Ethnic Cleansers

Stephen Smith

  • Four Hours in My Lai: A War Crime and its Aftermath by Michael Bilton and Kevin Sim
    Viking, 430 pp, £17.99, May 1992, ISBN 0 670 83233 2
  • Tiger Balm: Travels in Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia by Lucretia Stewart
    Chatto, 261 pp, £10.99, June 1992, ISBN 0 7011 3892 0

Born too late – and that was the least of it – to be James Fenton, I cannot claim to have spent the fall of Saigon hitchhiking to President Nguyen Van Thieu’s palace aboard a Northern Vietnamese tank. By the time I reached the city, more than a decade after the President’s government was toppled, I was also a little late to experience the thrill that the poet and war correspondent had felt in living through its death throes. Nevertheless, I called on the former United States Embassy fondly hoping to pick my way through poignant debris like portraits of Presidents behind crazed glass, and the bust of a bald eagle gleaming dully from a nest of old communiqués. The miserable photographs I had seen of the Embassy failed to do the place justice. The real thing was much worse, windowless and swaddled in concrete. It reminded me of a vast cold storage vault at Nine Elms, South London. Because I turned up on a Sunday, I was able to convince a guard called Tuan that I might promenade the grounds with him. A bonfire was smoking, and chicken pecked the dirt beside a cycle-rack.

I wanted to get inside the Embassy, but Tuan said foreigners were not allowed. He wouldn’t accept anything from me: not cash, not cigarettes, neither threats nor entreaties. But then he pointed to a door at the side of the building and held up three fingers – three minutes. The door was the entrance to a stairwell finished in drab lime. The stairs themselves were cordoned off by padlocked mesh. Tuan undid the lock, and I followed him up one flight and through a firedoor onto a silent corridor, barely illuminated by a couple of naked light-bulbs. The firedoors on the next two floors were locked. Above them, the staircase was barricaded behind more mesh, a bolted gate, another padlock – Tuan said the Government had the key. It was up this dingy stairwell that embassy staff and their dependents, service personnel, businessmen and journalists had fled for their lives in 1975. The only sign that the Americans had ever been there were the chrome drinking-fountains on the first floor. The Embassy is now occupied by workers in the oil business, one of Vietnam’s most prestigious and dynamic new industries. The security measures safeguard Vietnam’s future rather than preserve its past.

It is quite likely that as a journalist, one may want for sensitivity about intruding on grief; it is possible that as a foreigner in Vietnam, one may intrude on it without knowing it: while Four Hours in My Lai is ostensibly an inquiry into the massacre of up to four hundred unarmed civilians by American troops, it is also a cautionary tale about Western arrogance in South-East Asia. Nevertheless, there is a clear impression that Vietnam has got over the Vietnam War – something, this books reminds us, that cannot, and should not, be said of the United States. The surviving physical evidence is regarded in Vietnam with a lack of sentimentality that borders at times on the cynical. The pits and bunkers sunk by B52 bombers are as incongruous as crop circles, but go unremarked by passengers aboard the Hanoi-Saigon express. On the bridge over the Perfume River in the ancient capital of Hue, boys sell the dog tags of dead GIs for 20,000 dong each (less than three dollars). The Vietnamese have fought in Cambodia and on their Chinese border since the Vietnam War, a martial fixture-list more punishing than the one faced by the United States in the same period. Of course, Vietnam did not experience the same sense of national humiliation: and yet its losses were more grievous. As many as two million may have perished, compared to perhaps 55,000 Americans. The economy was crippled, and the years of an embargo imposed by Washington have hamstrung recovery.

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