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Interview with Carl F. Bernard, 1981

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Summary
Colonel Carl Bernard served in World War II, Korea, Laos and Vietnam. He discusses the role of South Vietnam's regional forces in protecting villages against the Viet Cong and the difference between these local platoons and the larger Army of the Republic of Vietnam. He comments on the efficacy of the Phoenix Program in converting Viet Cong, and describes the conflicting objectives between the South Vietnamese and the Americans. Finally, he discusses his work in Laos in the early 1960s.
Topics
Political psychology, Culture and communication in Asia, War--Medical aspects, Vietnamese language, Military assistance, American, Draft, Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Personal narratives, American, Propaganda, Communist, Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Desertions--Vietnam, Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Psychological aspects, Politics and war
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Transcript

Role of South Vietnam's regional and popular forces in the war

VIETNAM
C. BERNARD
SR #2870
This is roll 2870. Vietnam Project. T 876.
One Take one. Clap sticks.
Interviewer:
Mr. Bernard, this is going to be a somewhat rambling interview for which I apologize, but I hope that the rambling will enable you to kick some things in your memory and deliver something that's...
Bernard:
I ramble a bit.
Interviewer:
Good, that's very good. Can you tell me what the experience of your first year in Vietnam was? I'd like to basically take you very quickly up to the end of the Tet Offensive. You don't need to deal with Tet. But, I wonder what your first few months there taught you? And what, what you expected and what you came across? Was there a major thing that stuck in your mind in that first year?
Bernard:
Well, not really. I think I became very aware and very concerned of the responsibility of the supplementary forces, the regional forces, and the popular forces and their importance in the war. And, I, and then probably that the resources devoted to them weren't really ahm, adequate for the responsibilities that they had.
Interviewer:
Could you explain to me about the regional forces, and the popular force. I mean what were they doing that ARVN wasn't doing? What risks were they taking? How were they different from the regular forces?
Bernard:
Well, the regional forces and you've seen a, a hundred movies of them. The guys in the little mud forts outside the village, outside the hamlet, responsible for protecting the hamlet at night when the VC were working the area. Ah, these were normally natives of the area, ah, grouped in, in, in these ah sometimes quite small detachments. Ahm, they were essentially walking infantry. Ah, they certainly had very little equipment.
Ah, and they were not paid very well - I've forgotten what the pay rates were; I'm sure you can find them. But they were given a very little subsistence. They were essentially a people's self-defense force. Ahm, and that's what they were. Now, they varied in quality. Some were extraordinarily good, and ah, and some were not. They ah, but their, to me they were the cutting edge of the effort. They, their presence in an area simply had to be negated by the Viet Cong, or the Viet Cong couldn't work in the area. And, when I say negated: bribed, put aside, killed.
Interviewer:
How did you recruit them? How did these particular forces recruit...?
Bernard:
As, now, these were quite often those who were too young yet for regular service or too old, or too disabled for regular service. Essentially, these were people that ah the Vietnamese, I've forgotten what year they drafted their people into the regular army, but it was some time later. By the way, being in the, in the prov, in the ah PF, the popular force did not exempt them from being drafted. So a person might spend some years in the popular force and then be drafted into ARVN or into the regional forces.
Now the regional forces were organized as rifle companies, while the PF were essentially platoons. And a platoon implies the static location and actually no equipment, and responsibilities only for the area they were in. The regional forces finally, by the end of '67, by '68 you're talking, had become well-organized, light rifle companies, walking infantry companies. These were separate as companies; they were never united into the next larger formation.
Interviewer:
The, there are pretty staggering figures, I find, of ARVN desertions and defections. What was, was there a similar tale to tell with the ah RF and PF forces or were they generally more solid in their support? Or what was the...
Bernard:
Watch your numbers. And, they're staggering numbers. You probably find that a lot of those "deserter" ARVN were then re-enlisted into someone else's force, not too long thereafter. But, if you look at the staggering desertion numbers and then project them against Vietnam over time, they were out of people. No. A regular ARVN soldier stationed 500 miles from home might get very lonesome and might return home and do his service as long as he could until caught and return to his regular unit in a local group, and certainly some of the PF and some of the RF were also probably on occurred as deserters in the role of somewhere else. So your staggering numbers don't hold up.
Interviewer:
That was good, we just got that in, that was only half a roll there, so...

