The visitor’s center they’ve built at the end of the old Khe Sanh airstrip site is, as might be expected, dedicated to telling a certain story with a certain slant. Actually, that’s putting it charitably. I was warned that the center was a propaganda exercise, but if the aim of propaganda is to support a certain narrative, this particular example wasn’t quite ready to leave the bench. It was a dismal failure, even by Eastern European standards. The exhibit mainly consisted of a sample of photos of unknown provenance (and apparently taken in areas far from Khe Sanh), illegible military-style maps of troop movements and some laughable captions that seemed written precisely to demean the suffering of both sides. The Americans were cowering terriers betrayed by their government, while the Vietnamese were well-fed heroes with armor-plated skin and fierce resolve. The actual facts differ over a spectrum as broad as daylight, depending on the books you read, but no account of war written by respectful and serious people reduces things to such cliche. Only an ideologue would write such garbage and only an illiterate moron would pretend to believe it. Sad, and, I like to think, a relic of the quickly fading past.
Slightly irritated with Mr. Chao for the first time because he’d told me visiting the actual site would be impossible, I set off on my own. In fact, you simply walk around the perimeter fence of the visitor’s center and cut through a few rows of coffee bushes until you reach the site. I walked for an hour, listening to the birds and the lowing of a pair of water buffalo a woman had set loose to graze in the overgrown field. It was about 8 in the morning and the mist was still thick as soup up there. The stereo at the visitor’s center, where a friendly Viet man in a leather jacket waited to hawk pitiful, cheap souvenirs and tickets to the site, was blasting out a spectacularly bizarre karaoke version of Scarborough Fair. Though it could ostensibly have been done for the benefit of tourists afflicted with weird war nostalgia, I rather think it was the bored, solitary attendant getting ready to sing his ears deaf to the empty parking lot. The eerie casiotone version wound down, echoes falling flat in the vast, cloudy, liminal space. This was the kind of place one would expect an alien spaceship to land. Indeed, the first Chinooks would have fit the bill for Ho’s grandfather, squatting on his hillside. He would’ve watched with that same half-annoyed, half-permissive look the guys who gather in clumps to work along the side of the road today give to excessively loud children and foreigners on motorbikes. He might have stood up as the thing waddled in to squat a landing in the red dust, then he’d have wandered off down the hill to find someone to tell about this untellable machine.
He might have been believed, but there’s no telling for sure. The Chinook welded to the ground of the visitor’s center with cement, like a mafia schmatta waiting to get dropped in the East River, is an unlikely enough contraption when presented in actual fact. I thought a lot about this helicopter, dragged up here like one of those sorry, mangy bears the Czechs love to cage in the old moats of their castles for tourists to gawk at. I thought about the unlikeliness of the thing and wondered what it was I had expected to find up here. Dogtags and bullet holes? Tigers and punji pits? Why had so much of my growing up been tangentially affected by myths and well-told tales of this far off and unlucky place? From Rambo to Kurtz, McNamara’s lines to Hanoi Jane’s curves, the songs and movies of another generation reduced into vaguely distrusted Asian supermarkets at places like Fairfax Circle, which even the nice kids at my high school believed to be an outlet for dog meat and unsavory insects. Bruce Springsteen’s Galveston Bay and Billy Joel’s Goodnight Saigon on a skippy record player. They’d all conspired to map an impossible terrain over Quang Tri, lent gravity by bloodshed and the guilt of politicians and storytellers who somehow made their own personal failures the defining paradoxes of a generation. In reality, there was never more to it than some people tending coffee bushes and checking their floors for poisonous insects. In reality there was never more to it than a forcefully revealed kinship, a fraternity that spawned a thousand imitators. Before all that there was this peculiar red soil, which absorbed the blood of men and animals and absorbed their explosives and their excrement and remains no more profound than any other good bit of earth where someone can grow an ephemeral crop of tomatoes or leave a kid to play for an hour with an anthill and some imagination. Now they use it to grow coffee, and volunteer groups are sometimes called in to remove an old, unexploded shells.
