When we were sent to Viet Nam, most of us had very little idea of what we were getting in to. The history of Viet Nam, which we were to become a part of, was a blank page to be filled by the experience we all had there. That subjective experience gave us only glimpses of the larger picture of world politics which was dictating our presence there. It was not included in our duty as soldiers, nor did we have the resources or leisure, to decipher what lay behind our deployment. As combat infantrymen, the ever-present threat to our survival from an elusive enemy, consumed our energy. Many of us must have wondered, as did I, what lay behind this enemy, who challenged the most powerful and advanced army in the world with relatively meager and antiquated supplies.
The American involvement with Viet Nam began long before the 60's; in fact it began at the end of World War II. Previous to World War II Viet Nam had been part of the French colonial empire, which also included Laos and Cambodia, known as French Indochina. Japanese expansion into Asia prior to World War II and into Southeast Asia during the War also brought them into Viet Nam. The French were finally defeated and expelled in 1945 and replaced by the Japanese. Ho Chi Minh, an ardent Vietnamese nationalist educated in France, led the Viet Minh in resistance to the occupiers. Their hopes for Vietnamese nationhood were dashed after the Japanese defeat, when the French were allowed to (with American support) reoccupy their former colony. The fight was on, and by the time the French met a massive defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, we were financing their war.
By this time, Cold War politics were dictating our foreign policy. The terms of the peace treaty dictated a temporay division of Viet Nam, with country-wide elections to be held in 1956, which would result in a unified, independent Viet Nam. Ho Chi Minh established a socialist administration in the North, which resulted in the confiscation of much of the land and property of the Vietnamese ruling class in the more industrialized North. Thousands fled to the South and were determined to oppose the planned reunification. They found allies in the Cold War warriors who still smarted from having "lost" China. It was clear that an election would result in a communist Viet Nam, so the Eisenhower administration supported the South in blocking the election. In response, the North as well as indiginous Southern forces stepped up the campaign to "liberate" and unite Viet Nam. They found fertile ground in the South, where the peasants suffered under the existing, near-feudal system, which shut them out of the possibility of land ownership. The stage was set for the slippery slope which brought us there.
The overthrow of the Batista dictatorship by a guerrilla army in Cuba further focused US military attention to this new kind of irregular warfare. The French had never successfully adapted to low-level, small-unit, rural warfare and paid the price. Under Kennedy, the Green Berets were formed as an adaptation to this low-level guerrilla war. They were sent as advisors to the South Vietnamese army, but it soon became apparent, that the South Vietnamese were not up to the task. They became the main source of supply to the guerrilla forces, as they were not motivated to fight for a government and system to which they had questionable allegiance. The guerrillas, on the other hand, were highly motivated and they were like fish swimming in water with ample support from the local population. The decision to commit regular American troops into this quagmire came in spite of the fact that many knew that it would be a difficult if not impossible war to win. An alleged attack by Northvietnamese on an American destroyer allowed the Johnson administration to bypass the warpowers act, as Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which allowed the expansion of the American committment and doomed many thousands to death and suffering.
The Marine Corps Gazette of 1962 published several articles on guerrilla warfare which tried to draw lessons from past experience in order to prepare the military. The article by Peter Paret and John W. Shy, "Guerrilla Warfare and U.S. Military Policy: A Study" points out some of the very reasons we eventually met with little success in Viet Nam. They say in part, "The United States must accept the fact that real grievances, producing real demands, provide most of the impetus for guerrilla war, and we must prepare to meet or at least undercut those demands." In relation to this, they state what they see as one of the most important aspects of waging successful counter guerrilla war; an aspect never met by the various South Vietnamese governments. "The third taks in the conduct of counterguerrilla operations consists in assisting the threatened government to re-establish social order and its own authority. Although this task seems wholly non-military, it in fact attacks the underlying discontent that sustains violence. Neither economic aid from the United States nor domestic authoritarianism is an adequate answer to this problem. The government in question must administer reform effectively and honestly but without seeming to be simply responding to the program of the guerrillas."
Rach Kien was in fact at the center of some of those programs attempting to win over the peasants to the government cause. Rach Kien was in 1966 and early 1967 to become part of the "model village" program which was touted by the Pentagon. Schools were to be rebuilt in an effort to show what the government could do. John Steinbeck, author of "The Grapes of Wrath" worked for Armed Forces Radio in Saigon in 1966 to 1967 and visited Rach Kien at that point to show what the government could do after taking over a village. Mary McCarthy visited Rach Kien in 1967 and wrote about it in her book "Vietnam". "At Rach Kien, in the delta (a Pentagon pilot project of a few months before), I saw the little schoolhouse Steinbeck wrote about, back in January, and the blue school desks he had seen the soldiers painting. They were still sitting outside, in the sun; the school was not yet rebuilt more than a month later---they were still waiting for materials. In this hamlet, everything seemed to have halted, as in "Sleeping Beauty," the enchanted day Steinbeck left; nothing had advanced. Indeed, the picture he sketched, of a ghost town coming back to civic life, made the officers who had entertained him smile---"He used his imagination."
