To DMZ or not to DMZ "Whatever you do don't do the tour of the DMZ, man - it's not worth it. You'll just be stuck on a badly air-conditioned bus for hours on end."
So said the jovial Canadian guy I met on the island of Koh Phi Phi in Thailand.
I didn't tell him that there no was way I was going to miss the DMZ - regardless of how tedious a bus journey. I'd studied the Vietnam War at university and it was the scene of some of the fiercest fighting of the entire war - I wanted to see it.
War, war and more war
If you're like me Vietnam is not just a 'country' but a war. Somewhere in the recent past twenty five years ago the US of A was defeated by a country of peasants. Right? Well first things first, the conflict we are all so collectively familiar with was in fact the Second Indochina War - the First (1946-1954) was fought against the French colonial power at the time. This culminated in the French surrender at the famous (in world history at least) siege of Dien Bien Phu
. The Vietnamese
were plucky and determined - a warning not heeded by Cold War American policy makers at the time.
Ironically, the peace treaty that followed was the cause for the subsequent conflict involving the Americans. Known as the Geneva Accords - it temporarily partitioned Vietnam into two until pending national elections (under international supervision) which were to be held by 20 July 1956.
However, this was the height of the Cold War between the Western powers and the Communist states and as the communists looked like winning, the elections were cancelled in the southern part and the country partitioned permanently into communist and anti-communist states. Thus commenced a fifteen year-long communist military insurgency to reunite north with south and subsequent massive American military aid sent to bolster the government of the south. This they finally did until support in America made it impossible to continue the war and when they finally withdrew in 1972, the northern state of Vietnam supported by Communist China subsequently invaded the South - finally capturing it's capital Saigon in 1975. Here are the bleak statistics of those war years:
• South Vietnamese civilian dead: 1,581,000
• South Vietnamese military dead 220,357
• American military dead:
• North Vietnamese civilian dead: 2,000,000
• North Vietnamese military dead/missing: 1,176,000
• Cambodian civilian dead: 700,000
• Laotian civilian dead: 50,000
Incredibly, more war shortly followed in the little-known Cambodian-Vietnamese War
(1978-1979). This culminated in the Vietnamese invasion and overthrow of the murderous Pol Pot and the communist Khmer Rouge
Even more remarkably China then invaded Vietnam in the same year as 'punishment' for interfering with their 'client state' the Khmer Rouge. Nice. However, in the even-more-obscure Sino-Vietnamese War
the Chinese were repulsed by the outnumbered Vietnamese with heavy casualties. Now, that's an awful lot of war for one country in just over 30 years.
"Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past". O'Brien in George Orwell's 1984
Throughout their long history the Vietnamese had managed to defeat (mainly Chinese) invaders and in the modern era the military might of France, America and China. In addition to overthrowing a brutal neighbouring regime such as the Khmer Rouge. The Vietnamese were clearly a tough and hardy people - I was therefore keen to experience as much of Vietnam's war legacy as possible, the only problem being the Communist Party of Vietnam (Đảng Cộng
sản Việt Nam). It's the ruling, as well as the only legal political party in Vietnam and it is they who give the official account of the war. I had to accept that I was never going to get a balanced one.
As soon as I arrived in Hanoi everything I'd ever previously read about the Vietnam War seemed to be a starting point for a debate on perspectives, politicisation and retelling of history. For a start, the war we all know is here referred to as the "American War". The Vietnamese Communist Party have vested interests in maintaining that the war was a simple struggle of independence after years being under the French colonial yoke. Thereby removing any mention that the country was divided; for the most part along ideological lines. For similar reasons WWII is known as the Great Patriotic War
in Russia - it ignores the Nazi-Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939.
Things weren't that simple but the Lonely Planet guide to Vietnam didn't help get to the bottom of things either. My copy largely ignored the Communist-Anti-Communist aspect of the war and those Vietnamese who fought and died with the Americans (and not merely
as conscripts for the 'puppet regime' of the Americans as it was often described in museums here). The guide often referred to the war as one of "liberation" - when again this is only one point of view (from the victors'😉. But liberation for whom? For the South Vietnamese who had to flee the communist invasion in 1975? Or the nomadic boat people it created; or even the persecuted indigenous mountain tribes - the Degar; The voices of those who were imprisoned in the Communist "re-education camps"
for years on end were rarely heard in my LP Guide.
So, I desperately wanted to know what people really thought the war was about? Was it about defeating the Americans and those puppets in the South? Or was it about crating a lovely Communist utopia of workers uniting to defeat those contemptible Bourgeoisie? A combination of both?
So I disregarded the no-doubt meaningful advice from Mr Canuck and went on an organised tour from Hue; getting up early for a 6.30am start!
