Remember Ho Chi Minh
was a poet: please,
do not let it all come down
--W. D. Ehrhart, "Letter"
I think that Vietnam was what we had instead of happy childhoods.
--Michael Herr, Dispatches
Graham Greene was wrong about Vietnam. Not in the main, of course. The Quiet American (1955) still stands as not only the inaugural novel of the American intervention in Vietnam but also as a brilliant exposition on why we were destined to fail. Greene's portrayal of Alden Pyle, the earnest young American CIA operative blinded by the cultural constructions of the Cold War and armored in his good intentions, captures the essence of the dilemma we would face throughout our involvement. Greene was there at the beginning and understood better than most that we were "trying to make a war with the help of people who just aren't interested." When it came to just what the people were interested in, however, Greene seems to have known the Vietnamese no better than we did.
Greene obviously romanticized traditional Vietnamese culture and held it to have been largely impervious to Western ideas and values, a position he articulates through his narrator, Alden Pyle's worldly wise and reluctant mentor Thomas Fowler. At a key point in the novel, Fowler dismisses the American obsession with falling dominoes, expressing a conviction that seems to speak for the author as much as the character:
If I believed in your God and another life, I'd bet my future harp against your golden crown that in five hundred years there may be no New York or London, but they'll be growing paddy in these fields, they'll be carrying their produce to market in long poles wearing their pointed hats. The small boys will be sitting on the buffaloes.
It is a view that certainly struck a resonant chord in me the first time I read it. I have returned to it often over the years in trying to make sense of my own experience as a patrol leader and rifleman with the Marine Corps' Combined Action Program throughout the last half of 1967 in a traditional Vietnamese village.
Our mission was not to search and destroy but rather to win those elusive hearts and minds out in the countryside. Our attempts, however, were largely rebuffed, a failure I have always attributed to the nearly insurmountable cultural gulf across which we were trying to operate. In the summer of 2002, for the first time since I left Vietnam on January 4, 1968, I went back to find the village in which I served. What I found there, and throughout Vietnam in general, convinces me that Graham Greene and I were both wrong about the resiliency of the traditional Vietnamese culture. But, in all fairness, neither of us could have foreseen the power of mass media and of consumer capitalism to make even Vietnam over into America's image.
A man lying dead in the road seemed to sum it all up for me. We ran across him at the intersections of Highways 1 and 9 in Dong Ha. He was so much like the dead men I'd seen in Vietnam before--young, no older than his early twenties, maybe still in his late teens. This time, however, there was no obvious gore, not even any blood. The injuries must have been mostly internal, but instantly fatal nevertheless. He was lying on his stomach, with his head turned toward us, both eyes closed, and with one hand in front of his mouth, as if he were trying to stifle a burp. He looked rather peaceful actually, as if he had suddenly succumbed to the urge to take a nap. But who takes a nap in the middle of an intersection between the front and rear wheels of an "IFA" dump truck? A small crowd had gathered, but it was evident that there was nothing to be done except to wait for the police and to stare at the dead man or his motorbike, which lay on its side some 20 or 30 feet past the intersection. It was a "Honda Dream."
If only that young man had stayed back in the village "growing paddy." If only he hadn't succumbed to Honda dreams.
Obviously, the body count continues in Vietnam today-only this time, let's rack one up for Western-style consumerism instead of Communism or what we used to characterize as democracy. Don't get me wrong: Unlike so many of my academic colleagues, I have no quarrel with capitalism or with western civilization. I was happy to see that all throughout Vietnam today people have electricity and television and even Internet cafes. I am at the age at which I didn't find it especially reassuring to see that the kids are growing up watching MTV-Asia, but people were also watching the World Cup Soccer matches and films and television programs from America and Europe. And even a relatively poor family in Vietnam today, we would learn, could save up and buy a motorbike. But early in the trip I found myself feeling depressed by the ironic realization that so many had had to die on both sides just so that Vietnam could westernize according to their timetable instead of ours.
Vietnam of then and now.
Lang Vei Special Forces Camp, which was overrun by the North Vietnamese in February, 1968. (photo: Edward F. Palm, 2002)
We came across the accident scene three days into a seven-day "trip back." The "we" in this case was myself; another former Marine named Bill Cooke, who had been my sergeant the first time around; our Vietnamese guide, whom I'll introduce later; and our Vietnamese driver. About three years before this trip, Bill found me through photos I had posted on the Internet. We hadn't seen or communicated with one another since my rotation from Vietnam in January, 1968. I remembered him well, but ironically, neither of us could remember the other's name until that day in 1999, when, surfing the net for CAP photos and stories, he realized that he was looking at a photo of himself. He e-mailed me, and we've since gone on to become fast friends. A former small business owner, Bill spent most of his working life as an insurance adjuster based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is retired now. He and his wife have come to visit with us, and Bill and I even flew out to California together to meet with and interview another Combined Action Marine for a story I was hoping to write. Since reuniting, Bill and I had spoken about the possibility of going back someday to retrace our steps and to see what the area was like now, but it just didn't seem practical or even especially desirable to me at first.
