Sunday, January 30, 2011

"Search and Destroy": Fear and Loathing in South Vietnam

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." In this passage, I describe how the stresses and fears of American soldiers and Marines in Vietnam provoked attacks on civilians and human rights abuses against combatants.

Early in America's involvement in the Vietnam War, U.S. soldiers felt contempt for their purported Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) allies. In an attempt to forge a sense of brotherhood between the two fighting forces, commanders changed the name of one firebase from “Mahone” to “Kien,” in tribute to an ARVN officer who had fallen in combat. For a time, the U.S. Army shared the base with ARVN troops, but this experiment reached a disastrous conclusion “when an epidemic of pilferage broke out on the base and when the ARVNs flung down their weapons and ran the first time an enemy mortar round landed near them.

“Only thing they beat us to was the chow line,” one soldier in Charlie Company, Omega Harris, remembers thinking. Otherwise, the ARVN troops timidly stayed behind the lines and let Americans do the fighting, he and his fellow “grunts” thought. After patrols, the ARVN men returned clean. Harris believed they spent their time in the brush napping.

If GIs hated the VC and North Vietnamese enemy, these warriors earned the Americans’ grudging respect. “[S]ome came to envy the enemy his skills at war and his sense of calling to it – a commitment, wanting in themselves, to a cause worth dying for,” wrote Peter Goldman and Tony Fuller. “They thought of him as a gook with six rounds, but they knew at first hand what six rounds could do in motivated hands . . . To the men, the enemy seemed unafraid of anything, perhaps excepting B-52s and Cobra attack helicopters – anything, that is, that Charlie Company could bring to bear against him in the normal course of business. We’re playing games and they’re fighting for keeps, Kit Bowen [a Charlie Company soldier] thought. They’ve got a destination – they have to take over Saigon. We’ve got nothing.”

General Bruce Palmer, Jr., Westmoreland’s chief deputy, admitted years later, “Our greatest battle successes occurred when the enemy chose to attack a U.S. unit well dug in and prepared to defend its position.” Offensive operations, however, proved much more difficult. “It was a tough, risky business, for our troops, moving into and searching a hostile area, were exposed to enemy ambush, mines, and booby traps. Frequently they suffered casualties without ever seeing or contacting the enemy. After they stopped moving, they often hoped for an enemy attack and an opportunity to inflict heavy casualties.”

Palmer called this an “offensive-defensive” tactic, though it became better known by the term coined by another Westmoreland aide: “search and destroy.” As it evolved, search and destroy usually meant transporting, usually by helicopter, ground troops to enemy positions, obliterating the enemy forces, and then returning to the American lines. The American commanders needed to instill confidence in their South Vietnamese allies and were concerned that they couldn’t patiently wait for the enemy to make a frontal attack, especially after they figured out the high casualty rates such tactics guaranteed.

In spite of the risks, commanders decided they had to take the fight to the enemy. The commitment of North Vietnamese regular army troops to the war deepened Westmoreland’s determination to follow this course. By May 1965, when American troop levels reached 46,500, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) had 6,500 soldiers operating in the South. The NVA would continue a parallel troop escalation in response to the Americans over the next several years. When American forces shattered Vietcong (communist guerilla) forces during the 1968 Tet Offensive, the NVA would assume the brunt of the fighting.

Underestimating the North Vietnamese and Vietcong level of commitment, American commanders assumed that the American technological advantage would mean they would prevail in a war of attrition. U.S. commanders assumed that high enough casualties would force the outgunned communists to sue for peace. To accomplish this, Westmoreland asked for more troops, a total of 450,000 by the end of 1966.

The Vietcong and NVA proved willing to suffer large numbers of combat deaths and injuries and quickly adapted to American combat tactics and strategies. The Americans expended huge amounts of ammo and often had little to show for it. For instance, at the Battle of the Battangan Peninsula in August 1965, the Americans used 6,000 Marines, two naval destroyers, a squadron of Phantom and Skyhawk jets, napalm, and 3,000 rounds of ammo. While they killed 573 communist fighters and took 122 prisoners, and lost only 46 dead and 204 wounded, three-fourths of the communist troops slipped away, melting into the general population and able to fight another day.

