IN FEBRUARY 1972, WORKING IN THE PERPETUAL DRIZZLE THAT shrouds the central coast of Vietnam each winter, soldiers from the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) produced a photographic inventory of two bases newly acquired from the Americans. Just a few weeks before, some thirty thousand US Army and Marine Corps troops removed themselves with thousands of tons of equipment from Phú Bài Combat Base and Camp Eagle. In the peak of fighting during what Vietnamese call the American War, these two bases were round-the-clock military cities. Networks of pipelines supplied diesel and aviation fuel from a makeshift port to the airfield, helipads, power plants, and fuel depots. The helipads supported a fleet of flying UH-1 “Huey” gunships, CH-47 Chinook cargo helicopters, and CH-54 Skycranes that ferried troops and heavy guns to distant firebases near the Laos border. Radio centers near Phú Bài linked the bases with US ships offshore, with top-secret planes carrying radio-listening equipment above, and with commanders in the field. Night and day, the air around these bases buzzed with radio chatter and the whomp-whomp of rotor blades. In December 1971, just before the American troops left, comedian Bob Hope and other entertainers gave a final concert to an audience of more than ten thousand at Camp Eagle’s amphitheater, the Eagle Bowl. Two weeks later, the troops were gone; even the stage was gone. Only skeletal frames of lumber and scaffolding remained.
While American media followed this latest wave in Vietnam base closures as a positive end to a tragic war now being overshadowed by Nixon’s trip to China, South Vietnam’s leaders attempted to retain the attention of the world’s media attention on these ruined bases. The ARVN produced a visual inventory, noting the missing, vital equipment (figure I.1). ARVN commanders in Huế were furious that the Americans had left these high-tech base cities, operating at full capacity a few months earlier, in tatters. American contractors removed the systems that provided electricity, clean water, and perimeter lighting while fire trucks, communications centers, and air conditioners moved to the few American bases still in operation. The commander of the ARVN’s First Division held a press conference, showing reporters these base ruins and the bill that the Americans issued South Vietnam for the remaining buildings, powerlines, and roads. The cost for these “improvements” to the land topped US$4 million, and at the time nobody paid attention to the hastily covered landfills.1
The American pullout from Vietnam in 1972–73 revealed many social and environmental scars from one of history’s most destructive wars. These extended far beyond ruined bases and bombed-out hills to ruptures in family life and local rites too. Figure 1.2 shows a common though less-remarked feature of many bases that they were frequently sited on village cemeteries. The main subject in the photo is a canteen-like building with concrete picnic tables, an officers’ club. Visible just behind the tables is the headstone and lotus-topped pillars of a family tomb. The tomb had been there long before the club or the base. American engineers first bulldozed these tombs when building bases, but local uproar caused them to build around them. Space here on Highway 1 in the narrow central region of Vietnam was limited, so the marines set to work in the village graveyard.
This unfortunate juxtaposition of troops camping in a graveyard is a fitting symbol for the deeply troubling ways that landscapes—military, physical and cultural—figured into the larger struggles of war in Vietnam. Families wishing to tend to these ancestral tombs risked detention at base entries, and those visiting tombs outside base perimeters risked being shot. American troops, traumatized by combat, returned to their bases to sleep amid these tombs. Many websites produced by American veterans feature shots of soldiers standing in or around these old tombs. Some recalled how the concrete walls often provided lifesaving cover from rockets and sniper fire.2 The marines at Phú Bài even named one landing zone LZ Tombstone, working the graveyard into their gallows humor and operational jargon.
