April 28, Saturday, Da Nang: Another light day, but also heavy. In the morning we drove to Mỹ Sơn ruins, one of the Cham people’s several religious and administrative centers built over many centuries throughout south and central Vietnam. The Cham were a decentralized Hindu civilization that was gradually driven southward by encroachment of the Vietnamese working their way south from southern China. Mỹ Sơn has a couple dozen brick buildings that were built around the fourth century and abandoned around the fourteenth century. It is considered one of the foremost Hindu temple complexes in Southeast Asia, and is often compared to Angkor Wat (but smaller). The ornately carved brick buildings are not huge by, say, pyramid standards, but are still very impressive. Through some process not well understood (at least by our guide) the bricks seem to bond together without the benefit of mortar. They have proven very durable and surprisingly waterproof. Parts of the complex were destroyed (ruined ruins?) by good ol’ US of A carpet bombing in 1969. Seems that Major Fuckup over at Target Acquisitions decided that some VC might be in the area. Duh!
The Mỹ Sơn ruins are south west of Da Nang, just a few clicks south of the area I ran around in with Bravo Company First Battalion Fifth Marines (B/1/5), from March to August of 1970. My time on the DMZ in Fourth Marines was in unpopulated mountain jungles chasing and being chased by North Vietnamese regulars. By contrast, this area is in the lowlands–rice fields, tree lines, low hills, and villes. It was the perfect battlefield for Minutemen to take on Redcoats, except that the Minutemen’s parents and children were just over there and unprotected. It was us against the Viet Cong guerrillas and anyone or anything we thought was or might get to be in the way, such as old folks, babies, water buffalo, ducks, villages…you get the picture. Did I say it was nasty? The VC fought with booby traps, and we fought with airstrikes, mortars, random artillery, Zippos, and scared/angry marines.
Bravo Company was detached from the remainder of the battalion and was used by the commanding general as a quick reaction force. That meant that most nights we slept in our basecamp inside the Da Nang perimeter, then choppered out early in the morning to, say, sweep an area of fresh airstrikes to look for fresh bodies and weapons or, say, to reinforce another unit that was in contact with the enemy. Other times we were sent on “pacification” ops to surround a village, round up all the inhabitants and ship them off to resettlement villes (the infamous strategic hamlets). In April of 1970 we walked into one of these villages, and with permission of the company commander the point squad unleashed their anger on the village, killing fifteen women, children, and old folks. I had been in Vietnam for about 14 months at that point, and had seen some shit, but the gunning down of children that day broke forever my commitment to and tolerance for war and militarism.
In the parlance of the Vietnamese, I know many wandering ghosts walking the land, and it was with some trepidation that I rode down the road that day past Le Bac Ville. We did not come within about three clicks of it, but it was quite moving to see the abandoned rice paddies of my memory full of rice and homes and water buffalo and people. Life goes on. Life will not be denied.
Now you know why I work on the Agent Orange issue.