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The third sniper: Vietnam 50 years after the Tet Offensive

The Tet Offensive (CBS Sunday Morning/YouTube)

During those race-riot summers when the inner cities burned, Dad yelled at the TV set for the National Guard to break out the machine guns and mow down every last one of those rioters. But he didn’t say rioters. Mom remained conspicuously mute, the subversive books she read — “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” “Black Like Me” — stashed in her closet, waiting to be discovered after her death.

I see her still, on the sofa, leaning forward, into the images of young men falling in foreign jungles, body bags slung onto choppers, calculating the odds of her only child getting sacrificed to a metastasizing web of lies. Then one day she finally lost it, the day when the leader of America’s civil rights movement spoke up against the war. “Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations,” he warned, “are written the pathetic words: too late.”

Mom got out of her chair. She pointed at the TV. “I would vote for Martin Luther King,” she declared, knowing in Dad’s eyes she had just endorsed the devil himself, “if I knew he would bring our boys home.” She left the room. Dad and I sat there in silence, agog. We had never seen anything like it. There would be no encore.

Fifty years later, I stood on the hair-blown heights of Khe Sanh, wandering through bunkers and trenches initially abandoned by the French, then the Americans. Mom and Dad were gone, too. Seven miles from the Laotian border, alone at ground zero of what had been the longest battle of the war. Ghosts and reruns swept through the vacuum, the full inventory of every break and every blunder that put me in this moment, this place.

Vietnam had been with me since Alfred E. Neuman, Clearasil, pet crawdads, the first crush and Screaming Yellow Zonkers. This was no longer the paperback version, the hardback version, the big screen or the TV treatment. This was the real thing, the sensory overload.

Coffee groves and wilderness followed the jagged horizon into the clouds, the Annamite mountains undulating in shades of green. The black and white moonscape of craters and skeleton trees scorched by chemical toxins were nowhere in sight. A shepherd trudging through waist-high scrub prodded his goats to higher ground above the rusting war machinery. Incongruities in every direction. Still, the vibe up here made more sense than the street scenes in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, commonly referred to by its original name, Saigon.

Fallen dominoes to the scourge of communism, Vietnam’s largest cities were still paying lip service to the centennial anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. Colorful billboards and posters idealized its legacy. But the cash registers told a different story: Kentucky Fried Chicken, Burger King, Brooks Brothers, McDonald’s, Starbucks, Circle K, Le Bourgeois restaurant, Popeyes, a Cheers bar, 7-Eleven, Apple stores, the joys of multinational capitalism.

Fifty years ago, America’s best and brightest strategic minds were no match for a culture prepared to lose every battle in order to win the war. But the revolution that defeated a superpower — where did that go?

The apartment building that became synonymous with America’s retreat from Vietnam is lucky to remain intact. In April 1975, a Dutch photographer nailed the money shot of a helicopter perched on its rooftop stairwell, a chain of human misery clogging an evacuation ladder in hopes of escaping the North Vietnamese onslaught.

Today, that former U.S. Agency for International Development/CIA outpost is absolutely dwarfed by the gleaming, 26-story, $500 million Vincom Center across the street. The biggest shopping mall in Saigon, home to high rollers like Versace and Dior, Vincom Center is the masterpiece of entrepreneur Pham Nhat Vuong, the nation’s first billionaire, regarded by Forbes as “the Vietnamese Donald Trump.”

Population 93 million, more than twice what it was during the “American War,” Vietnam is growing quickly, real estate is red hot and Saigon’s architectural history is being razed at a gallop to clear more space. Few bring a more critical eye to the transformation than author/historian/tour guide Tim Doling, native Brit and longtime Saigon resident. He remains in mourning over the most notable recent casualty, the Ba Son Shipyard, founded 228 years ago, demolished for luxury condos in 2016.

Switching to a market economy in 1986 after Soviet-style central planning led it to the cliff of famine, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam maintains a tricky relationship with free enterprise. Private property is still technically illegal, so the restrictions are mitigated through the sort of tortured semantics and elastic loopholes that allow conglomerates like Vingroup, part of the Pham Nhat Vuong empire, to shape Saigon’s rising skyline. Doling blames Vingroup for “destroying this city’s heritage” in a fait accompli with urban planners, who “have no proper inventory of heritage buildings” and “no interest” in protecting them.

Twelve million tourists visit Vietnam each year. Each swing of the wrecking ball, Doling warns, destroys something unique to make room for something all too familiar. He’s seen the plague sweep through Singapore, Ireland, France, his native London: “The destruction of heritages for short-term profits at the end of the day will cause loss of identity of the cities when all the buildings are gone.”

