Spend 48 or 72 hours in Saigon—yes, I know, its nom de guerre is Ho Chi Minh City but that’s fading in the din of conspicuous consumption—and you will have no doubt that South Vietnam won the war.
Compared to Hanoi, with its red stars over state ministries and Ho’s Leninist mausoleum, Saigon might well be Hong Kong in a minor key, a city of weaving motor scooters, high-rise office buildings, hipster cafés, posh restaurants, and air conditioned cars.
I realize that in 1975 the city rushed for the exits and many departed the rooftops on American helicopters. And after 1978 more than a million South Vietnamese floated away as “boat people,” to avoid the North’s re-education camps and Maoist doctrines of collectivization.
Nevertheless, in the last twenty years, the means of production have become the hi-test of franchise capitalism, which has turned Saigon—ironically, given the war’s initial outcome—into a showroom of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society (guns and butter, plus some strip clubs).
Vietnam might well be a success story, had it not broken so many American dreams.
* * *
For my second visit to Saigon, I came the “long way around,” descending the Mekong River and its tributaries from Phnom Penh into the heart of the Delta. (Saigon is not on the Mekong, but north of it.)
A few boats make the passage from the Cambodian capital to Chau Doc, just across the border in Vietnam. I decided on the early service (it had the look of a Ukrainian Swift boat) and booked my ticket the day before from a waiter in a riverside restaurant, who, while he had me in a consumer embrace, wondered if maybe I didn’t also want to have lunch or, using the local parlance, “go boom-boom.” I passed on both.
I left on the 8:30 a.m. boat, which I found the next morning tied up at a wharf near downtown Phnom Penh. Only a few other passengers that morning were heading down the river. A Russian-speaking couple looked like Pacific islanders, such were their many colorful tattoos. There were two women who were fisheries experts from Seattle, and a Japanese businessman dressed as if he had signed up for a golf tournament.
The seats on the boat had decent legroom but otherwise had the feel of an Aeroflot commuter flight, circa the era of Yuri Andropov. Most of the passengers, however, rode outside on the deck, holding on to whatever handle was nearby. Cambodian law has yet to embrace the safety regulations of a nanny state.
Never having been on the Congo River (except in the stories of Joseph Conrad), I cannot say if the Mekong compares to it, although the jungle and palm trees along the riverbanks, and the presence of wooden sampans drifting in the currents, did make me think I was heading in the direction of Mr. Kurtz.
The only man-made object that we saw was a soaring bridge over the river at Neak Leung, probably built with Chinese aid money.
During the American bombing campaigns in Cambodia in the 1970s, B-52 bombers errantly dropped a payload on Neak Leung (think of Hannibal, Missouri, in terms of size). The “navigational error” killed 137 civilians, and wounded several hundred more.
In the film The Killing Fields, in which Sam Waterston plays the New York Times foreign correspondent Sydney Schanberg, he and his associate, Dith Pran, bribe their way onto a Cambodian patrol boat to get down the river to the town, and later break the story of the wayward American blitz that was being covered up. (Up another river Conrad wrote: “There is a taint of death, a flavor of mortality in lies—which is exactly what I hate and detest in the world—what I want to forget.”)
* * *
We cleared Cambodian immigration at a small riverside compound that had border agents, a temple, sleepy cats, and warm orange soda for sale in the shade. While we got our passports stamped, the ferry crew fished with a net in the murky water of the Mekong. (Think of catching your dinner in the Detroit River.)
On the horizon, there were dozens of green-hulled barges riding at anchor, waiting for approval to continue their runs up the river. Cambodia still lives by its water trade.
For those grasping for their fifth grade geography lessons, the Mekong forms in southern China, and connects Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam to the South China Sea. In some sense, all the recent wars in Indochina have been fought to see who (France, Japan, America, Hanoi, or Maoist China) will control its course to the sea.
For the last part of the journey, the ferry headed west toward Chau Doc along a narrow canal. It was no wider than an American interstate. On either side there was a riverside civilization of houses on stilts, boats tied to wharfs, small factories, rusting hulls, drying fishing nets, small boys swimming in the opaque waters, and the smoke of cooking fires.
The Mekong Delta is bayou country, but Chau Doc loomed at the end of the canal as a modest skyline of hotels and riverside apartments, like a Holiday Inn rising from a corner of the Everglades.