The bus was already full of tourists from differing hotels and I soon began chatting to a guy called Jonny, who coincidentally happened to be from
my home town growing up in North London. Not only that but like me he'd also gone to uni in Leeds and was now backpacking for a few months. Suffice to say we bonded over the crap pubs in Edgware and it's most famous residents: Barry Norman and Pat Sharpe. A little on the the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ)
The DMZ was created in April, 1954 as a result of the Geneva Conference ending the war between the Viet Minh and the French authorities. It extended 5 km north and south of the Ben Hai River and ran approximately 100 km from the South China Sea to the Laos border. Originally proposed as a temporary demarcation line between the communist controlled north and the "democratic" south, the DMZ became the permanent border between North Vietnam and South Vietnam when the 1956 nationwide elections were cancelled due to the obvious imminent victory of Ho Chi Minh and the Communists. Despite its name it was probably one of the most militarised and fought over places of the entire war.
Touring the DMZ was a bloody long day and yes, most of it was spent on a shitty badly air-conditioned coach.
On the highways through the DMZ there were lots of statues, monuments and cemeteries to the “glorious revolution” and to “revolutionary martyrs”, (communist guerrillas in the South and the North Vietnamese Army) but for some reason we didn’t visit any of them. In contrast I'd read that when the North eventually crossed the DMZ and overran the South in 1975 the cemeteries of the South Vietnamese Army were systematically bulldozed.
In the "dark years" after the Communist victory, the Vietnamese government dismissed such dead combatants as puppets of the former Saigon regime. While elaborate cemeteries were built to honor Communist soldiers, the South Vietnamese dead were accorded pariah status. Their cemeteries were neglected, dishonored, sealed off or built over.
Vinh Moc tunnels
Anyway, over the former border we did visit the famous Vinh Moc tunnels
, going through parts of the 2.8 km of underground tunnels that were built by the Viet Cong (or VC - Communist guerrillas in the South) in order to hide from the Americans' aerial bombardment. People hid there, held meetings, stored arms and even gave birth in there and all the while being bombarded from above above - and the evidence of the bomb craters was clear to see. Mind you, there was a little bit too much of the “Americans” simply bombing the shit out of things, you know as if for the sake of it
, a little context wouldn't have gone astray. Simply not enough mention on the significance of the site in terms
of supply lines for communist guerrillas.
Khe Sanh combat base
"I had a brother at Khe Sanh/ Fightin' off all the VietCong/ They're still there, he's all gone." - Bruce Springsteen - 'Born in the USA'
We next drove to the the former American combat base at Khe Sanh, scene of the bloodiest battle of the war
. During a desperate siege of 77 days, Khe Sanh Combat Base (KSCB) and the hilltop outposts around it came under constant North Vietnamese ground, artillery, mortar, and rocket attacks. It was here that 700 Americans and (according to American intelligence estimates) between 10,000 and 15,000 North Vietnamese were killed (!!!).
It's an infamous battle not only due to the number of American casualties but also because the base was defended and then subsequently abandoned. The base is practically gone now, which rather underlines what an utter waste the battle was (although to the North the siege was to create a decoy away from the Vietnam-wide and psychological victory of the Tet Offensive
On the site there was now a small 'museum' with lots of doctored photos from the battle accompanied by propagan-tastic
captions outlined in pidgin English. Despite the incredible
casualty rates the communist authorities saw it as a “victory” instead of a massive waste of life with no strategic point. But, I suppose who can blame them for that logic when they ultimately defeated the States by the losses they were able to withstand and the American public was not.
Interestingly, according to my best friend Wikipedia, in 1995, the Vietnamese government reported that its military forces, including the Viet Cong, suffered 1.1 million dead and 600,000 wounded during Hanoi's conflict with the United States. Civilian deaths were put at two million in the North and South. Hanoi concealed the figures during the war to avoid demoralizing the population - something the Yanks couldn’t do, despite the tiny casualty rate (in comparison) of 50,000 killed.
The guest book of the museum was filled with the facile remarks of those taken in hook-line-and-sinker by one version of events. I was therefore fascinated to find a riposte in the same book by a former U.S. Marine who had apparently done two tours in ‘Nam. I took a photo of it, because I thought it was neat. Here's the transcript:
Good Afternoon: May 5, 2009
Those who write in this book that didn’t serve here needs to be careful on what you write. You must have walked the walk before you talk the talk.
Ed Capt US MC 65-66-69-70
Outside the museum two hawkers were selling Vietnamese war
medals and even American soldiers’ dog tags. I had a look and thought even though they were probably fake, it was certainly macabre if they were not and so backed away - followed incessantly by the hawkers themselves.
Anyway, there was a bunch of other stuff we visited, but I’d have to go into military minutiae to describe it...and I've already turned this minor blog entry into an essay of sorts.
