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Report from Vietnam I. The Home Program

THE FILIPINO TEAM, possibly because they were Asians, seemed to be on quite good terms with the population. Elsewhere—at Go Cong, in the delta—I saw mistrustful patients and heard stories of rivalry between the Vietnamese doctor, a gynecologist, and the Spanish and American medical teams; my companion and I were told that we were the first “outsiders,” including the resident doctors, to be allowed by the Vietnamese into his wing—the maternity, which was far the cleanest and most modern in the hospital and contained one patient. Similar jealousies existed of the German medical staff at Hue. In the rather squalid surgical wing of the Go Pong hospital, there were two badly burned children. Were they war casualties, I asked the official who was showing us through. Yes, he conceded, as a matter of fact they were. How many of the patients were war-wounded, I wanted to know. “About four” of the children, he reckoned. And one old man, he added, after reflection.

The Filipinos were fairly dispassionate about their role in pacification; this may have been because they had no troops fighting in the war (those leftist elements in the Assembly!) and therefore did not have to act like saviors of the Vietnamese people. The Americans, on the contrary, are zealots, above all the blueprinters in the Saigon offices, although occasionally in the field, too, you meet a true believer—a sandy, crew-cut, keen-eyed army colonel who talks to you about “the nuts and bolts” of the program, which, he is glad to say, is finally getting the “grass roots” support it needs. It is impossible to find out from such a man what he is doing, concretely; an aide steps forward to state, “We sterilize the area prior to the insertion of the RD teams,” whose task, says the colonel, is to find out “the aspirations of the people.” He cannot tell you whether there has been any land reform in his area—that is a strictly Vietnamese pigeon—in fact he has no idea of how the land in the area is owned. He is strong on coordination: all his Vietnamese counterparts, the colonel who “wears two hats” as province chief, the mayor, a deposed general are all “very fine sound men,” and the Marine general in the area is “one of the finest men and officers” he has ever met, For another army zealot every Vietnamese officer he deals with is “an outstanding individual.”

These springy, zesty, burning-eyed warriors, military and civilian, engaged in AID or Combined Action (essentially pacification) stir faraway memories of American college presidents of the fund-raising type; their diction is peppery with oxymoron (“When peace breaks out,” “Then the commodities started to hit the beach”), like a college president’s address to an alumni gathering. They see themselves in fact as educators, spreading the American way of life, a new propaganda fide. When I asked an OCO man in Saigon what his groups actually did in a Vietnamese village to prepare—his word—the people for elections, he answered curtly, “We teach them Civics 101.”

THE AMERICAN TAXPAYER who thinks that aid means help has missed the idea. Aid is, first of all, to achieve economic stability within the present system, i.e., political stability for the present ruling groups. Loans are extended, under the counterpart fund arrangement, to finance Vietnamese imports of American capital equipment (thus aiding, with the other hand, American industry). Second, aid is education. Distribution of canned goods (instill new food habits), distribution of seeds, fertilizer, chewinggum and candy (the Vietnamese complain that the GI’S fire candy at their children, like a spray of bullets), lessons in sanitation, hog-raising, and croprotation. The program is designed, not just to make Americans popular but to shake up the Vietnamese, as in some “stimulating” freshman course where the student learns to question the “prejudices” implanted in him by his parents. “We’re trying to wean them away from the old barter economy and show them a market economy. Then they’ll really go.”

We’re teaching them free enterprise,” explains a breathless JUSPAO official in the grim town of Phu Cuong. He is speaking of the “refugees” from the Iron Triangle, who were forcibly cleared out of their hamlets, which were then burned and leveled, during Operation Cedar Falls (“Clear and Destroy”). They had just been transferred into a camp, hastily constructed by the ARVN with tin roofs painted red and white, to make the form, as seen from the air, of a giant Red Cross—1,651 women, 3,754 children, 582 men, mostly old, who had been kindly allowed to bring some of their furniture and pots and pans and their pigs and chickens and sacks of their hoarded rice; their cattle had been transported for them, on barges, and were now sickening on a dry, stubbly, sandy plain. “We’ve got a captive audience!” the official continued excitedly. “This is our big chance!”

