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Among the Vietnamese who survived are soldiers who lived in the tiny underground tunnels without surfacing for five solid years. Their eyesight was permanently damaged. They suffered constant malnutrition, felt lucky when they could eat spoiled rice and rats. Self-deprivation was their weapon; they used it to force the soldiers of the most technically advanced army in the world to face them with knives, one on one, underground, in the dark.

On the American side, the tunnel rats were all volunteers. You can’t force a man to do what he cannot do. Most Americans hyperventilated, had attacks of claustrophobia, were too big. The tunnel rats could be no bigger than the Vietnamese, or they wouldn’t fit through the tunnels. Most of the tunnel rats were Hispanics and Puerto Ricans. They stopped wearing after-shave so the Vietcong wouldn’t smell them. They stopped chewing gum, smoking, and eating candy because it impaired their ability to sense the enemy. They had to develop the sonar of bats. They had, in their own words, to become animals. What they did in the tunnels, they said, was unnatural.

In 1967 I was attached to the 521st Medical Detachment. I was an old man by Vietnamese standards, but then, I hadn’t come to fight in the Vietnam War. Remember that the fourth pandemic began in China. Just before he died, Chinese poet Shih Tao-nan wrote:

Few days following the death of the rats,

Men pass away like falling walls.

Between 1965 and 1970, 24,848 cases of the plague were reported in Vietnam.

War is the perfect breeding ground for disease. They always go together, the trinity: war, disease, and cruelty. Disease was my war. I’d been sent to Vietnam to keep my war from interfering with everybody else’s war.

In March we received by special courier a package containing three dead rats. The rats had been found — already dead, but leashed — inside a tunnel in Hau Nghia province. Also found — but not sent to us — were a syringe, a phial containing yellow fluid, and several cages. I did the test myself. One of the dead rats carried the plague.

There has been speculation that the Vietcong were trying to use plague rats as weapons. It’s also possible they were merely testing the rats prior to eating them themselves. In the end, it makes little difference. The plague was there in the tunnels whether the Vietcong used it or not.

I set up a tent outside Cu Chi town to give boosters to the tunnel rats. One of the men I inoculated was David Rivera. “David has been into the tunnels so many times, he’s a legend,” his companions told me.

“Yeah,” said David. “Right. Me and Victor.”

“Victor Charlie?” I said. I was just making conversation. I could see David, whatever his record in the tunnels, was afraid of the needle. He held out one stiff arm. I was trying to get him to relax.

“No. Not hardly. Victor is the one.” He took his shot, put his shirt back on, gave up his place to the next man in line.

“Victor can see in the dark,” the next man told me.

“Victor Charlie?” I asked again.

“No,” the man said impatiently.

“You want to know about Victor?” David said. “Let me tell you about Victor. Victor’s the one who comes when someone goes down and doesn’t come back out.”

“Victor can go faster on his hands and knees than most men can run,” the other man said. I pressed cotton on his arm after I withdrew the needle; he got up from the table. A third man sat down and took off his shirt.

David still stood next to me. “I go into this tunnel. I’m not too scared, because I think it’s cold; I’m not feeling anybody else there, and I’m maybe a quarter of a mile in, on my hands and knees, when I can almost see a hole in front of me, blacker than anything else in the tunnel, which is all black, you know. So I go into the hole, feeling my way, and I have this funny sense like I’m not moving into the hole; the hole is moving over to me. I put out my hands, and the ground moves under them.”

“Shit,” said the third man. I didn’t know if it was David’s story or the shot. A fourth man sat down.

“I risk a light, and the whole tunnel is covered with spiders, covered like wallpaper, only worse, two or three bodies thick,” David said. “I’m sitting on them, and the spiders are already inside my pants and inside my shirt and covering my arms — and it’s fucking Vietnam, you know; I don’t even know if they’re poisonous or not. Don’t care, really, because I’m going to die just from having them on me. I can feel them moving toward my face. So I start to scream, and then this little guy comes and pulls me back out a ways, and then he sits for maybe half an hour, calm as can be, picking spiders off me. When I decide to live after all, I go back out. I tell everybody. ‘That was Victor,’ they say. ‘Had to be Victor.’”

“I know a guy says Victor pulled him from a hole,” the fourth soldier said. “He falls through a false floor down maybe twelve straight feet into this tiny little trap with straight walls all around and no way up, and Victor comes down after him. Jumps back out, holding the guy in his arms. Twelve feet; the guy swears it.”

“Tiny little guy,” said David. “Even for V.C., this guy’d be tiny.”

“He just looks tiny,” the second soldier said. “I know a guy saw Victor buried under more than a ton of dirt. Victor just digs his way out again. No broken bones, no nothing.”

Inexcusably slow, and I’d been told twice, but I had just figured out that Victor wasn’t short for V.C. “I’d better inoculate this Victor,” I said. “You think you could send him in?”

The men stared at me. “You don’t get it, do you?” said David.

“Victor don’t report,” the fourth man says.

“No C.O.,” says the third man. “No unit.”

“He’s got the uniform,” the second man tells me. “So we don’t know if he’s special forces of some sort or if he’s AWOL down in the tunnels.”

“Victor lives in the tunnels,” said David. “Nobody up top has ever seen him.”

I tried to talk to one of the doctors about it. “Tunnel vision,” he told me. “We get a lot of that. Forget it.”

In May we got a report of more rats — some leashed, some in cages — in a tunnel near Ah Nhon Tay village in the Ho Bo woods. But no one wanted to go in and get them, because these rats were alive. And somebody got the idea this was my job, and somebody else agreed. They would clear the tunnel of V.C. first, they promised me. So I volunteered.

Let me tell you about rats. Maybe they’re not responsible for the plague, but they’re still destructive to every kind of life-form and beneficial to none. They eat anything that lets them. They breed during all seasons. They kill their own kind; they can do it singly, but they can also organize and attack in hordes. The brown rat is currently embroiled in a war of extinction against the black rat. Most animals behave better than that.

I’m not afraid of rats. I read somewhere that about the turn of the century a man in western Illinois heard a rustling in his fields one night. He got out of bed and went to the back door, and behind his house he saw a great mass of rats that stretched all the way to the horizon. I suppose this would have frightened me. All those naked tails in the moonlight. But I thought I could handle a few rats in cages, no problem.