The supplies were most often intercepted and converted to private use or resold and the peasants were not won over--or won over by the other side. LIFE magazine, in an article on January 13, 1967 featured the Delta and particularly Rach Kien, while the 25th Division was in the area. This was the Rach Kien we found, and of course our insertion into the village, though increasing security, did little to improve the quality of life for the villagers.
The Southvietnamese government attempted a program in which Revolutionary Development (RD) teams were sent into rural areas to initiate projects to help the peasants. This was an attempt to counter VC influence over the peasants. This is what a 9th Division "After Action Report" of July 1967 had to say about these efforts: "The work of RD teams during May was stymied for a number of reasons although the teams demonstrated a more than willing effort to do what was required of them. To a degree, RD Team projects were hampered by a lack of construction materials. Moreover, Team security while operating in outlying areas represented another of their more serious problems. For example, when a team was provided security by ARVN or RF Forces, they invariably refused to post close in security. When not provided security from an outside source, they refused to remain overnight in hamlets where they were working. Instead the teams would retire to a nearby RF/PF outpost position at dusk. The Division initiated a program of providing patrols and ambushes in Long Thanh District, Bien Hoa Province and Dinh Thong Province and initiated patrolling in Long An Province to provide increased security for the RD cadre."Again, we had to take on tasks which should have been easily carried out by government forces. A further report of an attack focuses on the problem: "An attak on a RD Team operating in the Nhon Trach resulted in the death of the District Chief, his wife, A Civil Operations Revolutionary Development Support representative and the District S2. This attack undermined the RD effort in the District by instilling doubt in the population that GVN could provide necessary security. The situation was further aggrevated when the population asked the RD team to leave." So much for trying to win over the peasants.
Genuine land reform, one of the major desires of the peasants, was never seriously undertaken by the South Vietnamese government and fundamental criticism and opposition was brutally suppressed. The corruption within the government and the officer corps of the Army was barely hidden. Along with that came the conduct of the Army in the field, which we personally witnessed. In the Delta, we saw the most acute poverty that I have ever seen. The peasants had next to nothing, coins we found were most often the worthless coins of the French colonial period and some peasants even thought we were French soldiers. The ARVN soldiers would take everything that was not nailed down. The Paret and Shy article addresses the importance of the lawful behavior of counter-guerrilla forces:"...the conduct of troops in the field can ruin any governmental plan for severing the guerrilla from his popular base..."counterguerrilla forces represent the government to most of the people caught in the midst of a gurrilla war. If these forces act more irresponsibly than the guerrillas themselves, the government can hardly hope to appeal to people as their protector and benefactor." Although our behavior in regard to the peasants was not always exemplary, it was often complicated by lack of understanding and the resulting frustration. The behavior of the ARVN made us look like like models of good behavior.
THE MARINE CORPS GAZETTE also published an article by General Vo Nguyen Giap, the main strategist of the war against the French and us, entitled Inside The Vietminh. He stressed the need to strengthen the ties of the guerrilla to the peasant population if they were to be successful. "The August Revolution overthrew the feudal state. Reduction of land rents and rates of interest, decreed by people's power, bestowed on the peasants their first material advantages. Lands monopolized by the imperialists and traitors were confiscated and shared out. Communal land and rice fields were more equitably distributed. In 1953, deeming it necessary to promote the accomplishment of antifeudal tasks, the Party decided to achieve agraraian reform even during the course of the resistance war. It resulted in real material advantages for the peasants and brought to the army and the people a new breath of enthusiasm."This kind of real reform brought the revolutionary forces the kind of popular support the Southvietnamese government (which relied on the support of the old feudal structure) could only dream of.
The revolutionary forces were also careful not to alienate the peasants in their contact with them. General Giap again: "The People's Army has always been concerned with establishing and maintaining good relations with the people. This policy is based on the identity of their aims. The people are to the army what water is to fish, as the saying goes. And this saying has profound significance. Our army fought on the front; it has also worked to educate the people and has helped them to the best of its ability. The Vietnamese fighter has always taken care to observe Point 9 of his Oath of Honor: "In contacts with the people, to follow these three recommendations: to respect the people; to defend the people...in order to win their confidence and affection and achieve a perfect understanding between the people and the army. Our army has always organized days of help for peasants in production work and in the struggle against flood and drought. It has always observed a correct attitiude in its relations with the people. It has never done injury to their property---not even a needle or a bit of thread." The ARVN forces certainly could not make that claim.
