In Vietnam, war history through a political lens
KHE SANH, VIETNAM
The sight of the Huey helicopter beside a ramshackle museum filled with war photographs and artifacts was jolting.Skip to next paragraph
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There it was, this onetime war horse of American and South Vietnamese forces, intact, ponderous, and useless, another trophy of war. It could have fallen to the people we once called "the enemy" in any number of ways, but the real mystery was what was emblazoned on the side: a star inside a circle with the words "U.S. Air Force."
Did the Air Force fly Hueys into Khe Sanh, a former Marine base? That was news to me, a correspondent who had helicoptered into the base before, during, and after the famous 77-day siege of the base in 1968. It also didn't seem right to Carl Robinson, another war correspondent now leading a group of us on a tour of old battlefields. The Vietnamese, he concluded, had painted the fresh markings on the fading olive-drab Huey to show it off as American, even though it was probably flown by South Vietnamese and captured later.
Of course, to the victors go the spoils - including the right to rewrite history. Just imagine what British soldiers would think if they could see all those monuments from Boston Harbor to Yorktown. Or native Americans, when asked about the conquest of the American West - or, for that matter, the Germans and Japanese about World War II. Thirty years after its final victory, Vietnam's historical revisionism fulfills a political need: to unify a people still divided by history, outlook, income, and social status. The results vary considerably from what we lived and saw.
Along Route 9, first built by the French colonialists, then rebuilt by US Army engineers, and lately widened and repaved with foreign aid, one finds constant reminders of the war that raged along the DMZ, the demilitarized zone that divided North from South Vietnam at the 17th parallel. The victors remember the US forces at such datelines as Contien and Camp Carroll and the "Rockpile," a rough-hewn karst that soars out of jungle-covered hills, but no one mentions the South Vietnamese who occupied these same outposts until they were driven out in the offensive of May 1972, a rehearsal for the final push three years later.
Time and again, the official history focuses on the Americans while ignoring the role of the Vietnamese soldiers and civilians who supported the old Saigon regime.
On the southern side of the bridge across the Ben Hai River, once the line between North and South, a massive statue, in the old Soviet style, shows a sad-faced, young woman pleading for the return of a loved one who fled north after the signing of the Geneva agreement in 1954. Approximately 200,000 southerners went north, compared with more than 1 million northerners who came south. The southward flight is forgotten while the entry of North Vietnamese divisions into the South is portrayed as a crusade to save a tyrannized people.
This version of history endures everywhere, never so poignantly as in a sprawling cemetery inside the DMZ that marks the final resting place of thousands of soldiers who died in the revolution to reunify their country. All of them were either in the Northern army or Southerners in the National Liberation Front; that is, the Viet Cong guerrilla force that waged hit-and-run attacks against the Americans and their "puppets" long before Hanoi began sending troops down the Ho Chi Minh trail network through Laos. Except for a cemetery north of Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, guarded by soldiers and closed to the public, there is no resting place for those who died on the losing side.