… on the continuum I received the million dollar wound … both eardrums blown out…I have thought about visiting but that time has passed … had I gone, I would have make a couple of trips up the road past the Rock Pile … LZ Stud … toward Khe Sanh…if there were a single spot … it would be a place north of Khe Sanh … we came around the bend of a crystal clear running stream we were wading up … there was a little water fall cascading into a pool lined with fine gravel … we stopped for awhile … posting guards and lolling in the clear cool water cleaning ourselves and uniforms … I passed my toothbrush and toothpaste around to the other eight guys … it’s my best cherished memory.
A buddy of mine, nearing seventy now, was blown to the ground that day when North Vietnamese regulars ambushed his small patrol of young Marines nearly half a century ago. He was the platoon medic and he nearly died that day with several others who had just recently shared a toothbrush.
Perhaps few today remember even the name Khe Sanh let alone its significance. The Battle of Khe Sanh began on January 21, 1968, when North Vietnamese forces carried out a massive artillery bombardment on the U.S. Marine garrison located in northwest South Vietnam near the Laotian border. For the next seventy-seven days, U.S. Marines and their South Vietnamese allies fought off an intense siege of the garrison, in one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War. Close to three hundred Marines died there. Over two thousand five hundred were wounded. The number of North Vietnamese killed was estimated to be around five thousand. The average age of the Marines was twenty-one. The North Vietnamese were probably just as young.
Meanwhile, with U.S. and South Vietnamese attention focused on Khe Sanh, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces launched the Tet Offensive, a series of coordinated surprise attacks on cities and towns throughout South Vietnam. We all know now that the Offensive marked the beginning of the end of our military venture into that part of the world.
Vietnam is now counted amongst the countries that are considered our “friends.” Where once battles raged and people died in flames are now golf courses attracting tourists. People with too much money and no sense of history today travel there to take lessons in how to cook noodles. When I read a story in the 24 December New York Times that a group of adult children of soldiers, airmen and Marines who died there and were classified as “missing in action” had recently visited Vietnam, I wondered if I would ever return to a part of the world that I can never forget. I was a twenty-something draftee at the time.
To answer the question, I do not think I will. Too many ghosts.
Out of curiosity, though, I found a company calling itself “Exotic Voyages” which advertises “all travel styles that meets certain travel purpose of every individual. With 20 years in planning tours to Vietnam, we are experts in all luxury tours, cultural tours and Vietnam adventure tours.” If you join a “luxury” tour, you will be guaranteed four- and five-star accommodations and enjoy “adventure” activities such as trekking, hiking, kayaking, and biking. If you sign up for a “cultural” tour, you’ll get “off beaten tracks” where you will be able to “interact closely with authentic local peoples.” One brochure invites you, “Don’t forget to come to the Central Vietnam to wallow in the deliberate beats of daily life.”
Reading the web site made me shiver. I then turned to once again leaf through the book my wife gave me as a Christmas present. I had mentioned to my ever-alert lady a review I had read earlier in the fall of the oversized wonder Miscellany of Curious Maps: Mapping The Modern World. The compilation is the brainchild of Martin Vargic, a digital artist from Slovakia. He first received international recognition after his Map of The Internet 1.0, which portrayed the Internet in the style of a real world map, went viral in January 2014. He says that this book is “a tribute to atlases of old with a contemporary twist.” In it, he playfully explores “how maps can be used to showcase things other than just geography. The main world map is called Stereotypes. The United States becomes Liberty: For Rich White Guys. Libya is Desert Anarchy, Moscow is Putingrad, Pyongyang is Ghost City, China is Factory, Cambodia is Orphans and Vietnam alas is Cemetery.
How appropriate that Vietnam would be called Cemetery, a burial place not just of people but of lost youth, ideals, and optimism. The made-up cities include places with imaginative names like Empty Cartridge, Tunnel Diggers, Air Base Camp, Lieutenant Dan, and Rooster Flights. There was no Khe Sanh. When I wondered why I was laughing, I realized the names were funny because they had become abstracts rather than the horrid killing fields they had once been. In just one viewing they had morphed into caricatures of the worst of the worst shoot-em-ups with everyone firing all kinds of weapons but no one really getting hurt. Like the Vietnamese travel agents, who peddle fantasy, these names belie history and take us into the dark make-believe where we are relieved of memory and history.
Perhaps some day young Marines and soldiers will use a future Vargic map if they want to revisit the sunny sands of Hostage City, Mass Grave, Sharia School or Sands of Time in Iraq. Maybe their children will be guided by another map as they go on “personalized” trips to Helmand province in Afghanistan to see the Satanic Fields, Drone Target or even Child Cemetery where their long-dead fathers were blown to pieces.
For me, I’m content staying at home and looking at my maps.