Footprints of War

 

When I was working on my essay on ‘The natures of war’ (DOWNLOADS tab), I was surprised at how few sustained discussions of ‘nature’ as a medium through which military violence is conducted – though there were of course countless, vital discussions of ‘nature’ as a commodity bank that triggers so-called resource wars – so when it came to the section on Vietnam I learned much from David Biggs‘ brilliant account Quagmire: Nation-Building and Nature in the Mekong Delta (2011).  It deservedly won the George Perkins Marsh Prize for the best book in environmental history.

(You can find an illustrated version of the section of ‘Natures’ on Vietnam here and here, and some of my other work on the militarization of nature in Vietnam here and here).

David now has a new book, Footprints of War: militarized landscapes in Vietnam, due from the University of Washington Press at the end of this year,

When American forces arrived in Vietnam, they found themselves embedded in historic village and frontier spaces already shaped by many past conflicts. American bases and bombing targets followed spatial and political logics influenced by the footprints of past wars in central Vietnam. The militarized landscapes here, like many in the world?s historic conflict zones, continue to shape post-war land-use politics.

Footprints of War traces the long history of conflict-produced spaces in Vietnam, beginning with early modern wars and the French colonial invasion in 1885 and continuing through the collapse of the Saigon government in 1975. The result is a richly textured history of militarized landscapes that reveals the spatial logic of key battles such as the Tet Offensive.

Drawing on extensive archival work and years of interviews and fieldwork in the hills and villages around the city of Hue to illuminate war’s footprints, David Biggs also integrates historical Geographic Information Systems (GIS) data, using aerial, high-altitude, and satellite imagery to render otherwise placeless sites into living, multidimensional spaces. This personal and multilayered approach yields an innovative history of the lasting traces of war in Vietnam and a model for understanding other militarized landscapes.

The pre-publication reviews confirm the importance of Footprints:

“David Biggs’s second major book on the social and environmental history of modern Vietnam. His nuanced use of Vietnamese-language publications and his extensive interviews with local people are outstanding. He tells a compelling story in fluent, vivid, and even lyrical prose, expressing compassionate insight into both society and ecosystem.”
-Richard P. Tucker, University of Michigan

“In this rich and innovative new book, David Biggs considers the spatial dimension of the war in Vietnam, through an examination of the densely layered militarized landscapes around Hu . The result is a gem, a fluid, authoritative, compelling work that shows just how deep, complex, and long-lasting were ‘The Footprints of War.'”
-Fredrik Logevall, author of Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam

Data.mil

Four years ago I described Project THOR (Theatre History of Operations Reports), Lt Col Jenns Robertson‘s remarkable attempt to transcribe, standardise and integrate the available records of US Air Force strike missions – see here (scroll down) and (especially) here.

His databases have now been incorporated into Defense Digital Service‘s  data.mil, described as ‘an attempt in open defence data’: it’s also an experiment, which invites not only use but interaction and comment.  You can now access the THOR databases – and find the backstory – here.

In 2006, Lt Col Jenns Robertson and his team in the Pentagon faced a daunting task. Every week, the Air Force’s Chief of Staff and other senior military officers would ask for the latest on the air war in Iraq and Afghanistan – how many aircraft had flown that week, which ground units they supported, and what munitions they had dropped.

Working in the Air Force’s Operations Directorate, Robertson had access to a wide array of classified data sources, yet the weekly report was tedious to produce.  Data was not easily searched and often contained only half the picture, forcing Robertson’s team to assemble the report manually every week over the course of several days. He knew there was an easier way.

In his spare time, Robertson began creating the Theater History of Operations Reports (THOR), initially a simple Excel spreadsheet that eventually matured into the largest compilation of releasable U.S. air operations data in existence. Robertson tested his database with his team, asking them to generate the Chief’s weekly report twice — once manually, and again using THOR. The result was impressive: THOR cut the report work from three days to just under an hour.

After receiving Department of Defense approvals, Robertson was able to post THOR files online so interested public citizens could search the data for their own purposes. Robertson understands the vast potential benefits of opening such a large compilation of previously inaccessible data to the public. “I can’t envision all the ways this can be used”.

One of the first (once forbidden) fruits of releasing this data to the public is a remarkable map by Cooper Thomas plotting 3.1 million US bombing and ground attack missions (including Close Air Support and aerial interdiction) in North and South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia between 1966 and 1974:

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Cooper promises further explorations of this and other THOR databases; if you know of any others, please let me know [see UPDATE below].

Data.mil is promising to release a new ‘data story’ each month – next month should see the release of a military casualty database.  The site went live in December 2016, and  Mary Lazzeri and Major Aaron Capizzi explain the background:

Mary:  Major Aaron Capizzi, USAF had the idea to use open data principles to solve Department of Defense (DoD) problems after attending a panel discussion at the Harvard Kennedy School sponsored by former Deputy CTO, Nick Sinai. In addition, I had been looking to seed an open data effort at DoD. Aaron’s idea, coupled with the opportunity to present the Theater History of Operations (THOR) bombing data in a new and interesting way, provided a perfect opportunity to put energy behind the effort.

