The best and most balanced reporting on Vietnam today is written by French-speaking writers. This is not because Swiss or French observers have better official sources of information than their American colleagues: They emphatically do not, since there are many briefings in Saigon “For American Eyes Only.” But there are still great numbers of Vietnamese for whom French is a second language, particularly the mountain tribesmen (the so-called Montagnards)—and the Vietcong. Predictably, therefore, books which derive from direct contact with the French-speaking Vietnamese are likely to have a degree of authority and insight which is often quite lacking in much American reporting. To judge by the coverage of the American popular press and television, the second Indo-China War seems as two-dimensional as the wars between the Normans and the English represented on the Bayeux Tapestries. We are shown armadas of flitting helicopters and armored vehicles and ships maneuvering heroically in obscure military actions. If not the Bayeux Tapestries, then it is a spectacle staged by Darryl F. Zanuck. The enemy soldiers, on the other hand, are either invisible—shadows on an infra-red sniper-scope, blips on an anti-personnel radar screen—or they are seen as piles of corpses whose small size and unmilitary clothing make them indistinguishable from the surrounding civilian population.
Nor are we given much information about the 600,000 or so South Vietnamese fighting on the western side: Their officers change too often, their fighting almost always takes second place to American operations, and so often ends in disaster or near disaster that it does not remain newsworthy for long. American efforts to present the South Vietnamese as “our loyal allies” are often undermined by the candid admission that this or that campaign was launched without the help of Vietnamese troops or the knowledge of the South Vietnamese government in order to insure that the Vietcong not be warned of the operation in advance. One could add for the record that three major offensive operations, launched entirely with American and Australian troops for the sake of better security, nevertheless have failed to find much of the enemy. So we are left to choose between two equally uncomfortable conclusions: Either there are pro-Vietcong Americans among the planners in Saigon, or the operations were too clumsy to succeed in the first place.
THE SUPERFICIALITY of the English-language reporting shows up very clearly when compared with the work of writers like Jean Lacouture or the recent books by Fernand Gigon and Jean Lartéguy. Not one American reporter has devoted even a half-hour of TV time to the state of mind of the South Vietnamese students, the overwhelming majority of whom are extremely anxious to stay out of the war and study abroad—the longer the course of study the better. No American reporter has thus far found it worthwhile to do a “human interest” story (an American news specialty, after all) on Sister Marie-Louise and her colony of 400 Jepers sitting in VC territory west of Kontum, in the mountain plateau area. What do our Vietcong prisoners think? Are there political forces at work among the million-odd displaced persons which, according to former Assistant Secretary of State Roger Hilsman, “our” large-scale operations have created inside South Vietnam? Do the admission statistics of American and South Vietnamese hospitals really show that between thirty and forty Vietnamese civilians are being treated for wounds inflicted by our weapons for each civilian wounded by Vietcong mortar or small-arms fire? What happens to the prisoners taken by the Vietcong? Several dozen Westerners, including Americans, have had this experience, but only very few have been allowed to tell the public what happened to them. The Vietnamese Montagnards, though staunchly anti-Communist, have been in a state of semipermanent rebellion against Saigon. Many U. S. Special Forces advisors feel that their case for self-government, separate from the jurisdiction of any lowland Vietnamese government, is somewhat better than Saigon’s case for independence from Hanoi.
Lartéguy and Gigon have answered some of these questions for their French readers. Both are experienced Indo-China hands. Lartéguy’s first trip dates back to 1950, when he volunteered to fight alongside American troops in Korea and fought on Heart-break Ridge with the 2nd U. S. Infantry Division. He is neither a Leftist nor a “Gaullist agent,” as his writings on Algeria amply show. In fact, he likes Americans and has considerable sympathy for those who are fighting a war which only few clearly understand.
Gigon is Swiss, with all the reticences, the often painful attempts at objectivity, this implies. He writes for such staid publications as the Gazette de Lausanne, and his voice is often heard on the Swiss government-run radio network. He has been in Vietnam eighteen times during the past twenty years and recently completed a book on China’s hopelessly botched “Great Leap Forward.” In the past, he had been harshly critical of French counterinsurgency operations in Indo-China and Algeria; a final chapter in his present book speaks of the National Liberation Front as a “Red Trojan Horse.” There is no question in his mind (and the same is true for Lartéguy) that the political direction of the Vietcong movement ultimately lies in North Vietnam.
Yet in the same breath Gigon calls some of the Americans who fight in Vietnam “SS troopers…and I call ‘SS-trooper’ any man who still confuses war with virility, [and] who believes in solutions by force rather than by reason.” Lartéguy’s view of the Americans is both less extreme and more ominous. For he argues that their actions are not governed by a small group of hard-line extremists (those whom Gigon calls “the SS”) but, on the contrary, are the result of a profound transformation of the psychology of American military leaders as they realize with increasing clarity that they may be involved in perhaps dozens of more or less extensive “border wars” on the outer edge of the American sphere of influence. Lartéguy dealt with similar feelings within the French Army in The Centurions, his widely read book on the Algerian war.
IN FRANCE, le complexe du centurion became a household word during the Algerian War as French officers and non-coms of the elite units suddenly began to believe that they had the power, through the famous “pacification programs,” to undertake programs of social reform more ambitious than any yet undertaken by a Western power and comparable in their scope only to those imposed by Communist China. It takes an insider such as Lartéguy to remember that the French Army actually attempted to plant in the South Vietnamese plateau area military settlements of the same kind as the Roman coloniae on the Rhine; and that French officers and sergeants of the French Special Forces—in Vietnam first, in Algeria later—finally cracked under the strain of conflicting loyalties as government policy at home demanded that they abandon to their fate the men they had trained and with whom they had fought. I saw Lartéguy in Vietnam as he was gathering the material for his book, and both he and I were struck by the remarkable resemblance of the U. S. Special Forces to their French predecessors, not only in physical appearance, with their green berets—do any of them know that the French Marine Commandos wore green berets also?—and their camouflage uniforms, but in their point of view: We’re here to defend the Free World even if it is too fat and sloppy and rich to help us; even if it does not want to be defended; and even if it does not show us any gratitude for defending it. We, the Centurions, are (in the words of President Johnson, and in precisely that context) “the guardians at the gate, and there is no one else.”
