Filed under: Afghanistan and Pakistan
Yesterday I got back from a month in Viet Nam. That is why Khe Sanh is on my mind. A little reluctantly I visited the Khe Sanh battlefield located in the remote northwest corner of what was called South Viet Nam when I served there first as consciences objector to war as my alternate service and later as a continuing volunteer tasked to do community development from 1963-1967. A tiny museum tells the story of the Khe Sanh and there is a monument nearby built by the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam for Vietnamese who died in the fight. A Huey helicopter and disabled tank are among the few remains of what once focussed massive international attention. I did not see the airstrip but am told nothing will grow on or near that deserted spot. Today coffee trees grow on land where soldiers once dug in for the battle of the century.
While I was in Hanoi a long time friend invited me to an evening conversation with four Vietnamese students. It felt familiar. Forty years earlier I had many conversations with the ancestors of their cousins in the South. My host led the evening with one question, “Where were your parents during the American war.” Yes that is the way it is referred to. For the record the American war is the same war that US writers refer to as the Viet Nam war.
The American war is the final chapter of several epic Viet Nam conflicts that make Vietnamese history glow. The most recent Vietnamese victory set the stage for another moment of national pride, reunification in 1975. Before the Americans was the defeat of the Mongol invaders, several thrashings of the Chinese, the Indochina war to send the French home and finally the last great war, that interrupted the imperial reach of the United States.
My Vietnamese language skills, as rusty as they are, helped pave the way for conversations. These students like the dozens I had talked to in this trip betrayed doubt with glazed eyes when I told them I had been a civilian who worked with the an international voluntary organization. I suspect that the standard history texts in Viet Nam don’t reflect those nuances of identity. All of us were soldiers sent to kill Vietnamese. Their doubts about what I had done in Viet Nam did not, however, inhibit their willingness to respond to my colleague`s question, “Where was your father during the American war.?”
One said his father did not fight but was in some special support command. I didn’t ask too many questions about that. Another said that her father fought in the battles of Buon Ma Thuot, a highland city in the mountains of the south. A third indicated that his father got out of the military because of health conditions. And the fourth fought in the battle of Khe Sanh in 1967 and 68.
When the battle of Khe Sanh began in the fall of 1967 I had just resigned from International Voluntary Service to protest the war and left Viet Nam to find a better way to serve the Vietnamese people. As I returned to North America after two months of speaking about Viet Nam in Australia and New Zealand I was asked daily about Khe Sanh and the strategic implications of that battle. My answers were vague. I knew Khe Sanh was located near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) an arbitrary border established in 1955 by the big powers. The DMZ was set up for a temporary two year period and was supposed to be followed by a national election that would consider reunification and governance for all of Viet Nam. The Southern government with US support refused to cooperate in that democratic process. The language of the DMZ lives on in the royal city of Hue where I stayed in the DMZ Hotel before and after my Khe Sanh visit.
The battle for this remote outpost was always controversial. The US Marines who were headquartered 150 kilometres to the Southeast in Da Nang were assigned to the main battle from the American side. Parts of three North Vietnamese divisions fresh from their journey on the Ho Chi Minh trail only a few kilometres away attacked the base and a special forces unit nearby. The Marines never thought the base was worth protecting but US Commander General Westmoreland insisted.
US airplanes dropped thousands of tons of bombs in an effort to discourage their enemy. According to our sources during the entire war four tons of bombs fell for every citizen who lived in Quang Tri Province where Khe Sanh is located. For the first time North Vietnamese and Viet Cong units used artillery and tanks. On at least two occasions the main storage areas for U. S. ammunition were hit. The casualty figures for the defence of Khe Sanh are in dispute. Some estimate that 1000 Americans died in the multi month defence of Khe Sanh and North Vietnamese official sources say approximately 2500 of their own died, however US estimates, always very high for the enemy, run from 5500 to above 10,000. General Westmoreland left Viet Nam June 11, 1968 and a week later Khe Sanh was evacuated by the American forces.
For the Hanoi students and others their age Khe Sanh is now becoming a blip in the history of successful defence of the fatherland. And for me as I travel in the US and refer to my time in Viet Nam I never get asked about Khe Sanh any more. As I closed my conversation with those students in Hanoi I felt the synapses inside my brain stretching for the ground of meaning. I realized that Khe Sanh is my story more than their story. Khe Sanh has been transformed into a coffee field with a tiny museum to help visitors like me complete our past. Being there in the midst of those coffee trees, now in full bloom jogged my imagination.
Even now back in Canada I can taste those beans, with their unique Vietnamese flavour circling the globe as the medicine of peace reminding communities desperate for hope that new days do come. I see tattered peoples around the world savouring roasted Khe Sanh beans as part of an agape feast of reconciliation complete with sua dat (sweetened condensed milk) as Vietnamese have enjoyed their coffee for generations. I now know why I had to go to Khe Sanh. I have seen the other side and there is hope.
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