December 19, 2006
Extracts from Dispatches
A few months ago, Bravus wrote a post quoting the Cold Chisel song Khe Sanh. For what it's worth, I've never particularly liked that song, partly because I find the melody dull, but mostly because I'm a history maven. While I suppose it's possible that Don Walker's hero was intended to be a rootless American, I doubt many in Cold Chisel's audience thought he was not Australian. There were, however, no Australian forces at the siege of Khe Sanh, unless you count the pilots of the Canberra bombers that flew a few missions against the besieging Vietnamese. So, yeah, I find it a little grating.
The battle at Khe Sanh features prominently in Michael Herr's war-correspondent memoir, Dispatches. One of the things that stayed with me after reading Herr's book was his description of how Marine casualties during the bombardment (the brass objected to journalists describing it as a siege) were unnecessarily high because of the disdain the Marines had for taking the appropriate precautions to protect themselves from enemy fire, from not bothering to do up their flak jackets to not building proper trenches ("Marines don't dig!"). Herr recounts a bizarre press conference with a visiting general in which one journalist angrily raises the matter:
On the afternoon of the day that we returned to Danang an important press conference was held at the Marine-operated, Marine-controlled press centre, a small compound on the river where most correspondents based themselves whenever they covered 1 Corps. A brigadier general from 3 MAF, Marine Headquarters, was coming over to brief us on developments in the DMZ and Khe Sanh. The colonel in charge of 'press operations' was visibly nervous, the dining room was being cleared for the meeting, microphones set up, chairs arranged, printed material put in order. These official briefings usually did the same thing to your perception of the war that flares did to your night vision, but this one was supposed to be special, and correspondents had come in from all over 1 Corps to be there. Among us was Peter Braestrup of the Washington Post, formerly of The New York Times. He had been covering the war for nearly three years. He had been a captain in the Marines in Korea; ex-Marines are like ex-Catholics or off-duty Feds, and Braestrup still made the Marines a special concern of his. He had grown increasingly bitter about the Marines' failure to dig in at Khe Sanh, about their shocking lack of defences against artillery. He sat quietly as the colonel introduced the general and the briefing began.Exactly who, if anyone, won the siege at Khe Sanh is a matter of debate. The siege was lifted in April 1968; but the Americans then abandoned the base only a few months later. Those who see the siege as a strategic victory for the Vietnamese argue the engagement was a feint to draw attention away from preparations for the Tet Offenisve; the US military argued that the Tet Offensive would have been more successful for the enemy if so many of their soldiers had not been busy at Khe Sanh. Victory or defeat, whatever US soldiers might have left to the "sappers round Khe Sanh", the cost to the Vietnamese troops in the hills under constant bombardment from US artillery and air force attacks is appalling to contemplate. Herr writes about the end of the siege:
The weather was excellent: 'The sun is up over Khe Sanh by ten every morning.' (A collective groan running through the seated journalists.) 'I'm glad to be able to tell you that Route Nine is now open and completely accessible.' (Would you drive Route 9 into Khe Sanh, General? You bet you wouldn't.)
'What about the Marines at Khe Sanh?' someone asked. 'I'm glad we've come to that,' the general said. 'I was at Khe Sanh for several hours this morning, and I want to tell you that those Marines there are clean!'
There was a weird silence. We all knew we'd heard him, the man had said that the Marines at Khe Sanh were clean ('Clean? He said "clean", didn't he?'), but not one of us could imagine what he'd meant. 'Yes, they're bathing or getting a good wash every other day. They're shaving every day, every single day. Their mood is good, their spirits are fine, morale is excellent and there's a twinkle in their eye!'
Braestrup stood up.
'General, what about the defences at Khe Sanh? Now, you built this wonderful, air-conditioned officers' club, and that's a complete shambles. You built a beer hall there, and that's been blown away.' He had begun calmly, but now he was having trouble keeping the anger out of his voice. 'You've got a medical detachment there that's a disgrace, set up right on the airstrip, exposed to hundreds of rounds every day, and no overhead cover. You've had men at the base since July, you've expected an attack at least since November, they've been shelling you heavily since January. General, why haven't those Marines dug in?'
The room was quiet. Braestrup had a fierce smile on his face as he sat down. When the question had begun, the colonel had jerked suddenly to one side of his chair, as though he'd been shot. Now, he was trying to get his face in front of the general's so that he could give out the look that would say, 'See, General? See the kind of peckerheads I have to work with every day?' Braestrup was looking directly at the general now, waiting for his answer - the question had not been rhetorical - and it was not long in coming.
'Peter,' the general said, 'I think you're hitting a small nail with an awfully big hammer.'
