Where Are You Now?

The bunker is dank, the cement walls harsh and forbidding. The entrance is down a flight of steps that doesn’t seem deep enough to protect us from the MK82 and M117 bombs dropped by the B-52, aka BUFF—Big Ugly Fat Fuckers.

“Forty people can take shelter here,” the lady says—I’ve wangled a private tour of the bunker where Joan Baez hid on Christmas Eve, 1972, as the bombers flew overhead. In a small room, my guide turns on a tape—sirens moan and children cry, a piano tinkles in the background. A Vietnamese voice tells everyone to put on their helmets.

“…that the most sacred of Christmas prayers was shattered by the bombs,” Baez recites, before breaking into song. Where Are You Now My Son? she asks, singing of a Vietnamese woman whose boy lies buried beneath the rubble.

The setting is the famous Hotel Metropole in Hà Nội—Vietnamese is a tonal language, like Cantonese and Thai, but like Bahasa it uses the Roman alphabet. That means the tonal vowels are represented by diacritical marks—a single vowel can have two different accents, one related to the vowel itself, which counts as a different letter, and one for the tone.

The hotel hosted the likes of Somerset Maugham and Graham Greene—I reread The Quiet American, a much more powerful experience in Vietnam—more recently, the Metropole hosted the 2019 summit between micronuke and the orangutan.

I remember the Vietnam War surprisingly well—partly because I listened to shortwave broadcasts from Radio Hanoi—but the Vietnam War Remnants Museum quickly showed me how little I knew.

A massive Chinook graces the courtyard of the museum. My first thought was how well kept the chopper is, despite the tropical weather—a tribute to Boeing manufacturing.

The courtyard is full of American hardware—a Huey, an F-4 Phantom, a Skyraider, and the enormous Chinook. There’s a conspicuous absence of Vietcong materiel, although they had Russian MiGs and SAMs aplenty. I didn’t realize the US was dragged into the war by the French, first as arms suppliers and advisers, and then as actual troops.

Air force general Curtis Lemay, who I’d read about in the biography of Joseph ‘Vinegar Joe’ Stillwell, had some choice words to say about the enemy.

They’ve got to draw in their horns and stop their aggression, or we’re going to bomb them back into the Stone Age.

The war museum omits any mention of Vietcong atrocities—truth is the first casualty of war. But it shows some impressive images, and equally impressive numbers—the US dropped five million tonnes of bombs during World War II, but almost triple that in Vietnam—over fourteen million, living up to Lemay’s dictum. The cost of the war was six hundred and eighty billion dollars, double the second world war, and had about one third of the casualties, but only an eight of the deaths—this attests to the fact that it was an air war.

One of the key weapons of the North Vietnamese was art. Many posters, some of which rich in both humor and irony, told the story of American invasion.

Air wars are convenient but unwinnable, as was found by the Luftwaffe in England, the Americans in Vietnam and Afghanistan, and now the Russians in the Ukraine. Inevitably, there are boots laid on the ground, and that’s when the body bags pile up.

One of the most interesting aspects of the war were the correspondents—many died, the most famous perhaps being Robert Capa, but the one that impressed me most was the Englishman Larry Burrows, who photographed for Life Magazine.

And while we’re on the subject, here’s a tribute to The Killer, one of the fathers of Rock n’ Roll—I bet Great Balls of Fire was heard often in ‘Nam. That said, I found no evidence, but I did spot this.

Burrows left behind the most courageous quote of the war.

“I will do what is required to show what is happening. I have a sense of the ultimate-death. And sometimes I must say, ‘To hell with that.'”

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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