The American War
This is my life now. The terracotta tunnels begin to widen and a larger cavern is revealed.
Madeleine Bentley | 3 April 2017

The American War

 

A dense and suffocating heat hangs in the air; the walls close in from all around as I work my way deeper into the warren of passages. My back and knees are pressed together and I use my arms and legs to propel me through the tunnels. But this is no place for claustrophobia; mundane fears like that cannot matter anymore. This is my life now. The terracotta tunnels begin to widen and a larger cavern is revealed. Low murmurs crawl around the room, quickly muffled by the earthy walls, and in the corner a low fire burns, filling the room with a hazy smoke and making the temperature climb even higher. A wide metal pan rests on a stand above the fire, cooking the rice patties that have become our every meal. Women stretch and bash the rice with their hands, forming rations, hour upon hour. Despite this cavern being a place of protection, fear and tension cling to the members of the room. Voices remain at a low whisper and faces watch eagle eyed and alert for anything to happen.

 

One man particularly catches my eye. Unlike the other men, who are dressed in the dark greens and blacks of the freedom fighters, he is wearing long baggy trousers in a hue of ochre with a dusty white shirt. This man I have never seen before, but the rumours about him have been plentiful amongst the men at the base. Our only tactic in this war is secrecy and spying on the enemy, and he is one of those responsible for the latter. Day in, day out, he wanders the streets of the villages around this area, pushing a battered ice-cream cart. With a dazed look on his face, he chants and sings, beckoning people to his stall. The townsfolk just think he's the crazy old man selling them ice-cream. In reality he is always listening, hoping to hear of rumours of the American plans and schemes - anything to give us the upper-hand. The group of fighters and the ice-cream man continue to exchange words in fierce whispers. All of a sudden, the men draw apart and scatter in all directions: one heads towards the stores; another to the dormitories to alert the other men of the new intel; and the last up towards the bunkers, to spread word to the watchmen. The sharp jabs of commands follow from the winding tunnels, and then the sound of the first bombs begins. 

 

The ground shudders and seconds later a low booming sound makes its way to our ears. The cooking ladies burst into loud anxious chatters; soon all are scattering down to the deeper areas of the tunnels in hope of better protection. However, even if this ensures our safety in surviving the bombs, it doesn't ensure the safety of the tunnels; we must now put our faith in the craftsmen, praying these tunnels do not cave in, leaving us trapped under metres of rubble. This is a distant fear though; the bombs are more often than not a distraction. The Americans usually only attack higher areas of jungle in Laos and Cambodia, aiming to destroy the supplies sent to us by northern freedom fighters. As a result, they often send their own soldiers into lower regions of jungle after the bombings to search for us whilst we are too preoccupied by seeking shelter. Men are rushing past now, each clothed in camouflage, with hats and dirt on their faces to make them less distinguishable in the darkness. On their feet they wear rough sandals - these are crafted by the women from salvaged American car tyres. Across their backs, lines of artillery are slung, each shining, lined up as of a personal army for each fighter. Bombs echo in the distance. 

 

I don’t envy those Americans. They shouldn't be here and we’re going to fight to guarantee they aren’t here for long. That’s the thing about this war; America has no right to be here. They lose nothing by being here, while we have everything to lose. 

 

 

This is inspired by the lives of the Vietnamese freedom fighters that fought in southern Vietnam in an attempt to defend their country. The Cu Chi Tunnels were an immense network of underground passages that served as a base for Vietnamese fighters just outside Saigon. In the Vietnam/ American war, 58,220 Americans died, while the Vietnamese lost around 2 million people in defence of their country. This narrative is inspired by my visit to the Cu Chi tunnels and the accounts of the war that I heard there and across Vietnam - the ice cream man is an actual person that provided intel for the southern freedom fighters. 

 

Original Image by Madeleine Bentley

James Routledge 2016