They say the better part of travelling is meeting the people from the countries you visit. They do not say how much that meeting will affect you, neither how heartbreaking such encounters can be. The first time I met a one legged man in Laos, while visiting COPE – the charity for the war injured, I asked him how he lost his leg?
“The American’s took it,” he replied.
What can one say to that?
Such emotionally confronting sights are common in South East Asia if you let yourself see them. Too many of the people who come here simply gloss over the lives of the people they encounter. Too many go home and say, “Oh South East Asia is alright, beautiful countryside… but so many beggars!” Without giving any thought to what this means and what causes people to beg on the streets. Beg, not because they want money for a drug addiction, simply because there is no governmental help for the war-wounded and having no legs, fingers or arms is a lifelong barrier to entry to almost anywhere.
We have spent the last three months travelling all over SEA with our eyes wide open. In fact, we decided to go all the way and visited all the disabled workshops, children’s orphanages and museums that we could. We have met with Cambodians missing limbs, Children Orphaned by AID’s, Vietnamese who fought against the US and Laotians struggling to come to terms with their ravaged country. Along the way, we have visited many of the actual areas attacked by or affected by the war, spoken with war photographers who captured the images that define the war and run our hands over the pockmarked remains of war equipment. This is not very hard to do. Simply visit Laos, Cambodia or Vietnam and you cannot help but see if you only look.
However, the results are not pretty.
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Through all this I have held off commenting on the war, known to those in Vietnam as “The American War,” until I actually left the area. This is because millions of people in South East Asia are still feeling the effects of the conflict everyday and by being there I was in danger of missing perspective on the big-picture. I wanted to be far enough away from it all to be able to get some context before I commented.
That is why this blog entry exists. We left the area in February, bound for India, and after much discussion between us, I feel I can properly write about the American War.
Everyone knows about the war in Vietnam, right? Wrong. Before coming here, 90% of the information I had about the Vietnam War was created by the US movie industry. I grew up watching Platoon, Hamburger Hill and The Deer Hunter. To me the Vietnamese were slant-eyed nightmares who charged the noble US grunts fighting for freedom in the jungle. Before I left home, I had neither any idea where Laos was nor had I known the tragic history of Cambodia (all I knew was that it didn’t look like Kansas).
If you are in the same situation, here is a quick outline of what actually happened in easy to understand steps.
Please keep in mind that while I do have some qualifications as a historian, I have not attempted to be definitive here in any sense other than intentions. Some of the numbers happened at the same time and some may be out of order. I have linked all my sources in the endnotes of the article.
The French landing back in SEA were confident of victory
A soldier begs for the end to battle
7. The US invented the idea that since China was next to the USSR and SEA was next to China, a dangerous “Domino Effect” might spread Communism as far south as taking over Australia. This shows a mighty misunderstanding of the Australian temperament.
Ho Chi Min (Centre in white)
The guillotine of Deim
Kennedy and US Defence Secretary Robert Mcnamara
16. The US strategy in the war is similar to the “Shock and Awe” tactic used in the 2nd Gulf War. They believe that the communists will eventually quit. Thus, it becomes a war of attrition. This later proved a wrong move (see endnotes).
A US base comes under attack
17. The Vietnamese do not give up and build a very long road that weaves in and out of Vietnam and Laos, which allows them to go around the north/south divide in Vietnam. This is known as the “Ho Chi Min Trail.”
When the trail was blown up the VC simply carried their equipment
19. Laos’ king asks the US to help after being left somewhat in the lurch by the French. They start a secret CIA led war in Laos by using the highland Hmong tribes as soldiers supported by the US airforce (directed by the famous Ravens). This war is against the Pathet Lao communists supplied by the Vietnamese.
One of the Raven spotter planes
20. The US uses most of their airforce in Laos to bomb the HCM Trail. In fact, the bomb they crap out of it with cluster bombs, high explosives, soap and anything else they can think of. Nothing works to stem the flow and many of the bombs do not explode. The rest they use against the Pathet Lao around the Plain of Jars.
Bombing runs in Vietnam
The US president Johnson talks the talk
23. The Khe San offensive turns out to be a ruse by the Vietnamese and they have been secretly digging tunnels to Saigon (the Cu Chi tunnels). On the eve of the Tet celebrations (New Year – around mid Jan) the Vietnamese attack everywhere from these tunnels.
A US soldier orders up help during the Tet offensive
Nixon describes the pull out of troops