Performance of the Viet Cong before and after the Tet Offensive

[Coughing]
Two. Take one. Clapsticks.
Interviewer:
I'm going to take some various things in your report which just spark off to me quite interesting things and I wonder just by mentioning the subject, if it, similar things to go on in your brain. You have one statement here, the tools of the Viet Cong are primarily nonmilitary and you then talk about the tools of the government of Vietnam being overwhelming military. I wonder if you could discuss that subject and the difference in how you saw it. Was everyone aware of this distant, difference?
Bernard:
The Viet Cong were essentially practicing a people's war, which in short hand is a war of persuasion. It requires a person on a face-to-face basis to help someone else determine that he's going to support him. Now, there are lots of ways to determine the support. The Viet Cong support was heavily based on terror, i.e., one of them might persuade one of his neighbors to support by speaking unhappily of the previous neighbor now deceased who had not been of support.
I consider those to be nonmilitary techniques. And they're very effective. Ah, I think you, quite often Europeans think of Chicago in this term, in these terms. And, I've always thought and observed much of the Viet Cong behavior in those senses. But that's what I mean by nonmilitary. Now, also, by persuasion. In the same sense to, to recruit people where they were already of age, whether they were women or children. Ah, by appeal to their humanistic senses, by appeal to their sense of justice, to me is nonmilitary. The military ah response to this, i.e., a military formation complete with bands, flags and tanks was the basis of both the ARVN and the US response.
Interviewer:
How do you think the success, or the national success by the VC changed in the two years that we are talking about specifically late '68 and '69? What was happening to their attempts to recruit, and how successful was their persuasion, their nonmilitary persuasion, call it what you want, in the pe, period we're now talking about, '69 especially?
Bernard:
I think the, the Viet Cong faltered badly after Tet, and they faltered through making what looked to be, what was a very surprising error, ahm, and quite simply, they used, the Viet Cong cadres, hidden people, for simple military work as guides leading combat units from one point to another. You can do this all right but it's a very dangerous kind of work, and they lost an extraordinary number of underground people, hidden cadres, persons that were the next base for their people, and by losing them, in, when they made this serious military effort in Tet, when they misjudged how soft and how easily the Vietnamese government would fold, then they lost their cadres, they lost an enormous and important base.
Now, they didn't lose them because we sought out, caught these people, but simply because he who's with an infantry squad moving up ah suffers about the same casualty rates as an infantry squad. It's bad work. So, the Viet Cong laid much of their weakening during '69, weakening during '68 and '69 with this effort to, to, to move too quickly before they were ready. And, they lost much of their underground. The underground which they lost. They lost it about this time. Using them for other purposes.

Evaluation of the Phoenix Program

Interviewer:
You seem to be suggesting that the infrastructure then is going at this point because of things like leading the militaries rather than because of the success of Phoenix. I mean how would you rate the success of Phoenix at this time? The Phoenix Program. Would you like to talk about Phoenix?
Bernard:
I've always thought that probably more of the Viet Cong infrastructure caught during the time of the Phoenix were ahm caught by accident rather than from the specific efforts of the Phoenix Program. Ahm, now, certainly, when they were working as infantrymen they suffered far more casualties than they ever suffered when we were deliberately trying to catch them. That's very hard work and it requires an ex, a very good organization working very hard, and with real priorities. I think we never put the emphasis on the Phoenix Program that it required, if it was to be, in fact, as advertised, the first priority program in Vietnam. And I, I find that that promise of priority was never honored.
Interviewer:
Do you think it could have been a good program? Was it essentially a sound program?
Bernard:
It was the most important program that went in Vietnam. If we were ever going to to have had a success in Vietnam, it had first to be serious infrastructure program, but watch what I mean by an infrastructure program. The ideal use of an infrastructure program is to find a Viet Cong member, the highest ranking possible, bring him in and his associates with him, convert him.
Those would, that was the ideal Viet Cong infrastructure program. Where it worked, it works splendidly. And ah, yes, that was the ah most important program. Was it well-executed? Not very. Could it have been? You bet. It could have been and it should have been had we been serious about the war. Had we understood the war, that was the program that we would have followed.
Interviewer:
We'll just cut for a minute. We're having severe trouble...

