Vietnam, Part 2: Cu Chi and a small dark hole in the ground
When articles or documentaries on the Vietnam War want to gesture at the advantages of guerrilla tactics, they usually say something like, “The Viet Cong used their knowledge of the terrain to outmaneuver American G.I.s who were more comfortable in the cornfields of Iowa than in the tropical jungles of Southeast Asia.” Until actually visiting one of these jungles, I never really understood what that meant. After all, what’s the learning curve on hiding in the underbrush? How hard is it to find the higher ground? Are there poisonous jungle plants that take a trained eye to avoid? I knew traps were involved in there somewhere, but again, I couldn’t see how that would furnish such an asymmetrical advantage. What is a land mine, after all, if not a trap?
I never applied much thought to these questions, but looking back, I remember feeling a squirm of confusion whenever it was assumed that, of course, everyone understands the mechanisms of guerrilla warfare. Well, visiting the Cu Chi tunnels north of Ho Chi Minh gave me a degree of resolution on the issue that I’d been missing. What I’d never understood was that when people talk about “tunnels” as being part of the Viet Cong’s strategy, they don’t mean a couple of shallow foxholes hidden by a thicket of trees. No, we’re talking HUNDREDS of kilometers of tunnels dug by hand into dense clay soil. We’re talking multistory, underground complexes with munitions’ bunkers and conference rooms and wells and bottlenecks and pits of sharpened bamboo stakes.
In the years before the Vietnamese-American war, Cu Chi (known then as “The Garden of Cu Chi”), with its orchards and fertile farmland, was a popular daytrip destination for the picnickers of Ho Chi Minh. However, during the war, the high clay content of the soil plus its close proximity to several important supply lines transformed this bucolic district into one of the most hotly contested regions of Vietnam. Twenty years earlier, when Vietnam was fighting for independence from France, Cu Chi’s local villagers and the guerrilla fighters they supported began the process of building clusters of hidden tunnels in strategically important areas, but when the American invasion began, these smaller systems were joined into a nearly 200 km network of interconnected tunnels. With this strategic resource ever expanding, the Viet Cong were able to strike inside areas thought by their enemies to be secure and then disappear into the jungle.
Entrances and air vents were concealed anywhere the Viet Cong thought the Americans would be unlikely to search: thick underbrush or termite mounds or pigpens. However, even if the Americans discovered one of the small panels of wood and rubber used to cover the entrances, the tunnels themselves were too small for the large corn-fed American G.I.s and their large precision-made American rifles. These 30 by 50 cm holes in the ground led into pitch-black tunnels that were only 0.8 m wide and 1 m tall. And, with armed guerilla fighters and explosive booby traps and pits filled with sharpened stakes, claustrophobia was not the tunnels’ only defense. Recognizing the strategic importance of these tunnels, squads of G.I.s began sending their smallest members down into these dark and exceedingly dangerous underground complexes. Unsurprisingly, these unlucky soldiers, known as “tunnel rats,” suffered exceptionally high casualty rates. The tunnels proved so effective that, if a B-52 returned from a bombing run with leftover payload, the pilot was pre-approved to drop it on Cu Chi, no questions asked. After persistent carpet bombing and a liberal dose of Agent Orange, Cu Chi was reduced to a smoldering, pockmarked wasteland.
Now, forty years later, Cu Chi welcomes curious American tourists, who want to take pictures in front of rusted out tanks and animatronic soldiers. For as kitschy as the tour could have been, Cu Chi turned out to be quite moving. Walking through that forest of twenty-year-old trees (for the first twenty years after the war, Agent Orange in the soil kept Cu Chi barren), you’re surrounded by the evidence of desperate ingenuity and unflagging determination. From the angle and direction of ventilation shafts to the shape and thickness of the ceilings, every characteristic of the tunnels was the result of a long process of trial and error, and the same was true for the traps the Viet Cong seeded throughout the forest. What had been used to hunt fish or wild game for hundreds of years was modified to maim—not kill—American soldiers because a wounded soldier was a burden. Watching that wounded soldier sicken and die from an infection brought on by the shit-smeared teeth of a trap also had the added bonus of demoralizing the rest of the squad.
How frightening it must have been to walk through those forests. You were drafted out of your normal life, sent thousands of miles from home and tossed into a conflict that you don’t understand, and now you’re trying to secure an unsecurable alien landscape, but there are vicious booby traps and trained enemy fighters hidden in every shadow. Under those circumstances, of course soldiers snapped, and of course they committed war crimes. That’s what happens when men with guns are put in impossible situations, situations they never should have been put in to begin with. I’m not trying to condemn or excuse anything on either side. The insanity of the whole thing is just too overwhelming to think my way through: what it must have felt like to patrol those forests; what it must have felt like to live in those tunnels. It’s unimaginable.
For most Americans, myself included, it’s easy to think through our role in the European Theater of World War II. We were heroes! We stopped the Holocaust! We saved Europe from the tyranny of a genocidal lunatic! Go, America! Although it’s certainly possible to muddle such a simplistic version of a complex global conflict, WWII feels like a noble war, a moral war, as much as it’s possible for such a thing to exist. Even the most radical antiwar activists must quietly think to themselves, “We did something good there.” A pilgrimage to the battlefields of Vietnam is an entirely different experience. Whether or not you think it was politically necessary, the Vietnam War—like most wars—wasn’t noble and it wasn’t moral. It was a proxy war between superpowers who were reluctant to engage in open conflict, and it resulted in little more than bloodshed then and birth defects now.
But even with all those very legitimate reasons for animosity, an American can, today, walk through Cu Chi with a friendly Vietnamese tour guide and take fun snap shots for his travel blog. I could philosophize about time and the erosion of trauma, but it seems crass to fall into abstraction. Instead, I’ll just say I feel so much sympathy for anyone put in that position—whether as a soldier or a guerrilla fighter—and so much gratitude for the unwavering kindness and generosity shown to me by the Vietnamese people. Not once in two weeks did anyone treat me with the resentment or anger that I would expect from a population so recently devastated by a war with the United States. Were our circumstances reversed, I don’t know if I could summon so much forgiveness.