The tunnels of Vinh Moc …. 50 klicks south of the 17th parallel …. Charlie squats in the bush …. Khe Sanh …. Langdoc …. Hamburger Hill …. Hell on earth.
There is nothing much left to say that anything ever happened here. The mist clings close to the hills around Hué bathing everything in a perpetual dampness, the wood, the stones, the lush green vegetation everything drips. You could drive on by on a motorbike and never notice a thing, but digging in the earth might tell a different tale, twisted bits of metal, shards of shrapnel, blunt nosed bullets, maybe even pieces of bone.
Across an ocean, thousands of miles away, in a very different world the name of this drenched abandoned hillside is still seared into the collective consciousness of a nation. For 77 days from the 21st of January to the 8th of April 1968 US marines dug in at the hilltop outpost of Khe Sanh Combat Base, pinned down and surrounded on all sides by three divisions of the Peoples Army of Vietnam came under a sustained and relentless attack by ground, rocket, artillery and mortar. “When you’re at Khe Sanh, you’re not really anywhere. You could lose it and you really haven’t lost a damn thing.” so said Brigadier General Lowell English one of the principle US military commands, indeed looking out around the cloudy green hills there is just nothing there and nobody to be seen. Yet this narrow sliver of land stretching from the Laotian border to the south China sea is one of the more intensely bombed areas on the planet. Just fifty kilometers south of the, in true military absurdist style named, Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Vietnam along the 17th parallel, the hills and the environs around Hué saw some of the most pitched and bloodiest of the fighting during the war.
The battle of Khe Sanh itself was largely a concerted collaboration between the US army and the North Vietnamese military command to produce a real life sequel to Joseph Heller’s farcical World War 2 era novel Catch-22. In this respect they were both wildly successful. The US military decided to defend Khe Sanh Military Base whatever the cost, mainly because the Vietnamese wanted it. Angered at American efforts to defend the base the Vietnamese supreme command decided they had to have it no matter what and subsequently hurled wave after human wave at this insignificant barren rocky outcrop. Eventually, deciding that neither really wanted it anymore, both sides reached a truce, effectively agreeing that the other guys were welcome to it and thereby leaving Khe Sanh utterly abandoned. Not before thousands of soldiers lost their lives there of course.
The old military base has now been converted into a tiny deserted propaganda museum. Pictures of marines climbing into a helicopter has been given the caption “Marines fleeing in terror from the Vietnamese liberators” and photograph of marines at a prayer service bears the title “Marines praying to God to get them out of this hell”
I was strangely surprised and perhaps a little disappointed that, unless you sought it out, so little remains of the war. But such is the conceit of the traveler, why should people want to be reminded of a bitter history, forty years is a lifetime and to the young population of Vietnam the war is as distant as the ruins of Angkor. Torn down, burned or swallowed whole by the land only faint traces can still be seen.
Heralding the end of the simplistic comic book hero image of American imperialism which followed on from World War 2. Vietnam ushered in the muddied era of moral relativism and realpolitik, the trauma of the war signified the end of innocence and the frightening loss of certainty which accompanies the twilight childhood and the unwelcome encroachment of adolescence. A nation which woke up suddenly and found itself adrift in a world where there are no baddies and no goodies, and some Indians are cowboys and some cowboys are Indians, with all its idols slain confusion and fear stalk the land.
I looked out into the mist of the surrounding valleys trying to imagine what it must have been like for the marines perched like sitting ducks atop a hill, surround on all sides, peering out into the white swirling morning mist. Or for a young Vietnamese conscript listening the ominous growl of unseen death from above. But try as I might I could feel nothing. No roar of B52s overhead, no bursts of machine gun fire, no mortars nothing, only silence. The land has reclaimed the bomb craters and the smell of napalm has long since blown away. The passage of time is a curious thing a place holds no horrors over the graves of men, the grass still grows and the birds still sing. The armies vanished as quickly as they had come leaving the hills to the trees.