In war, there are no winners

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Vietnam was the war of my generation. While I marched in moratoriums, my male peers were conscripted into the army. About sixty thousand Australians served in Vietnam, a small number in comparison with the nearly three million Americans but even so the war left its battle scars. Five hundred and twenty-one Australians died and over three thousand were wounded. The American dead isn’t far off sixty thousand. And all of those who returned were scorned for decades for having fought in an ‘unpopular’ war. There were generational scars, too, the long-term results of exposure to Agent Orange.

And I haven’t even mentioned the Vietnamese casualties.

As it happened, one of our group of ten was a retired career soldier who had served in Vietnam back in the sixties. We were given a choice of visiting the area around Long Tan where the Australians won a significant battle, or to visit the Cu Chi tunnels, part of the network the Vietnamese used in their battle with the US Forces which included troops from South Korea, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, and the Philippines. We all elected to see the Cu Chi tunnels.

Trahh, our guide for this tour, was a lovely young lady whose family had fought for the South Vietnamese forces. She explained to us the North Vietnamese army was known as the Viet Minh – soldiers of Ho Chi Minh. They came down into South Vietnam using the Ho Chi Minh trail and recruited villagers to their cause. Poor subsistence farmers were easily persuaded to believe the basic teachings of communism. Everyone is equal, share the wealth. They became the Viet Cong, farmers by day and guerrilla fighters by night. I remember a former Australian soldier telling me they’d go through a village and they’d never know what side the people were on. That’s what led to the notorious Me Lai massacre.

The Vietnamese largely used guerrilla tactics. They couldn’t compete with the American helicopters, bombers, and tanks. They used the tunnels to move troops and many actually lived in them. The tunnels at Cu Chi are just part of a network stretching for hundreds of kilometres. This article is an excellent summary of how the tunnels were created and how they were used. The part we visited has been opened up for tourists and the tunnels enlarged so that people can actually experience what it’s like to be down there. The Vietnamese soldiers had to crouch, moving on their haunches to move between the rooms. There were no lights down there, just flickering candles. I’m a bit claustrophobic and I can’t imagine spending hours and days in these places. Add to that the constant use of booby traps to deter US forces who might have found an entrance. Just the thought makes me shudder.

US tank

On our way to the tunnels we paused to take pictures of several military vehicle which would have been used in the war, then moved on into the jungle. The ground is gouged with craters – the legacy of bombs dropped by B52s. We stopped at a termite mound and the guide explained the Vietnamese used artificial termite mounds to disguise positions where soldiers could hide and fire on the enemy.

Trahh gave us some graphics to illustrate the location of the tunnels and who controlled what areas, and a second graphic showing how the rooms in the tunnels were used. This was how people lived. Children were born down there. After the war some ended up with diseases resulting from time spent away from sunlight and I imagine cramped conditions would have been hard on muscles.

The location of the Cu Chi tunnels
Cross section of the tunnels

The US forces didn’t have the local knowledge to combat the VC guerrilla tactics. But they had technology. I’ve mentioned the blanket bombing. They also dropped Agent Orange to defoliate the jungle so the fighters couldn’t hide in the scrub. And they used napalm to clean out fox holes and trenches. Read this article for more information.

By Huynh Cong Ut (also known as Nick Ut) – Widely available; This version available at, Fair use,

This is the famous picture of the ‘napalm girl’ which shocked the world when the devastating results of napalm bombing were displayed for all to see.

When all of this failed they used soldiers of small stature to go down the tunnels. They were known as ‘tunnel rats’. Maybe terriers would have been a better description. The US forces used dogs, too. The dogs would detect the presence of Vietnamese soldiers by their smell. The VC learned that if they killed the dogs that act would reveal their presence. So they deceived the dogs by eating US rations and wearing US uniforms – all stolen from bodies. The VC improvised because they had to, using any raw materials they could find. I don’t think the expression IED ‘improvised explosive device’ had been coined then but it might as well have been.

The VC wore black farmer clothes and carried camouflage cloaks. The neck scarves were common wear for farmers but they could be used to signal others if knotted in particular ways. Sandals were made from salvaged rubber tyres.

A soldier took us around the Cu Chi site, pointing out camouflaged traps and tunnels.

This was  fighting bunker. That slit in the middle of the picture was where VC soldiers would wait for advancing US forces.

leaf litter – but there’s a cover in there.

Our guide illustrates how he would enter the tunnel. Most of our group wouldn’t fit in there.

He lowers the lid over his head so the path looks the same as it was. He might leave a grenade or some other booby trap. for good measure.

Several of our group defied the rules and went down into the tunnels that had been modified for visitors. I only went into the open air one, which showed living conditions.

This woman is making garments. Note the rifle hanging on the wall behind her.

Here, soldiers scavenge parts from shells.

The VC used booby traps, placing cunningly covered pits filled with stakes to trap soldiers. The stakes were coated with feces or poisons to induce infections.

Step on the pivoting cover…

… and you fall into the stake-filled trap. This was just one variation on the theme.

After we’d finished the tour, Tranh introduced us to a Vietnamese war veteran who was, of course, much the same age as us. He explained his arm was blown away when he’d been in a shooting bunker. He’d not been aware that the troops he was firing at were being followed by a tank. He said he was pleased to welcome us and that the war was in the past, something he didn’t wish on anybody. Our war veteran, Peter, had some photos taken with him. It seems many American veterans are coming to visit Vietnam to lay some of their ghosts to rest.

On our way back to Saigon Tranh talked about the aftermath of the war, when the North had won. Two things happened almost immediately. People supporting the South’s regime were sent to re-education camps (prisons) and the State took over private property. So those poor farmers who had swallowed the communist doctrine lost their land. They no longer worked for themselves but for the state and they received a proportion of their harvest in return. Vietnam was an economic basket case, reliant on overseas aid and during the eighties many people fled the country. That didn’t change until the fall of the Soviet Union which had been Vietnam’s main source of support. The Vietnam Government took a look at China and decided that model of communism might be more effective. Vietnam started to open up in the early nineties.

But the old animosities still linger between north and south. Tranh’s uncle, who had been a pilot for the south, escaped to the US. Recently he was persuaded to come home for a family reunion and he and Tranh visited Hanoi. She said they went to a restaurant, where they spoke to each other in their distinctive South Vietnamese accents. A woman marched up to their table and abused them for being there, told them to get out. Time heals most wounds, but it may take another generation in Vietnam. As Tranh said, more than once, ‘in war, there are no winners’.

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