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In Trang Bang, Thirty Years After

In Trang Bang, Thirty Years After

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Published by vinodkrishnan
A write - up on my visit to Tran Bang, in Vietnam where US shelled napalm bombs.
A write - up on my visit to Tran Bang, in Vietnam where US shelled napalm bombs.

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Published by: vinodkrishnan on Sep 24, 2009
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09/25/2009

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 1
Vinod Krishnan.T.Y. (2004)
 In Tran Bang , thirty years after 
Mathrubhumi Weekly Vol. 82No.4 (In Malayalam)
In
 
Tran
 
Bang,
 
thirty
 
years
 
after
 
The war ended in 1975 in Ho Chi Minh City, one of the most bombed cities of theworld. No one is keen on talking about war except the former guerillas, from whosehands the Americans forces had to face the most humiliating defeat in their longhistory of aggression. They do not hesitate to speak of it, provided they get goodlisteners. There is nothing more exciting in Vietnam than listening to war storiesfrom them. Sipping beer after beer at street sidecafes in Ho Chi Minh City andlistening to their stories‐ I have had numerous such sessions. Quite often thesesessions were with some of my colleagues who were one time guerrillas,“rehabilitated” by the Communist Party in academics
*
. I have spent hours listeningto them. No book on Vietnam War would suffice for these narrations. But for theordinary man dwelling in the city of seven million, the war has become history. In acity where the American dollar is as popular as it is in New York, where ‘America’ nomore evokes anger, indifference to the recent past is logical. The cityscape filledwith huge digital displays of Coke, IBM, Microsoft and Visa Card does not give muchspace for them to talk of war. They have not experienced the war as most of themare born after 1975. The city, formerly Saigon, capital of pro‐US South Vietnameseregime, no more looks like one that was once devastated by war. They know that the country has normalized its relationship with the US. They know that the US issoon going to be their most favored investor. They have seen the city authoritiesrenaming the
Museum
 
of 
 
 American
 
War 
 
Crimes
as
War 
 
History 
 
Museum.
 But the people of Tran Bang, a small village lying fifty kilometers northwest of HoChi Minh City, have only war stories to tell a foreigner. Everyone there has lost someone in the war that lasted for twenty years. I was able to talk to many people inthe village. Their stories of war were cold, unlike those from former guerrillas. Theguerillas were actors while the people with whom I interacted in the village werejust spectators, often mute. But no story of war would be complete without theseanecdotes.June 5, 1972, Tran Bang.Government forces as wellas communist guerrillas hadset up positions. Battle lineshad already been drawn.Most of the villagers hadalready moved to saferdestinations to avoidcausalities. Deserted houseshad already been occupiedby the guerrillas. But there were a few in the village, ready to take chances. They had
 
 2
already acquired the skill of living with war. Since 1965, since American forceslanded in their country, they had been experiencing it, often from a distance, oftenvery close. Gun shots and bombings seldom made them panic. War vocabulary ‐mortars, shelling, firing, grenades, positioning‐ had already become a part of theirday to day conversation.They were aware of the Ethics of war.
 
