“Il faut une REVOLUTION!” Major Be said, letting the r roll like a cannon ball in the school at Vung Tau. The Italian general listened with an air of dawning surprise. The short broadfaced Vietnamese major was not a military chief of the NLF, but the head of the government school for Revolutionary Development, training anti-Communist cadres. The former Italian Chief of Staff and I were being briefed in French by Major Be in a small classroom, while in the next room a group from NBC was being briefed in English by his assistant, Mr. Chau. Thin, slight Mr. Chau, dressed in flowing black calico trousers and a tight black tunic resembling an alb, had taken a degree in English literature at the Sorbonne—he had done his doctoral thesis on Virginia Woolf. Major Be, less at home in foreign languages, wore a black shirt open at the throat and black trousers cut like Army fatigues. Their costumes were symbolic of the aims of the program. The 3000 cadres now in the school (a cadre is one person), when they graduated, would start “constructing” hamlets in teams of fifty-nine, wearing the black-pajama garb of the Viet Cong, which itself had been copied from the dress of the poor peasants. Actually, the peasants today in government-controlled areas wear a medley of clothes, including baseball caps, shorts, and tee-shirts; and the RD get up, I heard from a Vietnamese medical student, was regarded as ludicrous in the hamlets he had been staying in—“If they would only take off those silly pajamas, the people might not laugh at them.”
“Vraiment une revolution,” Major Be insisted. The Italian general cast an inquiring look at me. “Qu’est-ce qu’il veut dire par ça?” he murmured. I did not know what Major Be had in mind when he said that his country had to have a revolution, though I agreed with him, whatever he meant. It was monotonous to hear everywhere the same stories of graft and thieving at the expense of the poor; only yesterday an unusually frank OCO man had been telling about what had happened with a distribution of clothing donated through AID—the best clothes had been pilfered by the authorities and never reached the needy. To receive aid at all, he said sadly, poor families had to qualify as needy with the government. “You mean they had to pay to qualify as needy?” He looked at me in silence, by way of an answer.
Still, the briefing I had already had in Saigon on the RD program had hardly prepared me to meet a doctrinaire theoretician of the type of Major Be, who, warming to his subject, was now assuring us that Vietnamese society was “complètement corrompue“: the ruling classes, he said, as the general’s eyes widened, had always used the laws to serve their own interests. Then, glancing at his watch, he switched to facts and figures.
The program had been started in December, ’65. Twenty-eight thousand cadres were already in the field. The school training-period lasted twelve weeks, during which each cadre accomplished eleven tasks and went through twelve stages. Upon graduation, each cadre team would work with a hamlet to establish or maintain eleven criteria; an additional nine criteria, achieved with cadre support, would turn a constructed or Old Life Hamlet into a New Life Hamlet. Good results had not yet been produced, but the program was on the way—“dans la bonne direction.”
GENERAL LIUZZI was too new in the country to be up on some of the terminology. A “constructed” hamlet meant not a newly built one but a former Viet Cong hamlet that had been worked over politically to the point where it could now be considered pro-government. A “reconstructed” hamlet meant one that had been “constructed” and then backslid and had had to be “constructed” all over again, but this term, for some reason, had fallen into disfavor, and a “reconstructed” hamlet was now called a “consolidated” hamlet. Finally the goal of each was to become a “real New Life Hamlet.”
A “constructed” hamlet backslid because a poor job had been done in rooting out the Viet Cong “infrastructure.” Rooting out the “infrastructure,” i.e., conducting purges, was the main task of Major Be’s cadres. Major Be, to give him credit, did not use the expression, though the American briefers in Saigon had used it, repeatedly. That word, too freshly minted to be in my dictionary, is already a worn slug in American Vietnamese, tirelessly inserted into dinner-table conversations, briefings, newspaper and magazine articles. Its primary meaning is that the person using it (succinctly or sententiously, depending) has an up-to-date scientific grasp of the workings of underground communism—a meaning that could not be conveyed by the word “organization” or even “cells.” It is not restricted to the few—Harvard political science graduates or Princetonian school-of-government captains; it is as democratic as a subway token. One would not be surprised to hear it mumbled by some high-school drop-out as he cleaned his weapon: “Got to get Charlie’s infrastructure.” To our propaganda men, who like to write of “the faceless Viet Cong” (sometimes appending their photographs), “infrastructure,” aside from sounding knowledgeable and hard-headed, probably suggests infra-red—invisible rays just beyond red in the political spectrum.