To teach them free enterprise and, presumably, when they were “ready” for it, Civics 101; for the present, the government had to consider them “hostile civilians.” These wives and children and grandfathers of men thought to be at large with the Viet Cong had been rice farmers only a few weeks before. Now they were going to have to pitch in and learn to be vegetable farmers; the area selected for their eventual resettlement was not suitable for rice-growing, unfortunately. Opportunity was beckoning for these poor peasants, thanks to the uprooting process they had just undergone. They would have the chance to buy and build their own homes on a pattern and of materials already picked out for them; the government was allowing them 1700 piasters toward the purchase price. To get a new house free, even though just in the abstract, would be unfair to them as human beings: investing their own labor and their own money would make them feel that the house was really theirs.

In the camp, a schoolroom had been set up for their children. Interviews with the parents revealed that more than anything else they wanted education for their children; they had not had a school for five years. I remarked that this seemed queer, since Communists were usually strong on education. The official insisted. “Not for five years.” But in fact another American, a young one, who had actually been working in the camp, told me that strangely enough the small children there knew their multiplication tables and possibly their primer—he could not account for this. And in one of the razed villages, he related, the Americans had found, from captured exercise books, that someone had been teaching the past participle in English, using Latin models—defectors spoke of a high school teacher, a Ph.D. from Hanoi.

Perhaps the parents, in the interviews, told the Americans what they thought they wanted to hear. All over Vietnam, wherever peace has broken out, if only in the form of a respite, Marine and army officers are proud to show the schoolhouses their men are building or rebuilding for the hamlets they are patrolling, rifle on shoulder. At Rach Kien, in the delta (a Pentagon pilot-project of a few months ago), 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 waiting for materials. In this hamlet, everything seemed to have halted, as in “The 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.” In other hamlets, I saw schoolhouses actually finished and one in operation. “The school is dirty,” the colonel in charge barked at the Revolutionary Development director—a case of American tactlessness, though he was right. A young Vietnamese social worker said sadly that he wished the Americans would stop building schools. “They don’t realize—we have no teachers for them.”

Yet the little cream schoolhouse is essential to the American dream of what we are doing in Vietnam, and it is essential for the soldiers to believe that in Viet Cong hamlets no schooling is permitted. In Rach Kien I again expressed doubts, as a captain, with a professionally shocked face, pointed out the evidence that the school had been used as “Charlie’s” headquarters. “So you really think that the children here got no lessons, nothing, under the VC?” “Oh, indoctrination courses!” he answered with a savvy wave of his pipe. In other words, VC Civics 101.

IF YOU ASK a junior officer what he thinks our war aims are in Vietnam, he usually replies without hesitation: “To punish aggression.” It is unkind to try to draw him into a discussion of what constitutes aggression and what is defense (the Bay of Pigs, Santo Domingo, Goa?), for he really has no further ideas on the subject. He has been indoctrinated, just as much as the North Vietnamese POW, who tells the interrogation team he is fighting to “liberate the native soil from the American aggressors”—maybe more. Only the young American does not know it; he probably imagines that he is thinking when he produces that formula. And yet he does believe in something profoundly, though he may not be able to find the words for it: free enterprise. A parcel that to the American mind wraps up for delivery hospitals, sanitation, roads, harbors, schools, air travel, Jack Daniel, convertibles, Stimmudents. That is the C-ration that keeps him going. The American troops are not exactly conscious of bombing, shelling, and defoliating to defend free enterprise (which they cannot imagine as being under serious attack), but they plan to come out of the war with their values intact. Which means that they must spread them, until everyone is convinced, by demonstration, that the American way is better, just as American seed-strains are better and American pigs are better. Their conviction is sometimes baldly stated. North of Da Nang, at a Marine base, there is an ice-cream plant on which is printed in large official letters the words: “ICE-CREAM PLANT: ARVN MORALE BUILDER.” Or it may wear a humanitarian disguise, e.g., OPERATION CONCERN, in which a proud little town in Kansas airlifted 110 pregnant sows to a humble little town in Vietnam.