Response of the Vietnamese to American troop withdrawal

Sound. Take one. Clapsticks.
Interviewer:
July '69 the big noises are being made about the withdrawal of American troops. How did this affect things in your province? How did the Vietnamese see it? In the regional forces and in, in ARVN what was it doing?
Bernard:
Well, the...with the first announcements of withdrawal provoked a variety of emotions. Now, as I recall, ah, there were a number of protests and this is a little awkward 'cause I don't really recall the sequence of events, but I do remember ah...I do remember a series of broadcasts by President Thieu, which I thought were pretty hostile to the American objectives, and I don't recall well enough to say. Ah, I do think that...I also recall a number of instances in which I believed that the Vietnamese appeared to be reducing their commitment to, to Thieu's government but I'm not good enough at that. I'm afraid we'll have to let it go.
Interviewer:
That's okay then, fine.
Bernard:
It's out of my memory.
Interviewer:
I don't want to push you where, where you're not happy with it. I wonder whether you could, in fact, say whether you could truthfully say that you, there were several in here which seem to suggest that...
Bernard:
In June of '69...
Interviewer:
That once, once the troops were being pulled out that there was a feeling by some of the Vietnamese anyway that they are being deserted and that the commitment is going, that the Americans are going just as other people have left and why that seems to seep through this report. Now, I wonder if you could talk to that.
Bernard:
I don't know. There are... Ah. I recall particularly a number of Vietnamese towards my last year there beginning to characterize the Vietnamese War as an American War. And they believed, in particular, that that this war was for American purposes but it didn't concern, involve them. They were seeing themselves far more as an American battleground. Ah, and that it was less a Vietnamese War in which we were assisting them and they perceived it far more as an American War.
Interviewer:
Was this surprising to you? This was, was this a new development or had it always been there and it was just being voiced to you now? Do you think...?
Bernard:
I don't recall.

Basic errors of the Americans in fighting the war

Interviewer:
Okay. Not to worry, we'll press on. You have, ah this is 1969. "The US presence itself has been a mistake. I bet, bet, I best make sure that no one doubts my better judgment this being a mistake largely because it doesn't work." Why wasn't it working? Why was it? Is there some...? It's a big question.
Bernard:
Uh huh. Ah, our commitment to the Vietnamese War, I always felt to be a mistake, because I think we didn't understand at all the sort of war we were in. Back to thinking about the infrastructure. A French colonel in a book called "Secret Forces" once explained that in a revolutionary war, as soon as the infrastructure has been emplaced, the war is over. It's a matter of time.
Interviewer:
Sorry, I had no idea we'd gone through so much film.
(tape slurs)
Four. Take one. Clapsticks.
Interviewer:
In '69 you already expressed doubts of how the US presence was a mistake? Why did you feel this way?
Bernard:
Well, not, I, my objections to the US presence in Vietnam were explained long before '69. My reservations that the US commitment of military forces to Vietnam date from the very early '60s way before we had any forces there. And, these were based on a total conviction that, one: We weren't ready, we didn't understand people's war and second, the worst possible use of soldiers was in fighting, uh fighting a popular war.
I've forgotten who the quotation is from. Some French author I think who explained that it may have been F.O. Miksche who explained that the worst guerrilla is a regular officer, and the worst person to catch a guerrilla is a, also a regular officer and I certainly think that all the training of a professional soldier with the intellectual baggage that that brings with it, makes him severely handicapped when he has to go into another kind of political war, popular war. So, my objections and my reservations dated from my days at Fort Bragg, in the Special Force as we were first analyzing and understanding this. And, I'm sure you'll find many of those, many of us from the Special Force of those days explain those reservations very clearly at that time.