The Americans suffered 300 casualties in an encounter with North Vietnamese regulars at the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley, in the vicinity of several villages, in August. Naval batteries pounded the villages, which were also destroyed by napalm. Fighting in close quarters for a month, the NVA lost 1,500 dead as American B-52 bombers dropped 500-pound bombs and fired more than 33,000 rounds of 105-millimeter howitzer ammo. As in the Battle of the Battangan Peninsula, the U.S. military declared victory after Ia Drang, but the NVA learned an important tactical lesson that would affect the future war: The tremendous advantages Americans enjoyed in the air and the greater firepower of American ground weapons became significantly less important if the Vietnamese battled at close quarters, which made it much harder for American firepower to claim only enemy lives.

Such fighting proved unnerving to 18- and 19-year old soldiers, more and more of whom were draftees in dark, unfamiliar and heavily wooded terrain. Search and destroy missions based on rooting out Vietcong bases of operations often put Americans in the position of destroying entire villages. The Americans would use Zippo cigarette lighters to burn down huts, destroy chickens and water buffalo that could be used to feed communist soldiers, and then moved on, leaving behind an angry, hungry and homeless population. The Vietcong use of traps, as well as women and young children as soldiers, increased the paranoia of American troops. Seeing potential assassins everywhere, American soldiers frequently shot neutral and friendly Vietnamese, which greatly increased the support for the communists.

“The only thing they told us about the Viet Cong was that they were gooks,” one Marine later said. “They were to be killed.” Barely out of high school, many fighting men were set on a hair trigger. Broadly worded orders given by superiors made tragedies more likely. On August 5, 1965, Marines approached the village of Cam Ne. Helicopters had buzzed the village and warned the people living there to evacuate. Marines approaching the village were told that they could assume anyone left behind was a “VC.”

“They told us if you receive one round from the village, you level it,” said Private First Class Reginald Edwards. “So we was coming into the village, crossing over the hedges . . . Not only did we receive one round, three Marines got wounded right off . . . So you know how we felt.” Edwards received an order to shoot a fleeing elderly man. “Caught my man as he was comin’ through the door. But what happened was it was a room full of children. Like a schoolroom. And he was runnin’ back to warn the kids that the Marines were coming. That’s who got hurt. All those little kids and people.”

The Marines burned Cam Ne to the ground. CBS newsman Morley Safer was there to capture the scene and, in a devastating report later aired to a national television audience, reported that two of three Marines injured had been hit by friendly fire. The village had been destroyed for the actions of what was apparently just one sniper. Safer got involved in the story, tried to help villagers escape and discovered that they had not understood the orders to evacuate, which had been given in English.

“The day’s operation burned down 150 houses, wounded three women, killed one baby . . . and netted these four prisoners,” Safer told his audience. “Four old men who could not answer questions put to them in English. Four old men who had no idea what an ID card was. Today’s operation is the frustration of Vietnam in miniature. There is little doubt that American firepower can win a military victory here. But to a Vietnamese peasant whose home . . . means a life of backbreaking labor . . . it will take more than presidential promises to convince him that we are on his side.”

This report marked one of the first critical accounts of the war to appear in the American media, which had dutifully supported the military effort, bought into the domino theory, and had accepted that the Vietnam conflict was not a civil war in which the United States supported an unpopular side against forces seen by many in Vietnam as patriotic. Instead, like the government, most of the press saw Vietnam as part of a global chess game played between the Americans and the Soviets.


Over the years the Cam Ne tragedy was repeated countless times. Unlike World War II, where soldiers served until the war’s conclusion, during Vietnam troops served for approximately one year. When soldiers got to the final weeks, it was common for them to carry a “short-timer’s stick.” They would cut off segments representing the remaining days of their deployment. In a sense, all Vietnam soldiers were short-timers, hoping to avoid death and eager to eliminate danger to themselves and, just as important, the danger to their comrades in arms. The level of violence in the war can be traced in part to this desperation.
Officers told infantrymen that every Vietnamese represented a potential assassin.

