View from Saigon
BBC journalist James Bays witnessed the impending end of the Vietnam War as it unfolded from Saigon. The camera operator caught several of the many famous aerial shots that made the city such a visual punchline to the war’s end, as he flew above the flood of refugees fleeing for their lives, over the river to safety. Many of the people fleeing saw their homes destroyed or even burnt. The invasion, backing by the US President Lyndon Johnson, was launched in the biggest tactical bombing ever undertaken in peacetime, overwhelming the country with shock and awe. But on Tuesday – when General Thanh Myat Thanh’s troops advanced on Khe Sanh, a hidden city of low wooden buildings, where 270 civilians had made themselves at home – civilians of every size and shade, from babies to the elderly and disabled, began to desert the city. There are warnings of just how many people may need to flee in the coming weeks and months, as other military actions ramp up across the region. “The DPRK will have a choice to make: to fully accept the superior military power of the USA and ROK, or to fight its own war of national liberation,” the North Korea’s United Front Commission said on Tuesday. This week’s naval confrontation between North Korea and the US off the Korean Peninsula’s east coast is just the latest indication that the US and South Korea have pushed the buttons of the nuclear button, when they detonate a mock bomb in their drills. The latest act of defiance may see other cities – including Beijing, Tokyo and perhaps even Pyongyang – edge closer to war.
Many roads remain closed for fear of hostile fighters patrolling, and people speak of the similarities between the city they now call home and the one that was once their city. But there is great wealth – modern homes with manicured gardens and glossy fruit trees, private swimming pools, cars and television sets. The intense heat searing Saigon in its final days, then, was replaced by sunny days and a buzzing skyline, full of light and noise. If Korea becomes another Mosul and Baghdad, the implications will be devastating. To what extent will the war be fought with explosives, missiles and bombs, or will it be fought with arrows, spears and spears? Any hope that conflict will be fought with proper international accords and arms control will have to be ruled out. Much of the tension across the region is man-made, with a simmering confrontation between the US and North Korea, and a showdown with China. But globalisation is taking a toll too. Companies, governments and everyday people move closer to and closer to, first economic centres such as Beijing and Shanghai, and then military or security centres like Pyongyang and Izmir. When Saigon was on its last legs, its emperor, Ho Chi Minh, told a crowd gathered outside the Opera House: “The soil of Asia is becoming only more international, and the world’s political, economic and cultural powers are pulling closer together.” And Ho was right. Much of that integration has led to a global arms race, and echoes of tensions from decades past. Military analysts warn that the widespread mistrust between South and North Korea and between China and the US threatens to push the region to the brink of war. We have seen it all before. We saw Cambodia tear itself apart when fierce feelings were stoked between Vietnam and China.
First published March 9 2018 at 00:16 GMT on BBC.
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