Sunday, April 29, 2012

Khe Sanh & The DMZ

The next day we bought onto a day long DMZ tour. As is often the case with such tourist packages it was poorly conducted from the beginning. The inclusive breakfast was pretty ordinary but worse still it was served in a terrible room. A long, narrow and dirty space with no windows that seemed to be housed within a former hospital ward…or a prison. Our guides were trying very hard to pretend that it was a restaurant. I tried to order a coffee and they didn’t have any apparently so I tried to order a coke. First I was given a warm can of some local weirdo soda, which I declined. I am all about exploring the wondrous mysteries of Vietnam cuisine, but I draw the line at exploring their bad interpretations of crappy Western confections. I was pretty grumpy about the whole situation. I explained to the guide that I could not understand why we had to eat such poor food in a country where there was superb food everywhere you went. You can get amazing local food whilst standing on a corner huddled under a tent or sidled up in a large crevasse in a wall section of some crumbly building. There wasn’t much she could do but look embarrassed. We both knew she was just doing her job. Somebody much higher up was responsible for this con-job tourist trap.

The main reason I signed on for this tour was so that I could go and see the former US Marine and later Air Cav base, Khe Sanh. It made its way into Vietnam War era consciousness because it was an isolated base like something from a Western movie. A frontier fort surrounded by thick jungle and the NVA. A siege unfolded as intelligence came back that one elite NVA division after another were staging in the surrounding jungle for an attack. LBJ made his chiefs of staff promise that they would hold Khe any cost. A base manned by a generation of marines so full of pride in their own institutionalised toughness that they didn’t even dig in properly. Most of their bunkers couldn't withstand a mortar round. I had read Michael Herr's 'Dispatches' in the weeks leading up to my visiting Khe Sanh. Herr starts the third chapter of his book with an in-depth section on Khe Sanh so I had the place and its war history richly drawn in my imagination. Visually it was a bit of an anti-climax when we actually got there after two & a half hours of slow climb through the Central Highlands. When the US forces finally abandoned the base they destroyed anything significant that might be used as propaganda by the NVA.

The remains of the old airstrip are fenced off to protect silly tourists like me from getting blown up by mines or unexploded bombs. Our guide told us that on average 50 Vietnamese people a month are killed or injured by mines and other live ordnance. After all these years the Vietnam war is still raging away for many people.

The most remarkable thing about the Khe Sanh site for me was the quiet. I guess one imagines that the ghostly reverb of past battles might still echo on the wind...and in fact I'm now going to go in a different direction to which I intended when I commenced this sentence, because I realise now there was a presence. In the quiet breeze rustling through the underbrush and tall grasses in the centre of the old base: the faint echo of all the fear and fighting...the immeasurable violence mixed with human traits— little displays of emotion by humans bound together in times of extreme adversity. But it's dominated by death...just death and its long painful memory drawn out on the wind like a wire or a bow drawn to breaking...quivering like that for years afterwards...all that energy and tension — all the lost dreams and lives flashed out of being. It was still there. I understand it now. Sad and lonely...something lost and confused walking mournful circles in the red soil beneath the clay filled mountainside.

Inside the Khe Sanh museum the walls are covered with childish propaganda displays. Photographs of Marines doing different things: climbing aboard a helicopter "US Marines panic to flee vicious death", digging latrine trenches "US Marines try to desperate escape futility of battle", on patrol in the DMZ "US Marines fall away in blind surrender at their panic stations" and on and on like that. I guess somehow I thought it would be like the Diggers and Johnny Turk. Telling each other that they were brave and noble even when they were doing unspeakable things. I re-read what I just wrote and it is merely a different brand of absurdity.

I found myself getting strangely annoyed at the propaganda. But why should I care if they lie to their people about what actually happened? If they glossed over a few facts here and there to tell the Great Story better. Do Australians do any different? All my Diggers are sun drenched warrior-poets falling over themselves to kill their enemies quickly and with respect. Frank and curious eyes full of love with hands of flaming steel. This mythologising is not a Vietnamese trait or an Australian, US or English trait. It is just a human trait.

The DMZ looks different today but it is all still out there...on an alternative frequency...humming away... madness.

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