This might not look like a metaphor, but I am going to turn it into one. This is the path through the Vinh Muoc Tunnel park, the path we took along with a guide who pointed out the bomb craters, which still remain and some of which are labeled, and the entrances to the tunnels that had provided shelter from the relentless bombardment from American ships off-shore.
These were no ordinary tunnels. Under ground, accessed through entrances hidden in little hills and protected by stone vaults, these tunnels were like a little town, with separate areas for living and cooking and storing supplies. There was a hospital, a maternity ward, and a nursery for the babies born there. There were multiple entrances and an elaborate ventilation system. The tunnels were brilliantly conceived and they existed all over Vietnam, including under American bases. It was all very Vietnamese and so not-American that it baffled and foiled our military.
The path we took that day is, as you see in the photo, clearly the way through the complex, wide enough for two people to walk side by side, easily visible between stretches of grass. We walked obediently, as groups do that stop to hear information and then are told to “come this way.” I hung back, as I tend to do in such situations, and began to observe that everyone stumbled, just slightly, from time to time. They wavered on an unexpectedly low surface or their shoes would catch on one that was unexpectedly high. It wasn’t much, nothing dangerous, but on a subtle level it changed the rules, kept us a little insecure.
Writ large, this was how it worked – appear from nowhere, attack, disappear, destabilize the thinking, the planning, the worldview. We won our Revolutionary War this way, but somehow we so underestimated the Vietnamese that we couldn’t grasp that this was strategy. Bitter, frustrated, baffled American veterans still claim we won because we could have. But I remember the incident Stanley Karnow reports in Vietnam: A History. Someone says to a Vietnamese general, “We won every battle.” The general replies, “That may be true. It is also irrelevant.”