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.
But the young camp supervisor, a Quaker, was pleased on the whole with how things were going. One-hundred-and-fifty families out of the original camp population had already agreed to go to learn to be rubber workers on a plantation, which had somewhat alleviated the crowding, and some new shelters were being built. To his mild astonishment, the camp had just been “passed” by the World Health Organization. He was keeping his fingers crossed about the strike, which, if it happened, would do the camp no good. The cadres identified as “arrogant” would soon be replaced, we hoped. Women whose husbands were Hoi Chanh (defectors) in the nearby Chieu Hoi camp would eventually be allowed to join them, so that families would be reunited and resettled. It would be great when the school reopened, after the Têt holiday; the kids had already had one day of classes. As he passed, some of the bolder children touched him and ran away, laughing; he was popular. It was only when a military helicopter landed, I noticed, that the pack of children following us suddenly showed fear and retreated, in a rush.
This modest and moderately frank young man did not discuss the policy that had turned these people into camp inmates. That was a thing of the past; he was focused on the present. In his absorption in the task he had not stopped to reflect, evidently—nor had anyone else who was official—on what alternatives, really, the Armed Forces had had as to what to do with this mass of noncombatants once the decision had been made to clear the so-called Iron Triangle. Could they have been dumped into a field like human garbage and left to starve? Something had to be done with them, and quick, in view of public opinion. What had been done was not in any way meritorious, except in comparison to an atrocity. Yet seen through official eyes, misted over with sentiment, a cruel action was now redeemed (school desks! six TV sets!) because its sequel was not so barbarous as someone might have reasonably expected. The briefing officers, telling the heart-moving “story” of Phu Cuong, showed a chuckling tenderness for the battle-weary American soldiers who had with their own hands helped those unfortunates move their pitiful furniture and animals—a great TV episode, replete with homely, humorous touches, squealing pigs, cackling hens, and a baby being born, surely with a sergeant acting as midwife.
THE HERO of the Phu Cuong story is American know-how, American generosity, Uncle Sam with candy in his pockets. And Uncle Sam, like so many benefactors, is misunderstood. At lunch in his house, the JUSPAO official I spoke of in my last article expressed hurt and bewilderment over a New York Times story about Phu Cuong. The reporter had interviewed several refugees and printed what they told him; he quoted one woman as saying that she wished she were dead. “But that’s natural,” I objected. “Her husband had been killed by the Americans, and she’d lost her home and everything she had.” “He ought to have given a cross-section,” the man said in injured tones. “It creates the wrong picture of the camp.” “If only one woman out of five wished she were dead, you’re lucky,” I said. But he was not persuaded. The story was unfair, he repeated. He actually wanted to think that the evacuees in the camp were happy.
This lunatic attitude is widespread, though not always so doggedly stated. In their command posts, where the ARVN flag proudly waves over what was recently a VC hamlet, American troops like to see smiling faces around them and hear the hum of reviving crafts and trades. The Army band plays during Med Call in a half-reconstructed dispensary, to get the population to march up and take its medicine cheerfully; if no one comes, the Psy-war man is disconcerted. It is taken as a good sign (fortune is smiling) if the market reopens in a hamlet to which the population is inching back, though how the few inhabitants who return could be expected to live at all without a market for the exchange of vegetables, fish, rice, ducks, is not clear. But to the troops, the market proves that the hamlet likes the Army or the Marines. Not only do the Americans like to be liked—the major clumping through the marketplace while the ragged kids crowd around him shouting “You Number One,” meaning “You’re tops”—they want the local people to feel that the Americans like them. The Marine Corps recently gave a questionnaire to Marines and to Vietnamese. The results showed that only 46 per cent of the Vietnamese felt that “Americans like them as people,” while a much larger percentage—65 or 70—said they liked Marines. A very sad situation, which the Marine Corps will have to get to work on, using its talent for public relations.