Communist troops reinforced this lesson by fighting ruthlessly, executing 39,000 South Vietnamese officials and members of the armed forces. During the communist occupation of Hué at the height of the Tet Offensive in 1968, VC and NVA forces butchered 2,800 civilians, and another 3,000 disappeared. (The United States also had an assassination program, Project Phoenix, that targeted Vietcong agents operating in South Vietnam and may have recorded 21,000 successful killings.) The communists saw themselves as defending their country from invaders. American soldiers joked that they were fighting the wrong Vietnamese and compared ARVN troops unfavorably to determined NVA and VC fighters. Nevertheless, U.S. infantrymen often saw their enemies as heartless killers.

The Vietcong use of child soldiers in particular sharpened GI distrust of the native population. “One afternoon I was standing on a corner waiting to catch a truck when a little shoeshine boy came up to me,” a veteran later told author Mark Baker.

"He’d been around for about six months. We all knew his name. He had a little box you put your foot up on. He was working on my boots and I look up and see this bar girl I knew across the street calling my name and waving for me to come over to her. I decided to go see what she wanted. Just about the same time another little kid came running by and grabbed the shoeshine’s hat. The shoeshine boy ran after the kid as I was crossing the street. The shoeshine’s box blew up. It was a satchel charge that took out twenty-three Americans. I got knocked to the ground, unconscious for a few seconds, but I wasn’t hurt. The bar girl was gone when I woke up, and nobody ever saw her again. The little kid disappeared too."

As another soldier told Baker, “You can’t tell who’s your enemy. You got to shoot kids, you got to shoot women. You may be sorry that you did. But you might be sorrier if you didn’t. That’s the damned truth.” Not just fear, but the desire for revenge over lost buddies, and resentment over dangerous assignments played a role in both large- and small-scale atrocities. One infantryman told Baker of the time he and two friends were stationed in a 125-foot guard tower near an air base and failed to respond to a radio signal. They were awakened by their commanding officer, who arrived loudly in a jeep and assigned them to stay in the tower for another day and night. “Everybody was really pissed because during the day, this fucking tower was really hot. And it’s like sitting in the bull’s eye of a target.”

The soldiers spotted a Vietnamese woman bent down working in a field about 500 yards away. Bored and angry, the soldiers egged each other on. ‘We’re talking to each other and somebody says, ‘I’ll tell you what. I betcha I can hit her. I said, 'Don’t be silly. Don’t even bother.’ She was obviously not an enemy agent or anything and she was way out of range.' The two other soldiers started firing at the woman. At first the soldier Baker interviewed said he didn’t participate.

But something came over me. I was pissed off. I was fucking hot. It was the second day in that fucking tower, you know. I said, 'Fuck you guys. Here, watch this.' I shot at her and she keeled over dead.

"I was so aware of my lack of regard for life at that point. Before, I couldn’t relate the pulling of the trigger and seeing somebody fall, because I’d been doing mostly night ambush. You never see who the hell you’re shooting at in the dark and then you run like hell. The next day you look for blood on the floor of the jungle and try to estimate how many you killed. But you can’t really tell. I just couldn’t believe that I had done it."

One GI told Baker of an incident when he was part of a team running security in a “free-fire zone.” The soldier recalled, “Anything that crossed into the free-fire zone was fair game. Any gook – woman, man, boy, girl – it was game to you. Anybody come along with a cart or just walking and we would go through their stuff.” The solider and his comrades had been in the field for almost three weeks.

A Vietnamese man and his daughter approached riding a Lambretta, a motorbike. The soldiers decided to stop them and were angered when they saw the man had a can of American pears. “Here we are in the field, we don’t know what pears is,” the soldier later remembered. “They got pears! And we don’t have pears.” One soldier grabs the can and opens it with his bayonet. The other GIs wanted their share. 'We were fighting, literally fighting to eat pears. Food! It wasn’t fresh, but it was something other than the shit they put together chemically and pressed into a can. It was like the man brought me steak and potatoes and I was back in my mother’s house eating Sunday dinner."

