The Unwilling Soldier

27 Feb

The Cu Chi tunnels, twenty miles or so outside Saigon, make the trenches of Flanders look like R&R in Bangkok. More than 200 kilometres of them wind their way through laterite clay which sets as hard as concrete.

Guerillas carved them out using hoes, transporting the soil by hand, and no single individual knew the routes which connected all the separate sets of tunnels.

The Great Escape? Amateurs! For the first couple of years of the war, guerillas emerged from their trapdoors straight into an American base.

The video gives an idea of their size, and their utter concealment, better than numbers alone. Most of the tunnels are between 50 and 80cm wide, and just over a metre or so high.

At pressure points, they are narrower and lower: American “tunnel-rats” sometimes had to widen them using knives before they could squeeze through.

Even the upper level, only a couple of metres below the surface, are cramped, hot and and claustrophobic, even for someone Z’s size, even with exits to the sky every twenty metres or so, even without airstrikes up above, even when you know that the place is clear of snakes. Once in, you cannot turn around.

Ho’s story is pretty typical of a Cu Chi guerilla, a Viet Cong veteran who fought in the tunnel system which laced the Iron Triangle just outside Saigon. Perhaps the only unusual thing about him is that he survived.

“I am born in 1952. And I am Cu Chi guerilla for five years. From when I turn eighteen, in 1970,” he says. “I am born in Cu Chi, and I fight in Cu Chi.”

Some VC fighters, like Ho, were based in them for years, frustrating all American attempts to flush them out with CS gas, napalm, or chemical weapons.

The tiny, well camouflaged trapdoors and connecting tunnels were surrounded with an exotic range of sharpened punji stake traps, from tiger traps to fish cages to vicious rolling spikes, which Ho still demonstrates with the verve of one who built and placed them.

“You want to kill, or injure?” I ask. “When you build them.” I mime death, and injury.

“Injure,” he says. “Always injure.”

Less hypnotised by Ho’s tale than that of Tree, who we met in Cambodia, Z spies a gutted tank and scampers at it. “Mum! Mum! It’s an M-41!”

We learnt at the Landmine Museum in Siem Reap that, to a smart tactician, an injured soldier is better than a dead one. They take more resources, tie up more staff, tie up more vehicles, which is where the idea of landmines came about.

When an invader got into the tunnels, however, killing was required. A favoured method was running the soldier through with a sharpened spear as he moved through a trapdoor between levels, his arms above his head to let his shoulders through.

The body would hang there, bobbing, blocking the only exit, so the comrades who followed behind could neither extricate him nor pass him. They had to crawl out backwards to meet an unpleasant fate.

Three out of four of the Cu Chi guerillas died. (Ho lost three of his nine brothers.) Malaria, dysentery and battle wounds were the major killers, although most fighters were anaemic, malnourished and infected with parasites.

You joined the guerillas only at eighteen? I ask Ho, not sure I have heard him correctly.

“Yes,” he says, giving me a pitying look. “At eighteen you are guerrilla or the army comes for you. I didn’t want to join the army, so…”

Raised on a cinematic diet of fanatical Charlies and gooks leaping out of the jungle or howling in human waves, it hadn’t really dawned on me that many of the Southern guerillas were not particularly keen to fight.

With us, as we trek round, is a gentleman from Melbourne, on a trip home to Vietnam, with his wife and daughters. It is his first visit in thirteen years, her first since they left the country in 1980 ahead of reeducation and labour camps.

They have spent several frustrating days on buses trying to locate the street where she used to live. But Saigon has changed beyond all recognition. Nothing is the same.

“He was doing well, had a business, and he was quite old during the war, say thirty-five or forty,” his daughter explains. “So every time they put the draft age up, he added another year to his papers.”

And, here he is, in his 70s, crawling through the tunnels of Cu Chi on an ineffably Communist day out, complete with black and white propaganda videos from the 60s and dodgy papier-mache models of noble-faced guerillas, before he returns to a Saigon as full of trading and capitalist vigour as it was before the war.

He seems happy. He has done well.

And Ho? How does he feel about Americans now? “It is a long time ago,” he says. “I try to forget.”

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