Of course there is a reason for this campaign to win friends. The strategists want the villagers to run and tell the nice captain when a VC attack is planned and to inform on their neighbors who are suspected Viet Cong sympathizers. But the quest for collaborationists is only part of it. You will be told by some vibrant officer that the people in his area have begun to “cooperate” with the Americans—the word “collaborate” is avoided—and yet his purpose in telling you this, jubilant and hand-rubbing, is confused. Is he glad that some old man has denounced his neighbor (quite possibly a private enemy) because this shows that security is increasing or because it is a sign that his command is well-liked personally? Sometimes the second seems to dominate, especially when the officer is the “sincere” type who sees himself as bringing security to the hamlets he patrols, when practically he ought to be seeing himself as guaranteeing security to his troops. Such complex self-deception goes back perhaps to the old Indian fighting, where an Indian who liked white men was a good Indian: “an outstanding individual.”
To some of the men fighting in Vietnam, naturally, there are no good Vietnamese except dead ones. They do not care about smiling faces; they want results—hard information delivered on the line. These are the Marines and other forces who stand by watching noncommittally while an ARVN soldier beats a captive girl; such a scene—one was described to me by an artist commissioned to do war sketches who had witnessed it that afternoon—permits the spectator, puffing on a cigarette or chewing his cud of gum, to despise all Vietnamese equally. But in my experience the average soldier in Vietnam, when not fighting, is rather kindly—at least in those companies working on “pacification.” He looks up and grins (“Morning, Ma’am”) as he shows two slant-eyed kids how to fill sandbags to protect an artillery installation. It may not occur to him that his little helpers’ fathers may be with the VC, 350 meters away, across the bridge from which sounds of a fire-fight are coming; if it does, what the hell? The kids are having fun.
If you tell an American official that the camp at Phu Cuong is a showcase, he is indignant. Of course it is a showcase, but the Americans don’t like the word because it seems to impugn their motives. They will not even allow that their motives might be mixed. If you called it a pilot project, they would not mind. They also object if you call Phu Cuong a concentration camp, though that is what it is: these people have been arbitrarily rounded up and detained there, behind barbed wire, subjected to interrogation, and informers have been placed among them. To our officials, the term “concentration camp” has been copyrighted by the Nazis and automatically produces an image of jailers making lampshades of human skin—which they know is not happening at Phu Cuong. The barbed wire is there, they explain patiently, to protect the camp from the Viet Cong, but if the “refugees” are Viet Cong dependents, it is hard to imagine why their husbands and fathers would attack them with mortars and hand grenades.
IN NO RESPECT is Phu Cuong a typical refugee camp, whether our authorities whose job is to deal with refugees are aware of the fact or not. To maintain that it is would be like saying that Mr. Lodge’s (now Mr. Bunker’s) residence is a typical Vietnamese dwelling. The fresh-water supply puts it in a class by itself, in my experience; so do the latrines, the school, the electricity, the TV sets, the garbage pick-up points, the brand-new tin roofing, the relatively substantial daily food ration, the possibility of earning money by working, the quantity of household furniture, as well as the new American pajama sets the children are wearing which were probably donated by some voluntary agency. Perhaps there are other refugee camps that have one or two of these features, but I have not heard of them. I can only speak of what I saw, in the north, near Hoi An, where I was taken by a group of German volunteers—the Catholic Knights of Malta—who were eager to have me see what they considered, after several months in the field, typical refugee camps. They did not show me what they called “the worst ones,” because those were too hard to get to, which suggests that almost nobody sees them but visiting medical teams.
I had met these young Germans at Hue, in the University compound, where they were spending the evening with the German Professor of Medicine who had organized the Medical School, and his wife—a real German evening, with Vietnamese schnapps, fresh sugared ginger, Schumann on the tape-recorder, reminiscences of Jaspers (the doctor had been his student at Heidelberg), consultation of art books, to look up examples of Bavarian rococo and Rhineland “double” churches. The next morning, which was Sunday, the young people showed me the leper house in Hue, which they had been trying to clean up and humanize—a one-story structure, surrounded by mud, that may once have been a cowstable or pig-sty and that now housed seventy persons, lepers and their families. The Germans had installed electric lights, paved a dirt passageway directly in front of the hovel, washed the inside walls. You could not do much more, they said, so long as the lepers were living there. A tall reddish-haired round-featured electrical engineer from Cologne named Wolfgang surveyed the rusty screens full of holes, the stained walls, the dark dormitory where the women were crowded (one of the electrical fixtures was not working, he noted), the dirt floor; he sighed. Then he took me outside to show me the overflowing cesspool that had been located just outside the small room where the lepers ate. A sickening smell of human excrement came from the regurgitating cesspool and from the latrine a few feet away. Next to the cesspool, outside the kitchen, where some food was being warmed, was a heap of uncollected garbage. A few chickens were stalking around the garbage-heap, and some ducks were swimming in muddy water that had collected in a depression in the yard. Wolfgang and his friends were discouraged. The Vietnamese head of the Hue hospital disapproved of their efforts. “Why are you giving things to those lepers?” he had told them. “They are all VC.”