Major Be and Mr. Chau are the Vietnamese counterparts of the American political scientists who have stamped their vocabulary and their habits of thought on this loony trial of strength in the Asian arena. Here for the first time, political science, as taught and studied in the big American universities, is being applied to war, where it often seems close to science fiction. Such a thing was scarcely dreamed of in World War II, despite the presence of a few professors and intellectuals in the OWI and OSS—no one thought of “studying” the Nazis and learning from them. Only the physical scientists became an auxiliary of the Defense Department. The present phenomenon, more portentous for the future, if there is one, than Dr. Strangelove—conceivably you can outlaw the Bomb, but what about the Brain?—dates back to the Cold War, when the “science” of Kremlinology was discovered. The behavior of the enemy was studied under university microscopes, with the aid of samples furnished by defectors to the Free World. Practical experiment, however, was not really feasible until the war in Vietnam provided a laboratory for testing the new weapon, an academic B-52 or Lazy Dog. Watching it operate in Vietnam, in conjunction with the sister “disciplines” of sociology and anthropology (“The Vietnamese don’t know how to handle them,” an American evangelical missionary informed Robert Shaplen, speaking of the Montagnard tribes the VC was winning over. “They have no anthropology to guide them.”) you wonder whether this branch of knowledge can ever have been designed for anything but war. The notion of a “pure” political science here seems as remote from actuality as atoms-for-peace.
Right after the Geneva Accords, the para-military professors began moving into Vietnam, the first being Diem’s inventor, Professor Wesley Fishel of Michigan State. But as long as Eisenhower was in office, the academic expertise on Vietnam remained rather old-fogeyish, like the prudent Eisenhower himself. Though the CIA virtually took over Michigan State University to train a Vietnamese police force and to form Vietnamese adepts in Political Science and Public Administration, this, after all, was a classic colonial practice. The CIA alumni and alumnae you still find in Vietnamese government nooks—nearly every Vietnamese who speaks English seems to have attended Michigan State and to be proud of it—have a certain démodé pathos, like the bangled, coquettish Dr. Hue, Professor of Public Administration at Saigon University, who resembles a road-show revival of Madame Nhu. Professor Fishel’s lasting contribution was not Nhu’s MSU-trained Secret Police, now presumably disbanded, but the introduction of the word “semantics” into official discourse about Vietnam. “We do ourselves and our Asian neighbors harm when we insist on stretching or shrinking them into our particular semantic bed,” he wrote in The New Leader, arguing for a “new political vocabulary” in an article wonderfully entitled “Vietnam’s Democratic One-Man Rule”—the Procrustean subject was Diem. A democratic “dictator” or a “democratic” dictator? Words failed Professor Fishel. Diem has gone, but embarrassments of the kind he created have not. Almost daily in the press briefing, whenever a newsman raises his hand to ask for clarification of some mealy-mouthed statement: “I am not going to debate semantics with you,” the spokesman replies. “Next?”
IT TOOK the New Frontier, though, to really update American “thinking” on Vietnam. A fresh look at the situation revealed the need for brand-new tactics with brand-new names: counter-in-surgency, special warfare. The Army created its Special Forces—the Green Berets—whose task was to combine unconventional fighting (counter-guerrilla activity) with political savvy. The Vietnamese, separate but equal, got their Special Forces—the Red Berets—a counter-terror group wearing leopard-spotted uniforms with a tiger’s head on the breast-pocket; they are still in action, bringing the severed heads of guerrillas or putative guerrillas into a pacified hamlet to show the American colonel. Concurrently, a new type of officer appeared in the field, with a traveling library; on the bookshelves in his mountain hideout were the works of Mao, Generals Giap and Grivas, Ho Chi Minh—doubtless in paperback. Young West Pointers were turned into political strategists on the spot by crash courses in Communism and native psychology, and Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary was placed on the desk of an old-style general, for convenient reference. The same year—1961—that the Special Forces were created, the Staley Plan was devised by a Stanford economist, Eugene Staley, whose name is now identified with Strategic Hamlets, though his Plan, in fact, was much more comprehensive and undertook a complete restyling of the Vietnamese economy, the political struggle, and the AID program.