Occasionally the profit motive is undisguised. Flying to Hue in a big C-130, I heard the pilot and the co-pilot discussing their personal war aim, which was to make a killing, as soon as the war was over, in Vietnamese real estate. From the air, while they kept an eye out for VC, they had surveyed the possibilities and had decided on Nha Trang—“beautiful sand beaches”—better than Cam Ranh Bay—a “desert.” They disagreed as to the kind of development that would make the most money: the pilot wanted to build a high-class hotel and villas, while the co-pilot thought that the future lay with low-cost housing. I found this conversation hallucinating, but the next day, in Hue, I met a Marine colonel who had returned to the service after retirement; having fought the Japanese, he had made his killing as a “developer” in Okinawa and invested the profits in a frozen-shrimp import business (from Japan) supplying restaurants in San Diego. War, a cheap form of mass tourism, opens the mind to business opportunities.

All these developers were Californians. In fact, the majority of the Americans I met in the field in Vietnam were WASPS from Southern California; most of the rest were from the rural South. In nearly a month I met one Jewish boy in the services (a nice young naval officer from Pittsburgh), two Boston Irish, and a captain from Connecticut. Given the demographic shift toward the Pacific in the United States, this Californian ascendancy gave me the peculiar feeling that I was seeing the future of our country as if on a movie screen. Nobody has dared make a war movie about Vietnam, but the prevailing unreality, as experienced in base camps and headquarters, is eerily like a movie, a contest between good and evil, which is heading toward a happy ending, when men with names like “Colonel Culpepper,” “Colonel Derryberry,” “Captain Stanhope,” will vanquish Victor Charlie. The state that has a movie actor for governor and a movie actor for US senator seemed to be running the show.

NO DOUBT the very extensive press and television coverage of the war has made the participants very conscious of “exposure,” that is, of roleplaying. Aside from the usual networks, Italian television, Mexican television, the BBC, CBC were all filming the “other” war during the month of February, and the former Italian Chief of Staff, General Liuzzi, was covering it as a commentator for the Corriere della Sera. The effect of all this attention on the generals, colonels, and lesser officers was to put a premium on “sincerity.”

Nobody likes to be a villain, least of all a WASP officer, who feels he is playing the heavy in Vietnam through some awful mistake in type-casting. He knows he is good at heart, because everything in his home environment—his TV set, his paper, his Frigidaire, the President of the United States—has promised him that, whatever shortcomings he may have as an individual, collectively he is good. The “other” war is giving him the chance to clear up the momentary misunderstanding created by those bombs, which, through no fault of his, are happening to hit civilians. He has warned them to get away, dropped leaflets saying he was coming and urging “Charlie” to defect, to join the other side; lately, in pacified areas, he has even taken the precaution of having his targets cleared by the village chief before shelling or bombing, so that now the press officer giving the daily briefing is able to reel out: “OPERATION BLOCKHOUSE. 29 civilians reported wounded today. Two are in ‘poor’ condition. Target had been approved by the district chief.” Small thanks he gets, our military hero, for that scrupulous restraint. But in the work of pacification, his real self comes out, clear and true. Digging wells for the natives (too bad if the water comes up brackish), repairing roads (“Just a jungle trail before we came,” says the captain, though his colonel, in another part of the forest, has just been saying that the engineers had uncovered a fine stone roadbed built eighty years ago by the French), building a house for the widow of a Viet Cong (so far unreconciled; it takes time).

American officers in the field can become very sentimental when they think of the good they are doing and the hard row they have to hoe with the natives, who have been brainwashed by the Viet Cong. A Marine general in charge of logistics in I-Corps district was deeply moved when he spoke of his Marines: moving in to help rebuild some refugee housing with scrap lumber and sheet tin (the normal materials were cardboard boxes and flattened beer cans); working in their off-hours to build desks for a school; giving their Christmas money for a new high school; planning a new marketplace. The Marine Corps had donated a children’s hospital, and in that hospital, up the road, was a little girl who had been wounded during a Marine assault. “We’re nursing her back to health,” he intoned, with prayerful satisfaction—a phrase he must have become attached to by dint of repetition; his PIO (Information Officer) nodded three times. In the hospital, I asked to see the little girl. “Oh, she’s gone home,” said the PIO. “Nursed her back to health.” In reality the little girl was still there, but it was true, her wounds were nearly healed.

