13 July 2014
War is a suffocating dead-end tunnel
The French, the Americans and the Chinese all tried to quell the Vietnamese people in the past sixty years. They all failed, stumbling on Vietnamese tenacity – but not without leaving deep scars. Did you know that the US army dropped three times as many bombs on Vietnam as the total number of bombs dropped during the Second World War? And did you know that Agent Orange, the infamous defoliant poured across southern Vietnam to deprive combatants of food and resources, was only recently officially admitted as having had and still having disastrous effects, some children being born without eyes? Yep, pretty horrible. For a pretty good and brief documentary on the topic, head to this recent New York Times video. And of course, how could I not mention Coppola’s extraordinary film Apocalypse Now, an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to the Vietnam War, with its famously chilling helicopter scene and Ride of the Valkyries as background music:
More than half of today’s Vietnamese people were born after the war against the US. Museums and the school curriculum undoubtedly remind them of the war’s atrocities, although with an obvious bias towards depicting the horrors committed by the enemy and never showing any of what its own troops did. I decided not to include the picture showing a torn limb attached upside down to a corpse, allegedly committed on a Vietnamese by the French. I left the ones showing Americans smiling as they look down on corpses and that of an American tank dragging a corpse along the streets. Being fed alive to ants or tortured with razor-sharp bamboos were the privilege of the People’s Army of Vietnam – but obviously that wasn’t displayed. Tit for tat, it’ll never end – just see what's happening today in the Middle East.
Graphic black-and-white photos on one side, posters, paintings and sculptures on another. The latter often represented the courageous Vietnamese soldier, protecting his family or persistent in pushing the canons up the hills at Dien Bien Phu. Among all this propaganda in pastel or full-of-life colours, apology of war or praise to resistance however one views it, I think I was more moved – and perhaps a little petrified, if I may say – by the smooth sculpture representing the ghost of a soldier with his helmet laying in imaginary hands – or maybe is it the mantle of death collecting its due. I took the time to detour my photo and placed the sculpture on top of a black background, as I think it makes the symbolism more powerful.
Remains of tanks and fighter jets are still scattered in various cities across Vietnam. Yet perhaps the most vivid example of the ingenuity of the Viet Congs in combating a much stronger opponent is the tunnels. 250 kilometres of tunnels were dug in the countryside and under the jungle, not far away from Saigon. Those were mostly used by fighters, quickly hiding after launching their attacks, but also serving as supply routes and hospitals. Other tunnel networks existed elsewhere in the country, also used by civilians. Part of those tunnels can be visited today, in particular near Cu Chi. Even if they were a bit widened, they are still incredibly narrow (80 centimetres high, 50 centimetres wide) and terribly hot and humid, making it hard to breathe and inevitably making one sweat quite a bit. Oh and I should mention that bats bump into your face as you painfully try to progress in the tunnel maze. Back in the days, the tunnels were also infested with scorpions and delicious spiders. Yummy.
I didn’t even initially notice a tunnel entrance hidden under a pile of leaves. I could only enter it diagonally, arms up in the air. One thing I forgot to check though: that this was a real entrance, and not a booby-trapped one. For the Viet Congs had created false entrances with snakes, wooden spikes or even explosives. Some enemies got stuck when they encountered horrifyingly-but-correctly-called dead ends (because they died there, probably lost). Can you guess what was the method used by Americans to render those tunnels ineffective? I’ll give you three options to choose from:
– flushing the tunnel entrances with gas or water,
– tossing grenades into the holes,
– or carpet-bomb the whole area.
Well, you guessed it: they used all three techniques and while the last one eventually managed to cave in some portions of the tunnels, it proved too late and the Americans were shamefully kicked out of Vietnam. Close to forty years later, both countries are at peace so let me finish this post with a Vietnamese proverb: “dĩ hoà vi quý” which literally means “making peace is treasured”, or more freely translated in English as “make love, not war”. A word to the wise is enough.