Character of the 7th Cu Chi Regiment

Interviewer:
You talked earlier about Cu Chi and people of Cu Chi and around there. I have to say that when we were in Vietnam we interviewed quite a few of the both regular and irregular Viet Cong forces, call them what you will, people or regional. I wonder if you can tell me what you're thoughts were about Cu Chi and about the enemy that you were fighting? What you thought about about, were they a formidable enemy? Did they do the expected? What, what was special, what was special or not special about them?
Bernard:
You're caught in an anecdote. At Berkeley, at the University of California, I was invited to, in 1972, to a demonstration against the Vietnamese War and I went. Now, there were twenty or thirty young Vietnamese men and women in black pajamas playing guitars, and they had a moderator who explained what they were singing, what they were chanting. The song was the effect that they wanted to defeat the enemy. They wanted to fight the enemy. They wanted to share, spill their blood to protect their countries from the enemy.
Now, I listened to this for a while and I got the microphone. I explained in Vietnamese and in French to the young singers that I knew who they were and they knew who they were and we talk about this, and I explained if they wanted to spill their blood to fight the enemy, that they could do this in a, very well in a bad cause. That they could join the 7th Cu Chi, those were fighting men.
But, they were song singers and they were on USAID scholarships the United States. They were sons of province chiefs. They were the sons of general officers, the sons of functionaries. These were not warriors. These were not fighters. Fighting was available. The 7th Cu Chi was the best example. Those were warriors. None of those, we use the terms candy asses, were of the fighting persuasion. They could go join the 7th Cu Chi and I would honor them as warriors. They weren't. The 7th Cu Chi was.
We would fight the 7th Cu Chi from time to time and it was serious and expensive. We would hurt it very hard. It would replenish itself and come to fight again very well. The Vietnamese, Viet Cong or ARVN or RF and PF are first-rate soldiers. They're excellent infantrymen, and I say that as an elder in the trade. The 7th Cu Chi certainly counts as of the top regiments that I have known.
Interviewer:
How did you...? You say that they would come back again. Was their strength still holding? Their ability to replenish itself? You're talking about '69. Tet has come and gone. Were you aware very much that at that time the strength in Cu Chi seemed to contract or was it still very, very strong? I mean, there are suggestions, for example, that by this time the guerrilla forces, guerrilla strength of, of the VC was going down. It was more and more the reliance would be on heavy main force units and the war that had changed substantially by the end of '68. Do you feel that way?
Bernard:
Well, there's certainly...the, the war changed and the persons who were in the fighting establishments certainly changed. Often by '69, we were getting fragments of main force units incorporated in regional forces, i.e., the 7th Cu Chi's major source of recruits were no longer from the Cu Chi area. Their major source of recruits the, were the residue of the main force battalions from the north that we had broken up badly and they would recover some of these young persons and they would become parts of the, of the regional forces. The Viet Cong regional forces.
There were no longer the spontaneous recruitment or the ability to impress young men once the Vietnamese had established ah conscription. Then the Viet Cong were no longer easily able to recruit or to impress young people from the village areas. So, the 7th Cu Chi's sources probably by '68 were main force units from the north and the fragments of those. The main force units were very vulnerable and ah when main force units were met by US main force units or ARVN main force units, they were usually to hurt very badly. The Viet Cong would recover parts of them, and in, and recruit, co-opt bring them in to their units.
Interviewer:
Speak of the...
End of SR #2870.