No ordinary desk official in Washington could have imagined the Staley Plan. The idea of Strategic Hamlets was not new in itself; Diem and his brother Nhu had founded agrovilles—basically fortified settlements—which at one time bore the name of Camps of the Just Cause. But Staley perfected the agrovilles.* With a professor’s fondness for the diagram, he divided the country into yellow zones, blue zones, red zones, the yellow zones being governmental (available for US aid), the blue dubious, and the red VC. His plan was to transfer the population, wherever movable, into Prosperity Zones, which were to contain 15,000 model hamlets, for a starter, all heavily fortified and surrounded by barbed wire. With the enthusiastic cooperation of General Maxwell Taylor (who is still testifying before the Senate as an authority on Vietnam), about 2500 Staleyized hamlets were actually built. Life in them was diagrammed down to the last detail. Everyone was obliged to purchase and wear a uniform—four different color combinations, according to age and sex—and to carry two identity cards, one for moving about in the hamlet and the other for leaving it. The gates were closed by a guard every night at seven o’clock and opened at six in the morning. Persons consenting to be resettled in a strategic hamlet had their houses burned and crops sprayed with poison chemicals, so as to leave a razed area behind for the Viet Cong—this was the first wide-spread application of the science of chemistry to the political struggle. The US government paid compensation, of course.
Those who did not agree to relocation were removed forcibly and their villages burned and sprayed anyway; some reluctant peasants and village elders were executed, as examples, by the Vietnamese army. Inside the hamlets, strict political control was exercised; executions took place here too. The settlers were gouged for special taxes and other arbitrary impositions; the compensation money was not turned over to them in many instances. They were ordered to get any relations they had in the red zones to join them in the hamlet within three months; if they failed to recruit them, they were punished. Professor Staley, no doubt, was not responsible for the excesses of the program as implemented; he had only drawn a totalitarian blueprint for the Vietnamese and American advisers to follow, based on his experience of the country.
The Staley Plan proved to be the greatest gift the US gave the Viet Cong. Naturally revolts broke out in the strategic hamlets; sometimes the settlers put fire to them. When Diem fell, the program was dropped, and Professor Staley apparently went to Limbo, to join Professor Fishel. No one mentions them any more. But in fact the Strategic Hamlet idea reappeared, in less draconic form, in the Rural Construction program, which failed and was replaced by the Revolutionary Development program. Revolutionary Development adds the black pajamas, as a stiffener, to Rural Construction. And the black-pajama uniform proclaims a thing that was always implicit in such conceptions as counter-insurgency and special warfare and in some features of the Staley Plan—plagiarism of the enemy’s techniques.
Indeed the “other” war dramatically declared by Johnson at Honolulu is an idea rather tardily lifted from the Viet Cong. Long before the Americans thought of it, the VC was building schools for the peasantry, digging wells, teaching better methods of agriculture. But because the Viet Cong did not control the mass media, the “secret” of its appeal remained a secret, at least from the military, who are digging the wells, building the schools, while the media watch. It would not occur to a general that he was plagiarizing from the enemy; to a straight-shooting man of action, the thought is distasteful.
And now here was Major Be, his slant eyes gleaming, talking about a “revolution,” stealing the NLF’s thunder to pass on to his cadres. Yet the NLF in its proclamations never speaks of revolution but instead of “raising the living standards of the population,” “economic progress without violent changes,” a “campaign for freedom against repression,” “forming a broad democratic base.” That seems to have escaped Major Be’s sponsors, who are sure they know what the NLF really intends—a complete Communist takeover. Let us say they are right. What follows is sheer comedy: the NLF aims at a social revolution, while taking care not to pronounce the word, and the South Vietnamese junta launches a program styled “revolutionary,” while failing to institute the mildest reforms. The attempt on the part of the Americans and their local star pupils to turn this into a war of ideas is something to make the angels, if there are any, dry their tears and laugh.
IN THE NEXT ROOM, NBC had finished its briefing session. But Major Be, carried away by the courteous old general’s slightly puzzled interest, was quoting Mao: “The water protects the fish.” The people, he elucidated, were the water in which the guerrilla swam like a fish while the alien enemy drowned. Revolutionary Development was adapting Mao’s proverb to fight the VC. The school at Vung Tau was a hatchery to breed little fish—the cadres—to protect the water, which in turn would protect the big fish, that is, the government forces.
I decided to ask about land reform. Land reform, said the major, was useless without a “cultural base” to support it. Western ideas were necessary and Western technology. On the other hand, the Vietnamese people must not be turned into beggars. A tractor in each hamlet would be the most beautiful symbol of modern civilization. The tractor; not the airplane and the bomber. The general nodded thoughtfully. He was impressed by Major Be. He inquired where he had studied, meaning, no doubt, where on earth he had learned his ideology. “Mon université est la campagne vietnamienne,” replied the stocky major, who was not forthcoming about his past. Mr. Chau, who was, had been until recently a professor of French and English literature at Hue University. Probably he had left in disgust during the Struggle Movement of the previous year. He was against TV, Hondas, transistors, and other corrupting influences on Vietnamese youth.
