The Tunnels Of Cu Chi: The Holocaust Of Liberation

By

Leonard Zwelling

Would I have ever come to Viet Nam if not for the American War? Doubtful. Yet, after a week here, I have heard little from our various guides about that war. That changed today. It was somber. It was frightening. It was awful.

Cu Chi (pronounced coo-oo chee) is about 90 minutes north and west of Saigon, but considered a suburb of the big city. Fifty years ago it was something else again. It was a complex of man-made tunnels and booby-trapped trails through the jungles of South Viet Nam. It was the stomping ground of the Viet Cong, the local freedom fighters battling the Americans for control of their land. The Viet Cong were hopelessly out-gunned. How did they win? They scared the Americans half to death before the battle ever started. They would appear as if they were ghosts firing at the on-coming GIs from tunnels hidden under rocks and trees and interconnected throughout the area. They dug pits with spikes covered with leaves, tiger traps, into which the Americans fell. They hid mines on the trails to maim the invading forces. Their weapons came from the north, supplied by the Soviets and the Chinese down the Ho Chi Minh Trail with materiel passing through Cambodia and Laos to the VC in the south.

At this retreat, which ought to be silent out of respect for the many who died there, the sound of gunfire echoes. There is a shooting range where visitors can purchase rounds of live ammunition and try their hands at firing the AK47s or M16s. It was upsetting. This is a place that should be met with quiet reverence. Instead the trees shake with rapid gunfire making it feel like it must have felt fifty years ago. It is beyond frightening.

The War Remnants Museum is the story of the American War told in pictures and text. And these pictures too are frightening. To heighten the dread there are row after row of war photos taken by members of the press who died in Viet Nam trying to get the truth out to the American people. It is clear documentation of the atrocities committed by our forces and also shows that American involvement started back when the French were still in Viet Nam, before 1954, and only escalated after the French defeat. It was really President Eisenhower who got us entrenched in Viet Nam as Southeast Asia was a source of raw materials of importance to the American military. Then, gradually under Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon we escalated the war until over 500,000 Americans were in-country. It is all documented here and it is from the point of view of the winners. That would not be the Americans.

We look awful in the eyes of the Vietnamese and there’s a reason. America was probably responsible for the killing of four million of their people. Ho Chi Minh wanted a united, free Viet Nam. He declared as much in 1945 and hoped he had reached his goal in 1954 when the French left. America did not see it that way and began the involvement that led to the war that ultimately ended in 1975. We were really in Viet Nam for twenty years. Sound familiar?

As this museum makes clear, often in words and pictures of our own construction, we were the aggressors. We were the invaders. We were committing genocide on the Vietnamese people and they fought it all off because they had more at stake, they were fighting for their own home and we probably never should have been there anyway.

We finish the day with a visit to Norodom Palace that was the center of the South Vietnamese government before 1975 when the country united and the capital was moved to Hanoi.

Throughout this day we waded through war, and blood, and hegemony. As an American, I felt ashamed. What had we done? This brought home for me the lingering survivors’ guilt of having served the country from Bethesda, Maryland when so many of my fellow Boomers fought and died in Southeast Asia. Sure I was against the war in the 1960s, but that was as much self-preservation as actually understanding the politics and colonialism involved with the Viet Nam War.

I was right to be a protester as my father was. He had served as a First Lieutenant in the Army in WWII, then went on to be a draft counselor during Viet Nam. We didn’t belong here. That was the take home of today. All the bombs and B-52s in the world couldn’t change the fact that America had been drawn into a foreign war that was a civil conflict. We could never have won. And we know that our leaders knew that as well from the Pentagon Papers.

What about now? Have we learned anything that affects our judgment to be involved in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Sadly, it seems no. Today, I realized how sadly wrong our war efforts, here in the 1960s and now are. We can’t win. Declare victory and go home.

This is what Mr. Trump is doing in Syria. This may be an error given Iranian aggression and the instability of the region that is not really free of ISIS. But what if we had responded to the putative Gulf of Tonkin incident by declaring victory and leaving Viet Nam? How many Americans would have been saved?

Leonard Zwelling