The practice of the guerrillas is born out by report and observations made in the "After Action Reports" submitted by the 9th Division. They reported increased VC efforts to disrupt the September 1967 elections: "They plan to attack election propaganda teams and all other personnel working for the election, confiscate ballot boxes, assassinate candidates and attack election sites. Tax collection activities, propaganda programs and terrorism are expected to increase. However, the VC are concerned with the growing disenchantment of the people and have cautioned all their forces to avoid inflicting casualties on the civilian population."There were other reports of guerrilla units not attaking projects which benefitted the local population., as not to alienate their main source of support. Our B-52's could not be so discriminating.
So there we were in the middle of what was essentially a civil war. The Viet Cong received much support from Vietnamese who did not necessarily believe in their political ideology, but who opposed foreign intervention (ours) in their affairs. The Vietnamese have a long history of fighting against foreign invaders, the Chinese, the Japanese, the French and finally us. It was clear to many of us on the ground, that we were not making any progress, regardless of what the Pentagon was telling people back home. The Tet offensive exposed their optimistic prognosis for the lie that it was. Ground won one day would have to be rewon the next and the next again. Peaceful rice paddies being farmed in the daytime would be replaced by fields of fire at night as the local forces retrieved their weapons at night to attack our positions. The Cold War Philosophy which brought us there, had little application in the realities we faced on the ground. Our sacrifice was going for naught. The year in Viet Nam had been an education. The blank page I was on arrival had been filled .
In a firefight with a sizable Viet Cong unit, I got a close up and personal view of our enemy. We had pushed back troops from entrenched positions, and they left behind several dead. I came across a young VC, perhaps 15 or 16 years old, on the side of a bunker who had received a mortal wound. I retrieved his backpack laying beside him. I opened it and found it neatly packed with some extra clothing, a hand-made hammer and sickle flag and some ledger type books. In one I found, that he had been busy working out algebreic equations beyond my high school algebra capabilities. The other ledger contained writing, which I supposed to be a diary. Each page was beautifully hand-decorated with colorful drawings of butterflies, birds and flowers. After emptying the backpack, I found that I could not repack the contents as compactly as they had been packed, and had to leave it open.
We were forced out of the area under pressure and set up a perimeter around the area and spent the night there as artillery pounded the area through- out the night. As a fighterbomber flew over the area at dawn, a sole machine-gunner opened up on it. The rest of the unit, to our surprise, had managed to slip away during the night, under cover of the nipa palms which hung over the river to their back. When we swept through the abandoned camp we found that the dead we had seen there the previous day had been buried by their comrades, despite the massive artillery fire of the night. I kept the flag and turned in the rest of the pack to S-2 when we returned to camp.
Like many Delta soldiers, I soon found out that we were not aquatic mammals. The constant exposure to water, leeches and mosquito soon took a toll on my legs. It finally took its revenge on my return trip from R&R in Hong Kong. I left the plane in Tan Son Nhut with a fever of 103 and both legs oozing from open infections. I needed to get a ride to the dispensary for treatment and had to avail myself of the local transportation to get there. I approached a group of taxi drivers. The first one informed me that we would have to first make a stop at the PX, where I would have to buy a rotating fan for him before he would take me to the dispensary. The ride would be free. I thanked him for the offer, but stated that I did not want to do that in my condition. He refused to take me, as did the others. The anger swelled up inside me . I then knew why they did not allow us to carry weapons in Saigon. These were the people my comrades were fighting for and dying for and this was their thanks. Seeing no other possibilities and yearning for relief from my aching legs . I reluctantly agreed and got the fan. The dispensary admitted me to the hospital, where I spent the next three weeks.
Many of us passed on that message when we returned. We had to find a way to bring our brothers back home. I joined the VVAW (Viet Nam Veterans Against The War) soon after my release from the Army. There I found others who shared my experience.Their slogan was "Honor the Warrior, not the War" and "BRING OUR BROTHERS HOME". I felt an obligation to those left behind and the only way that could be met was for me to help bring them home. Immediately was not soon enough for me. The politicians who brought us there in the first place, whose sons only in rare cases shared our fates, managed to drag it on for a few more years, while many more thousands of our brothers and sisters died needlessly. We, the soldiers who fought the war, had not failed. Rather it was the politicians, the Eisenhowers, the MacNamaras, the Johnsons, the Kissingers and Nixons who had failed us by putting us into a war which we had no business in in the first place. Then they kept us there long after that fact was obvious even to them. They did not even have the decency to go through the process to make it a "war." Shame on them.