Southeast Asia Thoughts: Saigon, Cu Chi Tunnels, and the Reminders of War

Saigon, Vietnam, 2018

Since 1975 and the reunification of the country, the official name of Saigon is Ho Chi Minh city. For the locals, they use this as a way of separating the natives from those who came later.

If you refer to the city as Ho Chi Minh city, you are not native. As one travels through the country, the distinct cultural differences from the Mekong Delta to Hoi An to Hue and north are subtle but evident. The majority of the Vietnamese still have an intimate connection to the land and a self-sustaining lifestyle. From the fish traps on the Mekong to the rice paddies, much of their food is grown or caught.

What they don’t use, they sell. Every city, town, or small village has a night market. There are few grocery type stores, their food is bought daily if they cannot grow or catch what they need.

One has to stand in the middle of night market to appreciate it. The ones in the bigger cities are a spectacle. Try to imagine an open-air market, in some cases several city blocks wide, with every manner of familiar and unfamiliar vegetable, live and soon-not-to-be-live fowl, flopping fish, flying fish scales, rising and falling meat cleavers, displaced pig’s snouts, or feet, or some once functioning organ, roiling pots of soup, set to the soundtrack of animated negotiations over price and quality. All permeated with an aroma of coppery blood saturated with garlic and fish sauce, orchids and jasmine, sweat and motorcycle exhaust.  The walkways are slick with a mixture of melted ice, blood, oil, and who knows what else that makes dodging the motorbikes, who cruise through like an armored version of a pedestrian, a challenge.

And that’s just the food area. There are vendors selling everything. All of it genuine fakes with the occasional real thing that “fell off the truck.”

In the bigger cities, a more cosmopolitan world is taking hold. Foreign investment–Chinese, Japanese and South Korean-is altering Vietnamese society with fewer and fewer of the next generation following in their ancestors’ footsteps into the fields.

There is a price to pay for this capitalism within a Socialist government. Those who benefit most from the economic boom are the police, military, and government officials.; their hands out in exchange for favorable access to land, security, and business development.

The local traffic cops stake out prime areas for enforcing traffic using the “pay-on-the-spot” fine collection method. I use the term “traffic enforcement” as a joke, no one follows traffic laws so if you are stopped they consider it a nuisance road toll, pay the fine, and speed off. Usually the wrong way at a rotary.

The more “successful” cops are rewarded with prime posts to enhance their ability to “pay-it-forward” to the commanders.

Socialism indeed.

Corruption is rampant. As we drive by the more ostentatious houses, we are cautiously told the official positions of the owners. The socialist government imposes effective, albeit subtle, control over the general population. Much of their life, from required registration of cell phones with the owner’s picture on file to blocked sites on the internet, is controlled by the government.

The Vietnamese are circumspect in their criticism of officials, but they get the point across. Those in the south, below the old demilitarized zone (DMZ) have more experience with a free capitalist economy, and many openly express their wish that the Americans had never left.

For most, they are free to live their lives as they like while toeing the official line in the public view.

One of the most profoundly striking aspects of Viet Nam (despite our penchant for writing Vietnam, Viet Nam is the proper name) is the attitude toward the “American War.” Now I am not talking about the official government position but that of the everyday Vietnamese.

They take great pride in the reunification of the country. The Vietnamese see Ho Chi Minh as a national hero is the same light as we view Washington, Franklin, and Jefferson. The declaration of independence made by Ho Chi Minh on September 2, 1945, is modeled on our own of 1776.

Yet they harbor no ill-feelings over our time there. There are differences, of course, between the north and south. In the south, they would have preferred us to stick to the original commitment made after World War II and let the Vietnamese determine their own course. In the north, they are a bit less embracing of the newly evolved capitalism driven by tourism and outside investment but see their victory in the south as their manifest destiny.

To the Vietnamese, we are their British.

We tried to prevent self-determination, and they fought to win it. But in this predominantly Buddhist country, the people do not cling to the past. The war is over, and now we can live and let live.

