THE ROAD SOUTH 4

I hired a driver in Hue and headed north on Highway I,.a once- bloodied stretch of road the French had called the Street Without Joy. An hour out of Hue, we crossed into Quang Tri. It is one of Vietnam’s poor¬est provinces and one of the few still laced wi th the reminders of war. French pillboxes, dark with age, stand silent vigil at road junctions, and half the land is unsafe for farming because of landmines and unexploded ordnance. Wcllwater remains poisoned by defoliants sprayed from U.S. planes. The same chemicals reduced the province’s forest cover from 85 percent to 20 percent and stripped away the jungle canopy over vast ex¬panses of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Young soldiers from the North who had humped down the trail arrived in Quang Tri carrying farewell gifts from their girlfriends—white handkerchiefs with her initials embroidered in one corner. So many of the boys never returned that handkerchiefs be-came a symbol of grieving and parting throughout Vietnam.
At the visitors’ center in Dong Ha, Truong Van Tam, a young guide with DMZ Tours, the government’s tour agency, said Quang Tri Province attracted 12,000 tourists a year. The majority were Japanese. “Why the Japanese come, I don’t know,” he noted. “Most don’t speak much English and don’t understand much about the war.” But they dutifully made the rounds: They walked the Hien Luong Bridge that spanned the Ben Hai River on ten piers, linking the two former Vietnams, and they asked their guides to translate Ho Chi Minh’s words on a towering monument on the southern bank: “The Vietnamese are one. The rivers can dry up and the mountains can fall down, but this idea will never change.” They peered without apparent comprehension at the remnants of the McNa¬mara Line, an electronic barrier designed to stop infiltration of men and materiel into South Vietnam, and they visited the forgotten sites that once had been part of the world’s vocabulary: the Rockpile, Con Thien, Cam Lo, Hamburger Hill, Khe Sanh.
These places had once been part of my vocabulary, too, part of my life. But I felt no particular sweep of nostalgia on coming back to them, no surge of emotion. I felt detached, as though those days had been lived by a different person. I could no longer imagine the high-pitched whistle of an incoming mortar round or the rush of fear that builds in the stomach and leaves you short of breath. The names, but not the faces, of the sol¬diers and Marines whose lives I briefly shared in these now-abandoned outposts had been lost to time. So had the pledge to myself, made a gen¬eration ago when I first left Indochina, that Vietnam would be my last war. It turned out there would be others—Somalia, Zaire, Uganda, Iraq, Rhodesia, Beirut, the Persian Gulf, and Afghanistan, as well as violent upheavals in Iran, Liberia, Indonesia, East Timor, and Rwanda. Though none aroused the same intensity of passion and intimacy that Vietnam had, each in its own moment seemed the most compelling and significant story of my life. Today I couldn’t remember what some of those wars had even been about. Neither could I remember any more what it was like to be young.
Outside Dong Ha my driver—with the government guide, Mr. Tam, now aboard—turned west, and we bumped along Highway 9—Ambush Alley as GIs had called the road to Khe Sanh. The two-lane road was be¬ing widened and repaved with World Bank financing to open a trade route from Laos to central Vietnam. But until construction was com¬pleted and surveillance increased, this road belonged to smugglers. Al¬most every motor scooter approaching us from Laos was loaded down with Johnnie Walker scotch, Marlboro cigarettes, TV sets, soap and toothpaste, electric fans, even motor scooters, disassembled and packed in kits. The land we traversed was barren and unpopulated, and it seemed odd that so many men had fought and died for real estate worth so little.
We drove for two hours, almost to the doorstep of Laos. Off to the right, down a dirt road, was the deserted base at Khe Sanh where U.S. Marines had withstood a seventy-six-day siege in 1968. It sits in a long, low valley, surrounded by 3,000-foot mountains, and except for the out¬line of a weed-clogged airstrip, there is little to distinguish it from the rest of the countryside; you could drive right by never knowing anything of consequence ever happened there. Everything of value—concrete from the bunkers, sheet metal from the latrines, spent bullets and artillery shells—had been lugged away years ago by local villagers and either sold or used to repair nearby homes. The trenches where Americans lived like tunnel rats were filled in, and over them farmers had planted coffee trees. The sky was heavy with the threat of rain, and a wind murmured out of the jungle-covered hills. A dog barked, then silence. No village was within sight. No cars passed on the road. No sound except the wind. My driver and Mr. Tam stayed in the car while I walked the perimeter of the airstrip, feeling as alone as the last survivor of a lost platoon.

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