Rather than stay in Chau Doc—nondescript despite aspirations for a tourist trade—I had decided to catch a bus to Vinh Long, a city in the heart of the Delta about 100 miles to the south. And during much of the run down from Phnom Penh, I had carried on a spirited bus-ticket negotiation with a deck hand, who assured me that if I gave him $12, he would get me on a bus when we landed.
I paid $6 as front money, and the rest when he delivered the bus ticket, although I still had to wait more than an hour for my intermodal connection.
I passed the time at a dockside restaurant, where I ordered fried rice and a beer, and recharged my computer. I ate watching river traffic shunt along this spur of the Mekong, thinking of life on the Mississippi. (Huck: “It’s lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made or only just happened.”)
* * *
After a while, a mini-van collected me. In the town center of Chau Doc I transferred to a larger bus, on which all the seats had the look of barcaloungers in a reclining position.
I climbed into my not-very-large berth and spent the next four hours crossing the heart of the Mekong Delta, which is a mix between urban stretches, rice paddies, and a Dutch landscape of rivers, canals, bogs, and ditches.
I was headed to the village of Ap Bac, the site of a battle fought in 1963 between the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) and the Viet Cong. Based on my reading, especially Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie and William Prochnau’s Once Upon a Distant War, I had come to believe that Ap Bac was the Rubicon for America in Vietnam.
After the Viet Cong defeated ARVN troops there (supported by U.S. helicopters and amphibious armor), the United States came to the conclusion that the only way the war could be won was if American troops did the fighting.
Although the battle featured less than 1000 soldiers on both sides, Ap Bac loomed as large as Pearl Harbor in convincing the Kennedy and Johnson administrations to go “all in” over the Vietnam War.
The ARVN defeat at Ap Bac (a small Delta hamlet near My Tho) made the point that South Vietnam’s army was hopeless, and that only the can-do spirit of the American military could carry the day.
* * *
The deckhand had booked me on a Saigon bus that stopped about six kilometers outside Vinh Long, at a rest stop emporium crawling with noodle stands.
Normally in Southeast Asia, such bus stations are chock full of taxis or tuk-tuk drivers. But this stop had the loneliness of that roadside in North by Northwest where Cary Grant (aka Roger Thornhill) gets off in the cornfields.
I thought of walking into Vinh Long or calling a taxi, but those I asked said both propositions were hopeless. The only way to go, I was told, was to flag down a scooter driver and pay him for a ride into town, which is what I did.
For $2 he dropped me at the ferry landing for An Binh Island, which sits in the channel opposite Vinh Long, astride the Tien River (a branch of the Mekong). I had booked a $10 room in what is called a homestay—a rustic inn—but even that turned out to be another 15 kilometers from the ferry landing.
My last scooter ride ($4) went from roads to sidewalks and then jungle paths, such that I wondered if maybe I hadn’t booked a room with Viet Cong. (It “liberated” many villages on An Binh during the war.) Finally I was dropped at my homestay, a collection of thatched cottages overlooking the river.
* * *
For two nights I did laundry, swam in the pool, drank coffee and cold beer, and read in the shade beside this branch of the Mekong—in particular, a memoir of the American retreat in 1975, Escape With Honor: My Last Hours in Vietnam by Francis Terry McNamara and Adrian Hill (McNamara was the consulate general in nearby Can Tho when the order came to evacuate), and Jeffrey St. Clair’s article, “What John Kerry Really Did in Vietnam” (as most of what he did or didn’t do on Swift boats happened in waters similar to those I was reading beside).
A career foreign service officer, McNamara was a believer in the Vietnam intervention right until he had to pull down the flag over the consulate and lead his people out of the Delta on two improvised river barges.
In his memoir, McNamara makes the case that the government of South Vietnam could have held out in the Delta behind its river banks and with its enormous food production. He writes:
Burgeoning production in the rich Delta had brought rural prosperity. With the “miracle rice” strains developed by Ford Foundation researchers in the Philippines, the tough, hardworking farmers of the Delta managed, in the space of a few years, to quadruple yields. More recently, the introduction of simple, cheap Japanese-built irrigation pumps was making it possible to grow an extra crop during the dry season.