Civilians
 
would 
 
not 
 
be
 
targeted,
 
they wereaware. But war works on a different rationale. They were aware of this too. Stayingindoors at home was risky, for there was every chance of bombings. Best they coulddo was to take shelter at the makeshift prayer hall of the village temple. Proximity totheir strange Cao Dai gods, ‐ which included Winston Churchill too ‐ they thought,would provide them better security. Reason had no space in the atmosphere filledwith smoke, scream, gun shots and blood.The battle happening a few yards away from the shelter was continuous for threedays and nights. Some at the shelter were praying for the victory of guerrillas, someof course, for the victory of the military.June 8
th
, 1972. Drizzling which started early in the morning had just stopped. In thesmoke clad, blood smelling villages, unlike the previous three days, there were onlyerratic gun shots. Military operation against the National Liberation Guerrillas, nick named by the US army as Viet Congs, was successful it seemed. In the paddy fieldsand deserted houses, dead bodies of the guerillas, were still burning. No onebothered to count them. Only estimation was possible, unlike the case of militarymen. There were exact figures on causalities on their side. The deceased guerrillaswere becoming a few among thousands of their comrades who lost their life in themost justified battle fought in the country.It was a joint action by US forces and South Vietnamese military. Successfuloperation demanded better coverage. CNN or BBC had no facility then to telecast theoperation live. It was the seventies. Presspersons had just reached the village oninvitation from the military. A wide international coverage would boost the moraleof the American forces that were on the verge of defeat from Vietnamesecommunists. For the press invited to report the story, there was nothing exciting inTran Bang. They had already done numerous such stories. Unlike the early days of war, reports on Vietnam War seldom came in the front pages of their news papersabroad. But still for some, it was a break from days and nights of gossips, importedwine and pretty local women.Afternoon‐ the same day. The atmosphere was still smoke clad, like previous daysand nights. The people at the shelter, mostly old and children were watching themovement of military in combat uniforms. It seemed the battle was over. Sporadicgunshots in the air by the military were obvious signs of their victory over theguerrillas. Villagers were hurrying to reach home, to assess the aftermath of thebattle. They had just expressed their gratitude to the temple priest for giving themshelter for three days.
 
 3
 But soon things were taking a different turn. A low flying warplane ‐ possibly byaccident ‐ was shelling napalm bombs in the temple compound. Horrified by thesight of fire falling from the sky – a “spectacular” feature of napalm bombs –, peoplehad started running out of the prayer hall. ‘Children first’, someone was shouting.But the villagers were not aware of the American war rule:
Those
 
running
 
while
 
air 
 
raid 
 
is
 
on
 
should 
 
be
 
assumed 
 
to
 
be
 
 fleeing
 
Viet 
 
Congs,
 
no
 
matter 
 
whether 
 
they 
 
are
 
children
 
or 
 
adults.
 
Bombings
 
in
 
such
 
cases
 
are
 
 justified.
The pilot of the Americanwarplane was committed to this unwritten rule. From low flying warplane, he wasable to see people – mostly children – running out from the temple compound. Hedid nothing except what was expected to be done.
Bomb
 
the
 
 fleeing
!Fire, smoke and screams everywhere. Smell of charred bodies. Presspersons werenumb. They had never experienced such a horrifying incident in their reportinghistory. An old woman carrying the dying body of a small baby caught the attentionof all. Shots after shots captured this painful sight. No one cared about the dead, fordead were expressionless. And every cameraman was focusing on that old woman.Nick Ut, Associate Press photographer, one among the dozen of pressmen there at the site thought it was his best shot to convey the tragedy which his country hadbeen witnessing for the past few years. It would have been the most frighteningpictures of the war he had ever taken, had he not taken the next shot.His next shot, of screaming children fleeing napalm attack, was capturing not just one evil of one war, but evil of every war. The picture was printed prominentlynext day on front pages of all news papers internationally , unveiling the most tragicpart of Vietnam war that determined the conscience of last generation. The subject,
the
 
 girl 
 
in
 
the
 
 picture,
 
was becoming the most powerful anti‐war expressions of thegeneration to come. The photograph which won the Pulitzer Prize the same yearremains the most reproduced war photograph of our times…..Thirty years and nineteendays after that incident I wasin Tran Bang, in the exact location from where that famous war photograph wastaken. Travel guides onVietnam do not talk of thisvillage. War monuments inVietnam bring dollars, but notour operator in Ho Chi MinhCity,
Paris
 
of 
 
the
 
East 
, hasincluded Tran Bang in theiritinerary. But I knew thisonce‐anonymous village fromthe brilliantly writtenbiography of Kim Phuc,
The
 
Girl 
 
in
 
the
 
Picture,
by Denise Chong, a Canadian woman

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