hero; the grief of the woman whose husband I might have killed, the grief of every family who had lost someone here. There are times when such costs must be paid: we had to fight the Nazis. We did not have to fight here.
I looked around this deserted hill for one last time. I could imagine a line of Marines making their way across the paddies, bound for the hill. The images were from a dream I still have, fifteen years later. My old platoon is returning to Hill 10 from the mountains. In the shadow of the base we are ambushed. No one comes to help us. We are cut to pieces. … But this time there was no ambush. The men just kept coming, headed for home, together.
As I turned to go, I noticed an old empty sandbag lying buried in the dirt. I picked it up and took it back, as a souvenir. When I returned to New York, I washed the sandbag over and over, but I could never get it to come clean.