These two images (figures I.1 and I.2) highlight the very different ways that military processes became embedded in the multiple histories of the war, of communities, and of individuals. While the eye is typically drawn in these images to the military ruins, the historical backstory to them reveals new layers that point to the land’s deeper, layered past and its multiple meanings. This problem, understanding how military processes become embedded and woven into these multiple landscapes, the footprints of war, is the focus of this book. In places such as Phú Bài, the American military aimed to rewire these landscapes in physical and social terms to achieve the goals of nation building and containment of communist troops. However, the Americans were not the first to attempt to meet these goals here nor were they alone as state-builders in 1965. Communist and noncommunist Vietnamese forces built their own networks in the mountains and here on the coast too. They relied on clandestine hideouts and storage caches to mobilize an underground railroad stretching from coastal villages like Phù Bài to mountain bases. In their propaganda, they highlighted how these ancient village landscapes had long suffered past military occupations, and they linked their revolutionary struggle to ancient Vietnamese resistance movements against such invaders as the Mongols, the Ming, the French, and the Japanese. The removal of the Americans in 1972 revealed the limits of one military’s state-building infrastructure in this place and the resiliency of another.
As this environmental history of war in Vietnam is written by an American, my process in choosing Huế, Phú Bài and the mountain valleys of Thừa Thiên–Huế Province as the focus for this story deserves explanation at the outset. Like many children born in the 1970s, I grew up in the shadow of the Vietnam War. My father was not a combat veteran but a nuclear engineer who graduated from the US Naval Academy; before he retired from the military in the mass demobilization of 1973, I lived on military bases. As a civilian kid, I visited military museums and caught pieces of stories from my parents’ military friends. In college I became an environmental activist and marched in protest of the 1991 Gulf War. After college I traveled to Vietnam and taught English as a volunteer. In graduate school I studied environmental history and specialized in Vietnamese studies, learning the language and doing research in Vietnamese archives. I found Huế (or maybe it found me) in 2006 while I was leading a student tour on Highway 1, the coastal highway running from Hà Nội south to Sài Gòn. Near Huê’s Phú Bài International Airport I noticed dozens of sprawling, empty lots with broken pavement and no houses in an otherwise crowded strip of villages and new factories. When I asked our guide about these spaces, he responded in Vietnamese but then rattled off English place-names—Camp Evans, Camp Hochmuth, and Camp Eagle. The tour guide was, like me, a child of the war. His father was a South Vietnamese soldier, and he grew up on the edge of these bases, but he was quick to note that many older people still remember these names. I was fascinated by this and these spaces. Why were they still empty? What would happen to them now that Vietnam was going through an economic and real estate boom?
That initiated my interest, but the research for this book and the local support necessary for it followed one summer later with a different student program at a July 4 reception hosted by the local chapter of the US-Vietnam Friendship Society in Huế. After the ceremony, I explained to the society’s vice chairman, an environmental scientist, that I was an environmental historian and interested in the legacies of the war. Usually, explaining (and defending) environmental history as a serious discipline is a conversation ender, but in this case he listened attentively. He asked if I thought that US military records of old bases might be used to help pinpoint historical waste sites. A geologist with a PhD who had completed his doctorate in the Soviet Union studying at the Baku oil fields in Azerbaijan, he was at that time director of the province’s Department of Science and Technology and responsible for toxic waste cleanups in the province, including one involving US military waste near Phù Bài Village. Workers in the village had drained an upstream reservoir to clean it. While scraping away the mud, they uncovered a cache of rusted steel drums. With pickaxes they punctured the drums releasing a powdered concentrate of 2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile, better known as CS or tear gas. The concentrated powder mixed with water and mud, causing skin burns, and some of those who inhaled airborne particles went to the hospital with respiratory injuries and lesions. This find was not uncommon in the province, nor was it the most toxic discovery, but it especially troubled my host (I learned much later) because of the financial and legal conflicts it caused when the military forensics team came from Hà Nội to excavate the drums. Because CS was a war chemical, the Ministry of Defense ran the cleanup but charged the province more than US$75,000.3 My host hoped to use my environmental history skills to locate other hotspots to avoid future accidents.