There is another difference between the north, near Hanoi, and the south, near Saigon, that underscores the benefit of an “open” society.

In Hanoi, the streets are dark and dank. People gather in sidewalks, alleyways, and various other locations to cook and eat meals. We think it is a combination of limited space and the heat inside their apartments.  The long-term effect of communism in the north contrasts dramatically with the more vibrant Saigon and the south.

Cu Chi tunnels and the American War

We had the opportunity to tour the Cu Chi tunnels. To say it was troubling is an understatement.

We were warned that the story is told from the perspective of the Viet Cong and their victory over the South. During our visit, a busload of former Viet Cong and NVA military veterans visited the area. A Vietnamese version of the honor flight.

It was difficult to hear the recounting of valor in battle where the soldiers were awarded medals called American Killer Heroes. But such is the fact that victors write history. While the point is often made that the North Vietnamese Army or the Viet Cong never defeated American forces on the battlefield, as a North Vietnamese army officer once said, “that is true and it is also irrelevant.”

Displayed was the shell of a US Army M-48 tank. All of the salvageable pieces were stripped away. Some of the tourists chose to climb on for a picture op. I declined. While I can understand the point of view of those Vietnamese who fought here and destroyed that tank, I chose to honor the memory of the young Americans who likely died there.

It is this failure to recall the horrors and cost of war that drives us to repeat this mistake over and over.

For many Americans, the mention of Vietnam invokes memories of war and the protests against it. Body bags, casualty lists, draft dodgers, and war heroes. The loyalties of the shattered bodies in a body bag or on a battlefield are as irrelevant as who won. 

The dead neither celebrate victory nor rest in defeat. Often the worst casualties of war are those who survive.

War is always the consequences of human frailties. No matter how we justify the need to end it with force, the start of it is always a failure of reason.

There is little nobility on a casualty-strewn battlefield. Severed limbs and shortened lives are not the best of humanity.

One cannot measure past decisions with the standards of the present, but you can use them to illustrate why we failed. And, more importantly, how we need learn from it.

The way to convince young men and women to kill the enemy-often other young men and women themselves-is to dehumanize them.

Turn them into demons and devils beneath human considerations.

To name them gooks, slopes, and chinks.

These are the faces of a gook

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An 88-year-old woman, once the secretary to a military commander during the war, she rides her bike a mile each day to care for a centuries-old temple

 

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Combat is a mutual experience where each side demonizes the enemy and tries to kill them. Ideologies are irrelevant to bullets and bombs, and heroes are defined by the victors. It’s easy to kill an epithet, hard to kill a smiling boy named Nguyen, or John, or Le, or Joe.

What I have taken away from all these travels in Southeast Asia is that our misplaced focus on surface differences deters us from seeking commonality. Sitting in a restaurant in Saigon, Bangkok, Siem Reap, Hue, or Hanoi, looking out at the street, it appeared like many of the cities and towns of America as long as you focused on the shared human activity; taking kids to school, carrying home groceries, sipping beer with friends, kids playing in a park. If all you see are differences, you’ve missed the opportunity to see yourself in those very same people.

We are shaped by the geography of our birth yet still share the commonality of our humanity.

Our time in Viet Nam was a lost opportunity. Not caused by those who fought there, but by intolerance, hatred, and insensitivity of those there and in the US whose actions sent us on a collision course.

If anything, we should learn we don’t need to send B-52s or machine guns to free a people. Send tourists with fistfuls of dollars. Let countries and people make their own choices, then wave the flag of the entrepreneur.

Victory is certain.

Until you stand in the Viet Nam of  2018 you can never see how deep the tragedy of the Viet Nam of 1964-1975 really was.

Go there, you will not regret it.

Another Journey…

We have stayed in one place for almost a month, so it’s time to head out again. Starting early Tuesday (1:50 a.m.) we board a plane from Boston to Hong Kong and on to Bangkok, Thailand.