Instead, when the dominos fells across Vietnam in April 1975, the artifice that was the South Vietnamese government (a puppet theater with an all-American audience) collapsed, as did the ARVN, which had often functioned as a palace guard.
Nothing in the memoir is more damning that McNamara’s portrait of the CIA station in Can Tho, which, nominally, reported to the consulate general, but in practice operated as a freelance gang, with plunder as one of its mandates.
Not only does the CIA station chief ignore his superior officer, but come the general evacuation on April 29, 1975, the spooks brushed off the orders to put to sea with the rest of the consulate and, instead, commandeered precious helicopters to head out with their stereos, loot, and call girls—leaving behind locals who had done the CIA’s dirty work.
Drifting down his own river to the sea, McNamara describes seeing the CIA in flight:
And with that came the steady beating of a chopper, low over the water. It came fast, a silver Huey that clattered deafeningly above our heads, flying swiftly in the direction of the sea. “There go the CIA,” growled a Marine, “in full flight.” Watching that helicopter fade into a speck above the brown surface of the Mekong was like observing a symbol of all that went wrong for America in Vietnam. I only had to look at the faces of my Vietnamese charges in the well deck. It was in their eyes. I was ashamed. These simple human beings were staring with an odd mixture of fear and contempt at the helicopter, as though watching mercenaries abandon a battlefield, running for safe haven with no thought spared for what has passed.
By making the 70-mile run to the open sea on barges, McNamara could at least take with him hundreds of local Vietnamese who had served the American war effort. But when he got into the South China Sea, he saw the American fleet standing off the coast and wrote, bitterly:
I shook my head in dismay. How could a nation with so much strength end a war abandoning its allies and saving its own citizens in such ignominious circumstances? It would not be the last time I would ask that question in the months and years ahead. The sight of this huge fleet was a wound that would never fully heal.
* * *
The other sailor I had in mind during my Delta days was former presidential candidate, senator, and Secretary of State John Kerry, whose 2004 election bid foundered, so to speak, when his war record was—as we now say—“Swift boated.”
Even though John Kerry had enlisted in the Navy, served in Vietnam, and returned home with three purple hearts, plus a silver and bronze star, when election operative Karl Rove (“Turd Blossom” in W’s immortal description) got done with Lt. Kerry, you would have thought it was Kerry who had dodged combat in the National Guard’s Champagne Unit (W’s flight squadron in Alabama) and it was Bush who had taken on the North Vietnamese, as if on a mission with John Rambo (“Sir, do we get to win this time?).
During the 2004 election, I assumed that even though Kerry was a tone-deaf candidate (windsurfers don’t swing many precincts in Ohio), he probably had served honorably in Vietnam, despite all the Swift boat veterans on TV ads making him look like someone who had skipped off to Canada.
Reading Jeff’s excellent article (which you can find here) while idling in the Delta opened my eyes about Kerry’s Mekong service. In short, during four months of combat, Kerry was awarded three purple hearts, although from none of the wounds did he actually bleed. Nor does it seem that any were sustained in action against the enemy. But with three purple hearts he could transfer out of the combat zone, which he did.
As well, his silver star was awarded for beaching his Swift boat (against standing orders) and chasing down an enemy soldier, who may or may not have been armed. And there are doubts that his bronze star should have included a mention of hostile fire during an action in which he helped to rescue a member of the special forces whose boat had hit a mine.
If anything, Kerry looks better at gaming the medal system than in sustaining a rapport with his men. He also turns out—in the true fashion of a politico thinking about running for office—to be the only source for many of his combat exploits.
* * *
What I find most striking in the debate over Kerry’s war record is how much ill will he generated amongst his crew and fellow officers, while only serving four months in Vietnam.
Leaving aside whether he deserved his medals or not, one thing that cannot be disputed is how many men in or near his command found him a self-serving hypocrite, to the point that they eagerly signed up for Karl Rove’s infomercials and denounced Kerry in primetime. One of them says:
My name is Steve Gardner. I served in 1966 and 1967 on my first tour of duty in Vietnam on Swift boats, and I did my second tour in ’68 and ’69, involved with John Kerry in the last 2 1/2 months of my tour. The John Kerry that I know is not the John Kerry that everybody else is portraying. I served alongside him and behind him, five feet away from him in a gun tub, and watched as he made indecisive moves with our boat, put our boats in jeopardy, put our crews in jeopardy. . . if a man like that can’t handle that 6-man crew boat, how can you expect him to be our Commander-in-Chief?
