The making of American power (3): the war in Vietnam

Last week, I attended week 3 of an eight-week evening class at London”s City Literary Institute. The title is “The making of American power: US foreign policy from the Cold War to Trump” and our lecturer is Jack Gain.

Week 3 of the course was on the war in Vietnam. I was reminded of my visit to Vietnam in 2006 and these are a couple of extracts from my record of that trip.

‘We were keen to see the War Remnants Museum which did not appear to be on the official programme, so this was the focus of our free afternoon. Professionally the museum is not impressive, but then there is little money for such things. Politically it is utterly one-sided (it used to be called the Museum of American War Atrocities), but that is to be expected in the country that won the war and remains communist-controlled. However, it is a fascinating, if disturbing, venue with images from the infamous My Lai massacre and gruesome pictures of victims of torture, nepalm and Agent Orange including two deformed foetuses in glass jars. In the small grounds, there are a few samples of military hardware including a F5A jet, a Huey helicopter, an M48 tank, and a BLU 82 seismic bomb.’

“Sunday morning at 8 am and the official part of the programme commenced. The VJV group travelled 40 miles (65 km) north-west of HCM City to Cu Chi, site of the underground tunnel network used by the Vietminh (the League for Vietnamese Independence of the north) and the Vietcong (the National Liberation Front in the south) during the conflict with both the French and the Americans. Constructed between 1948-1973, this is a complex of 217 miles (350 km) of tunnels on three levels – respectively 3 metres, 6 metres and 10 metres deep – in an area of 162 sq miles (420 sq km). All around are dips in the ground which are the remnants of bomb craters.

In an article by Tom Mangold and John Penycate, they wrote: “The district of Cu Chi was the most bombed, shelled, gassed, defoliated, and generally devastated area in the history of warfare.” Today two sections of the tunnels are open to the public. The Ben Binh tunnels remain unlit and unreconstructed, making it difficult for larger westerners to negotiate. The Ben Duoc tunnels, however, are renovated and open to tourists.

Our journey to Cu Chi was broken by short stops to see local rice paper making and rubber collecting and then, once at Cu Chi tself, we spent two hours looking over the site and the exhibits. First, in a thatched shed, we were shown a 15-minute black and while film about the role of the tunnels in the war. This was a very amateurish and propagandist work in which the American soldiers were described as “a crazy bunch of devils” and the best of the Vietnamese soldiers were said to be proclaimed “American killer hero”. Then we saw demonstrations of the fiendish and fearsome booby traps and mines used to block access to the tunnels by American forces. Around the site, there are various model tableaux of soldiers in authentic uniform and so-called ‘Uncle Ho’ sandels (made out of old tyres).

We were shown how easy it was to disguise an entrance to the tunnel network – a small, flat cover and a few old leaves did the trick. The entrances were incredibly small, since Vietnamese are tiny and slim. Finally we were given the opportunity – taken by Vee & Roger – to enter one small section of the tunnels which has been widened to accommodate westerners. It was unbelieveably tight and dark down there and Vee suddenly felt claustrophobic, but Roger made good use of a small torch that he had taken with him and helped her continue the crawl. There was simply no way that one could go back.”


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