This applied environmental history project provided me the opportunity to explore former base sites and surrounding villages with approval from the province, and it led me to deeper questions about the longer-term effects of military conflicts. In American military records, I found a trove of maps, photographs, and detailed textual records that I shared with local officials. The Records of US Forces in Southeast Asia, Record Group 472 (RG472), constitute one of the most detailed public archives of any military occupation in world history. Just the text records of RG472 take up hundreds of mobile shelves, covering an area equivalent to a few football fields. Within this collection I found detailed records of chemical activities at these bases, including operations using tactical herbicides such as Agent Orange and bulk drops of fifty-five-gallon drums containing powdered CS. US records included detailed chemical inventories, flight mission data, and payload information. Air photos and maps from the United States provided an essential visual survey of land features circa 1972. I digitized and georeferenced the historic imagery and maps of Camp Eagle and Phú Bài, then with help from a remote sensing specialist in Huế compared the historic layers with more recent satellite imagery. We produced historic maps showing long-term features, especially bare surfaces around these former chemical sites.4 We presented our findings and copies of all historical records, and the project concluded.
This work, however, opened a slew of broader questions about history, militarization, and landscape that form the basis for this book. When historians characterize a polluted site, they look for historical and environmental baselines to compare prepollution or premilitary conditions with specific environmental or military events. At Phú Bài I quickly learned that this layer of American military activity was just one of many (figure I.3). Readings at the province library and discussions with village historians yielded a much longer-term view of military occupation and conflict there.
As an example, the Phú Bài airfield was not just a base area for US Marines in 1965 but also a site for many early modern and modern military occupants. Vietnamese and Cham troops fought a Ming dynasty military occupation there in the early 1400s. In the late 1600s, the area was an industrial waste zone for iron smelting. Phù Bài Village and its slag fields—the future site of the Phú Bài airfield and bases, had for centuries been a sort of military-industrial village. Its hilly area cut by creeks leaching rust-red soils (Vùng Phèn) contained rich deposits of iron ore, and iron production continued until 1800. Iron smelting left large piles of waste slag and deforested hills.5 The French colonial government built Huế’s airfield in this “abandoned land” in 1924 and opened a leper colony in a valley at the foot of Vùng Phèn (figure I.3). When the Japanese Imperial Army arrived in 1941, it expanded the airfield and closed the leper colony. The Japanese added airplane hangars, a radio tower, and a fuel depot, and they located a camp (possibly for prisoners of war) near the former leper colony. Việt Minh soldiers took the area in August 1945, seizing Japanese weapons and ammunition from bunkers built into Vùng Phèn. The Việt Minh then operated an officer training facility near the former camp until 1947, when French infantry units, mainly Senegalese recruits, invaded and set up a Camp Oasis on the ruins of the Việt Minh training camp. Two years later Việt Minh artillery strikes and nighttime raids forced them out. In 1954 South Vietnamese army units took over the area and, with American assistance, expanded runways at the airfield and erected new facilities around former Camp Oasis. US Marines arrived in 1965, and American base construction accelerated after the Tết Offensive in 1968. The ARVN took over the bases in 1972 and the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) took over the area in 1975. It ceded much of the land to the province in 2000, but PAVN and local forces (similar to a national guard) still occupy some areas.
These discoveries during my search for premilitary baselines led to a fundamental shift in my approach to studying the relationship of war to landscape. Instead of following the environmental impacts of one military organization in this dynamic historical landscape, I instead chose to focus on the longer history of this long-militarized landscape through multiple layers of military construction and destruction. This longer historical approach to the militarized landscape is important for placing the American War in a deeper, multilayered historical and environmental context. Even since my initial queries in 2006, the concrete ruins and empty lots of the old bases have rapidly disappeared as new layers of industrial concrete or green carpets of forest plantations spread. The Phú Bài Combat Base was reborn in 2000 as Phú Bài Industrial Park, and now television assembly plants and logistics facilities occupy the footprints of US Army truck depots and infantry barracks. Even firebases and battlegrounds in the hills, especially near the former demilitarized zone (DMZ), are regreening, fading into thousands of hectares of acacia and new urban nodes sprouting along new highways running west to Laos and connecting to Thailand. New power lines and water pipes have finally replaced the gutted grids of infrastructure abandoned in 1972. In today’s industrial park, women from rural areas live communally after long days on the assembly line. They rest in dorms located just steps from where barracks in the late 1960s housed young Americans resting from missions in the hills. Today’s industrial parks are in many ways like the old bases running in reverse. People and raw materials travel from the hills to the industrial zones and exports cross the Pacific to ports such as Long Beach, California. These long-abandoned, abiotic landscapes have revived their industrial ecosystems.