Cathay PacificWe’ll spend the next 27 days touring four very unfamiliar cultures in some exotic landscapes of some countries with familiar names; Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

While I am looking forward to all four, it is Vietnam that intrigues me the most. Growing up in the sixties, Vietnam was a significant part of the nightly news. Images of helicopters, women and children fleeing the fighting, and the dead and the wounded flooded the screens. But they did not convey the reality. It was America’s first TV war.

Some of the Vietnamese were the enemy, some were allies, and some were trapped between the two. Our innocence and naiveté a cushion to the reality of war and our reasons for being there. As we grew older from 1965 to 1973, that innocence was shattered.

By the fortunes of birth this is my first trip to Vietnam. Had I arrived just three or four years earlier, my anticipation of traveling there might be different.

It will be another opportunity to experience an entirely different culture that, given all I’ve read about the people of Southeast Asia, will also reaffirm my belief we are all the same.

I shall endeavor to write about our adventures, post pictures, and let you come with us as we travel around.

 

 

Defeating Terrorists using the Viet Cong Playbook

In doing research for my latest novel, I read several books on the Vietnam War. I wanted a perspective from sides. There were lessons we might apply to our foreign policies today. The books were,

A Viet Cong Memoir by Truong Nhu Tang. Tang rose to the position of Minister of Justice within the Provisional Revolutionary Government of Vietnam (PRG.) Tang now lives in exile in France.

Last Night I Dreamed of Peace: The Diary of Dang Thuy Tram. Tram was a doctor who treated wounded members of the National Liberation Front (NLF) and the North Vietnamese Army (NVA.) She traveled by foot on the Ho Chi Minh trail into South Vietnam. She was killed by American forces in 1968 with several NVA soldiers. She was 28 years-old. The story of how her diaries survived the war and emerged decades later makes it worth the read.

On  Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War by (Col. Ret.) Harry G. Summers

Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam by Mark Bowden

For those of us who came of age during the “American” war in Vietnam, these books are quite unsettling.

They are also a valuable lesson for today.

My first inkling that much of what I believed about the Vietnam War was wrong started when I watched the documentary The Fog of War, interviews with Robert McNamara. He was one of the prime architects of American policy, from initial involvement to the escalation putting more than five hundred thousand American combat troops in the country.

I’d also read Stanly Karnow’s Vietnam: A History and referred to it during my research.

In developing one of the main characters in the book, a former Viet Cong fighter (or more properly the National Liberation Front as I learned in my research), I wanted to understand their view of American intervention.

To say it changed my perspective is an understatement.

Most Americans saw Vietnam as a roadblock to the domino effect of the spread of communism. To most Vietnamese, we were just another in a series of colonial powers using Vietnam for our own benefit.

Our single focus on stopping the spread of communism, something we perceived as a monolith led in partnership by the Soviets and China, blinded us to the more distinct emergence of anti-colonial nationalism within countries such as Vietnam.

Contrary to what I and most Americans believed, there were three distinct sides fighting the war. Each with their own purpose.

The South Vietnamese government, supported by us. A democratic government in name only, led by men who rose to power through assassination and intrigue.  They used torture and violence to suppress opposition.

The National Liberation Front consisting mostly of Southern Vietnamese seeking self-determination within South Vietnam. They relied on the North for military support, understood they could never defeat the American forces militarily and used a combination of guerilla tactics and political efforts to drag out the war. They understood the anti-war movement within the US would eventually exhaust America’s tolerance for suffering losses.

The NVA and government of North Vietnam. They sought a unified Vietnam under the socialist system. Ho Chi Minh, who died in 1969, held less stringent insistence on reunification recognizing the strength of the nationalist spirit in the south.  On his death, a more intense socialist power structure gained control.

Our unwillingness to gain an understanding of the true nature of the political situation in Vietnam, coupled with a rabid Cold War philosophy, effectively eliminated any opportunity to avoid military intervention.

There were some who argued this point but were ignored. The Cold War mentality blinded even the most brilliant Americans to the changing reality of the world.

There is evidence that JFK understood the finer points of Vietnamese nationalism, and perhaps held a less comfortable feeling for our intervention tactics in controlling the South Vietnamese government, but that is academic.