One of the city’s tallest and most striking skyscrapers, a cylindrical, 46-story, $256 million unfinished behemoth called Saigon One Tower, has been derelict since developers went bust in 2011. Tour guide Huy Nguyen Tuan smiles and shrugs when asked about the Tower’s fate, now in the hands of banks. “Maybe someone else will take it over.”

Cranes and construction scaffolding are everywhere. This is a city on the move.

Vietnam is young, median age 30. Two-thirds have no memory of the American War. One of those is our bright, witty and endearing guide, Huy, born in Hanoi 1976, the first wave of the country’s postwar Baby Boomers. Married, two kids, college-educated, a tourism major. Today, he is chaperoning a small crowd on tour with The Nation magazine.

“Sticky rice! Sticky rice!” he calls out above the din of the streets, a signal for his flock to tighten up before challenging traffic at a crosswalk. Ninety-five percent of Vietnamese motorists own smog-puking scooters and motorcycles; drivers wear ear-looped surgical masks. They will straddle sidewalks to make time. Some gun their wheels through pedestrian markets.

Ten million people live in Vietnam’s most populous city, but there are no homeless people in sight. Huy cites cultural traditions, families taking care of their own, no matter how shiftless or lowdown. Sixty-four percent of Vietnamese can count three generations under one roof. That’s a pragmatic idea, considering how free universal health care remains a pipe dream here. I used to think one of the benefits of communism was free universal health care. By that standard, Australia, Germany, Japan, France and four dozen other nations are more communist than Vietnam, where three-quarters of its people buy health insurance.

On the other hand, when Ho Chi Minh proclaimed its independence from France in 1945, fewer than 5 percent of its people could read and write. Today, its literacy rate is 96 percent. But trouble may be brewing in its public schools.

Until her dismissal in early 2017, for reasons unstated on this occasion, Dr. Biu Tran Phuong was president of Hoa Sen University in Saigon. Biu says, through a translator, her youngest son came home years ago complaining he was being ignored in school by a teacher who refused to acknowledge his name. She discovered that kids who got the best grades, the most attention, were those whose parents were bribing teachers.

Biu says the practice was so pervasive and hopeless, she wound up sending her boy to Singapore to get his education. She blames the corruption of one-party politics, which has little to do with ideology and everything to do with cronyism. Those who join the Communist Party today are in it “for interest,” not patriotism. “It is still taboo to talk about democracy.”

Biu is also a scholar of feminist history. She isn’t afraid to say things like “We feel betrayed by the men in power.” In December, Forbes named Biu Tran Phuong as one of the 20 most influential women in Vietnam.

The Mekong River flows from the Tibetan Plateau, stretching 2,700 miles through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia before emptying its nutrients into Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. Home to endangered freshwater dolphins, six-foot long koi weighing 350 pounds and freshwater stingrays flashing 14-foot wingspans, the Mekong boasts 1,700 species of fish and is second only to the Amazon in biodiversity, says Huy.

From Ben Tre, a motorized rickshaw called a tuktuk follows a canopied trail into the delta’s November swelter, where gray skies drizzle lightly on the front end of the dry season. Its jungles are generous with swollen mangoes and pineapple, and nothing gets wasted. A covered sampan makes stops at a factory where river mud is baked into bricks, and a coconut farm churns empty husks into charcoal. A military veteran who once walked home alone from Cambodia during Vietnam’s 14-year war with its neighbor presides over a family rice processing operation.

A hundred million southeast Asians rely on the Mekong for sustenance, but its ecosystem is starting to wobble. Huy says the river is at its lowest level in 90 years, thanks to hydroelectric damming in China. Saltwater is beginning to seep into the Delta. Researchers are experimenting with rice hybrids that can tolerate elevated salinity. And new opportunities are opening up.

A few years ago, Vietnamese reporter Dien Luong, a Fulbright scholar with a master’s degree from the Columbia School of Journalism, scored a coup with his story about Monsanto reentering his homeland. The American agrochemical giant was responsible for the notorious Agent Orange defoliant that saturated an area the size of Massachusetts and exposed 4.8 million Vietnamese, and their progeny, to carcinogenic dioxin. Today, Monsanto is selling genetically modified seeds, including cash crop rice, to Vietnam. In 2015, the country that imports 6 million metric tons of corn a year reaped its first GMO corn harvest.

Some farmers tell Dien they don’t know or much care about Monsanto’s past. In some cases, they’ve seen their rice yield increase three-fold. A government official tells Dien that boycotting Monsanto would be like boycotting Boeing jetliners because its B-52s bombed Vietnam a long time ago.