Ultimately the psychological force of the Centurion Complex can lead the military elite, notwithstanding all its assertions to the contrary, to take action at home as well. The soldier who promises to beat up demonstrating college students when he returns home on leave is behaving in a way quite consistent with the logic of his environment in Vietnam. But like the French paratroopers in Algeria, he has become capable of destroying what he had supposedly been sent to defend: freedom of political choice.
Gigon asserts, but without citing names, that there have been cases where Americans, including American pilots, have openly and courageously shown disgust with the role of centurion. In a chapter called “The American Deserters” he describes pilots who have refused to fly saturation bombing missions against what appeared to be civilian targets and were quietly reduced in rank and reassigned to the United States. It is also true that several officers have not only been relieved from command because they disagreed with certain policies, but have also resigned from the service because of such disagreements. The public criticism of bombing in the North by such respected generals as James Gavin and Matthew Ridgway cannot be dismissed as the ravings of ill-informed preachers of despair. Nor can General Edward Lansdale’s outburst against bombing Southern villages (Foreign Affairs, October 1964). Lansdale, who is now Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge’s Special Advisor on Rural Reconstruction (i.e., the civilian aspects of pacification) in Vietnam, wrote: “American bounty, whether in the form of military-civic action or economic aid by U.S. civilians, cannot make up for such mistakes. Nor can it buy the friendship of the Vietnamese people.”
We may well wonder if that was the sort of advice which Lansdale gave to President Johnson during his stay in Washington prior to the Honolulu conference, and whether he has much chance of making himself heard in Saigon over the roar of the jet fighter-bombers flying their hundreds of daily missions—all on carefully selected military targets, of course.
ANOTHER PROBLEM to which both journalists devote much space, and which the American press is barely beginning to discover, is the ruinous economic catastrophe which is about to engulf Vietnam. Like a man who is dangerously fat and suffers from hardening of the arteries at the same time, South Vietnam is drowning in war-induced prosperity on the one hand, while its productive economy is being destroyed on the other. Gigon makes clear the profound moral rot which has taken hold of the country: A whore in Saigon can now earn in one day what a middle-level civil servant earns in a month; and the prices of consumer goods have risen with the earnings of the whores. Lartéguy carefully examines the mechanisms by which the Communists exert economic control throughout the country, and particularly in the plantations which were still run by the French until the end of 1965. They are closing down now, one by one, destroyed by the bitter ground fighting; by “defoliating operations” (I have seen one such plantation, worth tens of millions of dollars, with its miles of leafless dead trees); and by the harsh taxes paid to the Vietcong as ransom for captured French plantation officials.
One of the most important corporations [writes Lartéguy], precisely the one whose director in Saigon casts the most aspersions on the Vietcong, presented its account books to the North Vietnamese government in order to prove that it no longer made any profits whatever, and was in no position to pay the ransom [for a kidnapped official] which had been demanded.
This kind of intervention proves how fragile is the myth of the independence of the Liberation Front from North Vietnam. Hanoi, indeed, issued the order to release the planter.
In the meantime, however, the Vietcong seems to have found another source for its supplies: the harbors of Vietnam. According to an American expert who went to Vietnam to inspect the unloading facilities, between 36 and 40 per cent of all civilian goods reach the Vietcong directly from the American warehouses. That statement, if true (and other sources available to me indicate that the statement was correct as reported in The New York Times of February 17) would account for the fact that the Vietcong has plenty of supplies whose American origin makes their arrival via the North Vietnamese-Ho Chi Minh Trail somewhat doubtful, to say the least. And it would further confirm what everybody in Washington seems to know, but is reluctant to say—that the enormous bombing effort in the North is even less effective than the more skeptical officers had predicted.
In view of this, we can only wonder at the apparent naiveté of General Maxwell Taylor’s recently expressed hope that the Vietcong would have to limit the expansion of its forces because it would encounter supply problems. Apparently, as Mao Tse-tung teaches, our side is expected to serve as quartermaster for the guerrillas as well—and Saigon seems to fill that role energetically. The only question which remains to be asked is whether shipments appropriated by the Vietcong encounter the same delivery delays as those intended for our own troops.
Both Lartéguy and Gigon agree that the Second Indo-China War is going to be, above all, an unmitigated disaster for all of Vietnam and most of Southeast Asia—not because the United States might “lose” the country or the war militarily, but because she might become bogged down in it for a decade, losing sight of all other objectives and problems confronting her; as in fact she is doing right now.
But Gigon, on the basis of his many interviews with Vietcong representatives and Vietcong soldiers in captivity, concludes also that a diplomatic confrontation with the Vietcong is not only inevitable, but desirable. He shows clearly that a military solution simply cannot take into account the accumulation of bitter hatreds and misery among South Vietnamese, let alone between North and South Vietnam. Our military conflict grew from these local hatreds but cannot resolve them, and they remain to be settled by political negotiation. It was an immensely perceptive member of General Nguyen Cao Ky’s own cabinet—I have a good idea who it was, but he should remain anonymous, for his country needs him—who said to Gigon that any workable settlement must take into account “the weight of the dead souls.”
But, as is well known, neither centurions nor computers have much use for souls, dead or alive.
March 17, 1966