We’re looking to use this pilot to jumpstart a larger open data effort at DoD. The beta site is a working proof-of-concept. The next step is to show the larger DoD community that open data merits investment.

Aaron: Our approach is unique in two ways. First, Data.mil will test various ways of sharing defense-related information, gauging public interest and potential value, while protecting security and privacy. We will quickly iterate and improve the data offerings on data.mil, using public feedback and internal department discussions to best unlock the value of defense data. Our goal is to provide all data with enough context that users, both the public and defense employees, can understand the potential value and get started using data quickly.

Second, Data.mil will prioritize opening data using a demand-driven model, focusing on quality rather than standard quantity metrics. The Department of Defense regularly reports on the significant challenges we face in defending the nation, which range from attracting talented recruits to developing game-changing technology within constrained budgets. Most of these aspects of defense business generate large amounts of unclassified data which, if released, can encourage collaboration and innovation with public and private sector partners.

Mary: The site is built using an open data storytelling platform, LiveStories. Rather than simply posting a list of datasets, the goal of Data.mil is to tell stories with data. The site provides narratives to complement the data so users can more quickly understand and begin using it. LiveStories was selected for its visualization and data analysis features allowing us to present an engaging site for its users. In addition, it’s easy to use. Non-technical staff can use the platform to share their data and tell their stories.

We want to compel collaboration from military components, industry partners and the public. The partnership with data.world enables that collaboration providing the social media tools to support exploration and a community discussion of the data.

Conversely, it’s also worth thinking about how digital platforms are now used to plan and execute air strikes.  As the origins of Project THOR show, there are crucial links between retrospective reporting and prospective mission planning.

UPDATE:  I’ve since discovered this map of Allied bombing raids over Europe in the Second World War by Dimitri Lozeve, also drawn from Data.mil’s THOR database (click on the link for an enlarged version):

Allied bombing in Europe, 1939-1945

You can zoom in; here are two close-ups:

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The map comes without a key; all I know is that the original tabulations include ‘U.S. and Royal Air Force data, as well as some Australian, New Zealand and South African air force mission’ 1939-1945 and refer to tonnages dropped: more discussion here.

On the global scale, Data Is Beautiful has a GIF showing ‘every bomb dropped by Allied forces in World War II); you can view it as a video here, from which I’ve grabbed these screenshots that capture the shift from the European to the Pacific theatre:

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allied-bombing-june-1943

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Data World‘s Ian Greenleigh has kindly alerted me to a similar treatment of the THOR database for Vietnam by his colleague Mark DiMarco here:

Our point-of-view is from high above the South China Sea, where much of the US Navy fleet was stationed.
By giving the user a bird’s eye view, we can clearly see up and down the Vietnamese peninsula, and the neighboring countries of Laos & Cambodia, and precisely see where these missions took place.
Each frame of the visualization is a single day’s worth of missions. Some days had as many as 1,500 missions, while the records for some days are completely missing.
The colors of each of the circles dictates what type of mission took place.

The GIF is here; screenshot from the interactive:

Vietnam bombing GIF

‘Nothing ever dies’

Nothing ever dies

I’m just starting Viet Thanh Nguyen‘s Nothing ever dies: Vietnam and the memory of war (just out from Harvard):

All wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory. From the author of the bestselling novel The Sympathizer comes a searching exploration of the conflict Americans call the Vietnam War and Vietnamese call the American War – a conflict that lives on in the collective memory of both nations.

From a kaleidoscope of cultural forms – novels, memoirs, cemeteries, monuments, films, photography, museum exhibits, video games, souvenirs, and more – Nothing Ever Dies brings a comprehensive vision of the war into sharp focus. At stake are ethical questions about how the war should be remembered by participants that include not only Americans and Vietnamese but also Laotians, Cambodians, South Koreans, and Southeast Asian Americans. Too often, memorials valorize the experience of one’s own people above all else, honoring their sacrifices while demonizing the “enemy” – or, most often, ignoring combatants and civilians on the other side altogether. Visiting sites across the United States, Southeast Asia, and Korea, Viet Thanh Nguyen provides penetrating interpretations of the way memories of the war help to enable future wars or struggle to prevent them.

Drawing from this war, Nguyen offers a lesson for all wars by calling on us to recognize not only our shared humanity but our ever-present inhumanity. This is the only path to reconciliation with our foes, and with ourselves. Without reconciliation, war’s truth will be impossible to remember, and war’s trauma impossible to forget.

Here is the table of contents:

Prologue
Just Memory
Ethics
1. On Remembering One’s Own
2. On Remembering Others
3. On the Inhumanities
Industries
4. On War Machines
5. On Becoming Human
6. On Asymmetry
Aesthetics
7. On Victims and Voices
8. On True War Stories
9. On Powerful Memory
Just Forgetting
Epilogue

You can find an interview with the author at the LA Review of Books here: among other things, it addresses his doubled (and doubly admirable) interest in fiction and non-fiction.  There’s another with Tavis Smiley on PBS here and, since he’s just won a Pulitzer for his novel The Sympathizer – which also deals with Vietnam and the US – I’m sure there’ll be lots more….