The soldiers became angrier over the pears and began to interrogate the Vietnamese man how he had gotten his hands on the cargo. The older man explained that he worked at an American mess hall and that the can had been given to him by GIs. “The GIs gave you pears?” the furious soldiers yelled. 'For that, we’re going to screw your daughter.' As the young woman wept, the GIs pulled her pants down as one of the men put a gun to her head. 'Why are you doing this to me?' the girl cried in English.
Turning their fury back on the father, they tore his identification card that the Vietnamese were required to carry. 'Hey, we got a VC here, fellas. A VC stealing government stuff, huh?' The soldiers began shooting the man, who was in his forties. As I said, we was in a free-fire zone. We just started pumping rounds into him until the guy just busts open. He didn’t have a face anymore.

"Baby-san, she was crying. So a guy just put a rifle to her head and pulled the trigger just to put her out of the picture. Then we started pumping her with rounds . . . And everybody was laughing about it. It’s like seeing the lions around the just killed zebra . . . The whole pride comes around and they start feasting on the body."

The longer the war dragged on, the bigger the gulf between the supposed liberators and the intended recipients of liberation. “Too many of us forgot that Vietnamese were people,” one soldier said. “We didn’t treat them as people after a while.”


Racism shaped the Vietnam War in two ways: how American soldiers treated each other, and how they saw and treated the Vietnamese. The Johnson administration targeted potential American recruits in “Project 100,000,” launched in 1966 and shut down only in 1972. Under this program, 300,000 men unable to meet Army test score requirements could enter military service. McNamara dubbed Project 100,000 the “world’s largest education of skilled men.”

African Americans, far more likely to grow up poor, undernourished, neglected and without an adequate education, constituted 41 percent of the enlistees who entered the service through the project. Eight out of 10 of the blacks who signed up had dropped out of high school. Only 40 percent read at a sixth-grade level or higher. They received promises of education and job training. Instead, commanders sent a disproportionate 37 percent of Project 100,000 soldiers directly to combat. Poorly prepared for life in the military and operating in the highest-stress environments, the program’s soldiers experienced twice the normal rate of courts-martial, and 80,000 left the military without ever receiving the training needed for a better civilian life. Many also faced a life after the military with the added burdens of post-traumatic stress syndrome and disabling physical injuries.

Growing up in a culture saturated with white supremacist ideas, American soldiers often brought their racist baggage with them to Vietnam. Many black veterans reported being called “nigger” and being singled out for punishment as early as boot camp. In Vietnam, closer relationships developed between whites and blacks on the front – where soldiers depended on each other for survival -- than in the rear, where whites and blacks segregated in housing and in friendships.

Harold “Light Bulb” Bryant remembered serving with one openly racist white soldier on the front lines. “[There was a] . . . guy in our unit who had made it known that he was a card-carrying Ku Klux Klan member,” Bryant told author Wallace Terry. “That pissed a lot of us off, ’cause we had gotten real tight . . . We were always in the bush. Well, we got into a fire fight, and Mr. Ku Klux Klan got his little ass trapped. We were goin’ across the rice paddies, and Charlie [slang for the Vietnamese communist forces] just started shootin.’ And he just jumped back into the rice paddy while everybody else kind of backtracked. So we laid down a base of fire to cover him. But he was just immobile. He froze. And a brother went out there and got him and dragged him back. Later on, he said that action had changed his perception of what black people were about.”

Richard J. Ford III, an infantryman who served in Vietnam in 1967-1968, made similar observations. “The racial incidents didn’t happen in the field,” Ford said. “Just when we went to the back. It wasn’t so much that they were against us. It was just that we felt we were being taken advantage of, ’cause it seemed like more blacks in the field than in the rear.” However, behavior that might be tolerated at moments of danger, seriously damaged unit cohesion when the immediate threat faded. “In the rear we saw a bunch of rebel flags,” Ford said. “They didn’t mean nothing by the rebel flag. It was just saying we for the South. It didn’t mean that they hated blacks. But after you in the field, you took the flags very personally.”

