This essay is a reprint of an excerpt from an academic article by Van Nguyen-Marshall. The full article was originally published in WAR & SOCIETY (Vol. 37, Issue 3, 2018). For additional context, you can also read the editorial reflection by Dao Strom on one of the photographs of Đại Lộ Kinh Hoàng taken by her parents’ newspaper colleague.
Appeasing the Spirits Along the ‘Highway of Horror’: Civic Life in Wartime Republic of Vietnam
On 1 July 1972 during the Easter Offensive two Vietnamese journalists, Ngy Thanh and Đoàn Kế Tường, used a heavily damaged railway bridge to cross the Bến Đá River, which bisects Highway One between the cities of Quảng Trị and Huế. What met them on the other side was a scene of carnage: many hundreds of civilian and military personnel corpses littered the highway, the result of an attack two months earlier. Their article and Ngy Thanh’s photographs published in a daily newspaper, Sóng Thần [tsunami], helped to christen this 10-km stretch of road ‘the Highway of Horror’ (Đại Lộ Kinh Hoàng).  Based on a variety of sources—newspapers, published personal accounts, and interviews—this article examines the attack along Highway One of late April and early May, 1972. It also focuses on the humanitarian endeavour led by Sóng Thần daily news-paper to recover and bury the victims. Concerned about the large number of unburied bodies along the highway, the staff at Sóng Thần mobilized donations and volunteers to provide proper burials for the victims. Their work was undertaken for the spiritual well-being of not only the dead, but also their families and the surrounding community. As a grassroots endeavour relying on volunteers, this project affords useful insights into the Republic of Vietnam’s (RVN) civil society.
Sóng Thần’s voluntary work suggests that despite the many years of war, civilians in the RVN did not resign themselves to victimhood. Instead, they led, organized, and participated in civic activities, such as Sóng Thần’s burial project. While society generally feels compassion for civilians in wars, there is a tendency to assume that they are passive victims. This is true in popular culture as well as academic work. Shane Barter suggests that even in sympathetic scholarship, civilian decisions, strategies, and agency tend to be overlooked.  As Avery Gordon reminds scholars, ‘even those who live in the most dire circumstances possess a complex and oftentimes contradictory humanity and subjectivity that is never adequately glimpsed by viewing them as victims or, on the other hand, as superhuman agents.’ In other words, by seeing them only as either victims or superheroes, scholars deny them the ‘right to complex personhood.’ 
Indeed, in the Vietnam War historiography, literature, and popular culture, Vietnamese civilians have been denied the right to complex personhood in that, when discussed at all, they are often portrayed only as victims. The marginalisation of Vietnamese civilians, as well as Vietnamese political and military leaders in general, can be traced to the complicated and contested nature of this war. The involvement of Cold War powers in what was essentially a civil war between the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) and the RVN, has overshadowed the roles and experiences of Vietnamese people generally. The current scholarship, however, is making progress in acknowledging Vietnamese agency and has begun to focus more on the war’s impact on Vietnamese society. Nevertheless, civilians’ role in the war still has not drawn much interest. This is surprising since both the First and Second Indochina Wars involved the mobilisation of millions of civilians in the war effort. According to Christopher Goscha, the First Indochina War (1946–1954), one of the most totalising post-colonial wars of the twentieth century, relied on the mass mobilisation of hundreds of thousands of civilians in non-combat roles in order to wage a modern war. Similarly, the Second Indochina (or Vietnam) War, which was both a conventional and an insurgency war, relied heavily on civilian support. As a result, civilians in the DRV and RVN were inflicted with a tremendous amount of violence, in many cases intentionally. Modifying Clausewitz’s dictum, Benjamin Valentino states that ‘sometimes mass killing [of civilians] is simply war by other means’ and in ‘this perspective, civilians are not merely bystanders to armed conflict; they play a central, if often involuntary, role as the underwriters of war’s material, financial, and human requisites.’
