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Report from Vietnam II: The Problems of Success

A short helicopter trip from Saigon in almost any direction permits a ringside view of American bombing. Just beyond the truck gardens of the suburbs you see what at first glance appears to be a series of bonfires evocative of Indian summers; thick plumes of smoke are rising from wooded clumps and fields. Toward the west, great blackish-brown tracts testify to the most recent results of the defoliation program; purplish-brown tracts are last year’s work. As the helicopter skims the tree-tops, and its machine guns lower into position, you can study the fires more closely, and it is possible to distinguish a rice-field burned over by peasants from neat bombing targets emitting spirals of smoke. But a new visitor cannot be sure and may tend to discredit his horrified impression, not wishing to jump to conclusions. Flying over the delta one morning, I saw the accustomed lazy smoke puffs mounting from the landscape and was urging myself to be cautious (“How do you know?) when I noticed a small plane circling; then it plunged, dropped its bombs, and was away in a graceful movement, having hit the target again; there was a flash of flame, and fresh, blacker smoke poured out. In the distance, a pair of small planes was hovering in the sky, like mosquitoes buzzing near the ceiling, waiting to strike. We flew on.

Coming back to Saigon in the afternoon, I expected to hear about “my” double air-strike in the daily five-o’clock press briefing, but no air activity in the sector was mentioned—too trivial to record, said a newsman. On a day taken at random (Washington’s Birthday), the Air Force and the Marine Corps reported 460 sorties flown over South Vietnam; whenever a unit is in trouble, they send for the airmen. Quite apart from the main battle areas, where fires and secondary explosions are announced as so many “scores,” the countryside is routinely dotted with fires in various stages, so that they come to seem a natural part of it, like the grave-mounds in the rice-fields and pastures. The charred patches you see when returning in the afternoon from a morning’s field trip are this morning’s smoking embers; meanwhile new curls of smoke, looking almost peaceful, are the afternoon’s tally. And the cruel couples of hovering aircraft (they seem to travel in pairs, like FBI agents) appear to be daytime fixtures almost stationary in the sky.

The Saigonese themselves are unaware of the magnitude of what is happening to their country, since they are unable to use military transport to get an aerial view of it; they only note the refugees sleeping in the streets and hear the B-52s pounding a few miles away. Seeing the war from the air, amid the crisscrossing Skyraiders, Supersabres, Phantoms, observation planes, Psy-war planes (dropping leaflets), you ask your self how much longer the Viet Cong can hold out; the country is so small that at the present rate of destruction there will be no place left for them to hide, not even under water, breathing through a straw. The plane and helicopter crews are alert for the slightest sign of movement in the fields and woods and estuaries below; they lean forward intently, scanning the ground. At night, the Dragon-ships come out, dropping flares and firing mini-guns.

The Air Force seems inescapable, like the Eye of God, and soon, you imagine (let us hope with hyperbole), all will be razed, charred, defoliated by that terrible searching gaze. Punishment can be magistral. A correspondent, who was tickled by the incident, described flying with the pilot of a little FAC plane that directs a big bombing mission; below a lone Vietnamese on a bicycle stopped, looked up, dismounted, took up a rifle, and fired; the pilot let him have it with the whole bomb-load of napalm—enough for a platoon. In such circumstances, anyone with a normal sense of fair play cannot help pulling for the bicyclist, but the sense of fair play, supposed to be Anglo-Saxon, has atrophied in the Americans here from lack of exercise. We draw a long face over Viet Cong “terror,” but, no one stops to remember that the Viet Cong does not possess that superior instrument of terror—an air force, which in our case, over South Vietnam at least, is acting almost with impunity. The worst thing that could happen to our country would be to win this war.

AT THE END OF FEBRUARY, President Johnson’s personal representative announced to the press in Saigon that whereas ten months ago the US had confronted “the prommlms of failure” (read “problems of failure”) in Vietnam, now it confronted “the prommlms engendered by success.” This Madison-Avenue Mercury, once a CIA agent, whose lips flexed as he spoke like rubber bands, was concluding a whirlwind tour of the country and he kept conspicuously raising his arm to study his wristwatch and frown during his brief appearance; in an hour or so he would be airborne to Washington, on a breeze of confidence. One of “the problems of success” he listed was the refugees. This swift conversion of a liability into an asset is typical of the current American approach to Vietnam.