Ford remembered a fight that broke out between black soldiers returning from a dangerous combat mission and whites at a military police barracks. “One time we saw these flags in Nha Trang . . . They was playing hillbilly music. Had their shoes off dancing. Had nice, pretty bunks. Mosquito nets over top the bunks. . . Air conditioning. Cement floors. We just came out the jungles. We dirty, we smelly, hadn’t shaved. We just went off. We turned the bunks over, started tearing up the stereo. They just ran out. Next morning, they shipped us back up.”

African American soldiers, who suffered death rates out of proportion to their share of the U.S. forces, suspected that white officers singled them out for dangerous combat duty. For this and other reasons, early on the Vietnam War became controversial in the African American community. In the early 1960s, Malcolm X saw the war as white America’s imperialism against people of color.

For years, the mainstream civil rights organizations held back, not wanting to antagonize allies in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had attacked the war in accordance with his pacifist beliefs. By 1967, his words became sharper as he expressed fears that programs he favored, such as the War on Poverty, would be sacrificed to feed the ever-costlier war in Southeast Asia. Johnson’s anti-poverty initiatives had raised people’s hopes, King said, but the war was “an enemy of the poor.” As had others, King pointed to the irony of black men fighting for the freedom of others while being denied basic dignity at home. “We were taking the young black men who had been crippled by our society and sending them 8,000 miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in Southeast Georgia and East Harlem,” King said. “So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools.”

Racial violence at home, such as in the Watts riot of 1965, the Detroit riot in 1967, and the King assassination in 1968, deepened the divide between black and white soldiers in the field. At the same time, American soldiers often perceived a deep racial divide between themselves and their Vietnamese hosts. One soldier in Vietnam, Norman Nakamura, believed anti-Vietnamese racism fed both casual abuse of the local population, such as throwing empty cans at children walking on a roadside, and major atrocities such as the massacre of the village of My Lai in 1968. “For some G.I.'s in Vietnam, there are no Vietnamese people,” Nakumura wrote in a guest column in the June/July 1970 edition of Gidra. “To them the land is not populated by people but by ‘Gooks,’ considered inferior, unhuman animals by the racist-educated G.I. Relieved in his mind of human responsibility by this grotesque stereotype, numerous barbarities have been committed against these Asian peoples, since ‘they're only 'Gooks.'"

Nakamura said that non-Asian American soldiers openly insulted what they called the dishonesty, immorality and squalor of the Vietnamese. " ‘How can these people live like this; why do they want to live like animals!’ is a common ethnocentric statement by G.I.'s when viewing the different customs and relative poverty of the Vietnamese,” Nakamura said. He continued:\

"Since many G.I.'s have had exposure only to American culture and mores, they use U.S. mores as a measure of what is right or wrong in the world and judge the Vietnamese accordingly. To such G.I.'s the Vietnamese live in poverty and in low standards of personal hygiene to a degree that is shocking to them. Ethnocentrically and naively feeling that human beings cannot live in such low standards, the G.I. feels that these people must want to live like animals when he sees the whole nation living in what he thinks to be animal-like standards. He makes this judgment assuming that the Vietnamese have the same education, goals, and opportunities that he has. Rather than having compassion for the Vietnamese, many G.I.'s are disgusted by them."

Drawing on America’s mythology of the Old West, their minds filled with scenes from movies in which the cavalry mowed down droves of murderous “redskins,” troops in Vietnam often called themselves “cowboys” and the natives “Indians.” As in the Asian theater of World War II, American soldiers were more likely to shoot soldiers who had surrendered than had their peers fighting in Europe during the First and Second World Wars. Like Anglo soldiers fighting the Japanese, American soldiers also sometimes collected and even mailed home “trophies” of their Vietnamese killed, such as severed ears.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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