A long day’s journey…

Anti-landscape of the Western Front.001

A note from Antipode to say that the latest edition is now available online and, unless I’ve mis-read things, is open access (for now, at any rate).  It includes what the editors say ‘might well be Antipode‘s longest ever paper’ – pp. 3-56! – my ‘Natures of war’ essay here.

JARMAN Sand.001

Vietnam, Vietnam

Travis_Radio

The New York Times has a fascinating clip from a longer documentary by Mike Attie and Meghan O’Hara called In Country, about a group in Oregon that re-enacts scenes from the Vietnam War:

IN COUNTRY is a feature documentary that follows 2/5 1st Cav (Reenacted), a “platoon” of hardcore Vietnam War re-enactors. Weaving together verité footage of the reenactments with flashbacks to the characters’ real lives and archival footage from the Vietnam War, IN COUNTRY blurs the boundaries between reality and fantasy, past and present to tell a story about men trying to access the past.

The question at the center of IN COUNTRY is why? Why would these men – many of them combat veterans of Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan haunted by their own experiences on the frontline – try to recreate a war that so many have tried to forget?

The film-makers give part of their answer in the NYT:

Unlike most war re-enactments, the pretend battles they stage are private, free of spectators and created for the experience of the participants alone. Outfitted in authentic period military gear, the men hike through the woods for days at a time, sleep on the ground, eat canned rations and carry actual Vietnam-era weapons (loaded with blanks). They do not stage battles but rather attempt to find and “kill” a group of Vietcong re-enactors waiting to ambush them.

Most remarkable perhaps is how this unusual hobby brings combat veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan together with civilians and veterans of Vietnam. They work collectively to create a fascinating space where real emotions and memories mix with history and fantasy. Their reasons for participating vary: Some seek the camaraderie they experienced in their deployment, while others want to relive a vital time in their life. And for all of the veterans involved, it is an event at which their service is acknowledged and respected.

They elaborate in an interview with PBS here, and in a You Tube clip from IFF Boston here.

For my part, there have been many comparisons between Afghanistan and Vietnam, but from the clips I’ve seen (and the clean uniforms) I don’t think the literal meaning of quagmire is re-staged in the Oregon woods very often…

‘Life is a rock but the radio rolled me…’

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The war in Vietnam was often heralded as ‘a new kind of war’, one that reached its awful climax in what James Gibson brilliantly criticised as ‘technowar’.  It had many dimensions, including the reintroduction of chemical warfare (Agent Orange and all the other herbicides) and the development of the ‘electronic battlefield’.

But at the time the US Army made the most of its commitment to what it called ‘air mobility’.

As you can see from this contemporary Army video, the concept was claimed as revolutionary (and, in its way of course, counter-revolutionary).  ‘An entirely new concept of warfare known as heli-borne or air mobile operations has been developed by the United States Army,’ claims the commentator, ‘and has been successfully employed to meet the problems posed by South East Asia’s hostile wilderness and bye enemy who hides there.’

In fact, it wasn’t invented in Vietnam, but it was a dominant mode of army operations there: you can download the US Army’s historical report on Air mobility 1961-1971 here, for example, the Vietnam Center and Archive has a helpful page on ‘The helicopter war’ here, and you can read an extract from Walter Boyne‘s How the helicopter changed modern warfare here.  There is also a considerable literature on ‘dust-off‘ that I’m working through for my new research project on casualty evacuation in war zones.

Airmobility 1961-1971

And don’t forget its role in popular culture.  The helicopter loomed large in the iconography of Francis Ford Coppola‘s Apocalypse Now (1979):

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More recently Pete Adey provided a summary of a more general concept of ‘aeromobilities’ [Geography Compass 2/5 (2008) 1318-1336] though his emphasis, perhaps not surprisingly, is on vision.

What interests me here, though, is another capacity, and one without which the potential of air mobility would have remained unrealised.

I’m talking about the voice on the radio.  I’ve written about the role of the forward air controller before, and the parallels between the air strikes they directed in Vietnam and today’s remote operations in Afghanistan (see ‘Lines of descent’, DOWNLOADS tab).

GREGORY From a view to a kill Shock and Awe Extract.001

This destructive power was captured with extraordinary economy by Phil Caputo in A Rumor of War:

Simply by speaking a few words into a two-way radio, I had performed magical feats of destruction. Summoned by my voice, jet fighters appeared in the sky to loose their lethal droppings on villages and men. High-explosive bombs blasted houses to fragments, napalm sucked air from lungs and turned human flesh to ashes. All this just by saying a few words into a radio transmitter. Like magic.

