On a mild, sunny morning last November, Chuck Searcy and I drove out along a spur of the old Ho Chi Minh Trail to the former Marine base at Khe Sanh, which sits in a bowl of green mountains and coffee plantations in Vietnam’s Quang Tri province, hard on the border with Laos. The seventy-seven-day siege of Khe Sanh in early 1968, coinciding with the Tet Offensive, was the longest battle of what Vietnamese call the American War and a pivotal event in the conflict. By the off-kilter logic of Saigon and Washington, unleashing enough technology and firepower to produce a ten-to-one kill ratio was a metric of success, but the televised carnage of 1968, in which 16,592 Americans died, was too much for audiences back home. After Tet and Khe Sanh, the war was no longer America’s to win, only to avoid losing.
I learned later that this ravishing forested landscape was something of an illusion. In defense of Khe Sanh, the US Air Force dropped 100,000 tons of bombs on the surrounding mountains, stripped the forests bare with Agent Orange and incinerated them with napalm. Since the war, the Vietnamese government has replanted this barren and eroded land, part of a national effort to rehabilitate the portions of Vietnam that were devastated by herbicides—an area the size of Massachusetts.
A trickle of American veterans come back to Khe Sanh these days, said Nguyen Viet Minh, a chatty, hospitable man in his late 30s who runs a small museum and memorial site that includes various chunks of abandoned American hardware—a C-130 aircraft, a Huey helicopter, an armored personnel carrier, a tank—and a reconstructed airstrip and bunkers. These visitors often share their memories with him. “They witnessed by their own eye some bad thing happen,” he said in English. “Everything very bloody, everything shock them, life, death, and they cannot forget it.”
Searcy himself first came to Khe Sanh in 1992, twenty-four years after Tet and twenty-four years after he shipped out of Vietnam at the end of a tour of duty with the 519th Military Intelligence Battalion in Saigon. He is a tall, lean man with a head of thick, gray-white hair and a courtly charm that seems entirely without effort or artifice. His speech still has the soft cadences of his hometown of Athens, Georgia. Probably no American, and certainly no veteran of the US military, has ever immersed himself so completely in the realities of Vietnam. The war defined Searcy’s young adulthood, and its aftermath has defined the past third of his life. That initial visit to Khe Sanh was part of his first trip back since the war. In January 1995, after returning for the third time, he moved to Hanoi, fell for the city’s magical blend of elegance and chaos, and has never left. He turned 70 last September—or perhaps it was 71, he said; it all depended on how you count time. When friends invited him to a surprise birthday party, they reminded him that Vietnamese add a year for the time spent in the womb.
As we walked out across the red-dirt airstrip, trailed by an old man who wanted to sell us a trayload of spent bullets and faux American dog tags, Searcy pointed out a line of trees along the perimeter. On that first visit, he said, he encountered two boys herding cows. “I asked them if there were still any bombs here. They walked us over to those trees and pointed to the ground. There was a small artillery shell lying on the ground, intact, unexploded. And they said it’s all around, it’s everywhere. I asked if anyone came around to clean it up. They said no. So we’re standing there and staring at this weapon, and the younger boy, who’s about 8 or 9 years old, tentatively sticks his toe out, just to nudge it a bit out of curiosity. And I say, ‘Stop! stop!’ That was my first awareness of the problem.”