Black Virgin Mountain: A Return to Vietnam - Larry Heinemann Vietnam just won’t let go, witness the continuing flood of novels, histories and memoirs to come out of that war. Admittedly, the number of Americans killed in Iraq and Afghanistan doesn’t approach the horrific count in Vietnam (at least one would hope it never does,) but I suspect the nature of the war itself, the fact that there is no draft, the extensive use of video-game-like drones-flown-by-privates-in-Missouri, and the lack of governmental betrayal felt by most troops in Vietnam, may result in fewer self-examinations. Time will tell, of course. Heinemann touches on our most recent ventures briefly, “ 'Since Vietnam, other wars have come our way, including Iraq and Afghanistan...and I don't know about you, but I have watched and been appalled by the horror-struck nonchalance with which we seem to enjoy them. We are fascinated and repelled simultaneously by the endless loop of televised imagery and skimpy narration, oiled with the patina of exaggerated patriotism that begins with the dusty, desert-bred bogeyman, travels clean through the bloody wrath of the Old Testament, and ends with those prickly little tingles in the scalp, the moistened eyes, and the grand old flag...But there remained, still, the itchy, undeniable sense of unfinished business...”

This was not his first trip back to Vietnam, but this time he went with fellow writers to a conference and thence to Black Virgin Mountain, an iconic feature of the landscape. It’s an odd book, filled with sympathetic descriptions of the Vietnamese he meets during his trip and permeated with angry at LBJ and especially Westmoreland. The writing is often intense and harsh: "Every human vitality is taken from you as if you'd been skinned; yanked out like you pull nails with a claw hammer; boiled off, the same as you would render a carcass at hog-killing."

Interesting scene where he meets James Webb, a man he despises, as representing everything wrong about the war. He doesn't like Webb's books about Vietnam either. I've been thinking about this incident after finishing Close Quarters A Novel. I'll have to read Fields of Fire, which is also highly regarded, to see if I can figure out better what the antipathy might be between these two Vietnam Vets. Heinemann was a grunt, Webb a Marine officer, and perhaps that explains part of the difference. There was clearly no love lost between the officers and the soldiers. The experience of the war by the Navy (especially the pilots and ship-board sailors) and Air Force was distinctly different, I surmise; they went back to clean sheets at the end of the day.

The most intense section relates his visit to the tunnels of Cu Chi which had been restarted in 1959 after suspending them following the exodus of “those dogs, the French.” They were dug with ordinary garden tools and the Americans built a major base over the top of part of the tunnel complex and were never able to find them (according to Heinemann.) He describes his claustrophobic visit to tourist enlarged tunnels and remembers Westmoreland’s classic “doofuss” remarks about the “ ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ that give definition to the hopelessness of the military mind.” A tunnel rat’s response when told of the comment by Michael Herr: “What does that asshole know about tunnels.” Struck by the park ranger guide’s deadpan explanation of the tunnels and their uses, Heinemann is struck, “right then and there …. a sudden discomfort gathers in me, rises like a wiggly bug crawling up the back, a tingling from the waste down, as if half my body has gone to sleep. And all at once, I sincerely, profoundly, do not want to be there.” They are given flashlights, one for every other person, and led into the maze. “The ground is almost bare and the ranger invites us to find the tunnel entrance. ‘You are standing within two meters of it, he says.’ ” He reveals a tiny hole hidden under some leaves and jungle trash, pops down and invites everyone to follow. “Once inside there is just enough room to turn around. You squat on your haunches and there before you is the tunnel that takes you to headquarters. The tunnel has been generously enlarged and scoured out to accommodate the hefty American tourists like Larry and me. . .(It was always the platoon shrimps who got tunnel ratting.) “Holding the flashlight in front, you duck-walk, head down for perhaps twenty feet. . . .the atmosphere is close and hot, the flor and walls are clammy and sticky, the air rank and stifling, the walls and rounded ceiling have been carved our with sweeping, scalloped strokes of a gardener’s trowel. Your clothes and the back of your head brush against the dirt and roots. . . You are quickly pouring sweat, claustrophobic and ready to leave, now. Not half way your legs and back ache terribly, your stumble on your haunches, walking, no, staggering, along like a duck. “

Heinemann then describes his platoon’s coming across a tunnel accidentally. Often booby-trapped, they toss down a grenade but move aside because “the guy down there may just throw it back.” Then it’s time to tunnel. You put away the rest of the grenades, “because to use one now is suicide.” You lean into the tunnel, someone holding your ankles, getting accustomed to the dark, alert for the smell of shit and blood, looking for body parts, You eyeball for the threads of tripwires in the dirt and then squirm down into a hole no bigger around than a “thanksgiving turkey platter.” I leave the rest to your imagination; Heinemann doesn’t.

Some really extraordinary writing.