Yesterday I was struck for the first time, amazing though that now seems, by a simple thought. I turned eighteen in 1970. Had we a Tony Blair in Downing Street at the time it’s not too fantastic a stretch – given UK commitments of regular troops in Belfast, Aden, Cyprus and, not to forget, facing down Ivan across the iron curtain – to envisage the kind of lottery conscription that sent young Americans and Australians with unlucky birthdates to kill and die in this faraway land as their more fortunate peers enjoyed a normal diet of sex, drugs and Woodstock. In which case I might have killed and died here, a sobering thought. Say what you like about Harold Wilson – and we said plenty at the time – he took the heat from an irate LBJ for keeping us out of the whole bloody mess.
Now back in Saigon I’d taken the trip to Cu Chi, one of many systems of underground tunnels built by the Viet Cong, at first in a rudimentary form to link caves where ‘terrorists’ hid from the French. As the next stage of that thirty year war grew more intense, and the B52 poundings more insistent, those caves were developed and deepened by a people armed only with crude tools and levels of determination beyond the imagination of most westerners, to create the network of tunnels, kitchens, dormitories, weapons factories and field hospitals from which total war was waged.
It’s worth a reminder of the bigger context. What follows is gleaned from scraps in my tiny guide to Vietnam, from the little I could make of my Cu Chi guide’s limited English and from my own recollections of one of the defining events of my adolescence. What we now call Vietnam has for millenia had to fend off its larger neighbour to the north, a China constantly seeking to push south and swallow her up. Periodically China would make encroachments, only to be repelled sooner rather than later as one Viet national hero or another rose to the challenge. Each rebuff would be followed by shedloads of flattery on the part of the Viets to preserve the uneasy David and Goliath balance in a part of the world where even more than elsewhere, face matters.
A people so feisty were unlikely to take French domination, beginning in the 1870s, for long. After WW2 many colonised peoples sought to throw off white rule, not least because for all their cruelty the Japanese had shown Asia that Europeans were not supermen. In French Indochina, as in Yugoslavia under the Nazis, communists proved the most effective and organised. Their routing of the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, at which point Ho Chi Minh and the CP were still looking to Maoist China, was followed by the division of the country; a division in which China, it is widely believed, stitched up the Viets, accepting on their behalf (since they, not Vietnam, attended the Geneva peace talks) a deal that undervalued their military successes on the ground. Nevertheless, in the early years of their war against American and South Vietnamese forces the Viet Cong were supplied light weaponry (AK 47s and the like) by both Russia and China. But there’s a point in armed anti-colonial struggle where, if the resisters are to move from guerrrilla units to credible contender for power, they must supplement rifles, grenades and sub machine guns with the big stuff: tanks and anti aircraft capacity. In a nutshell, China said “no”, Russia said “yes”. Much that happened subsequently – like the de facto support given Pol Pot, after Vietnam turfed him out of Cambodia, not just by the USA but China too – only make sense in the context of that uneasy, ancient stand-off between Vietnam and China.
Apologies for the history lecture. I’d been a tad sniffy about Cu Chi on account of those specially widened tunnels. But emails from a few of you – Max, Noel, Viv – in their different ways persuaded me otherwise. A big thanks, guys, for an incredible experience. Embedded in those tiny rat runs – metonyms for how a nation of rice growers came to defeat the mightiest industrial-military power the world has known – are levels of ingenuity, determination and ruthlessness that in their own strange way stand testament to the human spirit.
Ingenuity? To name just a few of the problems overcome: how to cook underground without smoke being detected by helicoptor patrols; how to foil sniffer dogs (rub the sweaty clothes of captured GIs in the vicinity of fiendishly clever entrances); how to ventilate underground foundries (air holes made from Johnson’s and then Nixon’s bomb casings).
Determination? Those tunnels did not always withstand the carpet bombings. Whenever a VC crawled into one s/he knew s/he might be one of thousands to be buried alive. (Having been dismissive about the widened tunnels I inched my way along one for barely a hundred metres. Yes, they’ve been widened; but not so much that the experience isn’t deeply claustrophobic. Long before I was through I wanted nothing more than to stand upright and breathe sweet air.) “We lived like animals” said our guide, proudly, though he can’t have been a day over thirty.
Ruthlessness? The Americans, aware of the tunnels, used ‘human rats’ – Filipino soldiers whose light build enabled them to go where the VC went. The fiendish devices used to catch them and deliver a slow agonising death would not look out of place in a museum of the Inquisition; man traps of various kinds, iron or sharpened bamboo points laced with poison. In an underground arsenal, lifesize models of men and women prepare what we now call improvised explosive devices. Like the more sophisticated Claymore mines of their enemy, these IEDs were calculated not to kill but to maim. Killing a soldier removes one man from combat. Maiming him takes out at least three as he is removed from the battle zone.
And what of those white boys who returned, some maimed for life, to families, friends and a wider society that could not grasp what they had seen and done? Some endured the hostility of self styled progressives who, professing loftier values, sniped at them as oppressors. Why? Because they’d lost the birthdate lottery. Manon, a Berliner met at Cu Chi, told me she’d spent the previous day with an Australian, now sixty, returning for the first time. What he’d seen and done here, while his erstwhile buddies had laughed and shagged and smoked dope back in Melbourne, had so traumatised him he’d not been able to work for decades. Manon said the man, who’d brought his family, began to weep as he tried to articulate how it felt to be on Nam soil for the first time in forty years.
So thanks Harold. We owe you.