When I was seventeen or eighteen, in Berlin, I hopped over the chain barrier so I could stand where the men who tried to assassinate Adolf Hitler had been executed. I wanted to see what they last saw. I still remember the German sun, outlined by the black prison walls.
In fact, that whole trip, back when Berlin was still surrounded by East Germany, I saw the relics of World War II, the bullet-scarred buildings, the broken windows. I remember seeing the trees and bushes slowly returning to the battle zone, covering up the scars in the ground.
I have been fortunate to see many of these places, places where war once range and now quiet reigns, I have gone to feel the quiet, and ponder the events that happened there but I have never been to a place that combines the historical horror of war, with the beauty of ancient history and complete modern quiet among lingering ruins quite like Hue, Vietnam.
Not only was the Citadel here the center of the Vietnamese culture for centuries, where the Emperors ruled amongst their concubines and eunuchs, it is also where one of the bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War was fought.
The Battle of Hue during 1968 (also called the Siege of Hue), was one of the bloodiest and longest battles of the Vietnam War (1959–1975). The Army of the Republic of Vietnam and three understrength U.S. Marine Corps battalions attacked and defeated more than 10,000 entrenched People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) and Vietcong forces.
In that victory, many in the United States started to turn against the war, appalled at the destruction and the death of our soldiers.
Today Hue is, by Vietnamese standards, a relatively quiet small city where many still travel by bicycle. After you walk over the Perfume River, you turn first left then right to cross the moat and enter the Citadel.
The North Vietnamese forces rapidly occupied most of the city. Over the next month they were gradually driven out during intense house-to-house fighting led by the Marines. In the end, although the Allies declared a military victory, the city of Hue was virtually destroyed and more than 5000 civilians were killed, more of them executed by the PAVN and Viet Cong (according to the South Vietnamese government). The North Vietnamese forces lost an estimated 2,400 to 8,000 killed, while Allied forces lost 668 dead and 3,707 wounded. The tremendous losses negatively affected the American public’s perception of the war and political support for the war began to wane.
Soon on your right, behind a wall, sitting in the drizzle and the steam and heat is a collection of US Army and Air Force equipment. Some looking like it could return to war today, other pieces ravaged by long-ago fighting and time.
I am the only one walking past these aging relics of war, thinking about what was then it seems, life goes on outside in the street kids play and the tourists pass by to see the Forbidden City and the Temples.
As I am re-reading Stanley Karnow’s “Vietnam” I recall the billions and billions of dollars the United States spent on the war and how so much equipment was left behind, well, they found a way to use about $20 million or so of it right here.
The Citadel itself is a remarkable place which stretches on and on. The reconstructed palaces and temples are remarkable but what’s more poignant to me are the seemingly endless buildings, still in ruins, with the jungle and the humidity reclaiming as their own.
You walk and walk, away from the few tourists that are here, in the steady rain, a rain that crosses the thin line between humidity and precipitation, the rain of the tropics. For every building that has been renovated, there are five that have not.
Finally it was only down to the Citadel and the Imperial Palace which was in the center of it. USAF A-4 Skyhawks dropped bombs and napalm on the Citadel. The Marines raised an American flag but shortly thereafter were ordered to lower it, for in accordance with South Vietnamese law, no US flag was permitted to be flown without an accompanying South Vietnamese flag. The Marines objected to this law, but eventually took it down themselves under an order from their superior officer. Shortly before doing so, the Marines who took part in hoisting Old Glory all posed for a photograph with the Vietcong banner displayed as a war trophy.
Now, a large Vietnam flag flies there.
I sit and take a water break, on one of the back roads of the Citadel. It’s quiet and the rain picks up, its pings on my umbrella the only sound. I think again of war, like I did when I was young and used to wander the ruined area of Berlin by the wall. There, like here, time is moving on.
Once the world’s attention was riveted by the fighting in these streets. So many on both sides lost their lives, there are literally thousands of Americans back home who say “my father, grandfather, uncle, brother, cousin died at Hue.” There are thousand more Vietnamese who can say the same.
But here under my umbrella, on a steamy rainy fall morning, there is only peace and quiet and rain among the ruins.