But the radio was part of a much wider network of military violence and military logistics in Vietnam.  Here is Frederick Downs in The killing zone:

With the radio, we grunts could make use of modern weapons. Without it, everything stayed put. We used the radio to call in artillery, naval gun support if it was close enough, air strikes, gunships, dustoffs, Puff the Magic Dragon [the AC-47 gunship], mortars, tanks, APCs and other rifle platoons. The radio kept us supplied. One day our order went in; the next day the chopper flew out with a delivery. We found each other by using grid coordinates and radioing them back and forth. A pilot knew he had the right location when we popped smoke and he identified it over the radio. By this method, we received C rations, ammo, new weapons, grenades, parts for our equipment, shoes, new clothes, underwear, socks, medicine, personnel replacements, beer, iodine tablets for use in the water, mail, and once in a while even a chaplain. To complete the cycle, the radio was used to extract us from trouble. Saving a life was often a matter of seconds. The radio was also a comfort at night. The periodic radio checks assured us that friends and help were always near.

Here too, incidentally, there are lessons for contemporary analysis: satellite imagery is clearly of vital significance for today’s advanced militaries, but so too are satellite communications.  I’ll discuss this is another post, but without those communication links there would be no full-motion video-feeds from all those Predators and Reapers – and their operating range would be dramatically constricted.  Ground operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere would also be virtually impossible without their radio links.

The-new-RTO

From 1965 the main field radio in Vietnam was the PRC-25 (‘Prick 25’).  You can find a detailed technical specification here, but here are the key passages:

‘The PRC-25 was about the size and weight of a case of soda. With its battery “can” included, call it a case of soda sitting on top of a six-pack. (It actually weighed slightly more than that, 23.5 pounds) There was a handle on each side at the top to carry it. The radio consisted of two parts, both in metal boxes, called “cans.” The upper can held the radio itself, the lower can held its battery pack. Metal buckles held the two together. The radio was tough and would easily survive a 50 foot fall from a helicopter onto a metal-planked runway. You could throw the whole thing in the water for an hour, completely submerged, then pull it out and expect it to work…

‘The radio antenna was exactly like a metal tape measure, but the bottom foot or so was a round flexible tube that screwed into the radio. There were actually two antennas, a regular one and a long-range antenna, carried in a canvas bag strapped to the side of the radio The radio had a transmission range, with the short antenna, of about 3-4 miles, but various terrain factors could influence this, of course. It helped to be higher up. The long range antenna was supposed to be good for up to 18 miles.

The rule of thumb was that the battery was good for about a day of casual operation, listening mostly, some occasional transmissions. In a period of intense use, transmitting/receiving all the time, it was good for perhaps 2-3 hours. The way the LRRPs [Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols] and SF [Special Forces] used it, shutting it off and only coming up at scheduled times to briefly transmit or listen, it was good for perhaps four days. Spare batteries were usually kept in a spare .30 caliber ammo can. When expended, the battery pack had to be physically destroyed. Inside were flashlight-type batteries which the Viet Cong could use in booby traps or to ignite bombardment rockets.’

Hoffman Humping HeavyNotice first the extraordinary weight of the thing.  I’ve detailed the loads humped by soldiers and Marines in Vietnam before, but you can see from this that the radio operator (RTO) was even more heavily burdened.  He also had to contend with a difficult load distribution: according to Rodger Jacobs ‘radiomen had to wear their radios on their chests because if worn on their backs the thickness of the jungle and the vines would constantly catch on the controls and change the frequencies.’  The best account of the trials and tribulations of an RTO that I know is Phillip Hoffman‘s appropriately titled Humping Heavy (right).

RTO2

Then notice the size of the aerial (above); RTOs carried a ten-feet rigid mast in sections but much of the time used a three-feet whip antenna.  This made the RTO extremely vulnerable: not only was he a marked target, but he was always close to the platoon or patrol commander and so both were hi-vis priorities in an enemy attack or ambush.   For that reason the most prized possession of many RTOs was a North Vietnamese Army rucksack: ‘They’re better than anything the Corps has,’ Jeff Kelly was told.  ‘It’ll hang lower on your back and won’t catch on branches. But the big thing is you won’t be giving off that radioman silhouette.’  Most RTOs taped the antenna down, but Hoffman made the mistake of questioning the wisdom:

Right away he demanded I stuff the flexible, three-foot whip antenna down my shirt to limit me (and by extension him) as a target. He knew a priority of the enemy was to knock out communication, and our commo was located on my back. I complied with his directive but made the mistake of telling him our signal strength would suffer. In no uncertain words he told me never to question him again.

Even with a network of relay stations and airborne retransmissions, communications were uneven and intermittent: the terrain could block signals, especially in the Central Highlands, and rain (especially during the monsoon) could play havoc with reception.  At night even a whisper was dangerous; here is John Edmund Delezen:

Hourly situation reports are sent to the radio relay atop of Hill 950 some three kilometers north of the Khe Sanh airstrip. The “sit-reps” are not sent in the form of words-we dare not speak in the black void; when the relay asks us to acknowledge his call, there are just the two distinct pauses in the constant squelch as the handset is keyed twice. The two small audible clicks are all that connects us with the world, and all that assures the relay that we have not disappeared into the liquid black night.

