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Road to Ho Chi Minh City – 4 of 4


By Mac McCall

Leaving the mountain refuge of Da Lat, we knocked out the remaining miles to Ho Chi Minh City, arriving in a sleepless metropolis. Ho Chi Minh is the financial center of the country, a scene of frenetic commercial activity and a bustling beacon of opportunity for young Vietnamese. Like all of Vietnam, it is not defined by the decade or so of American intrusion during the 20th century. However, it was in Ho Chi Minh City that we, as Americans, were most confronted by the legacy of the Vietnam War.

Originally named Saigon, the city became the capital of the Republic of Vietnam, colloquially known as South Vietnam, in 1955. After nearly a decade of Viet Minh insurgency against French colonial rule, Vietnam had been divided into northern and southern halves by the 1954 Geneva Accords. The catholic Saigon government retained ties to the West, while the People’s Republic of Vietnam in the north aligned itself with the Soviet bloc. Insurrection quickly flared in South Vietnam as communist insurgents known as the Viet Cong, armed and supported by North Vietnam, attempted to overthrow the Saigon government. The United States became increasingly enmeshed in South Vietnam’s attempts to extinguish the insurgency, first providing advisors and eventually combat troops in 1965. The American presence in Vietnam ultimately entailed a massive combined arms force totaling over 500,000 troops. After years of mounting casualty lists, the last U.S. troops were withdrawn in 1973. Saigon and the South Vietnamese government fell to a determined North Vietnamese assault in 1975, and the municipality was renamed Ho Chi Minh City in 1976.

Ho Chi Minh is rife with reminders that a vicious civil war raged about and within the city less than 50 years ago. We visited the pho shop where Viet Cong commandos planned a 1968 attack on the American Embassy, and we saw the Presidential Palace where North Vietnamese tanks battered down the compound gates during the fall of Saigon. The most poignant of these reminders is the War Remnants Museum, which houses displays covering the country’s nearly 30 years at war from 1946 to 1975.

One exhibit drove home the tragedy of the Vietnam War with a visceral power unlike anything else we experienced in the country. Requiem, the brainchild of two photographers injured in Vietnam (Tim Page and Horst Faas), displays photos taken by war photographers who lost their lives in the conflict – some 133 individuals of 11 different nationalities on all sides of the war.

The collection has an awe-inspiring ability to bring the war to the viewer through years and miles of time and space. Breaking through the political posturing, it presents us with choice moments, frozen for eternity, depicting humans dealing with the war in its most authentic incarnation. In one photo, an American soldier comforts a mortally wounded friend, with another lying in the background. The two had been injured moments before in a claymore blast. Moments later, a second explosion would kill all three and the photographer. In another, a Marine Corps chaplain administers last rites to a dying war correspondent on the field of battle. In a third, a Viet Cong cadre looks out with mournful despair on the lifeless bodies of his unit. He was the lone survivor of an American ambush.

Life is short, and often made shorter by armed conflict. Photographs would capture a solider or civilian marching, reading, praying or completing one of a hundred other mundane tasks. A caption would then explain that the subject had died in action, sometimes minutes later, sometimes days, sometimes years. One showed a nameless Marine carrying a rocket launcher at Khe Sanh. His kind face looked exhausted from days of fighting. He was killed days later in a North Vietnamese bombardment. In another, a photographer spoke with his embedded correspondent, relaying that he was headed down the road in search of a better shot. The correspondent shortly thereafter heard an explosion in the distance. Racing down the road, he arrived just in time to catch the photographer’s dying breath. Many photographs carried a caption which indicated that one was the last shot on the final roll of a photographer’s film, often taken mere moments before death.

Bravery often shone through misery and tragedy. In one photo, a U.S. Marine, grenade in hand, crests a small knoll exposed to enemy fire. Other American and South Vietnamese troops prepare to follow him over the top into an oncoming fusillade. In another, a French soldier falls backward, either dead or wounded, losing grip of his rifle after sustaining a bullet wound. Others continue onward, headfirst into a Viet Minh position and fierce close-quarters combat. Sam Castan was a young civilian photographer embedded with the First Cavalry. Trapped on a mountain ridge and surrounded by North Vietnamese regulars, he grabbed a sidearm and broke out of the encirclement with a handful of soldiers. Castan led the way and was shot dead while waving the others on to escape.

We left the museum in a storm of emotions. I felt a deep gratitude to the photographers who sacrificed their lives to capture these photos for posterity, painfully personalizing a war which is all too often relegated to dry academic discussion. I was glad that the stories of these young men, cogs in the foreign policy machines of their respective nations, will be remembered and appreciated. I felt a deep sadness for the legions of soldiers and civilians who died in this war, often so far from their homes and loved ones.

There is a moral duty for the citizens of the major players in this tragedy (the U.S., France and Vietnam) to learn from their countries’ failures. To honor the sacrifices of these men is to prevent the necessity of similar bloodletting in the future.

Where did we go wrong? I frequently return to an observation credited to former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. After a 1995 meeting with his wartime Vietnamese counterparts, McNamara opined that American understanding of the conflict was fundamentally flawed. U.S. policymakers viewed the war as another front in the Cold War, a conflict which could be won with the proper application of conventional force, as in Korea. The communist Vietnamese, on the other hand, understood the war as the final stage in a long struggle for independence. The Americans, like the French, were merely another set of foreign interlopers to be defeated, and the Vietnamese were determined to fight to the last man for their freedom. This underlying misunderstanding led us to massively underestimate the commitment required to win such a conflict. If we had understood this from the outset, we might have made radically different choices about our initial involvement. Our lack of understanding of the Vietnamese people set us on a path to failure. 

In an era where the United States remains engaged in many far-flung corners of the globe, this lesson is as essential as ever. We must understand the world beyond our borders if we hope to engage with it effectively. As I conclude this series on Vietnam, I encourage Americans to visit the country, appreciate its rapturous natural beauty, and engage with a painful but nonetheless valuable chapter of the American story.