Only 120 days in-country and he puts himself in for a Purple Heart for scratches we wouldn’t bother to report to the corpsman. This guy was punching his ticket and used a loophole in the regulations to get out early. What a disgrace!
For a comparison, read what Marine corporal Eugene Sledge wrote about the loss of his company commander, Andy Haldane, on the island of Peleliu in World War II. He writes:
Our company commander represented stability and direction in a world of violence, death, and destruction. Now his life had been snuffed out. We felt forlorn and lost. It was the worst grief I endured during the entire war. The intervening years haven’t lessened it any.
At the very least it seems that many men under or near Kerry’s command couldn’t wait to denounce him as a fraud.
* * *
The only way off the island of An Binh was on the back of a scooter. This time the manager of the hotel, hearing that $20 was on offer, volunteered to take me to Ap Bac, some 60 kilometers from the guest house. We left early on a Sunday morning, and I figured we would be at the village in less than hour.
Instead, I got a full, if inadvertent, lesson in why the Mekong and certain provinces around Vinh Long were labyrinths of death during the Vietnam War.
My driver had Google Maps on his phone, and I had copied from the Internet certain army military diagrams. But still, on our drive to Ap Bac, we constantly ended up on dead ends in the jungle or against a riverbank. In one case, we took a ferry across a tributary of the Tien River that showed up as farmland on Google Maps.
For the last kilometers into Ap Bac, we rode along what the troops would have called a “berm”—a dyke alongside rice paddies. In all, the trip took three hours under a hot sun. Imagine getting around the Delta in the 1960s, before there was Google Maps?
On the day of the battle, despite having the backing of American helicopters and a senior American advisor, the celebrated Lt. Col. John Paul Vann, the South Vietnamese failed to wipe out a Viet Cong force of 700 men, who had taken up a position in a tree line at the end of a paddy (with a canal at the their backs).
Believing that the Viet Cong force was there to be rolled into the canal, Vann (circling the battlefield in a spotter plane) called in helicopter gunships and even paratroops, to close the trap on the guerrillas.
Instead, the Viet Cong shot down several American helicopters, and armored vehicles sent in support of ground troops bogged down in the rice paddies and were destroyed piecemeal.
Much as the French were always searching for a “set-piece battle” with the North Vietnamese during the First Indochina War, so too were Vann and American advisors in 1963 looking for a situation in which U.S. air and armor superiority could be deployed against the Viet Cong.
As the battle unfolded on January 2, 1963, however, the Viet Cong stood and fought the ARVN, who found all sorts of reasons for not closing with the enemy. Vann became furious at its incompetence (as later did the American command and political system).
Neil Sheehan, then a UPI correspondent but later with the New York Times and the author of A Brief Shining Lie (it’s the best if you want only one book on your night table about Vietnam), broke the story of the ARVN defeat, despite considerable American assistance.
Sheehan drove down from his office in Saigon (much closer than my dockside restaurant in Chau Doc) and filed several wire service reports on the defeat, which the Kennedy administration promptly dismissed as inaccurate.
U.S. officials then cited the article, and others like it, as an example of how American correspondents were filing “negative” stories about the war. (No wonder Aeschylus liked to say: “In war, truth is the first casualty.”) In the administration’s telling of Ap Bac, ARVN had carried the day’s fighting, much the way throughout the 1960s light was always at the end of the tunnel.
* * *
Although I was hot and bothered from my three hours of scootering through the Delta, I toured Ap Bac’s small military museum, but then lost my temper with the museum man when I asked him where the battlefield was in relation to the museum front door. He said he didn’t know; nor, he added, did he care. So much for Vietnam still being a military nation.
On my own I figured out the contours of the battlefield. In navigating the small lanes of the village and wandering into the rice paddies, I came away perplexed as to why John Paul Vann was willing to stake all on such terrain.
