This is part one in a three part chapter from my “all the dumb things” series and it is about when I was 18 and I visited the battlefront near Phnom Penh.
“War is sweet to those who have never experienced it”
Pindar, 4th century BC.
Back in January 1975 during rocket season, the Khmer Rouge were on the offensive and getting close to Phnom Penh. Rockets with a range of nearly 17km (about 11 miles) were regularly being fired into the city. In the mornings I used to have breakfast at a street side café (for the want of a better word as it was more of a street stall) a block away from the central market and it wasn’t unusual for several rockets a week to land within earshot.
The explosions caused panic among the Cambodians and they would stampede down the street away from the market whilst the sprinkling of foreigners in the cafés would stay put. The rational of the foreigners was that it was pointless to run when the explosion of the rocket was heard because they were only fired singly, and by the time the sound of the blast reached you, it was all over. I’ve read somewhere that you don’t hear the bullet that kills you. The rockets usually caused no casualties and very little damage; they were basically a terror weapon, just a big scary bang. In the six months I that I lived in Phnom Penh I was never able to see any damage caused by a rocket except on the patio of where I stayed for a while. Before I’d moved in, a rocket had caused some minor damage to some brickwork and after repairs it was hardly noticeable.
By day, large crowds of civilians would form on the banks of the Mekong looking for evidence of battle in the distant plumes of smoke on the other side of the river.
I was once standing with the crowd when a mortar round landed in the water about a hundred metres (about 100 yards) away and exploded causing a column of water about a metre (approximately 3ft) across to rise about 30 metres (just over 90ft) into the air. Everyone in the crowd flinched but nobody ran. Which was unusual because whenever rockets landed in the city, panicking people would be running all over the place. I guess when people can see where things land they’re not so frightened. Maybe the crowd figured we were just out of range, which might have been correct as only one mortar round was fired at us.
At night, many of us, who lived near the river, would go up on the rooftops and watch the helicopters strafing and rocketing the Khmer Rouge on the opposite bank of the Mekong. It was quite the “son et lumiere” spectacle; after all there was no T.V. To our hardened eyes it wasn’t that different to watching a thunderstorm and there was an almost party atmosphere.
The helicopters (American supplied Bell Hueys) would swoop across the river and fire their rockets, to the cheer of the people on the rooves, and one could see the fiery tails, noiselessly streak downwards to silently explode into dull pink marshmallows, silhouetting the distant palms against the blue-black tropical sky. A second later the whoosh of the rocket and the muffled whump of the explosion could be heard as the sound dawdled back across the river. Distinct from the “fwoop, fwoop, fwoop,” of the Hueys and amidst the sounds of small arms and rocket fire, one could occasionally hear the leisurely “blop, blop, blop” of a M75 grenade launcher in use. The M75 was a helicopter-mounted machine gun that fired 40mm grenades, a sort of no-fooling-around big boy’s crowd-controller. Every now and again one could see red tracer rounds being fired back by the Khmer Rouge at the airborne attackers. The curved trajectory of the tracer showed the incongruously slow path of the bullets. So slow in fact, that from a distance it felt as though it would be possible to just dodge bullets by just casually stepping aside. Every now and again a tracer was impotently fired into the city, a swipe in the dark at an unreachable foe. The only visible effect of the tracer, I could see, was the revealing of the Khmer Rouge positions to the government pilots, who would wheel around to return the favour a hundred fold.
Even though the sounds of war and the occasional light show were on display, the war seemed so abstract to me at the times. Sure, we couldn’t travel by land in the country and there were a lot of soldiers around but it still didn’t feel like war. It was more like bad weather. So one day on a whim I decided to visit the battlefront on the other side of the river for the stupidest reason.