Artillery fire direction center Vietnam

It could be strangely remote for those receiving the transmissions too (above, an artillery fire support center).  Kenneth Sympson, an artillery officer, explained:

‘Our only contact with the men of the patrols was from radio transmissions—the infrequent call-in at a checkpoint or request for fire on some pretargeted location on their route. They were a noise on the radio and a trace on a map of the region. When you fired an artillery round in support, it was almost as if you were simply throwing it into the night and it just disappeared. It would later strike a place on the map, but there was no life there; there was only some representation for crossing trails or the contour lines indicative of the slope of a hill or a pin hole named Registration Point 3.’

Downs says much the same, describing gun crews anticipating ‘the release of their impersonal death into a grid square.’

But for those beyond the wire those staccato messages were far from abstract or impersonal.  ‘The radio was our link with literally everything outside our platoon,’ said Downs, ‘from supplies to survival’.  And without it, as he also said, ‘everything stayed put.’

Hence my title: and for those too young (or too old) to remember it, listen to this (YouTube).

Quagmire

I’ve received several e-mails asking for “Boots on the Ground” to be continued.  So here is the rest of my discussion of militarised nature in Vietnam, extracted from the long-form version of “The natures of war“.  It follows on directly from that earlier post, but please bear in mind that this is still only a draft – in particular, I need to add a discussion of malaria, somehow, somewhere – and that I’ve excised the footnotes and references from this version.

***

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Even the weather seemed out to get them. The tropical heat and humidity were so enervating that they appeared to possess their own monstrous agency. ‘There were moments when I could not think of it as heat,’ Caputo confessed, ‘rather it seemed to be a thing malevolent and alive.’ Dehydration and heatstroke were constant concerns, and the monsoon only compounded their misery. ‘It rained like it had been waiting ten thousand years to rain,’ one lieutenant said when the monsoon broke, and John Ketwig described rain drops ‘as large as marbles and driven with enough force to sting when they hit you.’ The ground was turned into a sea of mud, and even the ‘rear-echelon motherfuckers’ on the permanent bases had to contend with their bunkers and foxholes filling with water, and roads becoming ‘ribbons of churned slop’. Ketwig again:

‘There were areas of shallow mud and areas of deep mud, but there were no areas without mud. Most of our world was under water, and you had to know where to step. The huge trucks we worked with would often sink up to the frame. The driver would try four-wheel-drive, spin the cleated duals at the rear, and dig himself in deeper. The rule was, the driver who “lost” a truck had to swim down and attach the tow chains. Swim is an accurate term for the depth of the mud, but hardly describes the frenzied mucking about in zero-visibility goo.’

One Marine newly arrived at a base near the DMZ in the middle of the monsoon was advised that the best way to navigate the ‘boot sucking slurry’ was to ‘walk in the tank tracks’: ‘The mud is only an inch deep there … Plus if we take incoming [fire], you can lay down in the track and you’re five inches lower.’ Vietnam was often more than a metaphorical quagmire.

The irony was that the billowing storm clouds limited air reconnaissance and so made ground patrols all the more important. They also constrained the logistical and medical support that could be provided to them:

‘There were many days when aircraft could not fly in such all-consuming cloudy conditions. Hence we were not always assured that we would be re-supplied, or that we could get choppers in to take out our wounded or dead, and on one occasion we were compelled to sleep with our dead, and then awake in the morning and carry our dead along with us, while waiting for an opportunity to clear an LZ (landing zone) so that choppers could come in and lift our comrades out of the jungle for their final journey home.’

For those out beyond the wire the monsoon wreaked havoc. Jack Estes describes one tropical storm ‘ripping, ravaging and slapping through the jungle’ and ‘howling like a monstrous beast.’ Soldiers were drenched to the skin, their uniforms chafed, their packs became heavier as they absorbed the water, and thick, cloying mud clung to their boots and weighed down their every step. ‘The mud was ground into my letters’, wrote one Marine.

‘The mud was ground into everything. The mud was in our ears and mouths. Our c-rats [C-rations] tasted like the mud we lived in… We were brown men. Even the black men were brown men.’

Mud in Vietnam

It was all desperately invasive, and Lawrence said he felt ‘persistently violated by the soaking wetness’. There was no let-up when darkness fell and they dug in for the night. ‘Sleep was measured in minutes at a time on the rainy nights’ and ‘muscles were constantly drawn tight against the cold.’ One Marine admitted that one night it was so miserable that ‘after a while we were hugging like young lovers’ just to stay warm. But usually the combination of cold and wet was utterly debilitating.

‘The rain comes in sheets all through the night and when I am relieved I remain standing with the Marine that has relieved me. Soon we realize that nearly the entire team is standing to escape the flooded ground. As the rain intensifies, I surrender to the cold deluge; wrapping myself into the wet, muddy plastic, I try to sleep. Before daylight, I wake shivering and half submerged in a deep puddle of cold rainwater, the edges of my poncho floating beside me. I pray that I am dreaming. Leeches cover my legs, their bodies filled to the point of bursting, gorged with type “O” Positive. The crotch of my jungle trousers is caked with blood; a leech has fed on my groin. My wrinkled fingers struggle with the bottle of insect repellant and as I squirt it on their membrane-like skin, I vent my rage on them with frantic curses that are filled with disgust. As I watch them fall off in agony, I scratch at the wounds to maintain the flow of rich, clean blood that will hopefully prevent infection; the repellent burns deep into each wound.’