In Sheehan’s book (maybe it has changed since the 1960s?) Ap Bac sounds like relatively open terrain on which tanks and helicopters could maneuver. But the Ap Bac I saw from the back of a scooter and on foot was every bit as tangled—in terms of streams, jungle, and overgrowth—as the rest of Vietnam.
Yes, the ARVN could approach the Viet Cong across a broad expanse of rice paddies and possibly push them into the canal at their backs. But in the battle’s amphitheater, all the surrounding stage sets were dense jungle, which concealed the Viet Cong riflemen, allowing them to bring down five American helicopters and escape the ARVN noose.
The museum has a photograph of the battle’s end, with downed helicopters on their side in the fields. Although Ap Bac was the first battle of the American War (as the Vietnamese call it), it might well have been the last.
Air power, artillery, and armor were supposed to win the day; instead, they became sea anchors in the mud.
* * *
After Ap Bac I was done scootering. To get into Saigon I caught a bus along Highway One. I stood for less than ten minutes beside a vegetable stand with my arm out (bus-hiking, not hitchhiking).
Almost immediately a van pulled over in the traffic, opened its front door, accepted $2 for the ride, and whisked me into Saigon, which was a two-hour ride across the broad rice fields of the Delta—more Texas than the catacombs around An Binh Island.
Thinking about Ap Bac and how the Kennedy administration had pushed back against Sheehan’s stories of the ARVN defeat reminded me that John F. Kennedy is one of the tragic figures of the Vietnam War.
Of all the American politicians who got close to Indochina, Kennedy was in the best position to make the right decisions. Instead he made some of the worst, including his criticism of the press for telling the truth about Ap Bac and how badly the war was going in the early 1960s.
Not only did Kennedy serve as a PT boat commander during World War II in the Solomon Islands (as covered with jungle and swampland as is Vietnam), but after the war—when he was a member of the House of Representatives—he traveled to French Indochina with his brother Robert.
In Saigon in 1951, Kennedy got the dog-and-pony show from the U.S. ambassador and other embassy officials, but then he struck out on his own to meet reporters covering the French war against the Vietminh.
They told him that the colonial war was destined to fail (this was three years before Dien Bien Phu).
On his return to Washington, Kennedy gave several eloquent speeches in Congress on Vietnam, including one in which he said:
The Indo-Chinese states are puppet states, French principalities with great resources but, as typical examples of empire and colonialism as can be found anywhere. To check the southern drive of Communism makes sense but not only through reliance on the force of arms. The task is, rather, to build strong native non-Communist sentiment within these areas and rely on that as a spearhead of defense. To do this, apart from and in defiance of, innately nationalistic aims spells foredoomed failure.
During the 1950s, however, after Kennedy became a senator and started dreaming about the White House, he got behind the doomed Vietnamese presidency of Ngo Dinh Diem (the one with whom the U.S. was to “sink or swim…”).
In part it was because Diem was a Catholic and the darling not just of Time magazine but also Francis Cardinal Spellman, the Archbishop of New York and something of a Kennedy family in-house priest. John Kennedy needed the continued devotions of his Catholic constituencies if he was to make it to the White House.
As president, John F. Kennedy understood that Vietnam was a lost cause but at the same time a war he needed to fight if the Soviets were to take him seriously (or so he believed).
The confident, intellectually curious Kennedy was the one who sought out French reporters in Saigon in 1951, and got the unvarnished truth about the white man’s burdens in Indochina.
The status quo Kennedy was the president who in 1961 sent 16,000 military advisors, including John Paul Vann, to Vietnam, plus millions in military aid, so that the hawks in Washington, not to mention the Russians, would understand he could not be pushed around.
In the end, JFK’s assassination, several weeks after Diem himself was killed in an American-orchestrated coup, has the feel of a Shakespearean tragedy played out on Saigon’s rue Catinat, once Indochina’s Fifth Avenue.
Diem died because he failed to prosecute the Vietnam war to the satisfaction of the American military and (probably) the president; and if the novelist Charles McCarry (Tears of Autumn) is to be believed, Kennedy died in a conspiracy that was hatched to revenge Diem’s killing.
McCarry writes: “They [Diem’s coterie] believed Kennedy had done this thing to them—whether he did or not doesn’t matter. The way they think, they couldn’t do anything but kill Kennedy in return. It’s an imperative with them—insult for insult, blood for blood.”
