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  • Standing Face to Face With Death

    The tank before me is rusted and punctured by bullet holes. Any part that could be removed is gone. About 40 years ago the tank rolled over a booby trap that destroyed its tread. Unable to move, it became a sitting target. After a battle of unknown length, the Americans inside were killed and their effects taken. Later, villagers stripped what they could of the metal. Then they refashioned the scraps into barbed stakes used for a wide variety of traps that maimed soldiers. I see replicas of traps designed to damage armpits, pierce the chest, tear apart legs, and puncture backs. These are gruesome.

    It's an easy walk on this path. But around me there are signs of past struggles. Bomb craters, trenches for fighting, fake termite mounds used to conceal air vents for underground tunnels, and the tunnels themselves. Up to 250 kilometers I'm told.

    I follow a solider through a tunnel. I duck walk and it's a tight fit. Forty meters later, I emerge, thankful that today's tunnel has lighting and a fan-powered ventilation system. The Vietnamese soldiers and villagers didn't have lighting. Their ventilation system was marginal. The tunnels were narrower, having been widened only recently to allow for tourists to fit through without panicking.

    This photo is a re-creation of a booby trap. After stepping on false ground, the soldier is impaled on underground spikes. (Photo by Glen Gould.)

     

    I step into an underground room used for surgeries. I visit another used by the blacksmiths who repaired guns, made bombs, and forged barbed stakes. I see the kitchen used to cook meals, the smoke piped 15 meters away to minimize detection.

    The history fascinates and disgusts me. I am fascinated by the cleverness of the villagers who built the underground network, by their resourcefulness of using American G.I. cigarettes and sweaty clothes to confuse the dogs who were sent to sniff out the tunnels, and the way soldier and villager worked together against an army whose help they never asked for.

    I am disgusted by the loss of life on both sides, by the fact that our men were sent into a foreign environment to do something none of us are raised to do, fighting for a cause that was born from a few paranoid politicians.

    I stand here in 2013 wishing that a time machine could be a reality, regretting that a time machine wasn't a reality here in Chu Chi during the Vietnam War.