Perhaps, as we claimed, the B-52s had driven them all away, broken the back of their will to attack. (We claimed 13,000 NVA dead from those raids.) Maybe they'd left the Khe Sanh area as early as January, leaving the Marines pinned down, and moved across 1 Corps in readiness for the Tet Offensive. Many people believed that a few battalions, clever enough and active enough, could have kept the Marines at Khe Sanh inside the wire and underground for all of those weeks. Maybe they'd come to see reasons why an attack would be impossible, and gone back into Laos. Or A Shau. Or Quang Tri. Or Hue. We didn't know. They were somewhere, but they were not around Khe Sanh anymore.Michael Herr went on to write Captain Willard's narration in Apocalypse Now. Until I dug out my copy of his book after reading Bravus' post, I had not realised Herr's memoir had also served as inspiration for elements of John Milius' script.
Incredible arms caches were being found, rockets still crated, launchers still wrapped in factory paper, AK-47s still packed in Cosmoline, all indicating that battalion-strength units had left in a hurry. The Cav and the Marines above Route 9 were finding equipment suggesting that entire companies had fled. Packs were found on the ground in perfect company formations, and while they contained diaries and often poems written by the soldiers, there was almost no information about where they had gone or why. Considering the amount of weapons and supplies being found (a record for the entire war), there were surprisingly few prisoners, although one prisoner did tell his interrogators that 75 percent of his regiment had been killed by our B-52s, nearly 1,500 men, and that the survivors were starving. He had been pulled out of a spider hole near Hill 881 North, and had seemed grateful for his capture. An American officer who was present at the interrogation actually said that the boy was hardly more than seventeen or eighteen, and that it was hideous that the North was feeding such young men into a war of aggression. Still, I don't remember anyone, Marine or Cav, officer or enlisted, who was not moved by the sight of their prisoners, by the sudden awareness of what must have been suffered and endured that winter.
"Well," the lieutenant said, "you missed the good part. You should have been here five minutes ago. We caught three of them out there by the first wire."As chilling as the Do-Lung bridge scene is, I found it more disturbing still to discover how much of it was based on real and specific events from the horror of that war, and not merely some abstract imagining of the same.
"What were they trying to do?" I asked.
"Don't know. Maybe cut the wires. Maybe lay in a mine, steal some of our Claymores, throw grenades, harass us some, don't know. Won't know, now."
We heard then what sounded at first like a little girl crying, a subdued, delicate wailing, and as we listened it became louder and more intense, taking on pain as it grew until it was a full, piercing shriek. The three of us turned to each other, we could almost feel each other shivering. It was terrible, absorbing every other sound coming from the darkness. Whoever it was, he was past caring about anything except the thing he was screaming about. There was a dull pop in the air above us, and an illumination round fell drowsily over the wire.
"Slope," Mayhew said. "See him there, see there, on the wire there?"
I couldn't see anything out there, there was no movement, and the screaming had stopped. As the flare dimmed, the sobbing started up and built quickly until it was a scream again.
A Marine brushed past us. He had a moustache and a piece of camouflaged parachute silk fastened bandana-style around his throat, and on his hip he wore a holster which held an M-79 grenade-launcher. For a second I thought I'd hallucinated him. I hadn't heard him approaching, and I tried now to see where he might have come from, but I couldn't. The M-79 had been cut down and fitted with a special stock. It was obviously a well-loved object; you could see the kind of work that had gone into it by the amount of light caught from the flares that glistened on the stock. The Marine looked serious, dead-eyed serious, and his right hand hung above the holster, waiting. The screaming had stopped again.
"Wait," he said. "I'll fix that fucker."
His hand was resting now on the handle of the weapon. The sobbing began again, and the screaming; we had the pattern now, the North Vietnamese was screaming the same thing over and over, and we didn't need a translator to tell us what it was.
"Put that fucker away," the Marine said, as though to himself. He drew the weapon, opened the breach and dropped in a round that looked like a great swollen bullet, listening very carefully all the while to the shrieking. He placed the M-79 over his left forearm and aimed for a second before firing. There was an enormous flash on the wire 200 metres away, a spray of orange sparks, and then everything was still except for the roll of some bombs exploding kilometres away and the sound of the M-79 being opened, closed again and returned to the holster. Nothing changed on the Marine's face, nothing, and he moved back into the darkness.
"Get some," Mayhew said quietly. "Man, did you see that?"
And I said, Yes (lying), it was something, really something.
The lieutenant said he hoped that I was getting some real good stories here. He told me to take her easy and disappeared. Mayhew looked out at the wire again, but the silence of the ground in front of us was really talking to him now. His fingers were limp, touching his face, and he looked like a kid at a scary movie. I poked his arm and we went back to the bunker for some more of that sleep.