The tunnels of Cu Chi were a tunnel system located almost directly between the free capital city of The Republic of Vietnam, Saigon, and the Ho Chi Mi...moreThe tunnels of Cu Chi were a tunnel system located almost directly between the free capital city of The Republic of Vietnam, Saigon, and the Ho Chi Minh trail which the communists used to bring men and supplies from Communist North Vietnam into the "battlegrounds" of South Vietnam. The Vietnam war was rarely fought in large set piece battles, but was mainly a guerilla war. The main mode of ambush by these communist guerilla fighters was via these elaborate tunnel systems. As of page 88, this book has done a great job of explaining the history of the tunnels, which apparently began during the war against French occupation in the 1940's and 50's, as underground hideouts beneath each hut (almost like basements.) Over time tunnels were created to link these units together, and eventually these communication tunnels also joined villages to one another. When the war began with America, these tunnels were enhanced and became multi-level complexes with sleeping quarters, kitchen area, "bathrooms" and eventually hospital spaces, ammunition storage rooms, and conference rooms for officers and political leaders. As the war went on, the tunnels continued to grow and large spaces for ordnance manufacturing, troop assembly, printing presses for propaganda, and even temporary morgues and burial areas were added. By the time this book was published in 1985, the authors were able to interview former Viet Cong officers, enlisted men, writers, performers, and civilians who lived and/or worked in the tunnels. Many of the officers gave glowing reports of the ingenious construction of the tunnels and the manner in which they allowed for the massing of troops for ambushing Americans, the way they were designed with a zig zag pattern to allow the earth to work in their favor when a tunnel entrance was located by U.S troops and explosives or chemical weapons were placed into the tunnels, the way the trap door system allowed the Vietnamese to escape and prevented U.S. troops from discovering the full extent of the tunnels, and the way the Viet Cong designed punji stake booby traps to frustrate American attempts to explore the tunnels. Other Vietnamese inhabitants described the horrors of the tunnels. These included claustrophobia, poor air quality, the horrid combined stench of cooking fires, body odor, human waste, and rotting flesh, as well as watching comrades crushed beneath weak tunnels when heavy tanks rolled over top or large bombs were dropped, and finding the bodies of comrades in the tunnels after chemical attacks by the Americans. One Vietnamese performer described giving birth to her first born daughter in the tunnels.
Although not specific to the Cu Chi tunnels, one interesting observation this book makes, is that apparently, the structure of agrarian life in Vietnam for many hundreds and possibly thousands of years has been a type of communal existence very compatible with communism. These people are content to live and farm on the same land as their ancestors, do the same work, intermarry with the same families, and die in that same place never having learned anything new, met anyone different, or traveled anyplace unique. The only difference under communism is the dictator making the rules, sending out death squads to enforce them, and the iron fist denying the people the chance to ever be or have more. However, it is also interesting to note that the authors also fail to mention that some Vietnamese in the free Republic of Vietnam's capital city, Saigon, had converted to catholicism, gone to school, learned more about the world outside, and developed a desire for freedom. Communism was not necessarily appealing to all of the Vietnamese people.
Although the stories and observations by Vietnamese citizens thus far shared are both fascinating and disconcerting, the subtitle of this book is "A harrowing account of America's tunnel rats in the underground battlefields of Vietnam" and so far there have been only brief vignettes of the experiences of U.S. soldiers. The U.S. Army consisted of a high percentage of conscripted soldiers who were sent to the other side of the world with no experience in this type of fighting, and many fought bravely and heroicly against a ghostly enemy who appeared and disappeared like a vapor. I hope this book is not going to be a lot of pro-communist propaganda, but actually explores the work of American soldiers under very tough circumstances. I am now on page 144, and although there have been a few insights into what it takes to be a "tunnel rat", the Americans are by and large mocked for their fears, their inadequacies, their egotistical command structure, their lack of fore thought, the plodding nature of their response, and their over reliance on technology. The commies are continuously held up as heroes even as the brutality of their attacks on our conscripted sons and brothers and classmates, is applauded. So far there is a disgusting Hanoi Jane-esque quality to this book that turns my stomach. Chapters 18-22 weren't too bad. Chapter 18 goes into detail about some of the specific American men who lead the tunnel rats from an officer, NCO, or simply "point" position. Many of these men volunteered for these terrifying duties because of they were small and wiry and able to maneuver in the tunnels, or because they were aggressive and had the "killer" instinct, some liked the quiet and slow pace of the tunnels, others because of the prestige the unit built up in the Big Red One Division. Over in the Tropical Lightening Division the unit was composed of draftees who rose to the occasion quite nicely but never attained the status and insignia of the other unit. The sacrifices of these men greatly hindered the Viet Cong and saved countless American soldier's lives. Ultimately the Viet Cong's own "Tet Offensive" brought on the death of about 80% of guerilla forces and when combined with the loss of civilian support (due to American transplanting of whole communities, and defoliation with agent orange and napalm) essentially ended the usefulness of the tunnels. I don't know if I would recommend this book to someone easily swayed by propaganda, but it was quite informational for someone looking for a deeper understanding of the nuances of the war. The authors, being British, cannot, I suppose, be expected to look at this war and the belligerents on both sides the way an American mother, sister, cousin, friend, or classmate should. The knowledge that American citizens threw hot coffee in the faces of returning conscripts is embarrassing and appalling. Reading a paperback in which two British dudes pull a Hanoi Jane is slightly more tolerable but still offensive. I give this book 2 stars.(less)