We left the school buildings, which dated back to the French and had a monastic atmosphere, like a Jesuit seminary, with Major Be as the Father Superior, the organizing dynamo, and Mr. Chau, more scholastic, in his black habit, as the Prefect of Studies. Major Be’s predecessor as head of the Vung Tau school had been a different type—the guitar-playing Major Mai, whom the CIA was backing as a winner last year and who is now barely recollected by the American officials who once vigorously endorsed him. “What happened to Major Mai?” Gavin Young of The Observer asked a leading figure in the Embassy. “Who? Oh yes, him. Well, he didn’t work out. Don’t know where he is now.” “That’s strange. You were so enthusiastic about him last year.” “Oh, I wouldn’t say that, Gavin. You’ve got that wrong.” “But I have it in my notes.” “He was on probation, Gavin,” the American said reproachfully. In the days of Major Mai, the theme at Vung Tau had been pure Vietnamese nationalism; the cadres got military training and close coaching in the story of the Dragon King and the Lady of the Fairies—the legendary parents of Vietnam—which was the current message designed to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people. In those days the school had a corps of CIA advisers, dressed in black pajamas and sandals, except for their chief, who, as pictured by Young, was dressed and behaved like a deputy sheriff in Selma, Alabama, with cigar between his teeth, and sport shirt hanging out over his spilling belly. Now, however, there were no CIA men around, unless deeply disguised (though American “advisers” were mentioned as among the cadres’ teachers), no Dragon King or Lady of the Fairies; there were only Major Be and “Virginia Woolf” and the teachings of Chairman Mao.
OUT IN THE WOODS, we were taken to view the cadres. Here, said the major, indicating the sandy forest, theory was digested and turned into technique. Grouped on benches, in a large open hut, a class was receiving instruction from a native teacher and feeding it back in shouts, like a child’s catechism: “Who made the world?” “God made the world.” Or, as the brochures furnished to arriving journalists in their Press Kit present our sacred doctrine in easy question-and-answer form: Question: Why is the United States waging war against North Vietnam? Answer: The US is not doing that at all. We are helping the free government and people of the Republic of Vietnam defend their freedom and independence against aggression, directed and in part supplied from North Vietnam…Question: How have the Viet Cong managed to gain and hold control over parts of South Vietnam? Answer: The Viet Cong rule by force and terror. Deliberate killings and kidnappings are instruments of their policy…Question: Do the Viet Cong attack only South Vietnamese soldiers and civilian officials? Answer: By no means. The Viet Cong also attack teachers, agricultural technicians, anti-malaria teams—anybody, in fact, who is working to improve social and economic conditions in South Vietnam.” Some Vietnamese version of this kind of thing was what the cadres in the forest were chanting. Major Be did not interpret. In Major Mai’s time, the instruction went as follows: “Question: Are the Americans our friends if they defend the nation of the Great King Hung Vuong, son of the Dragon? Answer: Yes. Question: Are they our masters? Answer: Never.”
Next, the cadres were lined up in military formation and drilled. To each order, they responded with a terrifying howl. As he surveyed the trainees, the Italian general’s enthusiasm cooled; very poor-grade military material, he observed. In Saigon, a Vietnamese girl had dismissed the whole outfit as “draft-dodgers”—a common view—but though some of these unprepossessing youths were evidently of military age, many would have been dismissed as unfit for military service anywhere, and as for the sad, somnolent, gray-haired grandfathers in the ranks, whatever had caused them to enlist in this pathetic brigade of “revolutionary” youth, it cannot have been fear of the draft.
We asked Major Be what qualifications a cadre had to have to be admitted to the school. All had to be literate, he said, and each new cadre had to be sponsored by two full-fledged member cadres—a system patterned on that of the NLF and the People’s Revolutionary Party and suited to a clandestine organization or secret fraternity. Evidently, an effort was being made to invest the cadres with the aura of an initiate, through ritual and the abracadabra of numbers. Each team, when it went into a hamlet (where it would spend three to six months), would be given ninety-eight “works” to accomplish; thirty-four cadres (this figure is sometimes given as thirty-three) would be detailed to security, nineteen to general staff, one to agriculture, one to cooperatives, one to construction and public works, one to public health, one to education and culture, one to grievance and public investigation. Given this division of labor, it was not surprising that I had never been able to see the RD cadres actually doing anything in a hamlet, except lounging around with a weapon or eating. Yet their training was evidently successful in instilling an elite spirit, to the extent that complaints of their “arrogance” and “insolence” are mentioned even in Vietnamese government reports.