Then, in March of 2002, I landed in the hospital. Fortunately, it was nothing serious--just a minor problem with my heart rhythm--but it made me realize that I had reached the age at which I could no longer make all the old assumptions about my health and even my continuing mobility. At about the same time, Bill discovered that he had a hernia that needed immediate attention. I suppose there's nothing like a stay in the hospital, especially your first, to put you in a carpe diem frame of mind. My old "Sarge" must have been feeling the same way. "If we're ever going to take that trip to Vietnam," he wrote, commiserating with me by e-mail, "we better do it soon, before we have to carry too many meds."
I had spent my entire thirteen-month-tour in what the U.S. Command designated as "Northern I Corps," the most significant part of it in Quang Tri Province. I was 19 when I got to Vietnam, 20 when I left. Then, at age 55, I was doing something I had once vowed I would never do, professed to have no need to do. I had come back.
I had come back, mainly, to revisit the site of the most significant set of experiences I had had in Vietnam. As I look back on it now, it's tempting, along with Hamlet, to insist that there is indeed "a divinity that shapes our ends,/Rough-hew them how we will." Right after high school, I ran off and joined the Marine Corps. I was in flight from the industrial-strength boredom that had seemed to be my legacy as a working-class kid growing up in northern Delaware. I had done all I could, to borrow a line from a romantic song from my day, to "cast my fate to the winds." But the "winds" kept spitting my "fate" right back in my face--either that, or something, for whatever reason, seemed strangely intent on saving me from myself.
Much to my embarrassment, I started off my Vietnam tour in the rear with the beer. I was a supply clerk assigned to an engineer battalion "rear," or headquarters, which moved through a series of reasonably safe and secure areas during my first six months in country. It was the sort of job that any number of guys out in the field would have killed for, and for which many did. But I couldn't see it that way at the time. I thought that the greatest humiliation I could suffer would be to return home, after thirteen long months in Vietnam, only to have to admit I'd never heard a shot fired in anger. Accordingly, I waged guerrilla war against my own side, doing all I could to establish my ineptitude as a supply clerk and volunteering for anything that seemed to promise a look at the war.
Eventually, it worked. I wound up as a rifleman and patrol leader with the Marine Corps' Combined Action Program. Recognizing that the loyalty and support of the people were key in this kind of war, the Marine Corps early on began to experiment with sending squads of Marines out to live and work in villages alongside local village defense forces-called "Popular Forces," or "PFs" for short. By the spring of 1967, the program had become formalized and was expanding at a great rate. That's where I came in; the Corps' leadership had dropped the requirement that all Combined Action Marines be combat veterans, and they required every major command to supply a certain number of "volunteers." After a perfunctory interview, I, of course, became one of those "volunteers."
Like the war itself, Combined Action seemed like a good idea at the time but ultimately rested on a set of tragically wrong presuppositions about the land, the people, and even the nature of the war we were fighting. We completely discounted the enemy infrastructure and the prestige it still enjoyed as a result of the victory over France. We presumed that the enemy was an alien force and that the peace-loving villagers and local defense forces, given half a chance, would welcome our help in rooting them out and keeping them out of their villages. As some of us would come to learn the hard way, the situation was never that simple. Many of the PFs were VC sympathizers, if not active VC, and the great majority of them were trying to straddle the fence by keeping us away from the enemy and generally in the dark about what was going on in the village. Still, as I've come to realize, the Marine Corps does deserve high marks for at least making an enlightened gesture of dissent against a search and destroy strategy that clearly was not working and which would ultimately prove self-defeating.
I wound up serving most of my Combined Action tour with the third platoon of Papa Company-or "Papa Three," as we called it-located about halfway between Dong Ha and Cam Lo alongside Highway 9. We were in Quang Tri Province, only about ten kilometers from the DMZ. We were in "Cam Hieu" hamlet, a part of a larger village complex called "Thon Vinh Dai," or "large village of tranquility and long life." But I didn't know these names, or their significance, until much later in life. To us, the quasi-ugly young Americans assigned to Papa Three, all Vietnamese villages looked alike. Ours was simply the "ville" for the whole time I was there.
There were only 12 to 14 of us Americans out there at any given time-a Marine rifle squad augmented with a Navy corpsman. Throughout the program, young, first-term sergeants were in charge out the villes. (Bill was typical in that regard.) The only officer we ever saw was our company commander, and he only occasionally came out to check on us. Most of the time, he stayed back in the Papa Company headquarters in Cam Lo. For the most part, we were on our own-"all alone out there in Indian country," as some of the more romantic CAP veterans like to say.
That characterization, however, ignores our supposed "allies." At Papa Three, we found ourselves working with a loosely organized platoon of PFs. There seemed to be between 20 and 40; we never could get an accurate count. Sometimes our PFs went with us on patrols and night ambushes; sometimes not. Usually, six to ten of them spent the night in our compound, helping us to guard it, but not always. The PFs answered to a sergeant of their own, one "Trung-si Quang," and our sergeant had no power to get Trung-si Quang and the other PFs to do anything they didn't want to do. The PFs seemed to have their own agenda, one we weren't privy to. Therein lay the crux of the problem.