* * *
Maybe because I arrived on a slow Sunday afternoon, but I warmed to Saigon on this occasion. Both the traffic and the heat were less oppressive. I found it easier to walk around on the sidewalks (I wasn’t always sharing them with motorbikes) and fewer touts were in my face, although to be truthful they were always lurking on the fringes of any sale.
I remained long enough to catch my breath from the Delta and make plans to get to the Iron Triangle, near the famous Cu Chi Tunnels, about thirty miles north of the city.
There I had booked what I thought was a room in a resort outside Saigon, from which I could explore a battle detailed in Jonathan Schell’s The Village of Ben Suc—one of those Vietnamese hamlets that needed to be destroyed in order to save it.
The easiest way to get to my resort was to book a $4 tour bus to the Cu Chi Tunnels, and then to bail on the tour and move on to the Iron Triangle.
Each day the tunnels attract dozens of tour groups—it’s the main war attraction from Saigon—and they spend a few hours looking at the underground network that stretched some 250 kilometers and was the staging area for some 16,000 Viet Cong guerrillas.
The irony of the Cu Chi Tunnels is that the Americans built a base directly on top of them, and it took several years to figure out the extent of the network, which in the meantime allowed the Viet Cong to snipe at American troops even after they thought they had pacified the area.
Only in 1969 did B-52 bombers lay waste to the tunnels, but by then the Americans were losing interest in the war.
* * *
I stayed with the Cu Chi tour long enough to see the battle exhibits, which included not just tunnels and trenches, but displays on how the Viet Cong rigged mines, set booby traps, cooked meals, treated the wounded, and stitched together their tire-tread scandals.
At $20 a clip, I decided against trying my aim with an AK-47 or an M-16, which are the soundtracks in the Cu Chi woods (near the gift shop)—with tattooed Australians at a rifle range appearing in the role of Victor Charles.
My Iron Triangle “resort” turned out to be a sad guest house run by a toothless German and four enthusiastic dogs. There was no pool, and the “bottled” water came in recycled plastic bottles, which might have been collected from the roadside. The only food on site was beer, which may explain why all the online reviews indicated its “excellence.”
Although the owner spoke little Vietnamese (apparently his wife, who was away, did all the local talking), he managed to find me a driver to take me around the Iron Triangle—an American battlefield as bleak as the Wilderness outside Chancellorsville.
During Operation Cedar Falls, launched in 1967, the American army and ARVN cleared the area of villagers and conducted broad search and destroy missions—an operation that Schell describes in his book, which was first serialized in the New Yorker magazine.
Everything that was evil about the American intervention in Vietnam can be gleaned from Schell’s account, which ends with the village of Ben Suc (it was near my resort) being razed to the ground.
He writes: “The bulldozers cut their own paths across the backyard fences, small graveyards, and ridged fields of the village, ignoring the roads and lanes…. Air Force jets sent their bombs down on the deserted ruins…”
* * *
I had printed maps of Operation Cedar Falls, and after some diffidence my scooter driver warmed to the search for the traces of the 1967 battle.
We began in Ben Suc (now a crossroads of small shops and food stalls) and fanned out through the Iron Triangle, which matches Daniel Boone’s description of Kentucky, a “dark and bloody ground.”
Most of the time we weaved along dirt paths. Several times we crossed the meandering Saigon River (muddy and clogged with floating vegetation) on a small ferry.
The surrounding landscape was scrub jungle, and we came across many villages with small patches of rice paddies and farmyard animals. But think of it all as a tank trap and a sniper’s paradise. (During Cedar Falls, the Viet Cong never did stand and fight, as they did in Ap Bac, but snipers and mines killed a number of Americans.)
Down one of the lanes in the Iron Triangle, I came to the conclusion that Vietnam was America’s Boer War, in the sense that a weapon of choice was the concentration camp for bothersome civilians.
Just as the British in South Africa rounded up the Boers in what were called laagers, so, too, did the Americans—with their Strategic Hamlet Program and its successors—decide that Vietnamese villagers were best disposed behind barbed wire.
Much of Schell’s book about Ben Suc concerns how the villages in the Iron Triangle were drained of their population, which was trucked away—cows and all—to a wired compound.