The classes were breaking for lunch when a BBC cameraman arrived to film them. NBC was only taking notes. They re-formed, to sing us a few stanzas of their school song; its theme was the eleven tasks, twelve stages. Most of the cadres in the forest were in Stage Two or Three. Twelve weeks, said the Italian general, regarding this performance, would not be enough. He eyed Major Be with misgiving. “C’est un fanatique,” he summed up, shaking his head. He would have liked to believe in Major Be. At lunch in the mess hall, talk turned to negotiations. Major Be’s face darkened. “La sale manoeuvre de la paix du pape,” he said. The Pope’s dirty peace trick. General Liuzzi refused the soup.
Across the table, Mr. Chau spoke contemptuously of South Vietnamese students in Paris who discussed and argued with North Vietnamese students. I defended them. “La politique n’est pas un salon,” he said in a venomous tone. To him, debate in politics, let alone compromise, was decadent, like formalism in art to an orthodox member of the Union of Soviet Writers. Here, as often in Vietnamese government circles, the mere word negotiations was enough to make a mask of cordiality drop.
Probably “Virginia Woolf” and the major should be classed as fascists, despite or even because of their likeness to doctrinaire Communists of the unreconstructed Stalinist type. Major Be’s beautiful tractor advanced toward us out of the final sequence of an old Soviet movie, and “the Pope’s dirty peace trick” could have been spat out equally well in Albania or possibly Peking. What had led this ascetic pair to work with the Americans was difficult to guess, especially in the case of the fastidious Mr. Chau, who clearly detested everything connected with the American way of life, everything soft, flabby, superfatted, PX-distributed.
IT WAS not difficult, though, to guess what had led the Americans and particularly the CIA to work with Major Be and Mr. Chau, even assuming that they too might be “on probation.” The ties that have come to light between the CIA and the intellectual community in the United States have surprising parallels in Vietnam—surprising, at least, to anyone who has not observed the gradual and typically modern fusion of intelligence with “intelligence.” The CIA has been a promoter of various unorthodox experiments in South Vietnam, supplying not just the funds and some of the personnel but the spark, the touch of genius allied to lunacy. The Green Berets, for instance, are referred to as a Spook outfit by our own government people in Saigon—usually with a wink. It is impossible to say how many of the books, not all bad, published about Vietnam have been financed, with or without the author’s knowledge, by the CIA. They are backing the Khmer-Serai (Free Khmer), a right-wing movement against Prince Sihanouk and using the Special Forces—the Ho Chi Minh readers—near the Cambodian border to train Khmer-Serai troops. They have their own airline, Air America.
As in the US, the CIA in Vietnam prides itself on being more catholic in its patronage than overt government agencies. Congress, it is always argued in defense of secrecy, would be too stupid to vote appropriations for radical-sounding ventures, which is probably true. Congress might have bought Major Mai, strumming his guitar, but not Major Be. You would have to tone him down a bit for home consumption; what does he mean, Vietnamese society is completely corrupt? But beyond such practical considerations, the CIA has a real affinity with ex-leftists and pseudo-leftists of all stripes, as well as with the radical right. It likes intellectuals, which is natural, first because they are walking repositories of information, and second because the CIA sees itself as a lonely master-mind, the poet and unacknowledged legislator of the government. Finally the CIA, collectively speaking, is an auto-didact which never had time to get its Ph.D. and yearns to meet real, motivated political theorists and oddballs and have a structured conversation with them. The relentless resort to academic jargon about the war in Vietnam, on the part of half-educated spokesmen and commentators, doubtless reveals the CIA influence on people who may be unaware of it.
YOU NEVER KNOW whether someone you meet in Vietnam is a CIA agent or just a product of CIA thought. What about Sergeant Mulligan (not his real name), Boston College, B.A., Purdue University, M.A., did his Master’s thesis on John C. Calhoun—“an original mind. The only original mind in American political thought. Jefferson stole everything from Locke and Adam Smith”? On the floor of his jeep is the National Review and 1964: The Fear Campaign Against Goldwater. He despises the Arvin, who run instead of fighting (examples given); the only “friendly forces” he trusts in combat are the Khmer-Serai. He is with “Special Services” but is on his way to dinner with the Green Berets (invitation extended): “the best talk in Saigon.”