Written from this vantage point of Vietnam’s early twenty-first-century economic boom, this history follows the central region’s deep history of conflict, its footprints of war, to consider how repeat instances of military conflict shaped the everyday fabric of life and memories in these lands. Its use of the term footprint as a metaphor is deliberate as footprints are deceptively complex as physical traces of past disruptions. While the term commonly suggests an impression or impact on something, a footprint is very much contingent on the relative resistance of the land or surface receiving the event, and the duration of a footprint’s trace depends on many post-incident factors. Finally, footprints require visual perspectives to record them. They are innately spatial; and in cases like the empty former base areas along Highway 1 they continue to figure into present-day, development debates.
While the postwar transition from bases to industrial parks in Vietnam is relatively new, the challenges of postwar economic development are not. The base-to-industrial-park transition in Vietnam may suggest an ironic reversal of Karl Liebknecht’s famous quote, “capitalism is war,” but military theorists have long considered military occupation as a means of opening new markets and capital-intensive opportunities.6 Base closures and property transfers after the Cold War are but the latest example of postconflict transitions to new urban and industrial landscapes. This transition from bases to cities has been a central feature of urbanization in world history for centuries. The Romans under Emperor Claudius (41–54 CE) invaded Britain and built the empire’s largest base in the islands around a bridge crossing the mudflats of the Thames River. Walls followed the bridge, and the medieval city of London spread from those walls along what is now London Bridge.7 In Vietnam, the ancient capital Hà Nội and its bustling mercantile streets grew up around the Chinese Tang dynasty’s walled garrison at Đại La (791 CE).8
Philosophers of war from Sun Tzu to Carl von Clausewitz and even the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter have long argued that military actions produce a kind of creative destruction, empty footprints that permit new spaces for development. Military occupation, they argued, cleared the surface so that new industries and social relations might form. Today Schumpeter is widely cited for coining the phrase creative destruction with respect to business cycles and the future of capitalism, but the idea was popular decades earlier. Schumpeter writes about business cycles, not war, but he arrives at the same conclusion that “creative destruction is an essential fact about capitalism.”9 Schumpeter actually borrowed the term from an earlier generation of German historians and economists writing in Prussia before and after the Great War. Economic historian Werner Sombart in War and Capitalism (1913) noted how the devastating religious wars in seventeenth-century Europe decimated forests yet enabled a new energy regime, built on coal, and new industries, built on coke and iron. He developed his view of creative destruction in turn from philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who drew from Hindu scripture in the Bhagavad Gita, focusing on the often violent processes through which culture is renewed and regenerated.10 Even after the atomic bombings and the Vietnam War, this idea continues to figure into wars in the present. Advisers of President George W. Bush argued in 2003 for a “shock doctrine” that would obliterate Iraq’s existing economy and permit construction of a new free market economy in the wake of “shock and awe.”11
Debates over these transitions from spaces of war to postwar ruins and postwar renewal form a central theme in this book, and the environmental history of these debates points to the troubling ecological limits of such an idea as creative destruction. Since the detonation of the first atomic bombs in 1945, when physicist Robert Oppenheimer also famously alluded to the Bhagavad Gita, the creative destruction optimists met a new form of environmentalist resistance. What happens when destruction is incomplete and hazards from war ruins persist for many years after conflicts end?12 The half-life of uranium-235 isotopes released in nuclear explosions tops seven hundred million years, and many of the chemicals used in warfare in the 1960s are persistent pollutants with severe ecological and human health impacts. As local and state governments grapple with the implications of building on former military sites potentially contaminated with these types of toxic waste, the logic of creative destruction breaks down. Bulldozers may scrape clear the rubble on the surface, but who is legally and ethically responsible for cleaning up what may still lie invisible below?13
MILITARIZATION AND LANDSCAPE
Because this book proposes a deeper historical treatment of military conflict and landscapes, the terms militarization and landscape require some unpacking. I use militarization in the broadest sense to describe not only acts of military-directed violence, construction, destruction, and land appropriation but also broader social processes where military organizations and demands reconfigured everyday life.14 Militarized landscapes likewise refer to lands that are not just physically connected to military processes but also tied in cultural and political ways—for example, the communities growing up around a base. Resource frontiers such as Vùng Phèn and even rice fields were touched by demands of military requisitioning just as village sons were conscripted into various armies. Militarization is a deliberately broad term intended to spur readers to broaden their perspective on the reach of military activity beyond bases and camps into village life and cultural practices.
