Book Review : Dark at the End of the Tunnel --One Reason We Lost ‘Nam

Times Book Critic

The Tunnels of Cu Chi by Tom Mangold and John Penycate (Random House: $19.95)

Expert opinion--an owl that flies in at the sunset of any enterprise--holds that the American retreat from Vietnam came not from outright military defeat but from loss of public support for a war that was certainly bloody and apparently futile.

Part of the bloodiness, the smaller part, is documented by the black marble wall in Washington with its tens of thousands of names. But where did the futility come from?

As much as anything, no doubt, from the contrast of fighting styles. There was spectacular and expensive action on one side with its continually cheated logic of climax: gunships, napalm, free-fire zones, interdiction, and a huge military establishment in the rear. And on the other side, silence, invisibility, shadowy figures ambushing a patrol, pits with sharpened stakes: a logic of no climax with only endurance.


Still Building Buttons

A week ago, when this review was written, an Administration official said that tactics to free the TWA hostages were a matter of “pressing all the buttons and hoping that eventually one of them lights up.” Ten years after the fall of Saigon, we are still constructing buttons for problems. What the Viet Cong did was dig.

“The Tunnels of Cu Chi” is a book that details the extremes of the contrast. For two generations, first with the French and then with the Americans, the Vietnamese resistance confronted superior force not simply by going to ground but by going under it.

Tom Mangold and John Penycate, two British journalists, described the extraordinary network of tunnels that allowed the Viet Cong to survive underground while the Americans and the ARVN conducted their war on the surface. It was, in the first years at least, a war between eagles and moles except that in this case the eagles had to land sometimes, and the moles would come up and bite them.


Out Pops Charlie

“We were just sitting there, almost on top of it, when the thing pops open, out comes Charlie, throws two grenades, reaches down, grabs a carbine, sprays us, and before we can pick up our weapons, he’s back down in the ground and that trap door shuts over him,” one GI told his commanding officer, who repeated it to the authors.

They have talked to just about everyone on both sides. They went to Vietnam and inspected the tunnels, shown around by the Viet Cong veterans who had lived and fought inside them for years on end. They talked to American commanders and to former “Tunnel Rats,” the small, wiry and ferocious volunteers who were assembled, finally, to try to do with knives, pistols and flashlights what artillery, gas, grenades and napalm had been unable to accomplish.

“For the Rats,” they observe mordantly, “the light at the end of the tunnel was usually a VC with a candle.”


The principal tunnel complex, which gives the book its title, was in an area between Saigon and the Cambodian border. It was 150 miles of passages dug through hard clay. They were a maze of elbow turns, of airtight trap doors connecting up to four below-ground levels. They had sleeping quarters, kitchens, storage rooms, hospitals with operating equipment, assembly halls. While Bob Hope was entertaining the GI’s at Cu Chi base, the Vietnamese entertainer Pham Sang was singing satirical and patriotic ballads 50 feet below.

A Thorn in the Eye

The tunnels allowed the perpetual infiltration of Saigon and other areas that in any more conventional war should have been impregnable. “It was like a thorn stabbing in the eye,” a high-ranking Viet Cong veteran told the authors. “If they (the Americans) could not solve the problems of the tunnels of Cu Chi, how could they deal with the problem of Vietnam?”

The authors are justifiably enthralled with the tunnels, with those who built, survived and fought in them, and with the small detachments of Americans who went down into them to fight on the same bare terms. They do not overstate their importance, however. The tunnels did not win the war militarily; but they played a central role in the sense of elusive stalemate that eventually led to political pressure in the United States for withdrawal.


The high point was the Tet offensive: The tunnels allowed the Viet Cong to assemble and prepare what turned out to be a military disaster for them, but forced a turning-away point in American attitudes toward the war. The benefits of Vietnamization were reaped, ironically, not by the shattered Viet Cong guerrillas but by the North Vietnamese main forces who swept down in perfectly conventional fashion and took the country.

Sometimes, Mangold and Penycate overwrite, and sometimes they are caught up in the political rhetoric of their Vietnamese interlocutors. But their portraits and anecdotes are vivid and often astonishing. They have discovered, among other things, the eloquence of soldiers.