If any stage of the Cu Chi Tunnels was going to activate my claustrophobia, this was it. I had answered the tour guide’s call for a skinny tourist, but now they were asking too much, this tour guide and military-drab chaperone. Yes, I will pose inside the tunnel entrance with trap door held aloft while fellow tourists snap pictures of me. But actually shimmy into the shoe box-sized hole and seal myself in? No, thank you.
But before I could protest, the military man was shoving me down the hole. I have no problem with enclosed spaces; it’s not being able to move within a confined space the sends me into panic. So as my shoulders brushed the wooden perimeter, the air went out of my chest. Luckily, as I squeezed through a fraction of a second later, I managed to avoid hysteria. I slid the trap door into place and knelt down, twisting my body to test the parameters of this underground vestibule. The fact that I could move calmed me…as did the laughter of Asian tourists above ground.
In fact, only about one tourist per tour group gets the trap door experience at the Cu Chi Tunnels. The rest are shuttled through 100 meters of tunnels that have been widened to accommodate Westerners. The experience, for which the historical site is named, takes place at the end of the tour and lasts about 7 minutes — provided you don’t take one of the escape exits along the way.
The tunnel crawl, along with everything else at Cu Chi, encapsulates the mission of most historical sites in Vietnam laid out by Robert Templer in Shadows and Wind: A View of Modern Vietnam, which is to mint a “mantra of heroic resistance” as “the single, unifying theme of Vietnamese history.” In doing so, Templer suggests, “Cu Chi compresses the war’s problematic layering of civil, international, ideological and personal conflict into a neat David and Goliath struggle.”
Cu Chi is plotted out in guided stages, and the first hint of Templer’s thesis hits visitors at the introductory documentary stage. But the designation of documentary is generous. Visitors are seated in front of a small television and shown a propaganda film produced during the war. While no gem of cinematography, the film’s narration does manage to spin innumerable rhetorical permutations on the concept of villagers who only wanted peace and blood-thirsty American commandos.
Propaganda is surely more interesting than most video installments at historical sites, but the fact that the film is never referred to as propaganda is what’s a bit surreal. You get the sense that no new documentary on the Cu Chi tunnels has since been produced, or that it was never deemed necessary to create another specifically because this one proved so adequate. The audacity of this possibility gives one the sense of being displaced from time, plucked out of the present and dropped into an alien context where such a film might be considered credible.
This seems to be what Templer means by the compression of problematic layers — only a fraction of Vietnamese probably ever considered such reports credible. I can imagine quite a few tourists walking away from Cu Chi, amused by the simple people who would’ve imbibed such pale imitations of reality.
The life-size dioramas depicting Viet Cong soldiers sharing a canteen, writing letters, and turning scrap metal into useful objects (such as booby traps) only feed the sense of a cobbled together propaganda machine. When the tour guide flips the switch to set the soldiers to work sawing a detonated bomb in half, you just feel a bit embarrassed.
But in fact, these are the same dioramas you find throughout Philadelphia and DC. The Cu Chi dioramas only feel so much like propaganda because (1) you’re coming off the film and (2) you’re viewing a familiar genre that’s being used to illustrate the opposite of what you’re used to it illustrating. Dioramas are supposed to depict Abraham Lincoln brainstorming the Gettysburg Address and Pilgrims shaking hands with Native Americans, not Viet Cong guerillas fashioning bamboo shoots into tiger pit spikes meant to impale American GIs.
But in fact, this cognitive dissonance illustrates something that Brian Eno once wrote about propaganda. On his first trip to Russia, he met a musician whose father had been Brezhnev‘s personal physician. He asked the musician about having lived “completely immersed in propaganda” during the Brezhnev era, to which the musician replied, “Ah, but there is the difference. We knew it was propaganda.”
Similarly, Bruce Chatwin wrote of Bolshevik Russia that “Authoritarian societies love images because they reinforce the chain of command at all levels of the hierarchy.” I wouldn’t be so restrictive. It doesn’t necessarily matter whether the instrument of propaganda is a herky-jerky Viet Cong dummy at the Cu Chi Tunnels or a sophisticated Hall of Presidents at Disney World — any monument meant to reinforce an idealized notion of the past, or to make you feel good rather than think, does the work of propaganda. For propagandists, there are simply different shades of indifference to (or contempt for) nuance.
The one aspect of the tour that really caught me by surprise was the working display of ghastly, spiked and barbed traps once used to ensnare American soldiers. Templer mentions in Shadows and Wind that new attractions are constantly being added at Cu Chi, and indeed, since its publication in 1997, some of the attractions he notes have disappeared, replaced by other gimmicks meant to bring to life this spent battleground. One can imagine why the army’s sports and recreation department did away with the trip wire-ignited fireworks — I only wonder how many visiting American and Vietnamese veterans had to suffer this thoughtless ploy.
Still, the row of cordoned-off traps is unexpected. When Americans think of the Vietnam War, they tend to envision unsuspecting soldiers suddenly blown to ribbons by hidden land mines. These iconic weapons, which symbolize the blind terror and paranoia of the war, are burnt into our collective memory by latter-day films and books. Throughout the novel The Things They Carried, author Tim O’Brien uses the land mine as a unifying motif, revisiting the moment the narrator’s friend is suddenly obliterated by a mine during a game of catch throughout the novel.
In comparison to the traps, which snap and swing closed in horrific variations, the idea of land mines seems merciful. Surely, mines killed and left mutilated thousands of soldiers, but the relative swiftness of their devastation seems less brutal than the idea of the cruder traps and the prolonged agony they might cause before their victims were released. This likely explains why they occupy a less prominent position in the media surrounding the war, as well.
Or it could simply be that these traps weren’t terribly effective. The same can be said for the Cu Chi area as a whole. While the tunnels helped the Viet Cong hold the line and were a source of pride not only for their display of Vietnamese ingenuity but because they were positioned merely 60 kilometers outside Saigon, tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians died in cave-ins within the tunnels.
What’s more, Cu Chi took the brunt of America’s chemical assault — the effects of which continue to cause birth defects and cancer — making it a (barely) living monument to one of the country’s worst military atrocities. Now, visitors laughingly crawl beneath the poisoned landscape through tunnels widened to accommodate their Western frames.
Time has transformed these killing fields into a jungle gym.
For these reasons, Cu Chi is actually tremendously interesting. Like most historical sights, it tells us far less about what actually happened than how we feel about, or choose to remember, what happened.