Tuesday, September 06, 2011

The Tunnels of Cu Chi : Vietnam’s Subterranean Battlefield

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(This blog post is written by Prakash Harikumar who is currently doing his PhD at Linkoping University Sweden. His blog is “Data Converters” and this post first appeared here.)
A book which I had recently read on the Vietnam War is “The Tunnels of Cu Chi” by Tom Mangold and John Penycate. The book sheds light on a lesser known facet of the conflict – the massive tunnel network developed by the VietCong (VC) at Cu Chi, the American soldiers sent down the tunnels to flush out the VC, and the ensuing triumphs and tribulations on both sides. As the authors rightly describe, “this is a book about heroes on both sides”.

What led me to this book is another book which I had read a couple of years ago. It was the novel ‘Avenger’ by Frederick Forsyth. In Avenger, I came across the term ‘Tunnel Rats’ special soldiers in the U.S Army who went down the VC tunnels. Armed with only  a pistol, knife and torch , the Tunnel Rats engaged the VC  in brutal one-on-one combat. Many Rats emerged victorious from the tunnels while others perished. The hero in Avenger is a retired Tunnel Rat named Cal Dexter. He is extremely fit, operates independently and is a loner. Forsyth’s creative talent evinces itself in the way he has moulded Cal Dexter – affixing the qualities of a special breed of soldiers to his protagonist in the most apposite manner. Being a person enamored of the U.S Army and its operations, getting to know the Tunnel Rats became top priority for me. The search ended at  ‘The Tunnels of Cu Chi’.

Cu Chi is a Vietnamese village outside Saigon (then the capital of South Vietnam). The tunnel system in the areas around Cu Chi outside Saigon had been used even during the times of  Ho Chi Min’s resistance to French rule. The tunnels extended to three levels in many places and had storage depots, ammunition caches, field hospitals and kitchens. Water traps and specially constructed trapdoors prevented any poisonous gases pumped in at the tunnel entrance from permeating the network. Concealed ventilation enabled the inhabitants to spend months and even years within the tunnels. The VC used booby traps to deadly effect inside the tunnels. The punji stakes (sharp bamboo stakes often smeared with human excrement to ensure that infection sets in on the wound rapidly)  accounted for many wounded tunnel rats. Another lethal technique was to spear the Tunnel Rat emerging through a trap door to the next level in the tunnel network. It was a nasty way to die with the body stuck in the trapdoor and impaled on a spear.

The technological superiority and the heavy weapons of the U.S Army were inappropriate tools to destroy the VC living and fighting within the tunnels. Numerous reconnaissance patrols were ambushed by VC  emerging from a tunnel, inflicting heavy causalities and disappearing into the tunnel network. The U.S infantry soldiers were frustrated by an enemy who seemed to vanish without a trace after a firefight. The VC were so meticulous in concealing the tunnel entrances that many a time, those were discovered fortuitously. The authors recount an incident where an exhausted soldier sits on a mound of grass, only to jump up in pain. He had been pricked by a nail protruding from a trapdoor leading to  a VC tunnel. The hard soil of Cu Chi mad it difficult for the armoured vehicles to crush the tunnels and bombing raids lacked the precise intelligence about tunnel locations to be effective. The U.S infantry soon realized that they needed to go down the tunnels and seek out the VC.

The first Tunnel Rats were infantry soldiers who volunteered for these dangerous missions. Fighting in the steamy, rain-sodden jungles was posing immense hardships for the infantry. But at least they did so in platoons and battalions, had air cover, heavy weapons, field communications and could be medevaced in case of emergency. The Tunnel Rats fought alone in the claustrophobic, clammy tunnels where death lurked in each step. Booby traps, poisonous snakes and kalashnikov wielding VC lay waiting in the darkness. The nature of the underground war was antithetical to that being waged above the ground – a primeval duel using knives and pistols. The tunnel system was designed for the lightly built Vietnamese: brawny American soldiers found it impossible to crawl through the narrow passages or negotiate bends. The Tunnel Rats were short, wiry, disdained the use of newfangled weapons and communication devices inside the tunnels and relied on determination, agility and raw courage to defeat their enemy. In a way they were replicating the VC tactics – the best way to fight the tunnel war. As the Tunnel Rats notched up successes against the VC tunnels, they were designated as a special group within the infantry, could organize their own training and were allowed to have their own insignia.

On the VC side there were legendary guerrillas who had lived and fought in the tunnels for months on end. For them it was a cause of honour and freedom – fighting to live freely in the land of their forefathers. It was this conviction that enabled them to endure privations and sustain hope in desperate situations.

In the novel Avenger, in the concluding pages, an investigative officer who had been Cal Dexter’s buddy in Vietnam is conversing with his subordinate. The junior officer notices the tattoo on his arm and aks the relevance of that tattoo. That tatoo depicts ‘a snarling rat holding a smoking pistol and a torch light”, which was the insignia of the real-life Tunnel Rats. The scene which I recounted here brings a stunning twist to the novel.

The book on Tunnel Rats revealed to me the ruthlessness and innovative tactics employed by both sides. The analysis of the Vietnam War often seems to be distorted by hindsight and ideological passion. To me, what transpired during the conflict is best conveyed in Henry Kissinger’s sententious observation on the War
“We fought a military war; our opponents fought a political one. We sought physical attrition; our opponents aimed for our psychological exhaustion. In the process, we lost sight of one of the cardinal maxims of guerrilla warfare: The guerrilla wins if he does not lose. The conventional army loses if it does not win.”

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