This book’s use of the term landscape, too, is a choice intended to identify places defined broadly by a mix of ecological and social factors. As a concept born out of the European Enlightenment, the term is a nexus for views of land that describe physical, cultural, and historical elements in time.15 Landscapes are often measurable, physical spaces, depicted in paintings, photographs, and maps, but they can also be cultural spaces where natural and built features take on social meaning. By virtue of its visibility (the scape in landscape), a landscape can simultaneously exist in physical, cultural, and representational terms. It comprises physical elements such as buildings, soils, plants, and trees, but it also contains many cultural elements: the trails, monuments, and named features that American writer J. B. Jackson called the “vernacular landscape.”16 Despite the best efforts of military engineers to construct globally homogenous spaces, bases protected by minefields and barbed wire, the bases inevitably became entangled in these living, vernacular places—consider the marines’ bar in the cemetery.
Where most histories of war in Vietnam use the territory of the state as a relatively empty spatial frame for events, this book begins with a set of densely layered landscapes in Thừa Thiên–Huế Province to examine how a succession of state-builders and military forces attempted to fold these spaces into their competing programs. These landscapes can be roughly divided into three elevational zones: the narrow strip of coastal plains, a wider belt of hills (10–200 m), and an interior region of highlands (200–2,000 m) that form the mountainous border with Laos. The history of militarization from the 1400s to today roughly follows this direction of expansion from the coast into the mountains. This elevational logic is not my own invention but rather follows a traditional perspective used in Vietnam and many lowland societies in Southeast Asia. In central Vietnam, these basic ecopolitical boundaries are divided into lowland (hạ), midland (trung), and highland (thượng) domains. This book excavates this layered history of militarization in each of these elevational domains, beginning at coastal villages in the lowlands and on the streets of Huế before moving to key tactical zones in the hills, then following resistance fighters and foreign soldiers to the headwaters of the Perfume River and the mountainous A Sầu Valley (see figure I.3). It uses spaces in all three of these elevational domains as focal points to examine how different military actors constructed militarized landscapes and how those landscapes figured into broader visions of competing states.
As a history of competing state visions, it also relies heavily on visual media, considering how competing military organizations used aerial and cartographic technologies, including maps, airplanes, cameras, radio, and geomantic notions of mountain ridges and rivers, to tie these spaces into larger political networks. Guerrilla forces worked especially hard to “rewire” colonial spaces of roads and outposts into a new revolutionary territory defined by trails, rivers, mountain ridges, hidden radio transmitters, and kilometers of wire and plastic pipelines designed to avoid detection from above. Counterinsurgency experts likewise tried to tap into village life and traditions to modernize rural communities and bring them into a global system of commerce and ideas. The landscape-centered perspective permits a more multifaceted reflection on the natures and visions of these different military occupants.17
Finally, with respect to theories of landscape and space, this book considers the generative role that ancient conflict zones and former militarized places played on successive military conflicts. Spaces of past wars, from industrial waste zones to deforested hills and abandoned military camps, often guided new military developments.18 Environmental factors (food, shelter, vegetation, historic landmarks) and persistent spatial politics (abandoned lands, disputed territories) shaped successive military experiences. American military engineers did not have a blank check to site bases anywhere. They moved into abandoned French camps, into contested “wastelands” covered in tombs, and even into the evacuated camps of Việt Minh soldiers in the mountains. Even the most powerful military in the world in 1965 had to follow some basic rules conforming to the spatial history and logic of this landscape.