I was able to witness the remnants of this war; it's certainly evident in victory monuments, war damage and propaganda posters but you can't expect to receive any 'truths'. Conversely what the Party says is in itself an interesting aspect - as if they are still fighting the propaganda war. I therefore found my experience on the 'war trail' that of at times holding my nose as well as reluctantly breathing in the other side's perspective - no matter how manipulated I thought it was.
What I will say though is that we were
witness to the totality of the war that the Americans helped wage; and it was not something that any of us was able to ignore. I was thankful that I only saw
Guestbook at Khe Sanh museum
Gotta walk the walk - ex US Marine Corps
the bare mountain sides that were deforested by chemicals such as forest defoliant and Agent Orange and not the civilian victims who suffered horrible injuries and disfigurement (and have since passed on through to the next generation). This can never be forgotten.
Vietnam War thoughts
Despite visiting these places of the war I’m still largely ambivalent about it all. The amount of death and destruction reaped during the war over 15 years. I'm aware the American motivations for being in Indochina; to prevent the communists from overwhelming the South and thereby preventing a perceived
Communist take-over of the whole of South East Asia (the famous domino theory
). However, the Communists were
set to win the 1956 Vietnam-wide general election when it was cancelled by an anti-Communist, largely Catholic elite from down south; who then set upon a dividing the country in two. From the very start therefore the North had a moral case to fight on and reclaim the victory it thought it stolen - one
of the reasons it fought so hard to regain reunification.
"Whereas these Vietnamese were fighting to reunify their country and possibly assert their pre colonial regional dominance, their American foe was fighting to preserve
old colonial territorial and ideological divisions among Vietnamese in a theatre distant form both its own shorts and also its national interests. The Vietnamese leadership America fought in Vietnam was willing and able to sacrifice their population in a total war for their aims." Marc Jason Gilbert, "Introduction" in Why the North won the Vietnam War / edited by Marc Jason Gilbert, p.6
Also that the Vietnamese had fought and won their independence many times over many centuries against a formidable foe such as China; and again against the Japanese during World War II followed by defeat of the French in the 1950s and now another enemy to remove- the Americans. It's hard not to feel think that America was naive to get involved in the first place. What chance did they have?
Well, if you take the example of the Korean peninsula, maybe not so bad. There they had fought the combined communist forces of North Korea and China even managing to create a separate non-Communist state, which is still in existence today; whilst the North lives in a Medieval Stalinist Disney World. However, the war waged by the communists was also one for absolute victory, regardless of the cost and this contributed to unbearable casualties and escalations for
the Americans. There was no winning this war.
It is ironic that the need for bloodshed to "liberate" a country in the name of communism, and is it even communist today? Unification perhaps but at what cost? And for what cause exactly? Low membership in the Communist Party of Vietnam and a burgeoning Market Economy makes me think that even Uncle Ho
would not recognise it as a Communist state he lived his whole life working towards and fought a savage 15 year war to create.
Another sentiment, outrageous and revisionist as is sounds, is that I believe defeat might well have been avoided. Two things make me proffer this opinion: whilst studying for my MA I remember learning about the secret Phoenix Programme
in Vietnam which aimed to eliminate (in all senses of the word) the Viet Cong - pejorative term for Vietnamese Commo. I also learnt that it was actually very successful and if it had been continued could well have wiped out entirely the Vietnamese Communists in South Vietnam. I also recall the Armed Hamlet programme
which was successfully used in British Malaya during the Communist insurgency there in the 1950s. it was adopted in South
Vietnam by Sir Robert Grainger Ker Thompson it's originator in order to to block communist guerrillas from entering and taking control of villages in the countryside - but it failed. However, if it had not been so badly handled (evictions and forced settlements etc.) it may well have worked as it did in Malaya. Indeed, years later, the commanders of the North admitted that it had caused considerable problems for them in the South. Add this to the what-ifs of history...
I suspect to most people; we in the West are more than comfortable with the defeat of the “arrogant” Americans in Vietnam. Yet, there's never any mention of the defeat of the South Vietnamese who fought and and suffered more losses. It's as if these Vietnamese weren't really fighting for a just cause but as conscripted satraps of America - not borne out by the 250,000 or so who were killed.
I think it also denies the end result of the war between the capitalism and democracy and World Communism which was lost - and to this day Vietnam is still a one party state as a result. The fact I can visit the country
Reached only by helicopter, an important United States Army and Marine Corps observation post and artillery base from 1966 to 1968.
as a tourist doesn't alter this this at all.
Despite the propaganda - I'm not sure what I've learnt about the war in Vietnam. If anything the one-sidedness of it all (including the unquestioning liberal/left-wing take from the Lonely Planet) has struck me and almost unchanged anything I believed before. I still believe that the war in Vietnam was a tragic Cold War conflict rather than America versus poor Vietnam. If anything, I have ultimate respect for ordinary Vietnamese who I have met and who to their credit do not judge the United States as harshly as we ourselves in the West do.
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