This article is concerned with the impact of war on civilians, but also considers civilians’ responses to and agency in their ‘involuntary’ role in the war. In doing so, it also explores an often overlooked spiritual and psychological impact of this war on Vietnamese societies. Recent works of anthropologists have highlighted the profound trauma caused by the war’s violent and mass deaths. As in other societies, Vietnamese people attach great significance to proper funeral and commemorative rituals. A pre-dominant belief in Vietnam holds that the souls of the departed would be condemned to wander without rest if proper mortuary and commemorative rites were not conducted. These restless souls would become angry ghosts and would haunt their families and the communities where they died. This is especially troubling for those killed in brutal and inhuman ways because, unless proper mortuary rituals were carried out, they would have to relive their painful death and endure the injustice of their fate into perpetuity. Writing about Mỹ Lai and Hà Mỹ villages, where civilians were massacred by United States and Republic of Korean troops respectively, Heonik Kwon demonstrates that long after these massacres, the communities continue to suffer because of their inability to provide the necessary burials and rituals. Similarly, Mai Lan Gustafsson suggests that the war continues to haunt Vietnamese society in the most literal sense. Because of the violent nature of the war and the tropical environment, many corpses have not been recovered and this makes it difficult, if not impossible, to carry out the prescribed mortuary rituals. Sóng Thần’s endeavour, which was to collect, identify, and bury those who died along the highway, was profoundly important for both the victims’ families and the society at large.
The Quảng Trị killing
In the spring of 1972 the DRV mounted a major campaign, commonly referred to in the West as the Easter Offensive. Even though there were clear signs that the DRV was planning a major offensive in early 1972, the RVN and its US ally were surprised by the magnitude and by the DRV’s decision to attack across the demilitarized zone. The first of three attacks was along the demilitarized zone, on the northern border of Quảng Trị province. On 30 March three infantry divisions of the DRV’s People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) crossed into Quảng Trị province, and in just two days of fighting took over twelve military bases. In subsequent days PAVN troops attacked Kon Tum province in the Central Highlands, and the provinces of Bình Long and Kiến Tường.
The Easter Offensive resulted in high casualty levels for both sides. The PAVN sus-tained roughly 100,000 casualties, while the ARVN reported approximately 30,000 killed, 78,000 wounded, and 14,000 missing in action. The civilian death toll for both the DRV and RVN, as a consequence of the attack, counterattack, and massive US retalia-tory bombing, remains unknown, but undoubtedly was in the many tens of thousands. Journalist Arnold Isaacs provided an example of this violence when he reported that the US/RVN fired 25,000 artillery rounds and carried out as many as forty B-52 raids daily in an effort to retake Quảng Trị city. As a consequence of these US/RVN attacks and earlier PAVN shelling, nearly every building in Quảng Trị city was levelled.
Despite the high level of destruction, no studies have been done on the Offensive’s impacts on civilians. Of the killing along the Highway, only a handful of authors have mentioned it. From disparate contemporary and postwar reports, publications, and personal accounts, it is clear that at various times during the period from 28 April until 1 May, 1972, the PAVN shot into columns of civilians and soldiers moving southward from Quảng Trị city.
Vietnam’s state-sanctioned historical narrative acknowledges the incident, but contends that PAVN troops were shooting only at retreating ARVN soldiers. According to Vietnam’s Military History Institute, the event unfolded as follows:
To the East, the 27th Infantry Regiment [of PAVN] and one mechanized infantry battalion captured the Hai Lang district capital. The 324th Infantry Division attacked strong points in the rear of the enemy’s defensive network, cutting Route 1 south of Quang Tri city. Surrounded and isolated, the enemy troops in La Vang-Quang Tri broke and ran. Our troops clung to and pursued them. Accurate fire from our long-range artillery positions created added terror among the enemy troops. Abandoning their vehicles and artillery pieces, enemy troops fled on foot. Many enemy units fled the My Chanh River defensive positions and ran all the way back to Hue. Route 1 from Quang Tri to northern Thua Thien province became a ‘highway of death’ for the enemy … At 1800 hours on 2 May the province of Quang Tri was totally liberated.
The event is remembered in a similar manner in a People’s Armynewspaper article commemorating the fortieth anniversary of the Offensive. The author, Major General Lê Mã Lương (former director of Vietnam’s Museum of Military History) states that on 1 May as the PAVN was poised to take Quảng Trị city, the PAVN’s 66th Infantry Regiment of the 304th division ‘blockaded and attacked the puppet [RVN] troops at La Vang, while at the same time the field artillery fired furiously into the column of retreating puppet troops, causing them to abandon their vehicles and artilleries and flee in a chaotic manner.’
