The Montagnards and the Paths to War

Thousands of years ago, the mammals of Southeast Asia, including the Asian elephant, Indochinese tiger, wild water buffalo, and Asian black bear, discovered the most efficient travel routes across Indochina’s Annamese Cordillera.  These species also first located the mountain passes that later connected northern and central Vietnam with Laos and Cambodia; and they found the best places to ford the area’s boulder-strewn streams and rivers.  After centuries of use, Southeast Asia’s mammals deepened and widened a few trails into veritable superhighways.

For the most part, the ancient mammalian trail network through the Cordillera adhered to the contours of watersheds, with the widest, most-heavily-trodden routes following the flat terrain of the area’s valleys.  Where high, steep valley walls pinched in on the bottomlands, trails exited the lowlands and ran across the tops of adjacent ridgelines or along the sides of nearby hills.  Some trails passed over the mountains from the headwaters of one stream to the headwaters of another.  In open country, the trails displayed less of a discernible pattern. For example, atop the sloping plain east of the Chu Pong Massif, the incessant patter of tiny feet and the sharp edges of hooves cut a chaotic system of trails in the landscape.

When the people we now refer to collectively as the Montagnards first entered the Annamese Cordillera after fleeing from the Han and Kinh/Viet padi states, they adopted the long-established mammalian trail network as their own.

French anthropologist Georges Condominas, who lived among the Mnong in the village of Sar Luk (40km northwest of Dalat) in the late 1940s, confirmed that Montagnard trails followed the contours of watersheds – just like the older mammalian trail network.  He wrote, “…the traditional paths that do connect villages are still the most heavily travelled.  They are narrow, and whenever possible they run along valley floors….”[1]

The primordial trail network influenced where the Montagnards built their villages. Since the greatest number of mammals moved along paths that paralleled the region’s largest rivers, the Montagnards located their villages in those same river valleys.  Sar Luk occupied a prime piece of highlands real estate.  It sat on a point of land between the Mei and Kroong rivers.  Those two rivers provided village residents with fresh water and fish.  Furthermore, the game animals traipsing up and down the Mei and Kroong valleys offered the Mnong an easily-accessible source of meat, leather, and sinew.  But that wasn’t all.  Wild elephants trekked over those same trails.  And occasionally, the Montagnards captured one of the big animals, tamed it, and then put it to work.

Sar Luk’s location gave its residents the ability to monitor human traffic going into and out of the ecologically-rich Mei and Upper Kroong river valleys.  No other competing group of hunter-gatherers or swidden agriculturalists could access the Mei or Upper Kroong without first passing the Mnong stronghold at Sar Luk.

Montagnard trails and village sites played an important military role in the Second Indochina War.  Communist forces used the old routes to transport men and materials from North Vietnam into South Vietnam.  Overtime, these infiltration routes became known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

In the early and mid-1960’s, U.S. Army Special Forces built dozens of outposts next to Montagnard villages in the Central Highlands.  These outposts, and the men stationed behind their fortifications, were supposed to disrupt North Vietnamese and Vietcong infiltration into South Vietnam. Unfortunately for the Americans, the large number of Montagnard trails, in conjunction with adverse weather, difficult terrain, and dense jungle, made it impossible for the Green Berets and their Montagnard allies to halt more than a fraction of Communist infiltration into South Vietnam.[2]

Endnotes

[1] Georges Condominas, translated by Adrienne Foulke, We Have Eaten the Forest: The Story of a Montagnard Village in the Central Highlands of Vietnam, (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), 5.

[2] Francis J. Kelly, Vietnam Studies, U.S. Army Special Forces, 1961-1971, (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Army, 2004), 50.

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