A long time ago-1988, to be precise-I told the story of Papa Three in the pages of Marine Corps Gazette, the Corps' professional journal. I called it "Tiger Papa Three," after the colorful radio call sign we used day in and day out throughout my time in Papa Three. I won an award with "Tiger Papa Three" and attracted quite a bit of attention, especially since I seem to be the lone iconoclast when it comes to the Combined Action Program. My fellow veterans and the leadership of the Corps both have invested heavily in promoting Combined Action as one of the few things we did right in a war gone wrong. I still think CAP Marines bore the brunt of friendly folly as well as enemy fire.
Our one consolation, unlike the Marines and soldiers in conventional infantry units, was that we got a good, firsthand look at the culture that seemed to be defeating us. Their principal weapon, throughout my time at Papa Three at least, had seemed to be a studied indifference, a kind of passive aggressive insistence on holding to their values and their traditional rhythms of life no matter what. Along with Greene, over the years, I had imagined it would always be so. Now I had come back to see for myself.
Before relating what I found, however, a word about our guide is in order. Nguyen Chanh Trieu-or "Tango," as he liked to be called-had been an interpreter with the Marines throughout our war. Hence, the nickname "Tango," the phonetic alphabet designation for the letter "T," the phonetic alphabet being a simple system aimed at ensuring the accurate transmission of information despite the vagaries of radio reception and individual pronunciation and accent. Trieu was a university graduate who had studied French and English literature and who had planned to be a teacher. For reasons he never divulged, he enlisted in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (the "ARVN") and was assigned as an interpreter to the Marines and, apparently, went on to accommodate himself to the Marine sensibility.
Trieu was 59 years old when we met him. He is a pleasant, cheerful man who seems to be doing well at that time as a licensed "freelance" tour guide, but he had paid a high price over the years for his association with Americans. Within an hour of meeting us and ascertaining our own USMC backgrounds, he was showing us his scars. He had been shot twice, once through the face and again through the upper arm. Because he had never become an officer-he never wanted to be one, he said-he hadn't qualified for the "Orderly Departure" program. He'd spent three years in a reeducation camp, working in the fields and being told everyday that he was "a mother fucker" for siding with us. The constant taunting, he said, inevitably came back to the same cruel, rhetorical question: "Why didn't you leave with the Americans so that you could eat butter in America?"
I can't speak for Bill, of course, but Trieu's story impressed me as just one of a number of depressing reminders of all the sadness that lay just beneath the surface in the new Vietnam. Trieu himself, however, hardly seemed consumed by bitterness or self-pity. He said he had a wife, five children, and thirteen grandchildren, several of whom still lived with him and his wife in a small house in Danang. When he told me, after learning what I do for a living, that the highest paid professor in Vietnam makes about $40.00 a month, I realized that Trieu must have been doing fairly well by Vietnamese standards. Bill and I tipped him $50.00 for only four days' work, and other tourists probably ended up even more moved by his history than we were. "Tango" was a good guide-personable, thoughtful, and well-informed. He was also a prudent man. He did a great job showing us all manner of things that the authorities want tourists to see, and even a couple more. But, as Bill and I would learn, when it came to the one thing we had specifically come to see, our old "ville," his hands were tied.
Early on, Trieu had hinted at problems in doing what we had ostensibly come to do, to revisit the village where Bill and I had tried to win hearts and minds as Combined Action Marines. We would have to get the permission of and be escorted by the local "policeman," as Trieu called him. This is required, Trieu explained, any time a tourist wishes to go anywhere but the established tourist spots where "they sell tickets"-which, judging from other places we went, wasn't quite accurate but was probably as good as Trieu could do in designating anything unusual or anywhere off the beaten path. In return for the policeman's trouble, Trieu added, we would be expected to tip. Trieu told us that five dollars would be plenty.
Personally, I suspected that something was not on the up and up when, in setting out that morning, we pulled up not at a police station or other government building but at the office of DMZ Tours located within a rundown hotel across the street from ours in Dong Ha. The "policeman" we were going to meet turned out to be the deputy manager of DMZ Tours. His name was Nguyen Thanh Duy, or "Duy" ("pronounced "Dwee") as Trieu would later introduce him. Duy was a short (even by Vietnamese standards), mild-manner, pudgy middle-aged man with a pleasant demeanor that seemed to belie whatever authority or clout he had. His dress too-a white polo shirt and red ball cap-suggested that he was no more than the tour promoter that his business card proclaimed him to be. If indeed he was one of the "intelligent police" that Trieu had earlier said were everywhere throughout Vietnam today, he was well-chosen to fit the bill. No one would have singled Duy out as an undercover policeman. Looking back on it, I suspect that Duy was just the local Party hack who had the State-sponsored monopoly on Tourism in that area. But, whatever he was, Duy seemed to have the power to keep us from doing what we had come to Vietnam to do, and he probably had the power to make life difficult for Trieu. For both reasons, we went along with him.