My choice of the former imperial capital Huế to center this study is not just due to fortuitous meetings with officials but also an acknowledgment of the especially rich historical, literary, and cultural traditions of this region. During the war and even after, Huế has symbolized the hybrid heart of Vietnam for its blending of northern and southern influences and its legendarily stubborn, antimodern vibe. The region’s heritage as an imperial capital and its importance in the twentieth century as a scene of some of the most intense battles is important; however, the contemporary attention to war’s legacies in rituals, art, and literature is equally important. Beyond the tombs, cemeteries, and war monuments are many spaces in between, sublayers of ancient remains, a “wilderness” haunted not only by traces of chemicals or munitions but also of ghosts from these contested pasts. Many people even today in Huế pay attention to this ethereal wilderness of “wandering souls” (linh hồn lang thang) and the more lethal wilderness of buried waste and munitions. Digging below the top few meters of soil, whether in the city or the countryside, one takes on a number of risks—being maimed by unexploded ordnance, finding human remains, or perhaps being exposed to toxic residues. Vietnamese popular culture is filled with stories of these material and ghostly “hauntings,” and virtually everyone knows a family in which someone has been touched by one form of these encounters.19 In villages near the bases and especially on the streets of Huế, on every full moon (ngày rằm) people set up altars in their front yards or sidewalks with incense and plates of food to feed and placate wandering souls. This happens once a year across much of East Asia during the ghost festival, which takes place on the full moon of the seventh lunar month, but in Huế it happens every month.
A narrow strip of coastline that divided Vietnam into separate, warring regimes, the Huế area is in some ways unique as a cultural contact zone too. As a borderland, it fostered decades of reflections by local residents and foreigners on the “two Vietnams.” War correspondent and political scientist Bernard Fall described French failures to expand control there in 1953–54 in his book Street without Joy. The title took its name from what French troops called Highway 1, just north of Huế, for its frequent ambushes: la rue sans joie.20 During the Second Indochina War, Huế and its embattled hills attracted scores of journalistic and literary works.
Although many focused on particular battle sites, some examined rural life and insurgent life in the mountain bases. North Vietnamese war correspondent Trần Mai Nam’s The Narrow Strip of Land, published in English in 1969, provides a communist partisan’s perspective on the area as he journeyed along the Hồ Chí Minh Trail through the treacherous bombed-out hills to villages on the coast.21 The 1968 Tết Offensive devastated Huế and by many accounts turned the tide of the Second Indochina War. South Vietnamese artists such as Nhã Ca and the singer-poet Trịnh Công Sơn attempted to put into stories and songs what was too horrible to account for in numbers and news reports.22 Proximity to Huế, even in the last years of the conflict, afforded such American social scientists as anthropologist James Trullinger rare opportunities to conduct interviews in villages. His book Village at War offers a fascinating perspective into villager responses to military bases, multiple episodes of violence, and political change.23 This collection of Vietnamese and foreign artistic and scholarly works around Huế provides a rich backdrop for the comparisons and reflections used in this book. Besides this literature, I also draw on years of travel to historic military sites and formal and informal interviews in villages such as Phù Bài (Thủy Châu Commune) and Dạ Lê (Thủy Phương Commune). Given the extremely limited access to post-1975 government records, my visits to the Thừa Thiên–Huế Province Library were essential for turning up local village histories and stories about postwar recovery.
