April 10, 1966

GI’s Dedication Is Unmatched

(EDITOR’S NOTE:  Charles Black, Ledger-Enquirer military writer, has been recuperating from a pongee stick wound in Saigon but reported that he has now joined the 1st Cavalry Division at its headquarters in An Khe.  Black is in South Viet Nam to cover activities of the division.  Following is an analysis of the current political situation in that country.)


Ledger-Enquirer Staff Writer

SAIGON - Of all the frustrations for the U.S. public to consider in the war in South Viet Nam, to be considered is the failure of men in Washington and in the U.S. Operations Mission here to perform their duties with the same dedication and efficiency as the men who have worked and fought here while wearing uniforms.

The troops of the U.S. units engaged in fighting have not been given a break by the civilian agencies charged with the responsibility for consolidating fighting accomplishments into lasting pacification.

American soldiers are not the civil affairs experts which would be demanded if the military segment of this struggle had full responsibility for its successful outcome.

Tough Fighter

An American soldier in a rifle battalion is a tough, well-trained, well-equipped fighter who has proved astonishingly aggressive and individually dangerous in combat.

This is quite enough accomplishment to demand of a youth serving a two-year selective service tour, fighting in a strange war in a strange place.

That these same American soldiers have been more often than not caught up in a personal regard and sympathy for the Vietnamese people in the war zones of the rural areas speaks highly of their personal qualities as well-meaning human beings.

The voluntary efforts on American troops’ parts to “do something” to alleviate some of the misery they see in the Vietnamese of the countryside have been amazing, both in their scope and in the ingeniousness of their efforts.

They have written letters home asking for help to further some volunteer program for an orphanage or a refugee center near their bases.  They have often dug into their own resources.

The fact that they are victimized by the Vietnamese in the cities, where the war is something entirely difference than out where 70 percent of this country’s people live, can bring a typical troop reaction to the front - hostility, resentment and contempt.  It causes a split personality among our soldiers in their estimate of the people.

Remain in Cities

It is in the cities, where profit, corruption and the never-ceasing jockeying for power between warlords, infuriatingly enigmatic religious leaders, and a profiteering commercial establishment - to list only a few of the endless cliques and bands who keep the headlines filled with odd events while the bulk of the people in this country remain silent in apathy waiting for an end to terror and destruction - that the bulk of the men who should be out in the countryside are found.

This reluctance to go out into the areas where troops are sent is actually not even recognized by the agencies involved.  They produce statistics and figures which show dramatic plans, projects under way in certain areas, a huge and unrelenting expenditure of money and talent, for example, when asked why there are no USOM teams kept out with American military units based around the countryside.

The work of pacification and civil affairs has to commence when the first American face is seen in an area of this country.  Splitting the campaign into segments such as has been done thus far (that is, secure an area by military force, occupy it by military force, and then pacify it by development of civil affairs programs) is an efficient method of guaranteeing a Saigon headquarters for some specific pacification program a long, profitable and air-conditioned tenure of planning and organizing.

Set Work Back

I have been on too many operations which knifed into the villages in the Binh Khe valley which accomplished a military purpose, but set the future of civil affairs work back into the realm of near impossibility.  This is a specific account to illustrate:

In September of 1965 I was with an American unit which entered a village and set up an artillery battery to support an operation against Viet Cong positions in the region.  There was no council with any agency in Saigon charged with pacification work in the planning of this operation.

There were no civilian representatives from any portion of USOM at any of the field headquarters directing the operation.  The sketchy “county-insurgency” training of the soldiers involved was typical of most efforts - it evidenced a desire on the part of the commanders to instill that capability into the youthful riflemen and artillerymen, it simply could not be intensive enough training and indoctrination to produce results.  The soldiers would have had to sacrifice the basic essentials of their own profession if they had been turned into civil affairs and public relations experts.

There were civilians in the  village where the artillery was set up.  The troops were wary and suspicious of them or completely unguarded with them as the individual personalities of the men indicated.

Carry off Souvenirs

As the men grew accustomed to the odd surroundings and the odd people, they prowled on “patrols” which were really sightseeing tours.  This village had more huts deserted than occupied.

The troops searched them.  The troops carried away souvenirs and other such items which infantrymen of all times have seen as their own by right of discovery and absence of any apparent ownership.  They also gave away their C-rations to the people they encountered and the medics treated children on their own volition.