Or what about Colonel Corson (real name), a Marine tank commander in the hills above Da Nang, engaged in pacification? A graduate of the University of Chicago, studied with Korzybski, taught at a college in Florida, worked or served in China. Eleven thousand peasants are the material he has been given to work with. He defines the method he uses as Empirical Causality. He quotes Lenin: “Scratch a peasant, and you’ll find a bourgeois.” “Well, I’m scratching. And scratching.” His young officers have made a painted scale model, like a crêche, in papier-mâché of an ideal Vietnamese hamlet, which will probably really be built. Colonel Corson is ingenious. He has designed a large pig sty suited to local conditions and he is donating his Marine garbage to feed the peasants’ pigs, solving two problems with one concise stroke. He has asked an engineer to design him a mill for the region, and the Marine engineer has designed the very latest thing. “‘Take it away,’ I told him, ‘and try to remember what a mill was like when you were a kid or when your father was a kid. Then build me that.”‘
He is also cautious. He gave the peasants seeds and before going ahead with his hamlet program he waited to see whether they sold them on the black market. When they didn’t, he proceeded. He is intelligent. He used Marine explosives to dynamite the fish in the river in order to show the peasants that there were bigger fish available than they were catching with their present nets. On the wall of his command post was a photograph of the dynamiting operation that seemed to be there mainly for his own pleasure. “I hope you’re not planning to introduce fishing with dynamite to these people,” I said. The answer was no. He had done it once, as a demonstration, and then given the fish to the peasants to sell on the market; with the profits, they were buying new and larger nets that would catch the bigger fish.
He is a cynic. To him, the profit motive is the sole incentive capable of spurring anybody to productive effort. “You wrote The Group to make money, didn’t you?” When I answered no, the fact that it had made so much money had surprised me, he looked actually startled. “What do you write for, then?” In the center of the model hamlet, which his officers, like children at Christmas, had stayed up half the night to finish, was a large dollar sign, painted bronze. He gave a crooked smile. He was actually, or so he claimed, planning to erect it as a monument, seven feet high, in the hamlet. The young captain and the young lieutenant smiled. He was a man of whom it could be said, “He was worshipped by his officers.” Partly because he amused them; he was witty and sardonic. And he had a sort of fantasy that did not chime badly with his brass tacks. In one corner of the model hamlet was a thatched apiary; one of the peasants was going to be transformed into a bee-keeper. Bees and pigs and grains and big river fish—the colonel’s georgic, though, had realism behind it. He was trying to wean the peasants away from the monoculture—rice—the French had saddled them with and which, with the rent system and government taxes, had turned them into paupers.
He did not want to be suspected of altruism. “I’m not doing any of this for the Vietnamese people. I’m doing it for me.” He had challenged the Viet Cong to come into one of the hamlets, with a safe-conduct, at Christmas-time and debate him in the marketplace. They had refused the offer but then one night they had approached with loudspeakers, to broadcast against him to the people. “‘They just want you to make a buck,’ the Viet Cong told them. And I said, ‘Yeah. Yeah.”‘ There was a price, he was pleased to say, on the head of every one of his Civic Action people, which proved he was winning the argument. Empirical Causality was working. Or as he also called it, “the Charisma of Success.”
He was not sparing of sarcasms for other American ideologists working in the field. He derided a study of Vietnamese village made by an outfit of opinion-researchers that had worked for Kennedy in the 1960 election. “$200,000 was paid for that study, and they interviewed six Vietnamese.” All the professorial research teams collecting and analyzing Vietnamese data—there are three, including RAND, on the scene—to the colonel, were soft-headed or grafters or would-be thought-controllers or all three—a prejudiced opinion I shared, though I had not seen their studies, many of which are secret. I asked him what he thought of the Chieu Hoi program, to me one of the most odious features of the pacification drive. “We are just subsidizing traitors.” The colonel agreed, though not for moral reasons. He thought it was stupid to try to make political converts of deserters. “Somebody dreamed that up in Arlington, Virginia. ‘Open Arms!’ If I want a man, I buy him.” He did not seem to care for Johnson, whom he referred to as “Lyndon-Baby.”
The thought that Colonel Corson was somewhat right-wing had been forcing itself into my mind, though I tried to shut the door on it. I drew a deep breath and asked him what he thought of Goldwater. The captain and the lieutenant at the neighboring desks stopped typing; they smiled quickly at each other. The colonel, musing, set down his beer glass. ” ‘In your heart you know he’s stupid,’ ” he said with a grin. He had caught the direction of my question and told a story of throwing a one-armed (or one-legged) newspaperman down the stairs, back in Chicago. “He called me a Fascist and a Communist in the same breath.” It was hard to find anybody on the American political horizon that Colonel Corson approved of, though he mentioned “a lady in Senator Jackson’s office.”