The young Knights of Malta, boys and girls, had conceived the project of moving the lepers into a decent building. They had secured an old hospital pavilion the town government had condemned; they had carpentered, wired, painted (the outside was now a pale cream yellow), installed ventilating equipment, which they had had to buy because the head of the hospital had tried to sell them the old equipment for a much higher price, it turned out, than they had had to pay for new ventilators on the market. Then, as soon as they had installed it, the whole ventilating system was stolen, over a weekend—by the hospital electrician, the police reckoned. So it was all to do over, and meanwhile the lepers were still in the filthy old leper house, with their families, including some children who were not lepers, on the Vietnamese livein system, and including also, Wolfgang confided, one or two that he thought were pseudo-lepers, who lived in the leprosarium and rented their houses—a pitiful case of graft.
They received from the government a daily ration of rice, a little meat, and occasionally bananas. “Not enough,” said Wolfgang, shaking his head. In a small workshop, some of them wove on frames the pale, wide, conical hats that are a specialty of Hue, to sell on the market. When we visited, it was Têt, so that no one was working; the men, some lacking a finger, were playing cards, and the women were lying or crouching on their wooden beds, without bedclothes—one was dying. They showed us the little Buddhist and Catholic altars they had decorated for the New Year.
As a supplement, the Knights of Malta gave me a quick tour of the Hue madhouse, known as the “psychiatric wing” of the hospital. Here conditions were more terrible than in the leprosarium. A few sane children of insane mothers were roaming about the dirty, untended female ward; a depressive sat howling on her bed. Rusty torn screens, fly-splattered walls. There was no sign of a nurse; no patient had been washed or combed. At the entrance to the dangerous ward, old tin cans were lying in the mud. A madman stared out of a peephole; the place was locked, and no one could go in because, at least today, there were no attendants. It was worse before, the Knights of Malta said, when the government used to put political opponents here.
SEEING THE HUE LEPER house and this bedlam somewhat readied me for the “temporary” refugee camps I was shown the next day, in Cam Chau, outside Hoi An. The first of these camps was about six months old and contained 1500 people. As I walked with a German doctor through rows of communal huts, we came to a stagnant duck pond, about ten or fifteen feet wide, in which some ducklings in fact were swimming amid floating tin cans and other refuse. This was the water facility—the only water for drinking, washing, and cooking, to supply 700 people. On the other side of the camp, which was divided into two, was another duck pond, perhaps slightly larger, which served the remaining 800. There were no sanitary facilities of any kind; we saw women and children squatting; garbage was strewn in front of the huts, which had earth floors and inflammable old straw roofing. Yet The Reporter magazine dated January 12 was telling its readers in an article that seems to have sprung, full-blown, from a briefing session that Dr. Que, “a doctor by training” and head of the Vietnamese refugee bureau, has “established standards for sanitation and medical attention in refugee camps.” It is true that the writer does not say what the standards are.