A young Marine doctor, blue-eyed, very good-looking, went from bed to bed, pointing out what was the matter with each child and showing what was being done to cure it. There was only the one war casualty; the rest were suffering from malnutrition (the basic complaint everywhere), skin diseases, worms; one had a serious heart condition; two had been badly burned by a stove, and one, in the contagious section, had the plague. The doctor showed us the tapeworm, in a bottle, he had extracted from one infant. A rickety baby was crying, and a middle-aged corpsman picked it up and gave it its bottle. They were plainly doing a good job, under makeshift conditions and without laboratory facilities. The children who were well enough to sit up appeared content; some even laughed, shyly. No amusements were provided for them, but perhaps it was sufficient amusement to be visited by tiptoeing journalists. And it could not be denied that it was a break for these children to be in a Marine hospital, clean, well-fed, and one to a bed. They were benefiting from the war, at least for the duration of their stay; the doctor was not sanguine, for the malnutrition cases, about what would happen when the patients went home. “We keep them as long as we can,” he said, frowning. “But we can’t keep them forever. They have to go back to their parents.”

COMPARED TO what they were used to, this short taste of the American way of life must have been delicious for Vietnamese children. John Morgan in the London Sunday Times described another little Vietnamese girl up near the DMZ—do they have one to a battalion?—who had been wounded by Marine bullets (“A casualty of war,” that general repeated solemnly. “A casualty of war”) and whom he saw carried in one night to a drinking party in sick bay, her legs bandaged, a spotlight playing on her, while the Marines pressed candy and dollar bills into her hands and had their pictures taken with her; she had more dolls than Macy’s, they told him—“that girl is real spoiled.” To spoil a child war victim and send her back to her parents, with her dolls as souvenirs, is patently callous, just as it is callous to fill a child’s stomach and send it home to be hungry again. The young doctor, being a doctor, was possibly conscious of the fakery—from a responsible medical point of view—of the “miracle” cures he was effecting; that was why he frowned. Meanwhile, however, the Marine Corps brass could show the “Before” and “After” to a captive audience. In fact two. The studio audience of children, smiling and laughing and clapping, and the broader audience of their parents, who, when allowed to visit, could not fail to be impressed, if not awed, by the “other” side of American technology. And beyond that still a third audience—the journalists and their readers back home, who would recognize the Man in White and his corpsman, having brought them up, gone to school with them, seen them on TV, in soap opera. I felt this myself, a relieved recognition of the familiar face of America. These are the American boys we know at once, even in an Asian context, bubbling an Asian baby. We do not recognize them, helmeted, in a bomber aiming cans of napalm at a thatched village. We have a credibility gap.

Leaving the hospital, I jolted southward in a jeep, hanging on, swallowing dust; the roads, like practically everything in Vietnam, have been battered, gouged, scarred, torn up by the weight of US materiel. We passed Marines’ laundry, yards and yards of it, hanging outside native huts—the dark green battle cloth spelled money. Down the road was a refugee camp, which did not form part of the itinerary. This, I realized, must be “home” to some of the children we had just seen; the government daily allowance for a camp family was ten piasters (six cents) a day—sometimes twenty if there were two adults in the family. Somebody had put a streamer, in English, over the entrance: “REFUGEES FROM COMMUNISM.”

This was a bit too much. The children’s hospital had told the story the Americans were anxious to get over. Why put in the commercial? And who was the hard sell aimed at? Not the refugees, who could not read English and who, if they were like all the other refugees, had fled, some from the Viet Cong and some from the Americans and some because their houses had been bombed or shelled. Not the journalists, who knew better. Whoever carefully lettered that streamer, crafty Marine or civilian, had applied all his animal cunning to selling himself.

(This is the first of a series of articles.)

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