He believed in the $ as an instrument of Empirical Causality, but even in this profession of faith there was a note of saturnine self-mockery. The conversation became very confused when I remarked that most of his pacification ideas would work just as well in a socialist context. There was nothing specifically capitalist about feeding the Marines’ garbage to the peasants’ pigs. He tried to show me that the free market was crucial; Marx had not understood this. But I could not follow him because his language, suddenly, turned into an opaque forest of jargon substantives, and at that moment the unreality of the scene—the ironic colonel sitting like an unintelligible Socrates among his disciples with a model Vietnamese village on the table—struck me with wonder. He was good at gauging your thoughts. A few moments later, he said, as if idly, “There are no homosexuals in my battalion. If I find one, out he goes. The men that work for me have to like girls.” And when I was complimenting him, mentally, on the peaceful idyl of his neat hut in the woods, he looked straight at me and said, as if to make sure there would be no misunderstanding: “I don’t send anybody into Civic Action until they’ve been out and killed.” Colonel Corson was playing God and the Devil up there in the hills behind Da Nang. Unlike less reflective and less capable officers, he held the little country of Vietnam—where the people wore conical hats and lived in bamboo thickets—like a toy in his hand.
At the other end of the verbal spectrum, this Marine officer is possibly more of a revolutionist than Major Be. He was certainly more honest. But his tall bronze dollar sign is likely to remain his personal war monument—a symbol only, like Major Be’s tractor. I doubted that Washington would ever let him build and unveil it. Despite his semantics, he is an old-fashioned free-enterpriser, being actually enterprising, for one thing, and out of sympathy with the principle of waste inherent in modern capitalism. And he exposed a little too frankly his contempt for the AID missionaries, for med-cap teams, and such sales gimmicks as the Chieu Hoi program, which other sources say is a brain-child of the CIA. So that I would say no: the colonel, though sometimes scary and what he might call Machiavellian, is not a Spook.
THE OPEN ARMS PROGRAM is a typical instance of counter-insurgency thinking and has the earmarks of a CIA project: the CIA has a special rapport with the traitor (who, if he is not bought, is usually an intellectual), like the symbiosis between the policeman and the criminal. Of course it is not new to use traitors in wartime, but in the past their function has been restricted to opening the city gates by stealth, spying, and smuggling out information, sowing discontent among the population, as was tried in World War II by the modern means of radio-beaming. It is true too that deserters have often helped swing the balance in war, even when they simply went home—as many of the ARVN do now—and took no further part in the fighting. But the experiences of the Cold War and, later, of Cuba opened the minds of the Americans to the uses of the “defector”—a traitor and a deserter combined in one politically conscious person. The difference between a refugee or an exile and a defector is that the refugee or exile does not take on his status as a profession.
The idea of the Chieu Hoi program is not just to cause wide-scale desertions from the Viet Cong by loudspeakers broadcasting from planes and helicopters and by pamphlet drops, with the usual promises of money and good treatment—a natural enough proceeding in a civil war—but to turn every deserter into a defector by “re-educating” him in a camp. The Chieu Hoi centers are even more depressing than the refugee camps, although they are much less crowded and do not lack water and elementary sanitation. A Hoi Chanh or “returnee,” once he turns himself in, becomes a prisoner condemned to a forty-five-to-sixty-day stretch for having “chosen freedom.” He is finger-printed, interrogated (“The informing they do is on a purely voluntary basis,” the American adviser emphasizes), indoctrinated, and finally released into society with a set of identity papers. In the Chieu Hoi camps I saw, which resembled old-fashioned reform schools, the inmates were roaming dully about the yard or simply lying listless on their bunks; one or two were writing letters. In theory, each defector receives vocational training (indeed a job is promised him by the loud-speakers), but the only evidence of this that was visible in one camp was a Hoi Chanh sitting in a barber’s chair, having his hair cut by another Hoi Chanh, while, across the small dirty room, two tailor’s apprentices were cutting out a pajama; in the other camp, it was Têt, and no one was doing anything, but there was no sign of equipment or tools to work with.
The Americans agree that the vocational program is not “rolling”; one explanation given is that the defectors are coming in so fast that they are overtaxing the facilities—another of the “problems of success.” And the job prospects of the Hoi Chanh, trained or not, are bad. He re-enters society with the stigma of having been a Viet Cong, to which is added the stigma of treachery. The Americans at one time hoped to organize an army of defectors (on the Bay of Pigs model, no doubt), with colonels, captains, and other ranks; this, it was argued, would give the defectors “status.” But the thought did not appeal to the Vietnamese Army.
The most active part of the day in the Chieu Hoi camps is spent in indoctrination classes, where the defectors are supposedly decontaminated of VC ideology. Yet it seems that quite often the first they learn of the Viet Cong program is in these sessions, and many find it attractive—which may account for the regular one per cent that defect back at the end of the training period.
