ViETNAM VETERANS may bitch about the media, but the fact remains that journalistic accounts of the Vietnam war continue to be far superior to most of those provided by other sources. For example, a recent article in an academic journal on the 1972 Christmas bombing of North Vietnam concluded with the remarkable statement that "the North Vietnamese accepted certain limits on the war they fought in Vietnam" and speculated that if the United States had gone all-out from the very beginning, the North Vietnamese would have unleashed their entire military might against the south.

Given the over half-million soldiers that North Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap admitted were killed in action between 1965 and 1969 alone, that conclusion is arrant nonsense. Unless one understands the gross differences in the "correlation of forces" between Vietnamese communist forces and the United States, one does not even begin to understand the Vietnam war. In their remarkable new book, The Tunnels of Cu Chi, BBC correspondents Tom Mangold and John Penycate mention in passing that "In one month (in 1966), throughout South Vietnam, the Americans fired about a trillion bullets, ten million mortar rounds, and 4.8 million rockets. And this was just the beginning of the war." The real story is not some fantasy of North Vietnamese constraints (nor, equally misleading, fantasies of unlimited application of U.S. military power), but, as Mangold and Penycate relate in fascinating detail, "how the weak outfaced the strong."

This was particularly true in the area just north and northwest of Saigon astride the Song Sai Gon (the Saigon River). The so-called "Iron Triangle" on its eastern banks and the district of Cu Chi on its western banks "was a springboard for attacking Saigon" throughout the early years of the war. One reason the area was so important was that through a fortuitous combination of low water tables and soil compositions, the region was ideal for tunneling. Originally dug as hiding places for the Viet Minh guerrillas in their pre-1954 war with the French, "the forty-eight kilometers (30 miles) of tunnel during (that) war . . . had grown to two hundred kilometers (125 miles) by the time the Americans arrived in 1965." This was not by strategy. "No single military engineer designed this vast labyrinth nor . . . did any one commander order it to be built. The tunnels evolved as the natural response of a poorly equipped and mainly local guerrilla army to mid-20th century technological warfare."

Now honored as "the Iron Land of Cu Chi," some of the tunnels are maintained as memorials to the tunnel war. At the invitation of the present government of Vietnam, Mangold and Penycate were taken on guided tours of this area and allowed to interview many of the heroes -- and, of course, several obligatory heroines -- of the war. There are not many left, for as the authors were told by Captain Nguyen Thanh Linh of the People's Army of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, who spent five years in the tunnels of Cu Chi, "Of the 300 men under his command . . . in January 1966, only four were to survive the war. . . . 'In Cu Chi we lost 12,000 people -- guerrillas and civilians -- in the course of the war.'" The most harrowing story is told by Dr. Vo Hoang Le. His accounts of performing surgery in these tunnels without adequate medical supplies and in some cases without anesthesia are nightmarish in the telling and must have been infinitely worse for those actually involved.

But -- with the stubborn Western journalistic independence that continually confounds communist commissars -- Mangold and Penycate did not produce the propaganda tract that the Vietnamese obviously expected. Coming to the United States, they interviewed a number of soldiers who had served as "tunnel rats" to root out these Viet Cong guerrillas. As they make clear, these were also a brave lot indeed, for "In order to fight that enemy in his own redoubts, the Americans had to invent a military skill that was so (literally) down-to-earth that its successes were due not to advanced weapons or firepower, but to simple courage in the face of the most ancient and primeval fear, following the quarry into the unknown darkness of his lair."

Not only does The Tunnels of Cu Chi describe the war between the guerrillas and the tunnel rats, it also has remarkable insights into the larger issues of the war. The authors describe not only American failures but our successes as well, including, some may be surprised to find, the successes of the Phoenix Program in eliminating the guerrilla infrastructure. "Ironically," they relate, "as the last American units pulled out in the early seventies, the Viet Cong was admitting defeat."

As Mangold and Penycate conclude, there is a curious symbiosis between the combatants on both sides. "Few of the tunnel guerrillas survived the war. The Viet Cong can honestly claim the victory, but it was North Vietnam that took the glory and the power. And when the American tunnel rats came marching home, their stories and courage, too, were ignored, and then swamped by the postwar trauma and recriminations that wracked America."

Those who have replaced the distortions and emotionalism of earlier Vietnam war accounts with objective and even-handed analyses can take pride in the fact that at long last, "The survivors on both sides speak with open respect about their former adversaries . . . What is remembered is . . . how both discovered new springs of courage and endurance -- a lasting inspiration from a painful war."