Thursday, February 21, 2013

Vietnam: Cu Chi Tunnels

I had every intention of prefacing this with a warning for the sensitive or veteran reader of this blog, but, looking back on my photos, I'm no longer convinced that this post need it.  Seeing everything at the Cu Chi Tunnels themselves was so much more intense in person, the jungle baring down on me with every step I took between the trees.  Seeing various sections of the forest barbed-wired off (because there are still bombs hidden in the ares behind them, and seeing death traps everywhere, was incredibly overwhelming.  I ended up having to break off from the group and our North Vietnamese guide who seemed to take pleasure in what he was showing us.

Having seen all those things; having pictured soldiers on both sides stumbling into traps laid by the others; having realized that the Vietnamese people still struggle with the aftermath of it all, still lose civilians from leftover traps and bombs; I cannot help but feel that nothing, absolutely nothing, is worth embarking on any path that could eventually lead to that.  No word spoken out of anger, no pride-driven act of stubbornness can be justified.  I'll even go so far as to say that, in the balance of it all, I cannot even allow for an act of self-defense.

This isn't my natural inclination.  I am incredibly vindictive by nature, wanting to respond with extreme force in the face of events I feel are wrong, but thinking back on Vietnam quells those instincts.  I hated every moment of this part of the trip, but I would highly recommend it to anyone who visits Vietnam.

The Viet Cong traversed via underground tunnels, equipped with many camouflaged holes that allowed them to catch  American forces unaware.  The Viet Cong employed many children for this task.  Contrary to popular belief, it is not likely that the children were pressed into service; the Viet Cong movement was even begun by a young girl who lost he father in the extensive bombing campaign of the area.

Tourists can go inside some of the tunnels these days, but, in order to account for the distinct difference in body size between today's tourist and that of the Vietnamese people in the 1960's, a large area around the opening has been opened.  I walked the tunnels for about 30 meters, but that was more than enough for me.  In order to fit, I had to walk bent at the waist and squatting a little in pitch darkness; it was incredibly uncomfortable, and I don't envy anyone who had to live like that.

This was the most shocking of the traps I saw, probably because I wasn't expecting it.  The idea was that someone would step on the camouflaged cover and fall through onto the spikes; the cover would continue to spin, hitting the person and pushing him further onto the spikes.

This is one of many traps that were made by individual families to protect their homes.  Each family had its own, distinct style.

In seeing these things, I had a hard time not labeling the residents of Cu Chi as monsters, noting that the traps seemed designed to cause the most pain possible, going beyond self-protection.  It seemed so extreme, so unnecessary, so blood-thirsty.  But then I remembered all the bombing campaigns and, worse, Agent Orange.  (I can hardly think of a more horrific weapon than Agent Orange.)

I know it's hard to see from this picture, but this is the residual crater from a B52 bomb, left some 50 years after it was first created.  That means that erosion and plant-growth have filled in the hole somewhat.  Even still, it's so steep and deep that it requires stairs to get up from the bottom.  Don't be mistaken, both sides that fought this war used extreme measures to do so.

Spike-traps hidden under ground certainly were gruesome weapons employed by the Viet Cong, but they had other options as well.  Many of the bombs dropped on the area never exploded, and they used that to their advantage.  By collecting and cutting them open, the Veit Cong could salvage the gunpowder from inside them, creating bombs of their own.  This was a very dangerous tactic, but that did not stop it from being effective.

Replicas of the Viet Cong cutting open bombs have been moved into an opened underground bunker so tourists can have an idea of what it was like for them to have to live and work underground.  Still, this is not a fully accurate representation, as the ceiling has been removed and heightened so tourists an have a more comfortable experience.  Furthermore, the bombs would not have been opened inside the bunker; the task was far to dangerous for that.  Bombs were sawed in half outside, a two person job in which one person would saw while the other constantly poured water on the bomb to keep it from become too hot and producing sparks.  The salvaged powder was then moved inside, where new bombs were made.

The homemade bombs were clearly effective.  After several lengthy bombing campaigns, American soldiers were able to move through the Cu Chi area on foot and in tanks, unaware of the resistance measures the locals had taken.  As a result, they were caught entirely off-guard by the attacks that came.  The results can be seen above.  The Viet Cong destroyed this tank with a well-placed bomb, created from other explosives designed to allow the tank through the jungle.  In a way, it's poetic, until you stop to think about the reality of the situation. 

Bombs were not the only thing salvaged by the Viet Cong.  Any tanks that were destroyed got picked clean, as you can see from the photo above.  One of the most important assets gained from tanks was rubber.  This rubber went to making shoes for the resistance fighters.

Pictured here are several tank-rubber shoes in varying sizes.  These are the normal, every day shoes, but when there was mud on the ground, they would switch their shoes to a type that was created to leave backward footprints in the mud.  This way, the Viet Cong could leave false trails throughout the jungle, often leading American soldiers into traps.

It's incredibly easy to want to vilify people surrounding the war.  People vilify the Americans (I've never heard the Australians get vilified, but that doesn't mean it doesn't happen.), the North Vietnamese, or those who didn't get involved.  But I'd like to propose that pointing fingers is entirely useless, and somewhat misses the true lesson that we should take from this.  I cannot clearly define a "good guy" and a "bad guy" in this war, nor can I clearly define a "winner" and a "loser", what with all the PTSD amongst American and Australian soldiers and unexploded bombs and mines across Vietnam that still regularly kill children.  The words of James Cameron came constantly to me in Cu Chi, echoing through my mind as I tried to process what I was seeing: "This is sad, very sad, only."  There is nothing that will ever happen that can justify this.  I'm sure my saying that will upset some people, and you are all entitled to your own opinion, but I beg you to think of everything that happened in Vietnam.  Research it, sear it into your mind, and use what you find to help you weigh your future decisions.