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.
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.
In the rewriting of history, though, it is the pattern of what the Vietnamese call "the American war" that is most skewed. The siege of Khe Sanh, broken after troops from the US First Air Cavalry Division punched through on Route 9, goes down as an unqualified victory for the North. That's because the Americans pulled out of Khe Sanh several months later, realizing the base was exposed, isolated, and extremely costly to defend.
The official Vietnamese history, however, fails to note that American and South Vietnamese forces returned regularly to Khe Sanh, using it as a base and not giving it up until the 1972 offensive.
The history grew hazier still as we descended through the Ashau Valley, past Hamburger Hill, the scene of one of the war's bloodiest battles in May 1969. At a restaurant in Ah Loui, a district center in the valley, we dined on fox and anteater steak dished up by a cook who said he had been there for 10 years. He believed the modern highway down the valley was built with foreign aid but professed to know nothing of the fighting years before.
It was after slipping down a network of trails and streams that lace the valley and hills that thousands of North Vietnamese infiltrated Hue, from which Vietnamese emperors had once ruled. The invaders slaughtered several thousand people on the first night of the 1968 Tet offensive, burying them in mass graves while taking over the multiwalled Citadel, the center of imperial power before the French era.
I had flown into Hue early in the battle, landing in the rear of the Citadel beside a US Marine command post. Bodies of dead marines were piled by the door. I grabbed an abandoned helmet and flak jacket, in a stack beside the bodies, and joined marines fighting block by block.
This time, I went with a veteran Canadian TV correspondent, Bill Cunningham, and his legendary cameraman, Phil Pendry, comrades on the tour, interviewing me as I reminisced on the battle, looking over those same walls behind which I had crouched with young marines.
A brochure told us revolutionary forces had scored a tremendous victory, killing "bad people" and driving out the Americans, but the truth was the marines, in four weeks of some of the toughest fighting of the war, retook the Citadel while the US command held off on airstrikes that would have destroyed ancient palaces and walls. It was not until early 1975, two years after the last American troops had left, that Hue fell for the last time to the army from the north.
Outside the Citadel, on a street lined with souvenir shops, a sign beckons foreign tourists, "We're sure you'll welcome our delicious meals and friendly service." I asked the man in charge what he remembered of the war.
Like the majority of his countrymen, he was, he told me, born after 1975. Nor did he dwell on the history with parents or older people who might know. "We don't think about it," he told me, smiling genially. "It was a long time ago."