Archives, especially military archives, form an essential part of this research, and in some senses they, too, are like landscapes in that they are often devilishly layered with their own spatial and historical logics. French military records from the Nord Annam–Huế Secteur are meticulously organized and documented at the Chateau de Vincennes near Paris, and they include a rich array of textual, visual, and cartographic sources. Outside Paris in nineteenth-century “caves” extending under the brick walls of Fort de l’Est, the French air force keeps equally pristine collections of aerial photography shot over Indochina from 1947 to 1954. American military records on Vietnam, housed for the most part in the National Archives at College Park, are comparatively sprawling. The vastness of these collections is both a blessing and a curse. It invites in-depth particularistic studies of individual units or battles, but it discourages cross-sectional thematic studies, which would be complicated by the sheer volume of records. There are also large online collections of digitized American records, including the Vietnam Archives at Texas Tech University; the CIA’s CREST database featuring declassified documents; and George Washington University’s National Security Archive.24
Compared with this relative abundance of foreign records, a relative absence of communist and People’s Army records presents a major challenge for comparative analyses. Primary records of Vietnamese forces, including the People’s Army, various noncommunist armies, and the National Liberation Front (NLF), are practically nonexistent for public researchers. My research approach here has been to mine the rather formulaic sets of published regiment histories, district party committee histories, and province-level histories. Such histories for the most part deny researchers a fine-grained view, but they nonetheless yield some checks on American and French records with respect to accounts of key battles as well as background on unit histories. Foreign military archives also include caches of captured documents, so with careful sifting and some luck, one can locate valuable nuggets.
Civilian records are invaluable, too, in characterizing state responses (and conflicts) with militaries. Given the many regimes that governed Huế from the 1800s to the 1970s, these records are scattered at repositories across Vietnam and beyond. The colonial records of the Résident Supérieur de l’Annam and the 1949–54 Central Vietnam Governing Committee (Phủ Thủ Hiến Trung Việt) are located in the mountain town Đà Lạt at the Vietnamese National Archives Center No. 4. They provide a localized view of affairs close to Huế before the division of Vietnam in 1954. Republic of Vietnam (RVN) state records, located at the Vietnamese National Archives Center No. 2 in Hồ Chí Minh City, provide a post-1954 view of deep regional tensions that festered between Huế and Sài Gòn and erupted with Buddhist- and student-led protests in the 1960s. Finally, American civilian agency records, especially those of the US State Department, offer insights into the ways that the RVN’s most powerful ally viewed and framed “the Vietnam situation” as protests and later the Tết Offensive put central Vietnam in the spotlight.
MILITARIZED LANDSCAPES ON PAPER, CELLULOID, AND SCREENS
Considering the visual element that is fundamental to the study of landscape, the many maps, aerial photographs, and satellite images produced during the modern conflicts in Vietnam have resulted in a largely untapped visual and cartographic resource for historians. The timeframe for the Indochina wars in Vietnam, 1945–75, fits perfectly in an incredible arc of technological innovations that included the development of aerial photography (1918–40), high-altitude photography (1940–75), satellite photography (1959–72) and satellite-based, multiband scanning (1972–). The visual products of military geoint—geospatial intelligence—in Vietnam remained largely classified until the early 2000s, but now most are public. As with any set of state or military records, photographic records also follow unique logics (and politics) of organization and pose unique material and interpretive challenges. In the case of US military photos over Vietnam, researchers must locate specific rolls of film using indexes and then wait for the film to be delivered from a privately operated cold-storage facility located in former salt mines near Saint Louis, Missouri. Almost daily, a plane delivers requested historical film, secret and public, to the Washington area. Once the film is at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, researchers must use 1960s-era photo interpreter machines and either scan or rephotograph the images (figure I.4). That researchers from anywhere in the world can come to College Park and handle original negatives from 1940s to 1960s military air photography is remarkable. The bird’s-eye view in figure I.4, depicting a US Special Forces base in the mountainous A Sầu Valley, suggests the aesthetic richness of these views while also providing clues on past land use and the work of military photographers.