The misery and squalor of that first camp is hard to convey, partly because the eye shrinks from looking too closely at it, as though out of respect for the privacy of those who are enduring such disgrace. The women stood massed in their doorways to watch us pass; some approached the doctor and asked for medicine. But mostly they just watched us, defying us, I felt, to watch them. Skin diseases were rampant, especially among the children, diseases of the scalp, eye diseases, gross signs of malnutrition, bad teeth, stained by betel-chewing and reduced, often, to stumps. Most of the refugees (as usual women and children and a few grandfathers) were dirty—how could they wash? In contrast to the new American-made seersuckers and ginghams of Phu Cuong, the pajamas of the children here were old, torn, discolored. The daily food allowance of ten piasters per family, supplemented irregularly by a little rice, said the doctor, was below subsistence requirements. Some families had begun straggly little vegetable patches—mainly lettuce plants, cabbage, and mustard—that were growing haphazardly amidst the refuse. This would help a little. And there were a few pigs, chickens, and the ducklings. But except for this spasmodic gardening, there was no work for these people—no fields they could plant, nothing. The Knights of Malta had procured a mechanical saw, in the hope of giving work to the able-bodied older men and teaching a trade to the boys, but owing to Vietnamese bureaucratic stubbornness, the young carpenter, who had left his job in Germany to come here, like the others, for a year, had not been authorized to take apprentices. This tall pale embodiment of German conscientiousness was working alone in his “shop” in province headquarters, sawing perfect boards, like some woodcut figure in a folk tale from the Black Forest, while outside the window an idle company of Popular Forces, in black pajamas, watched him all day long and giggled. The Knights of Malta were disgusted. “Maybe I will draft some of the refugees,” said the baron from the Rhineland, a graduate in Agriculture, who was the head of the team.
These Germans were full of outspoken Christian indignation at what they were witnessing at close quarters. “Nobody could be more opposite than Germans and Vietnamese,” said a Canadian Jesuit tolerantly; he had watched the German medical faculty in Hue trying to make some headway against dirt and local corruption. The Viet Cong, he said, would clean up that hospital in a day by simply shooting the chief grafters—a course that seemed to appeal to him as a man but not as a priest; as a priest, he counseled patience.
But the Knights of Malta were right to be scandalized. They had volunteered, it turned out, for a labor of Hercules and Sisyphus rolled into one. Yet at the same time, of all the Westerners I saw in Vietnam, only these German boys and girls (in particular Wolfgang, the electrician) showed gentleness and compassion with the small, fragile Vietnamese, stroking a leper’s shoulder, respectfully helping an old man scramble up to show the writing on a Buddhist altar. “You gimme cigarette!” a very small Vietnamese boy said to a young Knight, who refused and added, in apology, “It is not good that they smoke.”
THE NEXT CAMP they showed me was divided into three sections: Catholic, Buddhist, and Cao Dai—in all, about 4,500 people. It had been in existence over a year and was “better.” That is, the huts had tin roofs and cement floors; the vegetable-growing was much more extensive, and the rows of seedlings—lettuces, cabbages, mustard greens, beans, onion sets, tomato plants—better cared for and neater. Some camp leadership had developed. But again there was the water question. A well had finally been dug. As we passed, the doctor bent down and sniffed it. He made a face. “It’s tainted?” He nodded. “Do they boil the water for cooking?” “We have told them. Then we watch to see if they will boil it…” He raised his shoulders in a shrug.
This camp had a few more pigs, piglets, and chickens, a few more ducklings; in the field behind some water buffalo belonging to the refugees were grazing. But here again the garbage was all-pervasive. There were no latrines, and again we saw skin diseases, eye diseases, every kind of scurfy and scabious sore, swollen stomachs, protruding bones, rickets. There was no school and no work for the refugees, except in the tiny garden plots between the serried huts. Some were growing flowers—marigolds. The doctor, a man in his fifties, seemed to think that the Catholic section was in better order than the Buddhist section, but I could not see any difference. All the children in this camp were more disciplined than in the newer camp, where the doctor had had to speak to them bluntly to keep them from hitting and pushing me, not altogether in play—at any rate they had not thrown stones at me, as they did in one “pacified” hamlet, when the briefing officer was not looking.
We did not see the Cao Dai section because someone came to tell the doctor that a plague case had been reported in a nearby hamlet. He left. One of the German women stood sentinel while I went to the toilet (which did not lock or have a light) in the Province headquarters; it was going to be a long drive in the Red Cross station wagon back to the base at Da Nang. On the way home, I remarked to the baron that though conditions were appalling even in the “better” camp, I did not see that they were much worse than in the hamlets we were passing through and in others I had visited in Vietnam. Except for water. Water and work, he said. Otherwise there was not too much difference. The diseases in the camps were the same as the disease in the hamlets; it was only that the crowding in the camps made epidemics more likely. And, having no work, the people had less to eat. Another bad feature of the situation was that the people in the hamlets looked down on the refugees—there were 150,000 in the province—and would not have anything to do with them.
