CAO LANH, Vietnam — There is a reason they call it the “infantry.”
Even before the word became part of the English language about 500 years ago, it was always young people who bore the brunt of fighting, on the ground with primitive weapons, toe-to-toe with the enemy. The adults were to the rear, often on horses. The image that we have today, of a grizzled John Wayne, is the creation of modern media. It has always been the kids – scrawny, immature children – who did the fighting.
Most new soldiers are about 19 years old, and so when I went to war at 22, I was already middle-aged by infantry standards. But in the rear-view mirror of advanced age I look very young indeed. Combat is life-changing for anyone who experiences it, and while some things are difficult for old people to remember, the terrifying days you fought for your life are not among them.
An open, fallow rice paddy near Cao Lanh, Vietnam, was the site of a ferocious ambush in which I was caught a long time ago.
I was an advisor to a Vietnamese infantry battalion, fighting our way through the Tet offensive. One morning, we were caught in the open by more than 250 Viet Cong in prepared positions. Most of us became casualties in the initial seconds of the engagement, and it took us the rest of the day to fight our way out. (Jacobs was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions that day. Read the official citation).
I had been meaning to return for ages, but I never stumbled across the opportunity. For me, as for many others, it was almost as if Vietnam wasn’t a real place and existed only as a faint memory. But a few months ago, I returned to stand at the place where, in the short time of a couple of hours, I had grown old.
To get there, I went first to Hanoi, a place I had never been before. Hanoi was the capital of North Vietnam during the war (today it’s the capital of the whole country), but at that time the only people who got to see it were those unlucky enough to become prisoners of war who ended up in the infamous prison we sarcastically called the “Hanoi Hilton.”
I expected Hanoi to be full of people but still somehow austere, since it is the capital of a single-party Communist state. And in that regard, it did not disappoint. It was handsomely decorated with the celebrations of Tet, but also with revolutionary slogans and homages to Ho Chi Minh, the communist leader who led the movement for independence from the French and was the president of North Vietnam during the war.
Visiting the Hanoi Hilton produced no surprises. Just as I expected it to be, it was a dark, musty and primitive facility, with lighting selected to enhance its ominousness. The guide explained in exquisite detail the indignities visited by the French on the Vietnamese, and the only mention of the American POWs, all of whom were tortured for years by North Vietnam, was the outrageous fiction that they were well treated.
Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, seemed almost as if it is in a different country – different from Hanoi and certainly different from the sepia, sandbagged, wartime Saigon I experienced decades ago. Vietnam may be nominally communist – but it is a communist government that encourages foreign investment.
Ho Chi Minh City is its city of lights, a southeast Asian Paris complete with Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Armani and Versace emporia, all catering to the substantial international community there. The shabby hotels that once housed American servicemen are now all luxury accommodations, out of the reach of the Vietnamese, and indeed too rich for anyone who is not on an expense account.
The trip south to my battlefield was a bouncing three-and-a-half-hour van journey into the Vietnam I do remember, into the heart of the Mekong Delta.
There is water everywhere. Canal banks were jammed with flimsy wood and corrugated metal shacks and enormous rice paddies, many of them 5,000 acres each. Roads were mobbed with motor scooters – not surprising, considering that there is a 200 percent tax on automobiles, putting cars far from the reach of the ordinary Vietnamese.
And at the end of the journey, there was my field. I expected to feel the strong tug of history, or at least the thin, personal thread of emotion gently but insistently tugging from the past, but there was none of that.
Everything was startlingly smaller than I had remembered it. The trail beside the open area from which I had been evacuated to a hospital was now filled with people on their daily business. The enemy bunkers – there had been a hundred of them –were now simple, innocuous paddy dikes.
No bullets, no shrapnel, no dead, no wounded. It had all receded into the past, and my battlefield of memory was now a square of flooded earth, a prosaic catfish farm.
The disappointment was my fault, of course. The prospect of being there again enticed me to assume that the visit would elicit the same visceral excitement and fear of 43 years ago.
For me and my fellow soldiers, there was real terror back then, enough to last a lifetime, and I think about it often. But it could never be the same…and perhaps that’s a very good thing indeed.
Jacobs is a Medal of Honor recipient for his actions during the Vietnam War. Read the official citation.
Read some of Jacob’s blogs from his trip back to Vietnam on Newsvine. He also recently wrote a memoir: "If Not Now, When?: Duty and Sacrifice in America's Time of Need"
See also the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation
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