Incorporating these high-altitude views into a study also invites new modes of critical analysis into how these aerial views were constructed and how they may have shaped the perceptions of military actors, especially foreign ones, who did not venture out much on the ground. From the introduction of air photography in the 1930s to intense American use of aerial images in the 1960s, the aerial view was fundamental to state-centered ideas of frontiers and American understandings of insurgency.25 This aerial platform and its bird’s-eye logic was of course repeatedly challenged, especially by insurgent groups. Communist forces in central Vietnam may not have flown airplanes and helicopters before 1975, but they developed and maintained their own networks of radio communications and countered aerial surveillance and bombing with camouflage. They read maps, too, but they deliberately used alternative methods of knowing landscapes—especially travel by landmarks—to avoid detection. This ground-based platform, designed to evade aerial surveillance, was equally important.
Finally, this book draws from the initial applied environmental history project by not only reflecting on these visual sources but also digitizing them into a historical GIS to produce visual studies and comparisons at specific places discussed in the book. Selections of map overlays and air photographs figure centrally in the later chapters, and one set of color plates contains figures produced from multiple map layers designed to answer questions about land use, the extent of military-related actions, and the historical persistence of many military features. A companion website featuring products of this historical GIS work allows readers to explore these layers in detail.26
A HISTORY IN LAYERS AND WARS
The following chapters are organized chronologically beginning with the early modern Vietnamese settlement of the coast in the 1400s and continuing through the years of French colonization (1884–1945) before turning to focus on the modern wars. The first chapter, “Subterrains,” is, at the risk of offending historians of early modern Vietnam and those more interested in modern warfare, a sketch that is necessary for identifying key military and environmental elements of the coast’s longue durée history. It is inspired in some ways by historian Fernand Braudel’s studies of the Mediterranean, in particular his attention to elevation and views shaped by a sojourn teaching in Algeria in the 1920s that helped him see how the terrains from Algiers to the Atlas Mountains linked Algerian and French histories in a common Mediterranean framework.27 This chapter doesn’t go so far, but it does attempt to rough out a longer environmental history to better explain Vietnamese attitudes toward hills, mountainous interiors, and periods of unrest that usually began with seaborne invasions. Chapter 2, “Terraforming,” follows colonial military and political rule around Huế from 1885 to 1945. It begins with the invasion of colonial troops in 1885 and examines colonial debates about degraded lands as well as the birth of anticolonial movements in the 1930s. Like the previous chapter, chapter 2 is not explicitly focused on military conflict; rather it considers how distant events from the two world wars and the Russian and Chinese revolutions influenced a new generation of nationalists and militants living in the central coast, including many future leaders of Vietnam’s communist and noncommunist governments. It follows Vietnamese radicals and French reformers and their visions to “terraform” an impoverished rural landscape to achieve various postdepression, postcolonial, and postwar visions.
The last four chapters of this book turn from these earlier layers to a thirty-year period that includes some of the most intense episodes of military destruction in world history. Chapter 3, “Resistance,” begins with the postwar moment of summer 1945, focusing on the development of Việt Minh military logics to rewire the historic landscapes and build new national networks through the hills and mountains. It follows the development of three military occupations that grew out of the ruins of colonial rule: the Việt Minh insurgency, the French military invasion, and a noncommunist Vietnamese army formation. Chapter 4, “Ruins,” explores the challenges—environmental and political—left in the aftermath of the 1954 Geneva Accords. Thousands of Việt Minh soldiers evacuated large areas of territory while a noncommunist Vietnamese National Army struggled to extend sovereign claims to the former insurgent zones. This chapter also traces the escalation of American support for counterinsurgency, especially its construction of base facilities and deployment of special forces into the former Việt Minh zones. Chapter 5, “Creative Destruction,” is a long chapter that examines the arc of American military involvement from 1964 to 1973. Chapter 6, “Postwar” is a postconflict epilogue comprised of a series of stories generated from personal interviews and site visits.