Trieu went in to Duy's office first, telling us to wait in the lobby. They were in there at least 15 minutes, suggesting that, contrary to what our travel agency had led us to expect, no prior arrangements had been made. Bill and I were finally summoned in, and, after brief introductions and handshakes all around, Trieu instructed me to show Duy the photographs I had brought and to explain to him our purpose in wanting to visit the village. Duy didn't say anything or seem to react at all as I was showing and explaining the photographs. The only indication we had at all that our trip was approved was when, after a brief exchange between Duy and Trieu in Vietnamese, Trieu said that Duy knew where the village was; and the next thing I knew, we were heading out the door to the car. Later, Trieu would confide that Duy expressed two concerns during their initial interview: first, he told Trieu that the people in the countryside were not supposed to become too familiar with Americans; and, second, he asked if we were good tippers.
Bill and I had really thought that our village would be easy to find. After all, it was located right alongside Highway 9, about halfway between Dong Ha and Cam Lo, and could be distinguished by at least three prominent landmarks. The river, the Song Cam Lo, cut in close to the highway in our area; there was a major tributary and a bridge just east of where our compound stood; and a well-established trail ran north-south into the village and just across the highway from the prominent hill our compound was on. Also, a fairly large one-room schoolhouse stood only a couple hundred yards down (or so I had remembered), and to the left (west) side of the trail that led into the village. From looking at maps, we even knew the name of the overall village complex, Thon Vinh Dai, and of the actual hamlet we were in, Cam Hieu. Finding the area, however, turned out to be tougher than we expected.
Highway 9 was just a dirt road in our day. Now it is completely paved. We expected that. We didn't expect the area to be so heavily built up, especially along the southern side of the road, nor did we expect the vegetation to have grown up so high that it makes the river hard to see from the highway. We especially didn't expect that the major tributary that used to bisect the highway just east of our compound would have dried up into a small stream or that all the bridges now would be even with the roadbed and thereby easy to miss even as you were driving over them. In short, all our prominent landmarks were gone, and we began by overshooting our old ville by at least five kilometers.
The first place we stopped looked like it could have been it. There was high ground on the southern side of the road and a prominent trail leading down into a village on the northern side. There was also a small store at the trailhead, alongside the road. We stopped in, and Trieu showed a man there my photos and asked him if this was the place where Marines had been stationed. The man replied that, no, this was not the place, and that the village we wanted was about five kilometers back to the east. He did, however, profess to recognize some of the people in my photos.
We turned around and set out back the way we had come. After what seemed like four or five kilometers, we stopped again at a place that seemed likely. The people there, however, said we were still about a kilometer short of our destination. Third time is a charm. Sure enough, about one kilometer farther east, there was a prominent hill on the southern side of the road and a trail leading off into a village on the northern side. Suddenly, Bill and I both realized that we were there.
What had thrown us, I think, was the proximity of a large brick factory that now sits along the southern side of the road on the high ground just east of the bridge and of the hill where Papa Three had once stood. Somehow, Papa Three's immediate environs still haunted my imagination as a place of the pastoral. It had proved impervious to western influences back then. I never imagined that industrialization could encroach upon it, but it has. The dislocations that industrialization can bring, moreover, further seemed evident in our old ville. On the hill, where only our compound had stood, now sits a shantytown of sorts, a collection of improvised cinder block and tin buildings, many of which are open to one side, suggesting a cross between traditional Vietnamese houses and a squatters' camp.
People who go back in adulthood to revisit their childhood haunts typically report finding places to be much smaller than they had remembered. Bill and I both, I think, had the opposite experience. One of the prominent landmarks we were looking for was a one-room cinderblock schoolhouse, with a tin roof, that had stood, as I remembered it, on the left side of the trail only a couple hundred yards north of the highway. The school building was gone, but as we would discover later, its foundation was still there, and a new family had even built a house on it. But that site turned out to be at least five hundred yards, if not a little more, down the trail from the highway. Similarly, as I recalled, splitting off from that main north-south trail there was another trail that led off to the east, down to the main part of the village and to the river. I had remembered that trail as relatively short. It too turned out to be at least three hundred yards long. In fairness to myself, I had remembered that rice paddies lined both sides of this trail, leading up to the tree line and the edge of the village proper. The area was still open, and the indented squares were still visible, but the rice paddies long ago seem to have dried up and been overgown with grass.
The original Papa Three (before a bad flood had forced us to relocate on the high ground to the south) had stood in an open area north of the highway; just to the west of the trail and within a stone's throw of the schoolhouse to the north. That much I knew was true; one of my 1967 Kodachrome slides confirms it. But I also had thought that our pre-flood compound had stood only a couple hundred yards from the highway. When I saw the house that now stands on the schoolhouse site, I realized my mistake. The original Papa Three had stood at least five hundred yards from the highway and the school was less than a hundred feet beyond that. As for that original Papa Three site, a large copse of bamboo and elephant grass has reclaimed the area. Our guides made it known that we were not to walk off the trails and into the bush. (It would be bad for the tourist trade if one of us were to step on one of the mines or trip one of the booby traps either side forgot to remove.) But even if our guides hadn't objected, the brush looked virtually impenetrable, and the heat and humidity were winning out over any sentimental attachment I may have been feeling. Hence, we walked on by with nary a backward glance.
Our first stop was the site of the former school. The foundation and concrete floor of the old schoolhouse building are still evident. An older woman, her two grown sons, and the wife and baby of one of the sons now live there. They built their house on one end of the foundation and now use most of the old floor as a kind of patio. They seemed unfriendly and even apprehensive at first, perhaps because they didn't have a clear title or even permission to build on that site. After a few minutes of explanations about who we were and why we were there, however, they seemed to relax and even consented to show us around a bit.