Currently in Vietnam the government still maintains that the war was predominantly a war of resistance against American imperialism, waged for the reunification of Vietnam and the liberation of the RVN. As such, in the official historiography, the RVN is por-trayed as illegitimate and without any agency. Publications on the Easter Offensive, therefore, focus mostly on the military success and heroism of Communist forces, and on the destructive and relentless US air strikes. Accordingly, Quảng Trị is considered to have been ‘liberated’ on 2 May 1972, the day that the PAVN took control of the prov-ince. It follows that the attack along Highway One has been framed as a legitimate assault on retreating enemy troops, without any reference to the presence of civilians.
In contrast, the RVN government (before it was defeated in 1975) claimed that the PAVN intentionally targeted civilians. Bolstering the RVN’s assertion was the confes-sion of PAVN Private Lê Xuân Thủy, who was serving as a radio operator for the 4th Battalion, 324th Division when he defected on 31 July 1972. At an RVN government-or-ganized press conference on 8 September, Thủy revealed that his unit had been ordered to ‘maintain an ambush position along Route 1’ for six days to allow other PAVN troops to capture Quảng Trị city. Thủy’s commander had instructed his unit to shoot into the column of people fleeing Quảng Trị, even though it was clear that many civilians were present. The troops were told that the refugees were the enemy because they were opt-ing to leave rather than stay. Troops were commanded to shoot at all vehicles, including civilian cars, buses, and bicycles. According to Thủy, this event shook his faith in the DRV and led to his defection.
The testimony of one defector in state custody does not make for credible evidence. His assertion that the PAVN fired on civilians, however, corresponds with other contem-porary reports and eyewitness accounts. Many observers reported that civilian presence on the road was clearly discernable during the attack.
The event in question unfolded throughout the last days of April as the PAVN closed in on Quảng Trị city, causing many ARVN troops to flee south on Highway One. In addition to the south-bound troops, there were other ARVN troops moving north in order to clear the road for retreat and to supply posts still under ARVN control. Many eyewitnesses maintained that a considerable number of civilians were mixed into this traffic. Taking into account that the population of Quảng Trị city—around 20,00 in a panic at the impending loss of their city and by ‘rampant’ rumours that the PAVN ‘was about to unleash a massive artillery attack,’ it is not surprising that there would have been a large number of civilians on the highway. Colonel Gerald Turley, senior advisor for the 3rd ARVN Division in charge of the defense of the DMZ area, estimated that by 30 April only 8000–10,000 people remained in the city, and more would leave in the following two days.
Both American and Vietnamese newspapers consistently noted that the PAVN fired on the column of civilians and ARNV soldiers along the highway. Fox Butterfield of the New York Times, for example, reported on 30 April that ‘South Vietnamese troops and refugees fleeing south toward Hue came under small-arms fire from Communist troops on both sides of Route 1 just south of Quang Tri.’ Sidney Schanberg stated that the PAVN ‘dug in only 50 feet from the road on both sides’ and were shooting at military trucks, some of which carried refugees. Schanberg’s article was accompanied by two photographs, one of which is an aerial view of the highway congested with people, the majority of whom were clearly civilians, wearing conical hats and burdened with their belongings. Describing the incident, Peter Braestrup wrote: ‘… on April 26, the enemy began shelling Quang Tri and refugees streamed south 40 miles to Hue. Hundreds of them were slain by North Vietnamese ambushers firing rockets at close range on Highway 1.’ More graphic is Holger Jensen’s account: ‘On Highway 1, South Vietnam—bodies and parts of bodies litter this unhappy highway southeast of besieged Quang Tri city. A baby’s torso. The head of a woman. A leg.’ Two photographs were included, one of a toddler crying along the side of the road and the other is a bus packed with soldiers and civilians, some hanging over the sides and others on top. Reporting from the Highway for a respected Vietnamese daily, Nguyễn Tú described the road as ‘a corridor of blood’ [hành lang máu].