It is true that the French, who failed, did not have the problem. As a blunt Marine colonel said in his battery headquarters: “We created the refugees. There weren’t any in the French war. Everybody fought and then went home at night.” Today all that has been changed. An OCO man estimates that 10 per cent of the population are now refugees—a million and a half, he reckons, since January 1964. Yet the technology that is able to generate a record production of homeless persons, surpassing the old norms reached by floods and earthquakes, is able to reverse itself, when a real emergency looms, and use its skills for a salvage or mercy operation in the manner of the Red Cross. The emergency occurred in January with the Iron Triangle victims, originally counted as about 8,000 civilians, who have been finally boiled down to the 5,987 persons in the camp at Phu Cuong discussed in my previous article.

These people, obviously, are not refugees at all in the dictionary sense of the word (“A person who flees his home or country to seek refuge elsewhere, as in time of war, political or religious persecution, etc.”). They did not flee from the B-52s, though they might well have; they were moved by US troops, who were systematically setting fire to their houses. Thanks to world press and television coverage, nobody could claim that they had “voted with their feet” to join the Free World. They did not use their feet; they were packed into Army trucks and loaded onto boats. And here begins the story of how with nerve and enterprise you can convert a liability into an asset, not just by word-manipulation but by the kind of action that talks. The Americans moved in squarely to meet unfavorable publicity with favorable publicity. They changed their image, like so many vaudeville artists making a rapid costume-change in the wings.

Let me be fair. No doubt humane considerations played a part in the decision to treat this particular group of “refugees” with kid gloves. Surely individuals in the Army were shocked and even sickened by the orders for Operation Cedar Falls coming from “higher up.” Possibly President Johnson’s advisers sincerely regretted what was seen as a military necessity in terms of “shortening the war,” “saving American lives,” or whatever formula was applied. Anyway, Washington decided to do right by the “refugees.”

It is paying off. The camp at Phu Cuong has become a showcase. Newspaper people and other visitors are flown in by military helicopter—a short trip from Saigon—to see for themselves. Everything there is open and above board, contrary to what a suspicious person might anticipate. You can interview the evacuees through the camp interpreter if you have a mind to. Or you can bring your own interpreter and talk to them alone. Fresh water is trucked in daily by Army trucks and pumped steadily into reserve tanks. When I arrived, the pump had stopped working, but a colonel of engineers was there in a trice to fix it, scratching his head and using his American know-how. “These people are river people; they waste a lot of water,” said the young camp supervisor. Latrines of a primitive kind had been built. The authorities were trying to teach the people not to squat behind their huts, to collect their garbage at the indicated pick-up points instead of throwing it on the paths, not to splash water when ladling it out of the tank. Instructions in Vietnamese were plainly posted.

At noon, a Revolutionary Development cadre, in black pajamas, was supervising the rice distribution. The free market had been introduced—a novelty, it was said, to these peasant women and old peasant men. Merchants from the town came to sell fresh vegetables and buy canned and packaged products accumulated by the camp inhabitants, who received a daily ration as well as welfare payments and cash for what labor they did. In the beginning, the merchants had cheated the camp people, who did not know the fair market price of American surplus products, but the Americans had quickly put a stop to that. The evacuees were learning to make bricks out of mud, water, and a little cement for the supports of their future homes, using an American molding-process called Cinvaram—all over Vietnam, wherever the Americans were “pacifying,” there was Cinvaram, a singularly ugly gray brick. Six TV sets had been donated by AID. And in accordance with the Friendly Forces policy, the Arvin was getting a credit line; it was they who had done all the construction work, the Americans insisted—they themselves had only advised, supplied some materials and the daily water delivery.

ANY IMPARTIAL PERSON would concede that conditions were not too bad here, given the inevitable crowding. The “refugees” complained of the heat; in their river villages, there had been shade, and here there was not a tree, just an expanse of baking dust, which was regularly kicked up by arriving helicopters and military vehicles. They complained that their cattle were sick, that some of their hoarded rice had been stolen from them; not true, said the advisers: they had been told to mark it carefully and they had only themselves to blame if the unmarked sacks got mixed up in transit. They complained of the arrogance of the Revolutionary Development cadres, who were there to supervise them, one weedy youth to each group hut, and of the fact that spies had been placed among them; an indispensable measure, said the advisers, to prevent agitation and propaganda: after all, these people were Viet Cong dependents, and some troublemakers in their midst were trying to stir up a protest-strike, playing on their little grievances. A number of the troublemakers were known to the authorities and would be dealt with; in time, the rest would be picked out.

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