Apparently, one wall of the original structure had still been standing when they arrived, and they built on to it, using it to form the back of their house. Taking us around back, they showed us where one of the original blackboards had been. Fragments of it were still affixed to the wall. They either couldn't or wouldn't tell us what had happened to the original schoolhouse building. They had only been living there three years, they said, so they also professed not to know anyone in my photos. But they did point us toward a house that stood at the end of the east-west trail, near the edge of the village. A long-time resident of the village, an old woman, lived in that house, they said.
As I wrote in that 1988 memoir "Tiger Papa Three," the people of Thon Vinh Dai had seemed aloof and largely indifferent to our presence in 1967-the result, we would learn, of a well-entrenched VC infrastructure. A few of the children and some of the PFs, who had no choice but to associate with us, were the only real exceptions. One of the principal lures that tour promoters, ideologues, and even Vietnam's National Administration of Tourism dangle in front of us these days is the image of a warm, friendly, and outgoing people who especially like Americans. That longtime resident, the old woman we visited next, was the only one to live up to that billing. Everyone else we visited, including the other members of the old woman's family, seemed standoffish and more than a little suspicious of us and our motives. In short, I found myself feeling the way I had felt when I was there the first time-unwelcome.
But not at that one woman's house. She reacted with exuberant delight to our presence. After Duy explained who we were, she literally danced from one of us to the other, chattering excitedly in Vietnamese, and squeezing each of our arms. She seemed to live with two middle-aged daughters and a slightly younger son in a traditional Vietnamese house, one of the few we saw without electricity. The daughters were reserved. The son may have actually been hostile. While I was off to the side taking pictures, he came up to me. Pointing in the direction of the hill on which our compound had stood, he said, "You leave here," or "You live here." I'm still not sure which. (Bill didn't witness the exchange, but he thought the guy had been friendly.) In an effort to show my appreciation, I offered to take some Polaroid snapshots that the family could keep. The old woman insisted on first changing into her best blouse. I offered to take a Polaroid of the son. He refused.
Before we left, of course, we showed the old woman and her family my photos. They recognized only one person, Trung-si (sergeant) Quang, the PF leader and, ironically, the only PF we had really known by name. They pointed over toward the northern corner of the village and said he was still there. The next day, Trieu confided that, as soon as he heard that Quang was alive and still living in the village, Duy reached up and pinched him on the back of the arm, a gesture Trieu interpreted as meaning that we were not to go looking for our old ally. We said our goodbyes and moved on.
I had thought that Bill would ask to go see Quang. As the Marine compound leader, Bill had been closer to him than any of the rest of us. Many an evening, as Bill remembered it, he and Quang had gone down to a little café in the village and had drunk "33" beer together. Right after we set out from the old lady's house, however, Bill dropped back to where I was hanging back, still taking pictures, and told me that Trieu had taken him aside and said we had to keep moving. When I asked him if it was because the old lady's son didn't want us here, Bill said, no, that it was because Duy didn't want the people out in the countryside becoming too familiar with Americans. Perhaps we should have balked at Duy's lead, but our concern for Trieu and his position, the heat, and the realization that is indeed their country now all kept us in check.
Since that day, I have given a lot of thought to why the authorities may be trying to discourage contact between Americans and people out in the countryside. The answer, I've decided, may have less to do with any residual bitterness toward us, or even toward Vietnamese who supported us, than something we had learned about Saigon. The official population is set at six million, we were told, but the actual population is about eight million. Our old village, on the other hand, had clearly lost population since 1967, and more than one of the people in my photos, we would learn, had long since moved to Saigon. I have to wonder whether other villages, too many villages, have suffered the same fate, especially now that electricity and television are bringing images of a wider world and a different way of life to a receptive younger generation. The authorities are probably hoping to stem that tide, or at least to slow it down. Then there is also the question of embarrassment. Governments everywhere want to impress tourists, and depressed, half-emptied villages project an image of a country uncomfortably caught between two worlds-a pastoral world the Vietnamese have clearly outgrown and a world of western-style progress that, as of yet, seems "powerless to be born."
Duy himself, probably hoping to get us away from people, suggested that we walk down to the river to see the spot where we used to have to cross in small boats. The tall, thick hedgerows that I had remembered as lining the path down to the river are still there. As we walked along the path almost thirty-four years later, still unable to see what lay beyond the bamboo and the brush on both sides, I found myself wondering if it were indeed really safe. Finally, we found ourselves at our old crossing point, a set of concrete steps that led down into the river. We found the steps fairly well covered with dirt, leaves, and other debris. Also, the brush had grown up dramatically on both sides. We were clearly the first to walk down those steps in a good while. The small-boat ferry service no longer exists. There is a nice new suspension bridge now, just a few hundred yards east of the village.