Dien, whose reporting has been featured in The Guardian and Al-Jazeera, knows the limits of what he can and can’t write. Party criticism — not so much. Corruption — all good. The government, the Party, glowers when it doesn’t get its cut. It will imprison and even execute tax dodgers. Seven-man firing squads have been replaced by lethal injection. Vietnam manufactures its own poison.

At a Saigon café on a rainy afternoon, Dien says Vietnamese Baby Boomers harbor no resentments over the American War, that they like America in ways that may be proportionate to their disdain for China. He says his young peers even like Donald Trump. The Nation magazine crowd groans.

The food here is insanely good. Light, spicy, garden fresh, herbs and greens, cucumbers, shrimp, crunchy bean sprouts and peppers that can blow steam out your ears. And you can roll your own, inside rice paper, like a cigar or burrito.

But Pho Binh isn’t an ordinary restaurant. In 1967-68, it was the headquarters of an elite Viet Cong cell plotting to overthrow the South Vietnamese government in what would go down in history as the Tet Offensive.

The second floor of Pho Binh is a shrine to the conspiracy. Its centerpiece is a low wooden table flanked by four low wooden chairs, where plotters mapped out their plans. Those are off limits to visitors. It would be like taking the seats of Paul Revere and William Dawes. The walls are a gallery of framed photos of the revolutionaries, dozens of them. The current owner’s portrait is there, too. His name is Ngo Van Lap. He was just a kid when it happened.

Late in the evening of Jan. 30, 1968, as fireworks across the country shrieked and banged to greet the lunar new year, coordinated attacks by more than 80,000 combined VC and North Vietnamese Army forces broke a ceasefire and struck more than 100 cities and installations.

The insurgency was crushed, its casualty count climbing into the tens of thousands. The envisioned popular uprising was a delusion. The VC were so broken, the NVA shouldered the bulk of the fighting for the rest of the war. But Tet put a psychic hit on American faith, which had been inflated by White House reassurances that the U.S. was on the brink of victory. Tet was devastating all around. Huy translates Ngo Van Lap’s account:

The group had multiple targets, first and foremost the seizure of a Saigon radio station. Everything went wrong. Bad directions, missed timing, inaccurate maps, northern outsiders on unfamiliar turf. Within three days, the Pho Binh cell called it off; 90 percent of its cadres were dead. Government troops raided Pho Binh. Ngo’s father was arrested and jailed. Ngo says he thought the war was lost.

Most of the faces on the wall are gone now. Ngo is solemn. While I was trying to figure out who was the walrus on “Magical Mystery Tour,” Ngo was a teenager in prison, wondering if he would ever see home again.

The most savage fighting of the Tet Offensive was at Hue, former seat of the Nguyen Dynasty, where U.S. Marines and communist coalition forces slugged it out for more than three weeks in house-to-house killfests. Much of the action unfolded behind the walls of a French colonial citadel, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Nguyen Qui Duc was visiting grandparents in Hue when the attack began. His father, a civilian, was a South Vietnamese regional governor, last seen being marched away at gunpoint with other prisoners by NVA soldiers, elbows tied behind his back. Nguyen was 9 years old. He and the remainder of his family fled to the U.S. in 1975.

Nguyen had quite a career in the west. A documentary filmmaker, playwright and journalist, his work has been featured by the BBC, National Public Radio, The New York Times, and The Asian Wall Street Journal Weekly. Yet, in 2006, he gave up on the U.S. and resettled in Hanoi. He owns a tavern and continues to write, often as a social critic.

In 2015, during the buildup to the 40th victory anniversary of the American War, “few Vietnamese are paying attention,” he noted in the New York Times, “and for those who are, the regime’s attempt to glorify its past only seems to underline its failures at present.” And in the January issue of the Smithsonian magazine, Nguyen’s blade was even sharper.

He wrote about how, during documentary filming by a German-French production team, a government shadow tried to shut him up when he began to revisit the American War as, among other things, a Vietnamese civil war. That conversation, Nguyen argued in Smithsonian, would inevitably lead to a reckoning on Vietnamese atrocities, including the NVA massacre of hundreds, if not thousands, of civilians in Hue.

“I wonder whether the national silence about 1968 will ever be lifted,” he wrote, “and the anger I felt when I was negotiating with the government’s media minder still burns.”

Balance is a subjective thing. Americans look for it when they visit what’s left of Hanoi’s old French-built Hoa Lo Prison. Four-fifths of the “Hanoi Hilton” has been torn down for high-rise buildings. The 600-plus American POWs held in degrading conditions rate barely an asterisk in its official narrative. This is Vietnamese history, which focuses on more than half a century of French brutality, complete with decapitation photos, and shrines to the martyrs. A guillotine is on display as a reminder.