Aching muscles, pus-filled skin sores and scabs (‘jungle rot’) and even leeches were the least of their worries. The infantry still marched on its feet as well as its stomach – for the grunts at least, ‘the war was fought with the feet and legs’ – and constant immersion invited the return of an old adversary. When Delezen hauled off one of his soaking boots he was taken aback:

Vietnam feet‘[T]he foot is a wrinkled mass of putrid milk-white flesh and is badly cracked and bleeding. With the ragged boot in one hand and my weapon in the other, I crawl through the matted bamboo to the Corpsman [Marine medical specialist]; after a quick glance he tells me that there is nothing that he can do, his feet are in the same condition. It is immersion foot; trench foot was what our grandfathers called it in France. One by one each of my teammates removes one boot at a time and stares in repulsion at the condition of their feet… I try to dry the foot but I have nothing that is not waterlogged. Finally, in desperation, I place the wet socks under the shoulder holster; perhaps my body heat will dry them. There is nothing more that I can do so I pull the muddy jungle boot back on, lace it up, and try to forget about my ravaged feet.’

These physical sensations of exhaustion and pain were registered in a sensorium in which the usual hierarchy of senses was scrambled. As on the Western Front and in the Western Desert, sight was compromised in the rainforest. Visibility was limited by the dense vegetation and the filtered light. With a patrol strung out in single file five metres apart, it was all too easy to lose sight of the man in front – O’Brien said they each followed him ‘like a blind man after his dog’ – and at night ‘it was like walking inside a black velvet bag.’ Everyone’s eyes ached ‘from the constant strain of searching through the layers of jungle.’ In the middle of this ‘war of plant life’, wrote Caputo, ’it was difficult to see much of anything through the vines and trees, tangled together in a silent, savage struggle for light and air’. And yet, for that very reason, they had an almost palpable ‘sense of being surrounded by something we could not see.’ ‘It was the inability to see that vexed us most,’ he continued. ‘In that lies the jungle’s power to cause fear: it blinds.’ Not surprisingly, he concluded that ‘in Vietnam the best soldiers were unimaginative men.’ Once again, O’Brien spells out the consequences: ‘What we could not see, we imagined.’

TOM VAN SANT Night_Patrol_Vietnam_68.jpg.w560h404

As sight lost its primacy the other senses were heightened, particularly hearing. Noise was literally a dead giveaway – ‘sound was death in the jungle’ – and the jingle of equipment had to be minimised. Before setting out, Delezen explained, ‘each of us, donning our heavy equipment, jumps up and down listening attentively for the slightest sound; there can be no exception. What may be considered an insignificant rattle will become amplified in the silent bush.’ Sounds also seemed to travel farther at night. ‘Shortly after sunset the jungle became as black as tar, and our sense of hearing came to predominate over our sense of sight.’ Other noises filled the canopy – ‘the croaking of tree frogs, the clicking of gecko lizards like sticks of bamboo banging together, the drone of myriad insects, and the occasional screech of a monkey’ – and these played cruel tricks with the imagination. In isolation they could sound a false alarm, and it was common for rookies to wake their companions because they had heard something, only to be reassured ‘there was nothing out there.’ But together, as a sort of green noise, they could ‘lull you into somnambulance … [and] numb your sense of hearing and smell and sight until you start seeing things in the night.’

All of these burdens, physiological and psychological, convinced many soldiers that their greatest danger was from Nature itself. What exercised them most about the jungle was not the prospect of an encounter with a wild animal; their accounts mention bamboo vipers, whose bite was horribly painful but not deadly, and even the occasional tiger, but they repeatedly tell themselves that ‘all the bombing and artillery have driven the wildlife up into Cambodia.’ Neither was it the thought of being killed or wounded in an ambush: ‘Contact with the enemy was very sporadic’, John Nesser explained, and instead ‘it was the day-to-day miseries in the bush that got to us.’ It would be wrong to minimise the dangers of being killed or wounded, which surely preyed on soldiers’ minds. But what they clearly came to loathe with a passion was their intimate, intensely corporeal violation by the jungle itself. ‘There it is you motherfuckers,’ crows Corporal Jancowitz in Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn: ‘Another inch of the green dildo.’ The image is part of a long tradition of ‘porno-tropicality’ that is hardly peculiar to the US military, but during the Vietnam war it has a particular resonance for what it implies about violence, masculinity and the ‘un-manning’ of American soldiers.

Its power turns on the militarisation of nature in an altogether different register: one in which the jungle becomes terrifyingly alive, and its militant agency is made to account for the degradation of soldiers caught in its poisonous embrace and to justify its own destruction. There is a scene in Stephen Wright’s Meditations in Green in which a photo-interpreter on a large US airbase is advised to sit on top of a bunker and stare at the jungle.