From the river, we doubled back the way we had come, retracing our steps back to Highway 9. I stopped just long enough to photograph a small group of kids who had gotten the word and were following us by then. Forewarned by the travel agency that we should bring something to give the kids, I had brought some pairs of inexpensive sunglasses (three for a dollar at our local Dollar Store). I gave each kid a pair and photographed the kids wearing them. Duy, I could tell, didn't like that. He asked if he could have one for his daughter. I told him I had plenty and continued with my give-away.
Duy, for some reason, didn't seem to mind our visiting and mixing with the people who live in the shantytown that has grown up on the hill where our compound had been-perhaps because he thought these people were newcomers. Most were, but when, at my insistence, we showed my photographs, a man in his thirties claimed that one of my photos was of his mother and younger brother. Another man, who looked to be old enough, claimed that he had been a PF. He took us over to the eastern side of a row of buildings and pointed up a blind alley, where a new building now sat, perpendicular to the others, indicating that that was where our compound had sat. Walking up through that alley would have involved trekking through some formidable-looking mud and brush and what, ostensibly, were people's back yards. Unlike in our day, when we acted as if we owned the whole country, the Papa Three hill looked and felt like private property now. We did try walking up the hill on the right, the western side, but likewise found our way blocked, this time by heavy brush-and going off trails and roads, of course, was supposed to be a "no-no" for us. We were at least on the periphery of the old compound, perhaps even within the perimeter we had marked out with barbed wire. That was enough, all things considered.
Over the years, I've always assumed that I had little or no exposure to Agent Orange. The dramatic contrast in foliage between now and then, however, has left me wondering. In 1967, for whatever reason, the hills south of Highway 9, including our own hill, had had only low scrub-rather like what you find in arid areas such as Southern California. The hills behind our compound even seemed eroded and were crisscrossed with a lot of small gullies and ravines, most of which had little or no vegetation. Today, the area seems lush with vegetation.
My first thought was the difference may have been due to Agent Orange; perhaps the hills south of the highway had been sprayed long before we got there. I mentioned this theory to a Vietnam-veteran friend recently. He told me that he had researched this issue long ago, when he and his wife were first considering having children, and that he had found records indicating that the Marine Corps didn't use defoliants in I-Corps until 1969, long after both of us had left the area. Also, I asked a biologist whether anything short of chemical defoliants could have accounted for such a dramatic difference in the foliage between 1967 and 2002. He said that heavy bombing, leading to extensive brush fires, could have left the area looking arid and eroded. Still, I have to wonder whether the records my friend consulted were complete or whether the Army command structure-the Army was in charge, after all-had indeed sprayed the area without the Marine Corps' knowledge or consent.
Regardless of when we actually started using defoliants in Quang Tri Province, the effects, according to Duy, have been horrendous. The statistics Duy trotted out made me realize that underneath his mild-mannered tour guide exterior lurks the heart of a party loyalist. At least 16,000 people in Quang Tri Province remain affected, he said. He further claimed to know one family in which five of seven children are paralyzed as a result of Agent Orange contamination. Similarly, according to Duy, there have been 5,500 land mine casualties throughout the province since the war's end. The numbers may be exaggerated, but the problems themselves do put an ironic spin on Duy and Trieu's translation of "Thon Vinh Dai," our village's name-"large village of tranquility and long life."
It had certainly not turned out to be an area of tranquility or even of longevity for us. In the short six or seven months that I was there, we were flooded out and had to rebuild on the high ground to the south of Highway 9; we were strafed by one of our own gunships; twice, while on patrol, we were almost killed by our own harassment and interdiction fire; we took sniper and harassing fire, both out on patrol and in our compound; we fished a dead, badly decomposed Marine out of the river; we witnessed a truck hit a command-detonated mine almost in front of our compound, much to our embarrassment; we fought with our PFs, who had rebelled, refusing to go out on patrol with us, especially on the northern side of the river; and we were ambushed, on December 4, 1967. As a result of all that, five Papa Three Marines had been wounded and one had been killed. Three PFs had been wounded, two fatally, and one had been killed outright. Another Marine had been medevaced for amoebic dysentery. Most of us, in visiting the Papa Company "rear" in Dong Ha, had had to run for the bunkers because of incoming artillery. And, on Christmas day, 1967, we had suffered the indignity of having to watch an NVA or Main Force VC platoon saunter along unimpeded, out in the open some seven or eight hundred yards to the north of our compound; it was the Christmas truce after all. The ironic thing was that I had had to fight to get to see some of the war; and, when I finally left Papa Three (on the second or third day of January, 1968), I felt that I had indeed seen as much as I cared to see. As I would later write in "Tiger Papa Three," recalling the words to one of the old "Jodies" we used to chant while double-timing, "Got what I asked for, got what I came for;/I got Marine Corps!"
And then I was back, after a hiatus of 34 years. I found it all difficult to fathom. I had expected it all to be terribly moving and to be swept with waves of nostalgia for the "way we were." Instead, I felt numb and even strangely dissociated from the experience. I suppose that was because I had always felt that we just didn't belong there in the first place; and the way things worked out, I really didn't feel any more welcome the second time around. There was that. And, also, the place we had been to in 1967, I realized, was more existential than physical. Every thing had changed in the interim. But, most importantly, we had too. Talk about not being able to go home again! Thomas Wolfe had nothing on us.