Americans also find their voices missing from the erstwhile Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes in Saigon. Renamed the War Remnants Museum following the normalization of diplomatic relations with the U.S. in 1995, the place attracts half a million tourists a year.

Captured tanks, helicopters, artillery and other relics from the U.S. arsenal dominate the courtyard, where tourists do group and individual selfies. Peace banners depicting doves erupting like shrapnel from bombs belie the graphic photo galleries inside. Inside, American troops are showing off mutilation trophies and executing prisoners, women and children. The storyline links grotesque physical deformities among second and third generations to Agent Orange, which accounted for 60 percent of the herbicides that drenched the countryside. There were also Agents Blue, White and Purple. You wonder if this is how Germans feel after visiting memorials at Auschwitz and Dachau.

Nguyen Qui Duc’s friends in Hanoi accuse him of being obsessed with the past. He would likely plead guilty. Nguyen sees Vietnam’s Baby Boomers drawn to the American War only through nostalgia chic, fueling the proliferation of a popular coffee-shop chain called Cong Caphe. Campy propaganda posters and military-themed clothing accessories are part of the appeal.

Despite Nguyen’s critiques, Big Brother tends to leave him alone. His readers are mostly foreign, anyway. Nguyen returned to Vietnam 12 years ago primarily to get better and cheaper health care for his mother, suffering from dementia. He also couldn’t stand watching his beloved adopted country peddling more fiction to justify another unprovoked invasion of a Third World nation.

“I think I lived in America during its best years.” Nguyen’s melancholia is genuine, but it also has the allure of a beat poet, or at least somebody who has spent a lifetime walking the walk. “I don’t want to go back. Can you imagine the grilling I’d get at the airports?”

A painting in the National Museum of Vietnamese History celebrates the defeat of China at the Bach Dang River in the year 938. Chinese warships are being incinerated in volleys of flaming arrows after its fleet got ambushed and impaled on nasty submerged spikes hidden at high tide.

Vietnam has been dominated by its giant northern neighbor, off and on, for more than 1,000 years. The most recent hostilities erupted in 1979 when China launched a 27-day invasion that left tens of thousands dead on each side. Even today, according to some estimates, China controls 30 percent of Vietnam’s economy. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trade alliance designed as a counterweight to China’s economic expansionism, was seen as Vietnam’s chance to escape Chinese gravity.

Nguyen Ba Cuong is an attorney and law professor at Vietnam National University in Hanoi. He allows no photos and no recording devices during his PowerPoint presentation. These are delicate times. No reason to complicate things even more.

Trump pulled the U.S. out of the TPP three days into his administration. At the recent Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Da Nang, the American president uncorked his America-first rhetoric again: “We are not going to let the United States be taken advantage of anymore.”

Nguyen says the U.S. faces a structural disadvantage. It makes policy in four-year election cycles; China, by contrast, is bulking up for 2050, when it promises to complete its “world-class army.” Nguyen’s pitch is animated, urgent, almost plaintive. China will defend its expanding territorial claims aggressively, and not just economically. It has already attacked fishing boats in disputed waters.

The remaining TPP signatories continue to cement their commitments in hopes of containing the dragon from Beijing. Nguyen wants to make sure his visitors understand the stakes. “America first,” he says, “is America alone.”

Describing himself as “a naïve, idealistic Georgia boy” when he joined the Army, Chuck Searcy was with the 519th Military Intelligence Battalion in Saigon when it got caught flat-footed by the Tet Offensive. The scale of destruction, particularly that created by the “overwhelming” U.S. response to it, scrambled Searcy’s sense of mission and identity. “I felt cut loose from my moorings,” he recalls.

The former Goldwater Republican quietly surrendered his service medals to his senator, joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War, worked for President Jimmy Carter and became executive director of the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association. But he remained haunted by Tet, and felt compelled to go back. With serious reservations about the reception awaiting him, Searcy made the journey in 1992. His hosts surprised him with curiosity and warmth.

While visiting Khe Sanh, he met several kids who showed him an unexploded artillery shell embedded in the ground. Searcy asked if there were more. The kids said they were all over the place. He asked if anyone was cleaning the stuff up. They said no. Searcy started doing research and learned that maybe 10 percent of all the bombs, shells, rockets and grenades flung in the American War never detonated. Uncounted numbers of Vietnamese were being mangled each year.

Determined to stop the killing, Searcy moved to Hanoi in 1995. He belonged to the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, established by Bobby Muller, a Marine who came home in 1969 with a bullet wound, a severed spine and a wheelchair. Under the Foundation umbrella, Searcy coordinated the U.S. effort to distribute prosthetics to Vietnamese war amputees in advance of the renewal of diplomatic relations.