IN THE HAMLETS, I had noticed, houses on the inside were sometimes quite clean, but outside there was the same filthy jetsam that you saw in the camps. I wondered if it had always been like this in Vietnam. The baron did not know. It seemed unlikely to me that the Vietnamese, who have the reputation of being an industrious people, could have lived in such conditions for centuries. One got the impression that a lapse into degradation had occurred in fairly recent times, just as there had been a lapse into illiteracy: before the French came, according to Donald Lancaster, an English Indo-Chinese historian, the rural population had been literate; the French had wiped that out systematically in the nineteenth century.
At any rate, one thing was clear. Before the Americans came, there could have been no rusty coca-cola or beer cans or empty whiskey bottles. They had brought them. It was this indestructible mass-production garbage floating in swamps and creeks, lying about in fields and along the roadside that made the country, which must once have been beautiful, hideous. In the past, the “natural” garbage created by human beings and animals must have been reabsorbed by the landscape, like compost—fishbones, chicken bones, rice husks, dry bamboo, eggshells, vegetable peelings, excreta. The American way of life has donated this disfiguring industrial garbage to the Asian countryside, which is incapable of digesting it. And anyone who wishes to make a comparison, in Asian terms, has only to get a tourist visa for Cambodia, where the people are far less industrious and where even in the poorest sections of the capital and in remote hamlets everything is clean.
Near any large American base in Vietnam, the countryside resembles nothing more than a dump or the lepers’ pigyard, with backed-up cesspool, I would say, except that the lepers are too poor to afford Miller’s High Life and too suspect politically to receive canned surplus products. Even the B-52s will not be able to “sterilize the area,” since cans are not combustible. They can be flattened out, and a form of Pop Art is spreading in rural Vietnam; new house-fronts (not just in refugee camps) are made of flattened-out cans, sometimes in bright patterns, as with beer, ginger ale, and coca-cola containers, and sometimes in plain old tin, as with corned beef hash and Campbell’s soup. Yet even if every hut and hovel in Vietnam were faced with this new building material, it would hardly reduce the vast rubbish heap, the fecal matter of our civilization, we have left in the country. As our troops increase, there will be more and more.
Not to mention another kind of garbage. As we approached Da Nang, the baron pointed to some wreckage a few yards from the road. An American bomber had crashed there a few months ago, he said, killing eighty-one people. The crash was due to mechanical failure, which perhaps means that the eighty-one people should not be counted as war casualties but as simple victims of an accident, like the children burned by gasoline stoves (because of the kerosene shortage) or by the straw roofs and cardboard sidings catching fire in a crowded refugee camp, who must be carefully distinguished from children burned by napalm. The bomber wreck was lying with one wing a-tilt, its nose buried in a roof, amid the splinters of houses or buildings. Nobody had bothered to inter it. There was another one a few miles off, the baron said. He was not sure how many people it had killed.
BACK IN THE MARINE Press base, there were martinis-on-the-rocks, steaks, vinrosé, cognac. Behind the restaurant-counter was a sign: “Have you taken your weekly malaria pill? Help yourself.” And the Marines were all very nice, really nice, both officers and men; they asked what I had seen and was it interesting. Conditions were unspeakable, I said, mentioning the first camp’s water supply. They nodded, hitched up chairs, as though they were glad to get the lowdown on those camps. And being Americans, they were disturbed to hear about the dirty water. As well as pleased to learn that the German team had paid them a compliment: the Marines, the baron told me, had been very helpful about getting them supplies and transport sometimes for the wounded.
The Marines’ receptiveness was strikingly different from the behavior of civilian bureaucrats in Saigon, who, I discovered, did not want to hear about conditions in refugee camps; they stopped listening after the first words and picked up the telephone (“Excuse me a minute”) or assumed an abstracted air, as though they were thinking of something more important—the Viet Cong weekly atrocity statistics perhaps. What was curious about the Marines’ attitude was that they were interested but in the way civilians back home might be interested—“You don’t say!” Or as though they were leafing through a copy of the National Geographic and had hit on an item about a place they had been to on a world tour or a business trip. The same mild interest in “keeping up” that made them subscribe to news magazines and frown over photographs of the floods in Florence.