To join an Armed Propaganda Squadron probably represents the best job future for a Hoi Chanh. These are defectors organized into armed groups of thirty-six who travel about the country, as proselytizers, with the ARVN and the US Armed Forces; when a hamlet is captured, their job is to question suspects. “Mean little kid, that one,” said an American civilian, of one he found torturing a villager. That is their reputation, and it may be that those volunteering show a special ability for the work.
In February, the Chieu Hoi statistics were rising like a barometer. The return of these prodigal sons caused more exultation among higher-up Americans than the destruction of a Viet Cong rice cache or a successful bomb-strike on the North. A victory for their leaflets and loudspeakers had come to mean more to them than a victory in the field. (All the time, as we now know, the ranks of the Viet Cong were mysteriously swelling, while infiltration from the North had diminished.) The Vietnamese themselves are not especially interested in the Chieu Hoi (they might prefer simply to shoot them on arrival), and the ordinary American soldiers, according to reporters, view them with disfavor. This badly damaged human material is a strange and shifty base on which to build a society. If fear or near-starvation brought them in (tuberculosis is frequent among defectors, an American source says), their change of allegiance is pitiable. If the promise of a job and money brought them in, it is sad. If our propaganda appeals brought them in, it is farcical.
According to official figures, 20,242 Chieu Hoi came over in 1966. It is hoped, at the very least, to double that in 1967. The political scientists, the OCO men, the AID men are watching, as they say, to see. What they do not see is the implications. If the pressures on the Viet Cong and its dependents increase, this means that mounting thousands of peasant guerrillas and part-time guerrillas will desert the Viet Cong and their villages to become jobless defectors; the target, presumably, would be total defection. No other formula for “integrating” the Viet Cong into Vietnamese life has been suggested.
The Open Arms Program and Revolutionary Development (which this month, I notice, has quietly mutated into Rural Development—has Major Be been fired?) are now the core, it is said with quiet satisfaction, of the US and RVN pacification drive. The best that can be said of them is that, though totalitarian in ambition—isolate population cells and “re-educate” them for democracy—they are very inefficient.
The Chieu Hoi program, of course, is not dependent for its success on its absurd leaflets and broadcasts but on military pressure, especially bombing, defoliation, crop-spraying, destruction of rice-supplies, and what is known as “Resources Control.” The stated object is to deprive the Viet Cong of food and other resources, including medical supplies and nurses: a native nurse suspected of treating the Viet Cong is liable to be executed, while an American nurse or an RVN nurse, if kidnapped or killed by a Viet Cong terror group, is, naturally, a civilian. What is not stated, though, is that the punitive measures taken to starve and weaken the Viet Cong punish more cruelly the noncombatants in VC territory, who, being noncombatants, cannot even interest the CIA as defectors. It has been estimated by a former Chieu Hoi who has made his way to Europe that a quarter of the population—peasants—will be killed or die of malnutrition or from lack of medical care.
TO POLITICAL SCIENTISTS, however, the word “genocide” is quite unsuitable to describe what is happening. Genocide is deliberate. It is the same with bombs and mortars. If the Viet Cong plants a bomb in a theater, that is an atrocity, but if the Americans bomb a village that is “different.” When you ask how it is different, the answer is that the VC action was deliberate, while the US action was accidental. But in what way accidental if the fliers saw the village and could assume there were people in it and knew from experience that the bombs would go off? Well, the fliers were really aiming at the Viet Cong; if they hit some civilians, that was unintentional—it just happened. But it happens all the time, doesn’t it? Yes, but each time it is an accident. In the American view, no area bombing implies premeditation of the results that follow, while every grenade hurled by a Viet Cong is launched in conformance with a theory and therefore possesses will and consciousness.
It is peculiar that the academic experts who have been studying guerrilla techniques, Communism, “wars of liberation” for nearly two decades have been unable to face the question of intention in this kind of warfare, where combatants and noncombatants are all but inseparable, while the means of killing and exterminating have been reaching a point close to perfection. Fore-knowledge of the consequences of an action that is then performed generally argues the will to do it; if this occurs repeatedly, and the doer continues to protest that he did not will the consequences, that suggests an extreme and dangerous dissociation of the personality. Is that what is happening with the Americans in Vietnam, where words, as if “accidentally,” have broken loose from their common meanings, where the Viet Cong guerrilla is pictured as a man utterly at one with his grenade, which fits him like an extension of his body, and the American, on the other hand, is pictured as completely sundered from his precision weaponry, as though he had no control over it, in the same way that Johnson, escalating, feigns to have no control over the war and to react, like an automat, to “moves” from Hanoi?
May 18, 1967
I owe this description of Strategic Hamlets to Kuno Knoebel’s interesting book, Victor Charlie (Praeger, $5.95). ↩