In the confusion of the retreat and attack, it is not surprising that there is a lack of data regarding the number of civilians in comparison to military personnel among those fleeing Quảng Trị; most reports simply emphasise the significant presence of both civil-ians and soldiers. In a classified incidence report for the US Air Force, though, Captain David Mann estimated that although ninety-five percent of the vehicles were military, three-quarters of the people were civilian:
As the combat activity surged towards Quang Tri City, refugee foot and vehicular traffic congested the highways leading to Hue. The first and largest group of refugees assembled in Quang Tri City early on 29 April and then moved approximately six miles south on Route 1, to the vicinity of Hai Lang District Town…At this point, the convoy came under attack by NVA direct and indirect fire. Lead vehicles were stopped immediately, and mass confusion ensued. Although three quarters of the people in the convoy were civilians, 95 percent of the vehicles in the column were military; the majority were two and one-half ton trucks plus a considerable number of flatbeds, tankers, small trucks, jeeps, and 15 ambulances…MR I Red Cross officials placed the death toll at 2000, including women, children, and elderly and sick evacuees from Quang Tri hospitals. (emphasis is mine)
In addition to journalistic and military reports, eyewitnesses also confirm that many civilians were on Highway One. Some of these eyewitnesses included US Marine senior advisors, Majors Robert Sheridan and Donald Price, who were positioned along the south bank of the Mỹ Chánh River where they had an ‘unobustructed view’ of Highway One for at least eight miles north toward Quảng Trị. Price was also tasked with accom-panying the 5th Battalion on 29 April to open up the highway, which the PAVN had blocked at several places. Sheridan and Price attested that they ‘had seen the civilians brought under fire by 130-mm artillery shells fired over their heads with delayed action fuses.’ The bursts ‘literally shredded the refugee column.’
Stories from survivors provide another dimension to this tragic episode. Lê Trong Lộc, who is now a physician in the US, was a boy when his family of twelve fled Quảng Trị. The family’s only motorcycle blew a tire, and they ended up pushing the vehicle down Highway One, which was choked with civilian and military vehicles:
It became increasingly more difficult for my father and us two brothers to push the motor-cycle along because there was no more room on the pavement. Blood ran all over the road. Corpses were no longer intact, their arms and legs were scattered here and there.
In this congestion and confusion, Lộc noticed a monk riding a bicycle. At that moment he envied the monk’s bicycle because it enabled him to get through the mass of people. A little later, he saw the monk again; this time the monk was lying beside the coveted bicycle while his severed head was a few feet away. Fortunately for Lộc’s family, all their members managed to make it to Huế unscathed. Some of his siblings avoided the highway altogether by using village roads.
Similarly, Phan Văn Châu relates a harrowing story of leaving Quảng Trị on 29 April with his family and his elder sister’s family. In the chaos of the attack he lost track of his family except for his nephew. After the barrage of fire, Châu and his nephew started looking for the rest of their family; in desperation, they began turning over corpses. They ended up spending the night on the highway, huddled among the corpses. The next day they left the highway and used the backroads to get to Mỹ Chánh, where they were reunited with the rest of the family.
The full extent of the attack was known only in July, after the ARVN regained the southern parts of Quảng Trị province. As mentioned above, the two reporters who broke the story for Sóng Thần, Ngy Thanh and Đoàn Kế Tường, were among the first to return to the highway. Being members of the military force themselves, both reporters arrived with the troops on 1 July. As the airborne headed toward Quảng Trị city on the western side of Highway One and the marines on the eastern side, the two reporters went on their own and found a way across the Bến Đá Bridge, which had been destroyed in late April. Because they arrived before the ARVN troops, Ngy Thanh and Tường were able to witness the scene before soldiers cleared the highway of vehicles and bodies to make it passable.
According to Ngy Thanh and Đoàn Kế Tường’s article, published on 3 July, the 10-km stretch of highway southeast of Quảng Trị city was a scene of mass destruction. The road was obstructed by damaged tanks, buses, cars, and Red Cross vehicles with stretchers still inside. Motorcycles were abandoned with keys in the ignition. Strewn around and in these wrecks were hundreds of bodies; some were soldiers but most were civilians, including women and children. Many more bodies could be found in the sandy banks along both sides of the highway, the soft sand acting as their grave. The reporters noted that because the corpses had been there since the end of April, a significant number had already begun to decompose.
In an essay written shortly after breaking the news, Tường described how upon seeing the ‘terrible hell’ along the highway, he had ‘burst into a loud sob, full of indignation and resentment.’ Encountering the aftermath of the attack was particularly difficult for him because at the end of April he was among the thousands who fled southward on the highway. Wrestling with survivor’s guilt, Tường, a Quảng Trị native, confessed: ‘In fleeing, I trampled upon the bodies of my brothers, sisters, and relatives without daring to look back.’