No trip back to greater Thon Vinh Dai would be complete, of course, without at least setting foot on the northern bank of the Song Cam Lo, the river of our discontent. Over half of our Tactical Area of Responsibility (TAOR)-the area we were supposed to patrol regularly and thoroughly-lay on that northern side. To make matters worse, the only way to get there in our day was to cross two or three at a time in small boats rowed by an elderly man and woman. I used to wonder why the enemy never took advantage of our obvious vulnerability, opening fire on us while we were out in the middle. I realize now that, despite their reputation for ruthlessness, they probably didn't want to risk hitting the innocent old people who had no choice but to row us across. Still, while we always got across safely, that river would nevertheless occasion our downfall. Without warning, our PFs, one day in the early fall of 1967, would sit down just short of our crossing point, refusing to go across. "Beaucoup VC" was their common sense excuse. No amount of pleading, cajoling, or threatening would get them across the river on that day or for the rest of my time at Papa Three. We Marines began patrolling the northern side of the river alone, usually in groups of five or six. So much for "combined action."
I can't say that I blamed the PFs overly much for their refusal to cross the river. They were only part-time soldiers. Most nights, they slept out in the village with their families and away from our protection. (More to the point perhaps, according to Trieu, most PFs were VC sympathizers and a good many were active VC.) And that northern village was a scary place. Generally, only kids and old people were in evidence over there, and they all kept their distance. Finally, on December 4, 1967, our patrol was ambushed out on the far northeastern corner of our TAOR, at the edge of the village that had always seemed so strange and forbidding. One Marine was killed and two were wounded, one seriously. Fortunately, it was a bright, sunny day and our headquarters was able to get two helicopter gunships. The enemy was quickly routed-but not before one of the gunships mistakenly fired on our own reaction force, seriously wounding another Marine. No PFs had been along that day.
In returning to our compound, the surviving members of the patrol came across two VC who were attempting to hide in a rice paddy. Both surrendered without incident. During their interrogation, however, we learned that our PFs had known what they were talking about. There were indeed "beaucoup VC" on the northern side of the river. Our prisoners were main force VC, members of an entire psychological operations company that had North Vietnamese advisers and whose mission was surprisingly similar to ours-that is, to train the local VC and to win the hearts and minds of the local populace.
The local VC, one of our prisoners confided, had been wanting to ambush us for some time, but the NVA advisers had been counseling against it. The reason, I now suspect, was the coming Tet Offensive; having more important objectives in mind, they didn't want to risk calling undue attention to themselves. Finally, however, the locals had worn down their northern advisers and had gotten their way. The ambush had not gone as well as they had hoped, even though our patrol had virtually invited it by taking a break in the same hut we had repeatedly used for that purpose. As one member of that patrol remembers it, our company commander had literally ordered us to set a pattern in an effort to entice the enemy. I honestly don't recall, but, if that recollection is not true, it should be. Of course, no one was left any the wiser about the impending Tet Offensive. But we were all left with a healthy respect for that northern side of the river. Imagine, then, what it felt like to find myself, some thirty-four years later, walking calmly and peacefully across a new steel suspension bridge into that same area. It was like stepping through the looking glass in more ways than one. In our day, our village, on the southern side of the river, had been the more prosperous and the more heavily populated of the two. Now the reverse was true. Our old ville had clearly lost population, while the ville on the other side of the river seemed to have grown and even to have prospered. The Catholic church was gone, but in its place stood one of the new two-story stucco schools a foreign construction firm is building all over Vietnam. There seemed to be more houses. There were also several shops, including a small photo shop complete with a one-hour processing machine. Does the relative prosperity of the northern village have anything to do with their steadfast commitment to the Communist cause? Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps it is just an accident of demographics. But journalist David Lamb, who has lived in Vietnam for several years, in his new book Vietnam, Now, does decry the obstinate refusal of the victors to forgive and forget in Vietnam. That same obstinacy certainly kept us from Trung-si Quang. I suspect that it also played some role in the relative fortunes of the villages to the north and south of the river. The irony is that the people to the south, in my experience, were never more than nominally on our side, and most were probably sitting on the fence. But insofar as the other side was concerned, I suspect, if you weren't for them, you were against them.
(One aside on Trung-si Quang before moving on: Later that day, after we got clear of Duy, Trieu volunteered the opinion that Quang must have been a "good man" or Bill and I would be dead. He said that because, in his experience, 90 percent of Popular Force soldiers were VC sympathizers or active VC. Trieu was probably overstating the case. But I've always suspected that our PFs had at least worked out a modus vivendi with the other side, and I have long known that we owed our survival at Papa Three to dumb luck rather than tactical competence.)
Duy didn't seem to mind our loitering on the northern side of the river. We took a leisurely stroll along the river to the west. When we got to the new school, we noticed that one of the concrete posts to the fence that had surrounded the old churchyard was still standing. The top, however, was rough and had a couple of twisted iron rods sticking out of it. A crucifix had no doubt adorned it. Bill asked me how much farther I wanted to walk. We had come there with the half-baked idea of trying to retrace that December 4 th patrol route. Once we were there, both of us realized that too much had changed; we would never find the site of the ambush. Besides, it was hot, and wandering around in search of our past suddenly seemed a lost cause and an imposition on Trieu and even Duy. I told Bill that I was ready to go if he was.