In 2001, Searcy was on the ground floor of Project RENEW, an outgrowth of a $3 million American contribution to dispose of unexploded ordnance, or UXO. Today, the project is privately financed, mainly from Norwegian People’s Aid.

The RENEW headquarters maintains a discreet presence off the main drag in Dong Ha, capital of Quang Tri province. The low-slung sign in the driveway says Mine Action Visitor Center. The rusting bombs angled nose-down in the lawn leave no doubt. Some of the empty shells have been converted into flower planters.

The visual centerpiece inside is an incandescent column that accents roiling clouds of napalm. In its orbit, suspended from the ceiling, below the image of a B-52, is an assortment of bombs and asteroid-like metal fragments, a post-apocalypse solar system. The second eye-grabber is a pyramid of prosthetic limbs, three levels high. Most are crude and handcrafted, some from bomb metal. One has been turned into a housing for a snakeplant.

Expertly managed with maps, American War artifacts, static displays and video explainers, the Mine Action Visitor Center is as much a museum as it is the dispatch center for the 80 or so Vietnamese employees trained to handle and neutralize UXO in the field. The challenge has been staggering:

The U.S. unloaded more bombs on the Delaware-sized province just south of the former Demilitarized Zone than it spent on all of Nazi Germany in World War II. Eighty-four percent of the area was littered at one time with UXO. Of the 3,500 villages and hamlets in Quang Tri, the museum guide says only 11 survived the war unscarred. Since 1975, more than 100,000 people — mostly farmers and children — have been killed or injured by UXO up and down the 1,000-mile length of Vietnam.

Here’s the news: At age 73, Chuck Searcy has seen a dream come true. In 2017, for the first time since RENEW began keeping records, not a single UXO fatality was reported in Quang Tri.

Home is a long way from Khe Sanh, no matter where home is. For those who can remember what happened here, whether from inside a bunker or from a living-room sofa on the other side of the planet, the home of memory is likely buried in an old photo album today. But long ago, someone finger-carved a larger truth, in what was once the wet cement of a trench wall, in capital letters: “HOME IS WHERE YOU DIG IT.”

It is easier to envision chariot races at the Colosseum than to connect with the magnitude of the violence visited upon this pastoral corner of western Quang Tri in 1968. For 77 days before, during and after Tet, 6,000 Marines and as many as 20,000 communist forces pounded each other with artillery fire, advantage America. Its warplanes dropped an additional 100,000 tons of bombs in the surrounding Annamites. Five tons for every NVA soldier.

When Huy, our guide, got into tourism, for the first three years his clients were American veterans, hundreds of them. “They come and they see this place,” he recalls, “and they ask things like ‘Why the hell were we fighting here?'” Huy offers no answers, but he has keepsakes tucked into an album of his own. He opens it up and shows off photos they gave him, of tracer rounds crisscrossing the night skies like a time-lapse meteor shower. And he shares a story several told him.

An NVA sniper drew a bead on the base with deadly results. Huy points in the direction of the sharpshooter’s perch, which the Marines proceeded to crater with explosive firepower. The area was quiet for the next few days until another sniper picked up where the first left off. The Marines retaliated once more with boomers and erased the threat.

Soon enough, a third sniper emerged and started shooting again. But before a command to the big guns went out, one of the grunts said wait, not so fast — this guy either has bad eyesight or he’s deliberately missing us. The base held its fire. The sniper kept plinking away, but only enough to be annoying, and he never managed to hit anybody.

By the summer of 1968, the brass had decided Khe Sanh wasn’t Mount Suribachi after all. They declared victory and ordered the leathernecks to withdraw. By July, the National Liberation Front flag fluttered over the spot where 274 U.S. troops died and 2,500 were wounded in its defense.

On the way out, several of them stood, exposed themselves to their lone counterpart’s line of fire, and waved. The sniper emerged, showed himself, and waved back. Huy declines to interpret. The story hangs in midair.

The Marines destroyed whatever they left behind. Today, the onsite A-frame museum, the C-130, the Chinook troop transport, and the Huey parked on the sprawling plateau that was the most terrifying landing strip in the world give tourists something to think about, or at least look at. The deep narrow trench lines, evocative of The Great War, are largely reconstructions. Where the rusting tanks came from is a mystery.

What you know as you wander amid these bleached bones and jumbled residues is that you were here before, a dim version of what you are now, the version that used to believe: There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done/Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung. You run your fingers along the flowering vine clinging to the carriage of a broken howitzer, and wonder what happened to the third sniper.


© 2018 Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Fla.

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