WRIGHT Meditations in Green‘“You have to concentrate because if you blink or look away for even a moment you might miss it, they aren’t dumb despite what you may think, they’re clever enough to take only an inch or two at a time. The movement is slow but inexorable, irresistible, maybe finally unstoppable. A serious matter.”

“What movement, what are you are you talking about?”

“The trees, of course, the fucking shrubs. And one day we’ll look up and there they’ll be, branches reaching in, jamming our M-60s, curling around our waists.”

“Like Birnam Wood, huh?”

“Actually, I was thinking more of triffids.”’

The scene is fiction but not entirely fanciful – one platoon leader called it ‘the magic hour when men begin to look like bushes, and bushes begin to move’ – and many came to see the jungle as capricious and even wilfully obstructive. Caputo complained that ‘cord-like “wait-a-minute” vines coiled around our arms, rifles and canteen tops with a tenacity that seemed almost human.’ A radio operator humped the set on his chest not his back because otherwise ‘the vines constantly change the frequency by spinning the knobs of the radio top.’ ‘Perhaps it is the bush that is the enemy’, wondered Delezen:

‘[T]he jungle is a “cat’s cradle” of twisted vines that seem alive, as if reaching for me. Sometimes, even when not moving, I find myself held in their grasp, it as if they silently attack when I am not looking, as though they are thinking organisms. When moving, the only way to pass through the vines is to become a vine; it is impossible to push through the jungle, forcing, fighting, and struggling. The bush must be negotiated with and each vine must be silently dealt with as an individual. Stealth and quiet is all that prevents our destruction from the ever-present enemy. We have learned that we must become a part of the bush, always searching for the passage that lies hidden through the entanglement…’

In this passage the young Marine moves from being attacked by the vines – ‘held in their grasp’ – to becoming one, ‘a part of the bush’, and the precarious relation between the two had to be constantly renegotiated if the men were to survive. ‘At times I am certain that it is possible for our team to be consumed by the enveloping walls of foliage,’ Delezen continues, ‘without a trace we could easily disappear forever, absorbed into the tangled mass.’ This was more than the spectral fear of getting lost, though that was ever present; more too than losing your grip in what O’Brien called ‘a botanist’s madhouse’. For many soldiers it was also an existential threat that emanated from a diabolical Nature. ‘The Puritan belief that Satan dwelt in Nature could have been born here,’ Herr wrote in an extraordinary passage:

‘Even on the coldest, freshest mountaintops you could smell jungle and that tension between rot and genesis that all jungles give off. It is ghost-story country… Oh, that terrain! The bloody, maddening uncanniness of it!’

Downs too was taken aback by the pervasive sensation of rot. ‘Covering everything was the smell of slimy, rotting vegetation’, he recalled. ‘Our clothes and our bodies were beginning the rotting process of the jungle.’ He recognised this as a physical danger – ‘every scratch was a breeding spot for bacteria which could result in the rapid growth of jungle rot’ – and one that involved constant physical degradation: as one Marine officer put it, ‘it is a different way to live, and it is not a state of grace.’ Downs also saw this as a profoundly moral danger. ‘Every day we spent in the jungle eroded a little more of our humanity away.’ For him and for countless others the rot set in as the deeply sedimented Enlightenment distinctions between nature and culture dissolved in the jungle. ‘Everything rotted and corroded quickly over there,’ Caputo agreed, ‘bodies, boot leather, canvas, morals’:

‘Scorched by the sun, wracked by the wind and rain of the monsoon, fighting in alien swamps and jungles, our humanity rubbed off of us as the protective bluing rubbed off the barrels of our rifles.’

To him, it was ‘an ethical as well as a geographical wilderness. Out there, lacking restraints, sanctioned to kill, confronted by a hostile country and a relentless enemy, we sank into a brutish state.’

Admissions like these reappear throughout the letters, diaries and memoirs that I have read, sometimes explicitly and sometimes implicitly (the cleansing shower when a patrol returns from the field can sometimes be more than a matter of physical hygiene). They invite questions about how far the imprecations of nature – its assault not only on the human body but also on the humanity of the soldier – functioned for some of them as a more or less unconscious alibi for atrocity, so that those who committed acts of indiscriminate or unnecessary violence believed they had somehow been reduced to a ‘state of nature’ by nature. Its plausibility must have been heightened by the common dehumanisation of the Vietnamese (‘gooks’) and the reduction of the enemy and the civilian population to creatures of nature. Bernd Greiner says as much in his detailed analysis of atrocities in the far north and south of Vietnam: ‘Nature, the elements, literally everything took on the form of the enemy.’

The same imaginary also licensed a war on nature. The B-52 strikes, the napalm and the artillery bombardments all shattered the landscape (and the lives of many of those within it) but, as Wright’s Griffin is told in Meditations in Green, ‘it’s not as if [the] bushes were innocent.’ Griffin’s job was to assess the effects of the spraying of Agent Orange on the rainforest, the mangroves and the paddy fields by examining time series of air photographs:

‘It was all special effects out there. Crops aged overnight, roots shrivelled, stalks collapsed where they stood into the common unmarked grave of poisoned earth. Trees turned in their uniforms, their weapons, and were mustered out, skeletal limbs too weak to assume the position of attention… Griffin sat on his stool and watched the land die around him.’