Whereas the civilian officials, on the whole, behaved like a team of promoters with a dubious “growth” stock they were brokering, many of the military, like these Marines, remained singularly detached, seeming to feel no need to justify the American presence or their own involvement, unconcerned with selling the war (for they in fact were not the salesmen but the product). The Marine colonel at his command post could say forthrightly, “We created the refugees”—something no civilian official would dare to admit, and quite rightly. They could tell stories out of school about Vietnamese corruption and thievery, which they regarded as almost universal, criticize the Chieu Hoi program, mock the ARVN, all this without noticing that if what they were saying was true the public rationale for American intervention disappeared. The Information officers behind them were more sensitive to the dangers of such free talk on the part of their superiors and tried, if possible, to forestall it. In a hamlet in the delta one morning, I asked some Army officers what the local government had done about land reform; the briefing captain hurriedly opened his mouth and started to recite some figures, when the colonel cut in—“Nothing.”
It may be that the Information officers, whose job is to give the reverse of information (“How many of the inhabitants have come back to Rach Kien?” Briefing captain: “About a thousand.” Field major, half an hour later: “632.”), are more honest, in a way, than the field officers who burst out with the truth. That is, the blunt colonels and sympathetic majors have not been able to realize that this is a war, unlike World War II or the Korean War, in which the truth must not be told, except when it cannot be hidden. Even then it must be turned upside down or restyled, viz., “the problems of success,” which also comprised inflation. Those who lie and cover up are implicitly acknowledging this, in some recess of their souls, while the outspoken field officer still lets himself think he is fighting the kind of war where an honest officer can gripe.
In reality, he gives away less than the double-talking US bureaucrat in Saigon, who has the answers ready before you can ask the question, who can give you, straight as a die, the chemical formula for the defoliants, harmless to pets and humans, we have begun that day, he announces, to use in the DMZ (as though he had no inkling of the fact previously announced by him—has it slipped his mind?—that we have been bombing the Zone regularly for some time), who when asked if he can supply you with some figures on civilian casualties says no, unfortunately not, there are none, but offers you instead statistics on Viet Cong terror, who, like Johnson’s emissary, can declare “simply” to the press, to back up an optimistic estimate: “I feel a new sensa confidence in the air.” A discovery I have made in Vietnam is that those who seek to project an “image” are unaware of how they look. The truth they are revealing has become invisible to them.
One example of this revealing blindness can illustrate. In the OCO offices in Saigon, I was offered a freshly typed list of Viet Cong acts of terror committed during the previous week; as the reader must have gathered, this material seems to be the favorite reading of our spokesmen. That and infiltration figures, to give the “background.” As I looked down the list I noticed that it included an attack on a US Army post! “Is that terrorism?” I wondered, pointing. The official studied the item. “No. It doesn’t belong there,” he admitted, poring over the type-sheet with a mystified air, like one awakening from a dream. “We’ll have to correct that,” he added briskly. It was clear that he had offered me those figures in good faith, having seen nothing wrong with them; to him an attack on a US army unit, even in wartime, was dastardly.
At present the terror statistics issued to the newspapers are blandly including kidnappings and “murders” of Rural Construction workers, which sounds very atrocious if you do not know (as everyone in Saigon does) that Rural Construction is the old name for Revolutionary Development—the “workers” are para-military elements trained and drilled in a special school and sent to “cleanse” (US word) “pacified” hamlets; of each team of fifty-nine, thirty-four are armed for security purposes, i.e., to repel a Viet Cong attack. The sudden switch to the old name is like an alert to the press to watch out for the oncoming lie. Why, you ask, are they cooking these particular statistics? What is behind it? What are they up to now? Such transparent subterfuges awaken not just disgust but pity for a fast-talking nation that seems to think it is addressing itself to punchcards and mimeograph machines; even a computer, which has memory—if not reason—would jib.
(This is the second in a series of articles.)
May 4, 1967