Conflicts in communication and objectives between Vietnamese and Americans

VIETNAM
C. BERNARD
SR #2871
This is 2871. Project T 876. 50 cycle pulse. 25 frames a second.
Five. Take one. Clapsticks.
Interviewer:
Tell me a bit about US-Vietnamese relationships in the time when you were there? What it was like?
Bernard:
I found always a, a particular ambivalent relationship. Almost a hate/love between the Vietnamese and the Americans. And, this, ah Vietnamese, think of Vietnamese soldiers not well paid, not well fed, not very well equipped, pretty constantly brushed aside, disregarded by their protectors, the larger, richer, stronger American units. Now, the Vietnamese needed the American units. Yet, this didn't make them feel very comfortable. First, about needing them. That sense of inferiority over that.
And, then, second, in, in responding to some of the pretty naturally patronizing attitudes of the American soldiers and American commanders. Ahm, I give you ah something comes to my mind because of some of my French associations. The Vietnamese officers who'd been reared in the French army and who spoke French very well, those that didn't acquire English, were pretty well cast aside quite soon. Those who became important to the Americans were those with whom we could speak. Those who spoke English better.
I used to, in one, an early job, I used to get very senior Vietnamese officers who would just come over to sit in my office and talk with me cause they could talk in French. Now, our, our relationship was partly a rejection of their relationship with most of the Americans. But, a lot of it was based really in this business of communication. An, an inability, unless they went into the Vietnamese lang, into the English language, to be able to talk with us. And, one of our enormous handicaps were that so few of us were competent in the Vietnamese language.
Interviewer:
You say, I mean I'm amazed actually think...
Stop a minute.
Six. Take one. Clap sticks.
Interviewer:
It's 1969. You've got half a million Americans in Vietnam. How many of them spoke Vietnamese and how high a priority was it?
Bernard:
Not very many.
Interviewer:
Could you say? Could you set the context?
Bernard:
Ah, yes. Ah. One of my associates and probably the most successful adviser that I knew in Vietnam was a guy names Tom Barnes, a foreign service officer, who used to explain that when you could read the cheap novels of a country, you were beginning to approach the culture and to him for the adviser to speak the language of the country, was as important as the AK-47 was to the Viet Cong.
I agree completely with Tom's assessment. A considerable part of the friction which didn't cause us to lose the war, but made us very uncomfortable and constantly was the inability of our soldiers, and then, in particular, the advisers to be able to talk with their Vietnamese colleagues in their own language.
This was one of our priorities, but it was a spoken priority. It was never made a serious priority. The very short tours we had in Vietnam made learning the language a burden. It couldn't be used anywhere else, and it certainly wasn't a quote "career-enhancing" sort of thing to have done. The Vietnamese language is not difficult to learn, but it requires an assiduous application. And, there was no, it was never a real priority. Only one that was spoken of from time to time.
Interviewer:
You have a, in your report, you have, let me see...some of the frictions and problems you had in terms of Vietnamese-US relations. I wonder if you could talk of what would be a typical thing that would cause you real, real problems in terms of US-Vietnamese relations in, in, in your province? What was the sort of thing that were consistently causing you problems and what did you try and do about it?
Bernard:
A major source, and probably the philosophical problem between Americans and Vietnamese, were our very different missions. Ah, now this was spoken of often enough in the French literature, but we had exactly the same problem. The Vietnamese had a, a mission of protecting the people. The American responsibility, the American main force units were killing the enemy. Now, that an enemy might be shielded in a village or that it might be difficult to tell from the rest of the Vietnamese people where he was hiding himself ah didn't make killing him less a priority.
So, I think our basic problem in dealing with the Vietnamese were these very different priorities. Yeah. And you've heard the body count decried in all, in every bit of literature. Everyone who was in Vietnam were as dissatisfied with that as a measurement of how well we were doing as members of the press were, as the persons in the United States were. But it was very difficult to measure what was happening. And at, in that day, we had a serious concern with measuring to understand how well we were doing.
Our problem really was the introduction of a very large American force into a culture that we could not hope to understand without an ability to understand the language, without long and arduous training. We didn't understand. Our priorities were very different. The Vietnamese priorities, they di, they understood us as little as we understood them. We essentially were very foreign bodies occupying the same ground. The, the frictions were inevitable.
Ah, just the use of a highway was ah was a very dangerous thing. It was a dangerous thing because American soldiers worried about ambushes driving very large trucks, using the same poor highways, which, if they weren't paved were easily mined, were concerned with their lives, with their mission. Result: We had a lot of Vietnamese run over. Ah, if you look at a firefight, you have the same problem. It's very difficult for men in an airplane to understand, one, where he is or to be very, very discriminating in what he hits. I think the, the, the best quotation this subject came from my most valued colleague, John Paul Vann.
I give you the quotation. John used to say that the best weapon to kill a guerrilla with is a bayonet and the worst weapon is an airplane, and the next best is a rifle, and the next worse is an artillery shell. Well, the tools we were using were not the sort of tool that was required to work in this kind of war. Airplanes and artillery shells cause friction in a heavily populated area.
Interviewer:
Let's cut a minute.
That may have been...