Effects of Agent Orange on the ground

Wright was not alone in imaginatively enlisting the trees in the enemy’s battalions. This was the logic behind Operation Hades – a differently diabolical militarisation of nature – that was soon re-named Operation Ranch Hand. Its objective was to spray the forests with herbicides and deny their cover to the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong. In so far as the intention was, as David Zierler reports, to create ‘a no man’s land across which the guerrillas cannot move’ then at least some American officials were perturbed at the spectre of the Western Front being let loose once again: ‘Defoliation is just too reminiscent of gas warfare.’ Their objections were dismissed, however, and the US Air Force expressed considerable satisfaction at the results: ‘herbicide operations in the Republic of Vietnam have proved to be very useful as a tactical weapon.’ Those on the ground had a different view. ‘We didn’t know anything about Agent Orange beyond the fact that it was a failure,’ declared Nathaniel Tripp. The brute fact was that removing the forest cover made movement more difficult for American troops too. Agent Orange turned the surviving vegetation into a slimescape and, worse, allowed the hated vines to multiply:

‘During the year or two that had elapsed since [Agent Orange] had been sprayed on the woods, the “wait-a-minute” vines seemed to have developed a liking for the stuff and taken over like a kudzu horror movie. The long, prickly vines hung in festoons from the stark skeletons of poisoned trees and covered the ground with a shoulder-high thicket. Sometimes it would take an hour to move forward a kilometer, hacking through the vines while the sun beat down unmercifully. Extra water was frequently dropped by helicopter between stream crossings, but men kept collapsing from heat exhaustion nonetheless, and we all had to stop and wait again while they were medevaced out’.

03_Plowinthecutpackmule

And clearing the rainforest exposed American patrols to more than the sun’s harsh rays. Later Tripp and his platoon were part of a division tasked with securing a route used to supply a detachment of forty Rome Plows – giant armoured bulldozers – that were busy ‘flattening mile after mile of woods’. ‘It was something to see from the air,’ he recalled, ‘like battalions of tornadoes had just passed through leaving nothing but a shattered tangle of mud and tree trunks and root masses.’ But again, the ground provided a different perspective:

‘Digging in was all but impossible, but we did the best we could in the pouring rain. The ground was covered everywhere with a mat of logs and branches, all interwoven and compacted, three to five feet thick and mixed with gummy gray clay. Surely, America had triumphed over the woods at last, and created a place that was impossible for anyone to hide in. Now, we were trying to hide in it, while the Viet Cong watched from the dark woods just meters away on both sides of the swath.’

And yet, even in this ‘landscape of hopelessness’, as Tripp called it, there were precious moments of relief and even of redemption. Jacobs knew that ‘war destroys everything it touches’, but sometimes he found himself marvelling at ‘the natural beauty that surrounded us.’ Just when Delezen was in despair – ‘There is no beauty here, only destruction’ – he found a wild flower near an abandoned, half-filled fighting hole. ‘Like a rare jewel, it seems misplaced; there is no place for beauty here.’ But then:

‘I remove the sweat soaked leather bush glove from my hand and drop to one knee to touch the delicate petals. My hand is caked with slippery mud, a mixture of red dust from Route 9 and sweat; the hand seems filthy and crude against the soft purple and white flower. I decide not to touch it; I do not want to spoil this last bit of beauty and purity that has somehow escaped the Devil’s grasp.

‘I look toward the team that continues to move on without me; I am reluctant to leave the petite blossom unprotected. Quickly, I gather a small pile of rusty ration cans and place them around the frail green stem. Perhaps the cans will offer protection; the team is looking back at me, I have to rejoin them. I want to take the flower with me but it will only wither and die in the heat. I have done all that I can to protect it from the madness. For a brief moment, I have escaped the hell of war and entered a peaceful sanctuary where care and compassion still exist…. As I move away from the little pile of rusty cans, occasionally I look back; with each glance the soft colors of the flower fade until they blend into the dry-green of the tortured vegetation.’

It’s an affecting passage in which Delezen joins his forebears on the Western Front in affirming the stubborn persistence of a pastoral nature, even in a tropical rainforest, but the most elegiac moment I know comes towards the end of Matterhorn. Marlantes’ young lieutenant thinks of the jungle ‘already regrowing around him to cover the scars they had created’:

‘Mellas felt a slight breeze from the mountains rustling across the grass valley below him to the north. He was acutely aware of the natural world. He imagined the jungle, pulsing with life, quickly enveloping Matterhorn, Eiger, and all the other shorn hilltops, covering everything. All around him the mountains and the jungle whispered and moved, as if they were aware of his presence but indifferent to it.’

Firebase 6 Dak To Vietnam 1971

In speaking so directly to the recuperative, regenerative capacity of even a militarised nature, I suspect Marlantes is also expressing a desperate hope that those who have brutalised so many of its life-forms might find redemption too.

DEU 1968 Jahrestag