Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Vietnam and the American War

In America, it's known as the "Vietnam War."  In Vietnam, it's known as the "American War."  In America, the Vietnam War is viewed as a discrete 10-20 year conflict.  In Vietnam, the American War is viewed as the final stage of 116 unbroken years of armed conflict--first with France, then China, then Japan, then France, then the United States.  Click the link to read more about our tours related to the "American War."
During our visit to Vietnam, I read two books chronicling the history of the Vietnam War.  I'll skip most of the history lessons from those books.  However, one quote stands out as a good summary of what happened during the war.  After the war, General Maxwell Taylor, one of the principal architects of the war from the US side, stated: "We didn't know the enemy, we didn't know our allies, and we didn't know ourselves."
In Hanoi, we toured the prison known sarcastically by the American inmates as the "Hanoi Hilton."  For approximately nine years, American pilots who had been shot down over North Vietnam were held in this prison.  The Vietnamese call the prison "Hoa Lo" (meaning, "hell hole"), which was originally built by the French colonialists in 1886 to hold and torture political prisoners who opposed French colonial rule.  Former U.S. prisoners during the Vietnam War tell of being tortured in this prison in order to get them to record statements for propaganda purposes criticizing the U.S. war effort and praising the North Vietnamese.  Above is a photo of the flight suit worn by Sen. John McCain when he was captured and sent to the "Hanoi Hilton."
Many of the museums and exhibits related to the war are still full of photos and descriptions which sound like propaganda.  For example, the above photo hangs in a museum next to the Khe Sanh Combat Base, which is near the DMZ and the Laos border, and was the site of one of the largest sieges in the war during the Tet Offensive.  The caption to this photo is only mildly provocative compared to some of the others, which I'll omit.
Despite the propaganda, the sites we toured along the DMZ were very moving.  Above is a page from the register at the Khe Sanh Combat Base.

Above is a video taken outside a bunker and next to an airstrip at the Khe Sanh Base.

An incredible site we visited was Vinh Moc, the site of a large network of tunnels.  In 1966, the U.S. began a bombing campaign just north of the DMZ in an effort to either kill or force the relocation of the Vinh Moc villagers, which were suspected with supplying food, supplies and arms to the Viet Cong in the south via the Ho Chi Minh Trail.  These Vietnamese, who were stubborn and battle-hardened from a century of nearly constant conflict, chose to build an entire village underground to avoid the bombings rather than move.  They initially dug a network of tunnels 30 feet deep, which included family sleeping rooms, kitchens, bathrooms, meeting rooms and even maternity wards.  These tunnels were dug entirely without the aid of machines.  When the U.S. caught wind of the tunnels, they developed bombs that would explode 30 feet underground.  The villagers responded by building an entire new network of tunnels 90 feet deep.  They used the craters created by the American bombs as air holes for their second underground village.  By the end of the war, the tunnels were 6,000 feet long and housed over 60 families. 

Here is a video of Beth walking through one portion of the tunnels.
To give an illustration of how resilient the Vietnamese people are in general, early during our tour of the DMZ and the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the clutch on our tour bus broke.  We were all fine with canceling the tour, but the tour driver refused to let that happen.  He spent every moment during our stops and breaks under the hood, and eventually ran a cord into the engine (he's holding it in the above photo with his left hand), which allowed him to engage the clutch while our tour guide (the woman next to him in the photo) changed the gears.  The two of them drove like this for most of our 12-hour tour. 

Above is a video of the bus driver in action.  This is a small example of the Vietnamese work ethic and resilience.  These traits are among the ones referenced by General Taylor when he said that the U.S. went into the war without adequate knowledge of the enemy.  The initial architects of the war from the U.S. side had first successfully aided the government of the Philippines in repelling the Communists in their attempt to gain power in the Philippines.  The U.S. architects admitted afterwards that they thought the task would be similarly easy in Vietnam.  However, as is now apparent in hindsight, there are major differences between the personalities of the two countries.  (See my earlier blog entry entitled, "The Philippines and the Curse of Happiness," for a glimpse of this.)  Given the Vietnamese work ethic and resilience, it is not surprising that, just over ten years after the U.S. ceased its decade-long fight to stop communism from spreading in Vietnam, Vietnam largely abandoned communism in favor of a capitalist system not much different than what is seen in the U.S.  And since instituting that system, Vietnam's economy has consistently been among the fastest growing in the world.

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