In American-established concentration camps (run by ARVN soldiers), villagers could be divided among those loyal to the Saigon regime and those sympathetic to the Viet Cong. Without a local population in the Iron Triangle, it became a “free fire” zone, into which artillery and napalm could be dropped without second thoughts.
One officer tells Schell: “From now on, anything that moves around here is going to be automatically considered V.C. and bombed or fired upon. The whole Triangle is going to become a Free Zone. These villages here are all considered hostile villages.”
In fighting the battle of the Iron Triangle, American troops deployed large bulldozers to plow under large swaths of jungle, as if cutting lanes for a future interstate. They were off-ramps to nowhere.
For all the jungle plowed under and villages burned in the Iron Triangle, the Americans never grasped the extent to which Vietnamese snipers were buried beneath them in a subterranean network the size of the New York City subway.
* * *
Faced with the prospect of a night at the four-dog resort, I did a runner. I paid off the owner for the room (he threw in the bottled water), and he dropped me at the 87 bus for Cu Chi, which connected with another bus to Tay Ninh, once the Fort Apache of the northwest frontier that nestles against the Cambodian border.
Because this military district could determine the fate of Saigon, it was always among the most contested in the war.
I first learned about Tay Ninh from the novels and stories of my friend Larry Heinemann, who wrote Close Quarters (1974) and Paco’s Story (1987), the latter of which won the National Book Award for Fiction. (He beat out the self-absorbed Toni Morrison, who denounced Larry as unworthy of a prize only she should win.)
Larry served as a grunt with the 25th Infantry Division in Vietnam from March 1967 to March 1968, and his writing centers on the road to Tay Ninh (through Cu Chi and Trang Bang) much the way Melville’s novels are set in the whaling grounds of the South Pacific.
Even though I was on a dilapidated bus, with all the windows open and music blaring from another passenger’s boom box, I still felt as if I were on one of the those literary tours to the house of a famous author.
I became friends with Larry in the 1970s after his first novel, Close Quarters, was published. Nearly all of our conversations touched on Vietnam and many of the writers who came out of the war.
I recall him describing how Gloria Emerson (Winners and Losers, about how the war broke so many Americans) “got it” and his admiration for such writers as Robert Mason (Chickenhawk), Philip Caputo (A Rumor of War), and W.D. Ehrhart (Vietnam-Perkasie).
Much of Larry’s writing describes the dislocations of coming home from the war, as when he wrote: “Any soldier returning home must rediscover his humanity and establish a livable peace with the discovered, liberated, permanently dark places in his own heart—the darkness that is always with us.”
In particular, I remember a Vietnam writers’ conference in New York City, at the West Side YMCA, in the early 1980s. About fifty people were present, and someone tried to make the case that that war had a moral purpose. Larry would have none of that argument. As if on fire, he said to the audience: “I was there, and it was evil. Don’t let anyone tell you it wasn’t.”
If you have any doubts, read the rape scene in Paco’s Story, in which he writes:
A peasant girl not more than fourteen, say, or sixteen…. Her eyes got bigger than a deer’s, and chunks and slivers of tile ground into her scalp and face, her breasts and stomach, and Jesus-fucking-Christ, she had her nostrils flared and teeth clenched and eyes squinted, tearing at the sheer humiliating, grinding pain of it.
Other victims of the assault include American innocence.
* * *
As my bus meandered along the Tay Ninh highway—passing a long Vietnamese strip mall on either side of the road—I thought of Larry and his books. (He writes in Close Quarters:
“From camp or some fire base or other, into the jungle or the rubber or the paddies north of Trang Bang. We would gather at the seven-four to sip some smoke, slap on some camouflage, and go. And after the first dozen or so I got used to the pig [an M-60 machine gun] and preferred it. That and the two hundred rounds.”)
Closer to Tay Ninh, I caught my first site of Black Virgin Mountain, an incongruous peak that rises from the broad plains around the city. In the war, such high ground was often violently contested, as the Americans had a fire base at its summit, and stationed troops there to track enemy infiltration.
When Larry wrote a book about returning to Vietnam in the 1990s, he gave it the title Black Virgin Mountain, as it was a looming presence when he and his reconnaissance company worked up and down the road from Cu Chi to Tay Ninh (often a highway of death).
