Hanoi – Reflections on the “American War”

Deep below the manicured gardens and historic architecture of Hanoi’s ancient Imperial Citadel of Thang Long lies a secret that was opened to the public only in 2012: the headquarters from which the Politburo and Central Military Commission of North Vietnam conducted the “American War” between the bombing of 1967 through the collapse of South Vietnam in 1975.

Inside the Citadel, the modest above-ground appearance of Building D67 is misleading: it looks like a normal bungalow, but the walls are steel-reinforced concrete, the doors are layered with centimetre-thick steel, the ceiling and roof are triple-thick and include a layer of sand to protect against shrapnel. And, in the back, a corridor leads to steel doors opening to stairs descending into a fortified underground bunker, complete with air filtration system in case of gas attack. The most striking impression underground is the simplicity and unsophisticated technology with which a small but deeply committed team orchestrated the defeat of the world’s strongest military power. Four small booths, each with three phones, provided secure links between the high command and those responsible for implementing its strategy. There are lots of maps of course, and a vertical plastic plot reminiscent of a warship’s operations room in the 1950s.

Gate to the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long, Hanoi

After exploring the place above and below ground I was sitting outside under the shade of the building’s veranda on a blisteringly hot afternoon when a young student – an earnest bespectacled fellow of about fourteen or fifteen – stopped and offered me his bottle of water. A simple, spontaneous, thoughtful gesture of humanity that left me reflecting sadly that, fifty years earlier, I had come very close to leaving Canada and enlisting in the U.S. Marines. Why? Not because I knew anything about the causes or issues of the war, but simply because I was young, craved adventure and purpose, wanted to be part of history and prove myself a man. Today the thought horrifies me. Had I made the same choice that some 30,000 of my countrymen did, the grandparents and parents of this good, decent young man would have been my enemy – and for no reason other than my immature thinking about life.

That makes me ponder the future of misguided young people who have left Canada to join Daesh (the so-called “Islamic State” that is neither Islamic nor a state). I have little sympathy for anyone who chooses to embrace such a noxious ideology and expect them to be held accountable for their decisions. Nonetheless, I hear echoes of my own temptation to get engaged in a conflict that I didn’t understand – youth, craving adventure, wanting to be part of a historic event and to prove themselves as adults in their own right. We are different of course: they chose to join a cause hostile to Canada and Canadians and so, in my non-legal view, committed treason. But while I cannot condone I can, I think, understand a little.

Whenever I reflect on the Vietnam War now I think of a striking black lacquered bronze sculpture in Vietnam’s excellent Fine Arts Museum. A slim young woman is carving what are known as pungi sticks; sharpened bamboo spikes, often covered in poison or human excrement, to be set in the bottom of a booby-trapped pit so that an enemy soldier falls through what looks like solid ground and is impaled. Although they rarely killed, they not only disabled the victim but also distracted other soldiers from the immediate combat to care for their comrade. Perhaps more importantly, the very possibility of their presence generated chronic fear, adding to the already high stress of even the most routine of patrols.

“Sharpening Bamboo Spikes” (Phạm Mười, 1968).
Photo: Vietnam Fine Arts Museum

She was compelling: I kept circling back to look at her again and again. Who was she? What was driving her? Had she lost a lover? A child? Parents? The contrast between her graceful femininity and the awful thing she is making is both moving and chilling. Her face is impassive yet intense and utterly focused, but the backward sweep of her right arm suggests hidden rage; a purposeful intensity in creating this terrible weapon. The sculptor has not even needed to include the bamboo spike itself. The woman’s appearance draws the viewer toward her and then challenges the imagination to create the story behind this frozen moment in time.

Now that’s great art!