What does this all have to do with today?

In the words of George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”

During the height of World War II, sentiment in America about Germany and Japan was one of abject hate. Our efforts were focused on defeating them quickly and completely.

Yet, as soon as we ended the immediate war, we did not seek their total annihilation. We understood that while many Germans were Nazis, it was not all Germans. While some did nothing, others worked secretly to change Germany.

Same with the Japanese. If one asked a Marine riflemen on Iwo Jima about what he wanted to do, the answer would be to kill all the Japanese. He meant to kill the Japanese trying to kill him, not every living Japanese in the world. Even if he didn’t understand that himself.

Today, the world faces the asymmetric threat of Islamic radical fundamentalism and the specter of terrorism. Their goal is to stop the spread of the modern world and the progress of science, rational discourse, and tolerance.

Much like the NLF, the fundamentalists understand they cannot defeat us militarily. They can try to drive us into isolation, or find a way to unleash a nuclear Armageddon, but only if we fail to learn from history.

We must realize that within Islam the majority of the faithful do not condone the violence. They do not support the fundamentalist’s distortion of the Quran. But it is on them to raise their voices and join those who suffer from these terrorist acts in fighting against them.

The solution to radical fundamentalism is not the wholesale destruction of Islam any more than ending the war in Germany or Japan required the genocide of every German or Japanese.

We can learn a lesson from the history of war. We can learn a lesson from the aftermath of Vietnam that blind belief without careful honest analysis to understand those involved can lead to unnecessary horrors.

What happened in Vietnam after we left was inevitable. Truong Nhu Tang left Vietnam, disillusioned by the disaster that Socialism brought to the country. His dream of a self-determined government for the people of South Vietnam dashed on the failed socialist system. This was a man who spent decades fighting for a cause.

Vietnam is just now emerging from the long nightmare. We were never going to change the course of that country.

We spent 56000 American lives winning our way to a Pyrrhic victory. Now is our opportunity to make those lives count for more than a footnote.

There’s a story of a conversation between Colonel Harry Summers (the author of one of the books I mentioned) and a North Vietnamese Colonel Tu during the discussions for the return of American prisoners.

Summers said, “You never defeated us on the battlefield.” To which Colonel Tu said, “That may be true, but it is also irrelevant.”

Before we undertake a policy that involves the commitment of military forces to solve a problem, let’s make sure the result is not irrelevant.

A Change of Hate

March 1966, Dalat, South Vietnam.

Green Beret First Lieutenant Harrison Bennett stalks his latest target, an elusive Viet Cong Colonel. After weeks of hunting, the man’s face fills the rifle scope.

A deep breath, a partial exhale, a tap from the observer confirming the target.

The trigger squeeze and rifle recoil meld into the muscle memory of training, the pink mist replaces the man’s face, and it is done….

March 2016, Providence, Rhode Island.

Attorney-at-Law Harrison “Hawk” Bennett sits at his desk going over his morning schedule. His phone rings….

His world is about to change forever.

Walking into the reception area, his memories go into overdrive. His eyes see what his mind cannot accept.

A saffron-robed Buddhist monk stands and smiles. A face he last saw seconds before he ended its life stares back at him. A specter from his nightmare lives.

“It has been a long time, Lieutenant Bennett, and a long way from our time in Dalat.”

“I thought you were dead, Colonel. They gave me a medal for killing you.”

Bennett finds himself thrust into a world of treason, double-cross, and a justice department bent on vengeance. Those he once fought alongside have become the enemy.

Forced to choose between his dedication to the law and the memories of the dead and dying in the jungles of Vietnam, Hawk faces his greatest challenge; defending a man he believed he killed from a government gone rabid over protecting its secrets.

Cover for Createspace

A Change of Hate: A Harrison “Hawk” Bennett Novel. The latest work by Joe Broadmeadow coming soon to Kindle and print on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Check out my other books at https://www.amazon.com/Joe-Broadmeadow/e/B00OWPE9GU