American engagement with the Communists in Laos

Sound. Take one. Clap sticks.
Interviewer:
Can you just start by setting the parameters of who was involved in the fighting when you were there, what sort of military engagements you witnessed or were involved in?
Bernard:
Well, there was little actual fighting. Now, there were a variety of skirmishes.
Interviewer:
Could you say in 196...?
Bernard:
Oh, sure. In Laos, in 1961, there was little actual fighting. Now, occasionally, a unit would get pretty well ambushed and we'd get reasonable numbers of casualties. My first contact with the French army was at that time when the French medicine chef in Louangphrabang used to repair all the damaged Laotians that we'd bring back to him.
I loaned him the sergeant; medical sergeant from my special forces team, plus all of the medical materials and he, as a superb surgeon, ah, took care of the varieties of wounded that we could bring back. Ahm, now, the fighting, mostly went between, occasional contacts between Miao irregulars, or Yao irregulars and Pathet Lao forces.
Now, in addition, there were regular Vietnamese army units searching for ah, in not a very vigorous manner, for Pathet Lao units. Now, normally, there are varieties of ways to fight. And, there are varieties of ways to win. Winning without fighting was more attractive to both sides. The Pathet Lao would send word that they had a regular Vietnamese battalion with them to weaken the will of our forces to fight by merely announcing the same sort thing in reverse that we had Lu, i.e., Chinese with us. That made the Pathet Lao much less sincere about holding the particular bits of ground that they were on.
Interviewer:
Can you set the framework for your presence there? Why was it not publicized at the time? What was the reason behind that?
Bernard:
The...Hmm. Um, there was very little publicity on our activities in Laos in those early days. As I recall, these were the first times...immediately, you recall, after President Kennedy was inaugurated, in which he, which it became very obvious to us, that there was a considerable danger that, that ah, Laos would become a Vietnamese puppet, fall to the North, easily enough.
I think the first of the military units, the special forces units, which I belonged to in there, were there to stabilize the country as best we could working to improve the the capabilities of the Lao, to, to keep their own control over the country. And, that there was very little of this that was yet part of US policy. My inclination would be to think of us more as there as an active reconnaissance, i.e., we were able to report what the situation actually was from our position in place, and this gave the United States time enough to decide what we were going to do.
Now, there may be something a little wrong in this because, as I recall now, ah our presence was before Mr. Kennedy. We also had a presence there before Mr. Kennedy was inaugurated. So, ah, but I as my recollection goes, ah, we, if I were characterizing this now I'd use that military term, an active reconnaissance, and then, in order to know better what the situation was and then what might be done about it, a role that perhaps journalists play today. But there weren't as many available at that time.
Interviewer:
Okay. Cut.
End of SR #2871
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