In a place that maybe was the 50 yard line of the old airstrip, I stopped to listen to the birds and the moaning water buffalo again. I thought about the chinook and figured that it really didn’t matter what story that thing was being forced to tell. Its tank was empty and there it will rust at the top of the jungle and eventually, no one will care that men’s hands built the thing. It will rust away to nothing and be absorbed back into that peculiarly red soil.
So our rusty ideas beat their rusty ideas. Our hippy folk rock and roll beat their force-fed Tchaikovsky. Our internet trumped their collective farms. Every discussion of this war inevitably devolves into an expounded dogma or an arm-flexing dialectic, a defining characteristic, a mansion on a hill, a skeleton in the closet. I’m sorry anyone had to be here to fight, as the living seems hard enough without that. If that just seems too trite, there are always the questions posed by the malthusian logic of communist Czechoslovakia selling deadly poison to war profiteers at DuPont, who engineer it into something for the American government to dump on agricultural land to starve a nation of communist Vietnamese farmers. War is the promised hell that stays with all humans as they take a part in doing things like that to each other from the height of airplanes, with sharpened bamboo stakes, from behind howling mortar tubes and from out of dark tunnels – we’ve seen the movies and read the stories that prove the hell is right here on earth every once in a while. It passes, thankfully, and people forgive and go on living. But I hope there is a special version waiting for those who profit from these foul realities from behind the safety of books and labs and boardrooms. When we left, there was really nothing more I wanted to see of Khe Sanh, and Mr. Chao didn’t ask what I thought.
As we twisted down the path along the river, every corner shook loose a cliche – a tightened bandana, a surfing airborne infantryman, a man in black pajamas huffing diesel fuel down a path at night. They rolled around in my head and spilled out, one by one, onto the passing tarmac. Every other place can only be better for having this example buried in the past as a warning and a history.
Down the coast to the outlet of the Ben Hai river and the Vinh Moc tunnels. Built during the war to shelter villagers from air raids meant to disrupt the supply chains over the DMZ, the tunnels burrow into the clay to a miserable depth of 30 meters. People lived in the complex until 1972, the posters say, although it doesn’t explain why a farming village would be built on the edge of a cliff and require anti-aircraft emplacements. According to the visitor’s center text, the people would tend their fields until an alarm signaled an approaching plane, then they’d dive in the tunnels, slipping down the passages where they’d dug wells, stored food, established clinics, had babies, caught fevers and died – all underground. I’m tired of all this war porn and honestly not impressed by the tunnels. I think that if I had heard that alarm bell ringing, I would rather have gone like some pasty-faced, coward Buddha through the windswept pines of the rugged coast until the lights went out. There’s no life underground, wondering if it’s the pounding of friendly artillery from distant Con Co or bombs from an F-8 drilling down through the clay. It’s weird that many people who have lived through war seem not to take pride in the victory of survival as do many people who haven’t had to suffer that indignity. Maybe it’s because at some point each of them really did wander out of the tunnels and ended lost forever on a lonely coast, far from prying eyes. Trimming their wicks, hunting among stones, refusing to just live.
Driving back from the tunnels along the coast, a couple of local guys on scooters veered into our lane and aimed right for us. They were playing chicken with Mr. Chao. It was impossible to tell if they were getting any pleasure from it. We didn’t show fear or surprise, anyway, just steered off the road and came to a stop as they flew past, stone-faced. They didn’t shout or throw anything, as their primped little European counterparts would have done, and they didn’t circle back for a fight, as their American or Brit counterparts would have done. That was their style of being the same, to go on without showing that they cared. These are the people who make up wars when they’re older and un-grown up. Cocky and posturing, not burning and a-looting. Excess youth. They wore the mindless look of a dog tearing into a rabbit it has caught or a malicious child incinerating insects with a magnifying glass.
“You ok?” asked Mr. Chao
“Yes,” I replied. “No problem, easy!”
He grinned weakly in the mirror at my reference. That was not something he’d wanted me to see.
“The young men here sometimes are crazy.” He said,and eased the honda back onto the smooth pavement of Highway 1, gunning it for Hue.