During the American War, the Viet Cong spent years in warrens like the Cu Chi caves. These tunnel networks were dug in the rich soil of the Mekong Delta when Agent Orange and other defoliants dropped by the Americans made jungle cover impossible.
Last year I crawled through these tunnels, cradling a broken hand for authenticity. The mud walls pressed tight, and the smell of the stale air and damp, packed earth was heavy. We had the luxury of occasional lightbulbs; the original tenants crawled in blackness.
Long bamboo pipes funnelled smoke from the underground kitchens away to outlets under distant bushes. The underground hospital was stocked with sticks to bite away screams. There was a small factory for turning out hideous booby-traps. Silent villagers sharpened stakes, brushed on poison, made pipe bombs. Their designs were modelled now by large Caucasian dummies, and our stomachs flipped at the sight. There were bouncing betties; forget-me-nots–foot traps you could take home with you; concealed drums that spun above a stake-lined pit; staked boards that would swing down from the trees and impale a soldier at chest level.
Americans threw grenades down the tunnels when they found them, so the Viet Cong developed a system of blind alleys and sharp turns where explosives were marooned. Cave-ins were a constant danger. Sometimes Americans invaded the tunnels, but so many were killed on these missions that they began to refuse to go down. They sent dogs instead. The Vietnamese began to wash with American soap and eat C-rations to confuse the dogs’ senses. Sometimes the tunnels were so extraordinarily well-concealed that they were simply never found. The day I visited, the bigger westerners had trouble wedging their protein-fed bodies through the hidden trapdoors, but the Viet Cong had managed to stay so inconspicuous here that the Americans had once built a camp right on top of a network of caves. They couldn’t figure out why they kept getting shelled.
Mr. Hai, my tunnel guide, was a handsome, charismatic man in his mid-fifties.
“The question I want you to answer me when we leave,” he announced just before we crawled into the tunnels, “is _where did they shit?_ Think carefully! Where did the people who lived in these tunnels take the shit?”
Mr. Hai had been an officer in the South Vietnamese Army. He worked as a translator for the Americans. Tank Division. Years later he still got a kick out of the memory of those American boys. “Hai,” they would say, “Is hot. Is _damn_ hot!” He laughed, delighted at his command of idiom. The short words sounded good from Mr. Hai.
The boys Mr. Hai fought with went home suddenly in 1975. Mr. Hai was sent to a reeducation camp for three years. His uncle, who was far more senior, was cruelly “reeducated” outside Hanoi for seven years. When he got out, he refused to go back to his job as a surgeon. He would not work for the communists; he would sweep the streets instead. Eventually he got out on a boat and became a heart specialist in Ohio.
Mr. Hai did not hide his own dislike of the communists. “We give them name Viet Cong. They never call themselves Viet Cong. You know why? Because it mean “Dumb Vietnamese”, or “Stupid”. They do not like this. And when they won they took revenge on the South Vietnamese. Especially anyone who had helped the Americans. I did not speak English for twenty-five years. Pretend I never learn English. Only in last five years I can speak English again and work with tourists.”
He had never heard from any of the Americans he served with, though in the last few years he has met a few other servicemen. He could find them on the Internet, I told him. He smiled vaguely.
Tim O’Brien wrote an extraordinary short story about serving in Vietnam. It’s called “The Things They Carried“, the title story in his first collection. In it he lists with great care every item he and his fellow U.S. soldiers carried as they slogged through the jungles outside Saigon.
Pages and pages of stuff, he lists. The personal choices reveal the human beings in O’Brien’s soldiers, and the pounds of standard issue show them as grunts. The people they fought wore black pyjamas and carried a pouch of rice, perhaps a rifle and a few magazines.
We sat in the tiny kitchen, deep underground, and ate boiled taro root dipped in salt.
“And now,” said Mr. Hai, “you will tell me, where did the Viet Cong living in these tunnels take the shit? Because remember, if the dogs smell, they are dead.”
They buried it in dead-end chambers, we guess. The women who sneaked in rice smuggled it out again in bags. They…burned it in the kitchen fires. They piped it out, like the smoke. Mr. Hai kept shaking his head.
Tim O’Brien had the answer.
They were defeated, these American boys, by the things they carried and by the things they dropped. They were bogged down in the swamps and the jungle on size twelve boots. They dropped C-rations and soap, and all kinds of materials that shored up tunnels. They dropped ammunition and knives that were turned into booby traps against them.
Meanwhile, under night cover, boys in black pyjamas combed the rice fields for metal ammo containers dropped from the choppers. Shockproof. Waterproof. Stinkproof.
“You don’t know,” says Mr. Hai, laughing again. He waves an ammo case at us. “They take the shit in the ammo box, and carry it out at night. That is how they stay down here for all the years.”