War and its Aftermath in the Central Highlands

Late this afternoon, I saw a man walking at the Tomb of Tu Duc, the Emperor of Vietnam from 1829-1883.  The man was older than me, it appeared, if so, that would mean he was a young man of fighting age during the war and he was missing his right arm.  As I stared, probably in an uncomfortable way, at the sleeve of his shirt blowing in the cool (relatively) breeze in this solom place where people come to contemplate the transition from life to the beyond, I wondered, how did that happen?  Of course my first thought, and certainly the one I would have had before coming to Vietnam was that he lost it as a combatant in this very highly contested area of the war.  Maybe he lost it in the battle of Hue during Tet fighting for either the NVA or the NLF, or the ARVN.  Perhaps he lost it here, fighting near the DMZ at the Hien Loung bridge which crosses the Ben Hai River separating North from South Vietnam.Image

Or perhaps he lived not here in Quang Tri Province, but lived just over the DMZ in Vin Moc, one of the most bombed areas of the war.  It was a strategic location, just over the border, and the US did not want it used for any strategic advantage by the NVA so it bombed the village throughout the war.


He may have lost the arm from shrapnel during one of the thousands of F-4, F-111 and B-52 strikes on this village, which forced the inhabitants to build a massive, deep tunnel structure where they lived most of the time.  Amazingly, the villagers did not evacuate, they stayed on their ancestral lands, but to do so and survive, the massive tunnel complex was built.


perhaps he lost it in the construction of the tunnels, or a cave in near one of the entrances to the tunnels?  Maybe he was not a soldier, just a young boy working in the fields when his life was turned upside down by war.

We made a visit to the Mine Action Visitor Center back in Quang Tri.


The center was established to do two things, operate as a museum to illustrate the long term effects of having 350,000 tons of bombs dropped on one province- over 15 million tons were dropped throughout the war, of which approximately 10% never detonated.  Thus the second purpose of the center, to find and clear UXO- unexploded ordinance and make the community aware of the dangers.  11 people this year so far have died from UXO in Quang Tri. One of the most dangerous of these ordinances were cluster bombs.  A large holding shell is dropped from a B-52, inside the casing are 1000 or 2000 small anti personnelImage cluster bombs, each weighing about a pound.  The cluster can kill- it also can blow your arm right off, or your leg.  Perhaps this man was just a farmer trying to plant his rice and one day- bang, a cluster bomb blows his arm off.

Quang Tri Province is one place in Vietnam that I have recognized, not resentment toward Americans, but here in the poorest province of Vietnam, where it is difficult to grow rice because of the sandy soil, and years of additional casualties because of UXOs, it is a place of creeping despair.  They cannot move past the war yet, because the war still haunts them every year when the mine center is called to remove a mortar, or an anti personnel mine, or a cluster bomb, or a 500, or 1000, or 2000 pound bomb dropped from a US war plane.  Or someone is maimed or killed from an UXO.  I could see the nihilism creeping in on the man as I looked at him wondering, how has he survived until now with an arm that could have been lost 40 years ago- or last year.

Somehow we must make something beautiful out of the ugliness of the war, and it takes all of our doing, whether Vietnam, or Iraq or Afghanistan because grace finds beauty in ugly things








7 Responses to “War and its Aftermath in the Central Highlands”

  1. 1 butterflydoc
    June 26, 2013 at 9:02 pm

    When you get back, let’s talk sometime. I have records, medals, and letters home from a US soldier who did not return, and his widow was my mom. (All long before I was born.)

    • 2 Martin Tracey
      June 26, 2013 at 9:56 pm

      That’s extraordinary, Cheryl. I can only imagine what your mother’s loss meant for her and so for you too.

  2. 3 Martin Tracey
    June 26, 2013 at 9:52 pm

    What a profound and moving reflection–thank you Vince!

    I never knew about the tunnels. Your comment about their construction and the cultural importance of staying on the lands of one’s ancestors helps me to understand better the whole course of the war!

  3. June 26, 2013 at 11:36 pm

    Cheryl, thank you for your honesty and openness, it would be an honor to look at the medals etc. that you have and talk more about the war with you.

    • 5 butterflydoc
      June 27, 2013 at 7:01 pm

      My mom has been gone for over ten years now. When she died, I knew the artifacts of her first husband’s life wouldn’t really be safe in her house (left to her third husband). I took them with me to Arizona, and moved them back here when I came here. There’s just one box, but it’s safe.

      In high school, I did a Chicago Metro History Fair project and read all of the letters. I’ll just say it was rather eye-opening to get that access in high school! (They were young and in love, and I don’t think my mom remembered what was in them any more!)

  4. 6 Phu
    October 1, 2013 at 2:27 am

    Hello thunderfromtheleft,

    Thanks much for your great article highlighting the war and it’s consequences in central part of Vietnam. I happen to find it out on net and is now enjoy reading it. By the way, I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for you and other group members visit at Mine Action Visitor Center last time.
    I do hope the short stop at the Visitor Center provided you a comprehensive look into the post-war landmine/UXO situation in Quang Tri Province and what can be done to bring a closure to that issue in a near future.

    We are committed to making Quang Tri safe through combination of risk education and cleanup and quick Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) response. We know it works and in fact the accidents and injuries have gone down. We believe that with the correct allocation of resources, survey and subsequent clearance of hazardous areas identified could be achieved in 10 years. That would mean putting in place a solid, proven management system that will keep ordinary people safe in all areas where UXO contamination still exists.

    I am looking forward to seeing you again.

    Find us on facebook: https://www.facebook.com/MineActionVisitorCenter
    or website: http://www.landmines.org.vn


  5. 7 Thu
    October 1, 2013 at 2:28 am

    “Somehow we must make something beautiful out of the ugliness of the war”, well-said 🙂

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