The troops found pineapples, oranges, melons, etc., growing around the village gardens and because of the apparently deserted air of all of this - one house in five retained any residents in this fought-over area - they swept them up in passing and varied the C-rations.

A Viet Cong agent set a hand grenade booby trap on the third day and it was found by the riflemen patrolling there.  Word spread around the artillery positions.

Six deserted but possession-filled huts had been close by the position and one of these also was found to be booby-trapped during the night.

The six howitzers of the battery, which had been itching for “direct fire” as all artillery batteries do because the business end of their shooting is almost always out of sight and gun crews like to see that they shoot at, suddenly got their chance.  The commander of the operation said to clear those hootches and it was done by shooting them apart with the 105s.

Villager Hit

An old villager herding buffalo out of sight was hit in the shoulder by a fragment and women out trying to find overlooked fruit for their families were terrified.

The village population to the immediate front of the battery commenced moving to some of the empty huts in the hamlet behind it.  The women were carrying shoulder poles of food and clothing followed by children; the few old men in the village herded the buffalo out to another area.

The women chose a circuitous trail to take them around the artillery position and were spotted by the now-edgy infantrymen securing the position.

They stopped them and for an hour the women, children and their loads made a pitiful group in a little field, guarded by two half-angry and half-ashamed riflemen.

The loaded baskets were searched.  Finally after many long radio conferences, trucks came down the trail with an angry trio of military intelligence agents and all of the “captives” were loaded up and sent off to the province headquarters, 20 miles away, presumably for questioning and security investigation, actually only because American soldiers had been forced to deal with a continuing problem which they knew nothing about while men drawing many thousands of dollars per year because of their expert knowledge of this problem were never aware that the whole thing was happening out in the boondocks.

Even as the American riflemen and artillerymen supervised the packing of women and children into trucks, they gave them C-rations and helped them gather possessions and the medic was busy working on a sick old man whom a patrol had discovered and brought in to join the group being sent to Binh Khe.

Very Bad Thing

There was not a single soldier who did not know that it had all been a very bad thing to have happened, of course, and nobody could really put a finger on when it had all begun to happen.  There had been no real thought given, in fact, to who was loaded on the trucks and who stayed behind.  The families in the hamlet to the rear of the position were left there.

The moving people had simply become involved in a discussion of what ought to be done about them for the security of the men involved and they ended up being sent off as “Viet Cong suspects.”

None of the troops ever thought to offer payment for any of the things they carried away from the huts found vacant.  Often the huts were vacant because the few people in the village were out competing in the harvest of fruit going on, which nobody thought of paying for either because it was impossible for anyone to find out who was supposed to own anything.

Nobody could speak the language and the whole village was confusing, what with some people living here and others on the run to refugee camps.

The Viet Cong sniped at the perimeter from hillsides around the area that night and there was a stiff little firefight which netted three bodies with rusty carbines.

The riflemen handled this affair with efficiency and the patrols probed aggressively the next day, turning up an ammunition cache and a lot of documents.

The day following, the operation up the valley was finished and the artillery battery and its infantry guard packed up and left.  Nobody involved knows what happened to the truckloads of people sent in as suspects or to the ones who didn’t get involved in that affair.

Everybody knew that the Viet Cong platoon in the area was back as soon as the last howitzer had gone out of sight.

Since then other operations have rolled up and down this valley and it is due to become a “pacified area” sooner or later, when Vietnamese troops can be spared to stay there and keep the Viet Cong from returning.

The pacification experts will come then and put in hard, long hours of work in a primitive environment, and the projects they set in motion (public health, school houses, resettlement of people who fled the area or ran from it, well digging, agricultural advice, etc.) will be pointed to with great pride by men in Saigon and Washington who will use them as refutations of arguments that the civil affairs end of this war just doesn’t get out in the boondocks.

It may be that involvement at the very start of that operation back in September by some of the pacification and civil affairs experts waiting their turn in the countryside might have assisted a harried battalion commander, a confused company commander, a bewildered platoon commander, or a completely double-crossed American rifleman who had done the best soldier’s job a nation could ask of him and coped as best he could.

I personally don’t want to go back to that village when our aid program, if they ever really get a chance to get started there, bear fruit.

When the residents of that village have the safety of a police force, the security of a good harvest, the future of educated and healthy children and can turn their attention to politics with the same energy their city cousins exhibit, they may remember the time we had to use their buffalo pasture for an artillery position and how the soldiers finally answered the questions none of the experts were around to give them advice about.

© Columbus Ledger-Enquirer

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