I suppose I had greatly romanticized my CAP experience over the years, even going so far as to think of it in Conradian terms as the "farthest point of navigation and the culminating point of my experience." It seemed, as Conrad's Marlow says, "to throw a kind of light" on my subsequent life; or, to paraphrase a passage from Vietnam novelist Tim O'Brien, whenever I would try to account for how I got from "there to here, it was to that village and to my CAP experience that I inevitably returned. But to say it the way we would have said it back then, the truth is that "it didn't mean nothin'." I think it was that realization that ultimately made the trip so depressing.
On our last evening in country, Trieu , who lives in Danang, took us to a little outdoor café where he often spent his evenings. I think it was there (it should have been there) that, his tongue loosened by our second or third round of beer, Trieu told us how unhappy he was about how the Americans, in the end, had simply abandoned the Vietnamese who had helped them. He urged us to write to former Marines like Chuck Robb and Oliver North. I didn't have the heart to tell him that neither Robb nor North had the influence to right the wrongs of the past. Still, it was pleasant sitting out on that sidewalk, talking and drinking beer and watching people coming home from work.
Later, at the airport, I slipped Trieu and the driver envelopes containing their tips. Trieu hugged us both and wished us a safe trip back. We checked in and passed through security. As we were taxiing away from the terminal in the dark, I looked out at the lights of the terminal receding in the distance. It can't be the same terminal building, I realize, but something about it all seemed eerily familiar. The lights looked the same. The mixed feelings were similar. Just for a few seconds, thirty-four years seemed to slip away. I imagined that this was still Danang Air Force Base and that I was still young and leaving to go find my future.
The chills hit on the last leg of our trip, the flight from San Francisco to St. Louis. Suddenly, I began to shiver and to shake, almost uncontrollably. I grabbed one of the thin airline blankets, but I couldn't get warm enough. Malaria crossed my mind. But I had been taking an antibiotic as a preventative, and it seemed too soon for something like that to show up. Fortunately, the chills seemed to ease up within an hour. I felt wrung out when we landed, but I rationalized that as just the effects of jet lag and not enough sleep. I tried to tell myself that whatever had caused my chills was only transient and that I would be fine after a good, long nap.
But the chills started again after I got home, and the diarrhea began. My wife took my temperature. It was 103-point-something. The diarrhea never became bad, but my temperature kept cycling up and down. At one point later in the day, I must have been mildly delirious. My wife asked a question, and even I realized that my answer wasn't making much sense. But I couldn't seem to make it come out otherwise. When, the next morning, the diarrhea and fever were still there, we set out for the emergency room. A round of the antibiotic Cipro fixed me up in short order, although I continued to feel out of sorts and generally tired for fully two weeks. As it turns out, I had contracted Campylobacter, a bacterial form of food poisoning commonly caused by fecal contamination. According to my wife, it had been a statement of sorts. Once again, Vietnam had told me to "eat shit and die." She had a point.
Because I didn't really play sports as a kid, I never learned to be a good loser. I guess that is what is behind the conflicted feelings I still have about Vietnam today. I have known, ever since my undergraduate days, that we intervened on the wrong side and that, by all the traditional standards, Vietnam could not be called a just war. The means were horribly disproportionate to the ends we sought. To the world, it really did look as if America, a modern industrial society, was unleashing all its technological might to destroy the last vestige of the pastoral world, largely because we thought we could and because it was there.
The terrible irony is that Vietnam in the sixties probably was the closest realization of that myth left in the modern world. But Vietnam is not that way now and it never will be again. We couldn't prevail militarily, but culturally and economically, the war continues, and we're winning. This time around, our weapons aren't B-52s or M-16s or Agent Orange. They are much more potent. They are MTV, the Internet, and Honda Dream Motorbikes. A bit of alternative Shakespeare comes to mind: "Rightly to be great/Is not to stir without great argument,/But greatly to find quarrel in a straw/When [markets are] at the stake."
Not long after I got back two developments helped me put return to Vietnam and my war in some perspective. The Ken Burns "Civil War" series was being rerun on PBS, and our country was about to embark upon yet another war. Our Civil War, of course, was a horrible bloodbath; Vietnam pales in comparison. But watching bits and pieces of the "Civil War" series again, I found myself envying the soldiers of that war in at least one respect. Lincoln found a way to ennoble the Civil War and to make it about a universal principle and not just about states' rights or preserving the union. Because of that, I found myself wondering if some of the veterans, the northern ones at least, in later life didn't find themselves feeling the way that Shakespeare's Henry the Fifth predicts that his soldiers will someday feel-that they had indeed cohered into a "band of brothers" and that together they had prevailed in a cause more important than themselves. The World War II generation certainly felt that way. I could wish that the current generation of young soldiers and Marines would come away from Iraq and Afghanistan feeling that way again and not like they have merely assisted in the dirty work of empire. But I doubt they will.
Graham Greene and I may have both been wrong about Vietnamese culture, but Greene was more right than he knew about the American tendency to meddle in situations we don't fully understand. The Vietnamese have changed; we haven't.