Other Vietnamese journalists reported equally horrifying sights along the highway when they returned in July. War correspondents Vũ Thanh Thủy and Dương Phục recorded in their joint memoir the eerie and surreal sight that they encountered along this stretch of highway. According to them, there were so many corpses that it was difficult for journalists to walk along the shoulders of the highway. They had to use walking sticks to help avoid stepping on corpses. Arnold Isaacs, who arrived in Quảng Trị a couple of days after the ARVN, described the highway as ‘one of the most appalling scenes of the entire war.’
Like many other wartime mass killings, there is some dispute about the number of people killed. On the low side, Holger Jensen placed the number between 200 and 600. On the high side, correspondents Dương Phục and Vũ Thanh Thủy estimated 5000. According to Dale Andradé, former senior researcher and writer for the US Army Center of Military History, the Red Cross estimated 2000 deaths, including many who had been evacuated from the Quảng Trị hospital. Majors Robert Sheridan and Donald Price believed approximately 2000 people were killed. They said that there were actually two assaults on refugees, one taking place on April 24, and then another on April 29–30. According to Sóng Thần’s record, the number of bodies recovered was 1841.
Beside the total number of deaths, it is also unclear what percentage of those killed along Highway One were civilian as opposed to military. From the aforementioned reports and accounts, the civilian presence was significant, if not the majority. Moreover, as already noted, Captain David Mann estimated that three-quarters of the people in the convoy were civilians. Nguyễn Kinh Châu recollects that most of the bodies recovered by Sóng Thần were civilians, some were ARVN troops, and about 100 were PAVN soldiers. Based on data published in Sóng Thần at that time, it appears that most of the bodies recovered were civilians. Until late September, Sóng Thần regularly printed descriptions of each corpse recovered, providing names (when available) and/or any distinguishing characteristics in order to help families with identification. From the lists published from 20 July to 9 August, out of 129 bodies recovered, only thirty-five were military, the rest were women and children (42), men (35), and unidentifiable (17). Of the last category, eleven were evidently civilian because of the clothing associated with the remains. In other words, sixty-eight percent of the bodies were civilians while twenty-seven percent were soldiers. While this is only a small sampling of the data, it does suggests that a sig-nificant number—if not the majority—of those killed along the highway were civilians
Even though the civilian death toll in this incident was high, some scholars may not consider it a ‘massacre’ because of the considerable and obvious presence of military personnel and vehicles. Within the convention of modern warfare, attacking a retreat-ing army is deemed acceptable. The civilian victims in these cases would typically be considered ‘collateral damage,’ an unfortunate but common consequence of modern warfare. Others differ. According to some scholars of mass killings and atrocities, one defining characteristic of a massacre is the asymmetry of power at the time of the event. Mark Levene states:
[a] massacre is when a group of animals or people lacking in self-defence, at least at that given moment, are killed—usually by another group…who have the physical means, the power with which to undertake the killing without physical danger to themselves. A massacre is unquestionable a one-sided affair and those slaughtered are usually thus perceived of as victims; even as innocents.
Consequently, according to Levene, it is possible to have a military massacre, ‘when remnants of a defeated army are cut down in flight.’ While many may not agree with Levene’s idea of a military massacre, the act of mowing down a group of retreating soldiers and civilians often raises moral and ethical issues. Although some contemporary observers did use the term massacre when writing about it, other did not. Whatever term was used, all were united in expressing shock and horror. Even Holger Jensen, who denied that the total number killed was no more than 600 and rejected the notion that the PAVN deliberately targeted civilians, described the event as a ‘carnage’ and ‘slaughter.’ Moreover, he wrote that the PAVN showed a ‘callous disregard for civilian targets.’ Unfortunately, in this war, the DRV was not the only side guilty of indiscriminate violence against and disregard for civilians. The US and the RVN were just as culpable on this front.
For full citations list and to read the rest of this article, please visit the source where it was first published: WAR & SOCIETY, Vol. 37, Issue 3, 2018.
Excerpt reprinted with permission from the author.
Van Nguyen-Marshall is an associate professor of history at Trent University in Ontario, Canada. Her research interest is modern Vietnamese history, focusing on associational life, civil society, and Vietnamese society during the Vietnam War. Email: [email protected]