I stayed in Tay Ninh long enough to inspect the headquarters of the Cao Dai religion; it was founded in 1926 and worships, among other things, the French novelist Victor Hugo. (Mostly it feels like a Buddhist interpretation of the Catholic Church.) And I spent a lot of time looking up at the mountain (imagine Denali outside Kansas City).
At the end of the American presence in Vietnam, American bombers attacked the mountaintop fort, yet another metaphor for the self-destructive confusion of American war aims.
* * *
On my last morning in Saigon, I did something few do in the city, which is to go for a long walk. I started at the War Remnants Museum—part history, part agitation propaganda—looped around the grounds of the American embassy (that from which the helicopters departed in 1975), and ended up at the rooftop bar of the Rex Hotel, where some correspondents spent much of their war. (The Five O’Clock Follies is now the name of a lime-green cocktail.)
Although Vietnam is loaded with war museums—they tend to have the same haggard photograph of Lyndon Johnson, clearly getting ready to throw in the towel—most Saigon visitors end up at the War Remnants Museum, which, across the three floors of photographic exhibits, toes the party line.
I went again to see the pictures of photographers killed in war. On one very bad day in 1971, a single helicopter crash near the Laos border killed four celebrated photojournalists: Larry Burrows, Henri Huet, Kent Potter and Keisaburo Shimamoto, all of whom have haunting black-and-white photographs on exhibit.
Vietnam may be the last American war that will have given the press free access to the fighting. The army flew journalists of all stripes (some came with accreditation from local or college papers) into battle, one reason so many were killed. Now the Pentagon “embeds” reporters, as if they were mercenaries in a religious war.
As much as I like the idea of a war museum in Saigon, on this occasion I grew tired of its strident tone, which often has the feel of some party congress poster, exhorting the masses to remember the evils of capitalism.
To be sure, Agent Orange, the American bombings, Operation Phoenix, and My Lai are part of the Vietnam War story. So are the war crimes of Senator Bob Kerrey, which get a lot of play in the museum. But then so, too, should be the death of 5,000 Hue inhabitants who were rounded up, killed, and dumped in pits after the Viet Cong captured that ancient city during the 1968 Tet Offensive.
The real war, in Saigon anyway, only makes it into the display cabinets when the subject is American imperialism.
* * *
For some reason it took me two tries to find the former U.S. embassy in Saigon (now it’s just a consulate). I knew the address was 4 Le Duan and that it was next to the French embassy. Such are the fortress walls (you see nothing from the street except a medieval rampart) that I walked by it without seeing the flag or the helicopter pad on the roof.
Why the United States needs a consulate in Saigon the size of a city block is anyone’s guess. The last I heard, the Trump administration isn’t effusive over the idea of issuing immigration visas. Nor is a consulate needed in Saigon to encourage the investments of American businesses, which have their franchises (Starbucks, Nike, etc.) on most corners.
Too bad no one had the idea to turn the embassy grounds into an open university with a curriculum to study how it happened—after the fiasco of the Vietnamese intervention (from 1954 to 1975)—that the United States marched into the same folly in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In my travels around Indochina, I have read countless histories about the origins of American involvement in Vietnam. Save for a handful of public figures—among them were George Ball, George McGovern, William Fulbright, Adlai Stevenson, and Martin Luther King, Jr.—those in government waved the bloody shirt with the same enthusiasm that, forty years later, Barack Obama showed when he called Afghanistan a “war of necessity” not a “war of choice.”
It is also remarkable that the words of Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon over Vietnam almost match verbatim some of the statements that George W. Bush and Obama made about fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Lyndon Johnson said in 1965: “There are those who wonder why we have a responsibility there. We have it for the same reason we have a responsibility for the defense of freedom in Europe.” In the same vein W said: “The United States and other nations did nothing to deserve or invite this threat. But we will do everything to defeat it.”
From there it is not a long way to Trump’s statement: “These heinous actions by the Assad regime cannot be tolerated. The United States stands with our allies across the globe to condemn this horrific attack and all other horrific attacks, for that matter.”
I have no doubt that Donald Trump, when he finds his own Vietnam—North Korea, Syria, the Philippines, and Yemen are currently auditioning—will join the ranks of his predecessors in believing that only through a splendid little war can America continue its pursuit of happiness.