Relocation of villagers and the altering of Ross's perspective
This is camera roll 701.
Well, Ben Suc
was not an always a typical operation or that type of un—under the basic
pacification program. The main goal of it was to eliminate the (cough)
the National Liberation Front
political and military structure from a triangular area about 50 to 60
square miles and it was decided that in order to do this, they would
move out the entire population. The part I was involved in was the
evacuation of Ben Suc which was
a decent size city of perhaps about 3000 people uhm.
Initially on the morning of the initial assault
(cough) the infantry went in ahead of us by helicopter and set up a
perimeter around the village and villagers were instructed to move into
the center of town. A couple of people on both sides were shot but it
was by no means a battle. We were providing some medical screening and
medical backup for the operation Vietnamese from the aah fifth ARVN
division were handling the actual ooh uhm roundup and initial
interrogation and clearing of villagers.
The villagers themselves were taken out by boat, by
helicopter and by truck to relocation centers aah primarily Phu
Cong and Lei Thieu.
Aah, my role was basically standing there and watching all this go on.
We provided some dental care for some of the villagers during the
process but the main thing was just aah being there primarily for
medical backup. The trip up the Saigon River
was uneventful. There was no aah sniper fire.
We went up on the small landing craft, probably about
sixteen to eighteen landing craft and we had been in Ben Suc a number of times before, we usually
went in either by river or by helicopter we would set up and provide
medical aid for the villagers aauhm, even though Ben Suc was considered a contested area or
Vietcong area, part of the philosophy of pacification was to try to win
over the hearts and minds of the people and apparently the decision had
been made that Ben Suc and the
other villages within the iron triangle could not be won over by the
revolutionary development program.
Having been up there a number of times there was one
elderly woman that I had gotten to know a little bit. She had initially
come in with on abscessed tooth and we had taken care of that for
her...another time up aah she brought in some of her relatives and we
took care of them, I ended up aah having lunch at her place when we
would be up there. During the actual evacuation she just happened to be
in the stream of people that were going by the area where we were set up
aah she recognized me uhm ran over threw her arms around me and just
looked at me kind of pleading you know, wasn't there something that I
could do and there really wasn't.
One of the security people came over and took her back
into the line of people and they were aah...she and other members of her
family along with some of their livestock were taken out on a chinook
helicopter. Uhm. It was kind of sad in a way because Ben Suc was a pretty village, it was a very
old village, the people there seemed to enjoy a little better standard
of living than people in any of the other villages, and basically once
the people were taken out, the whole thing was just turned into a
Uhm, all the buildings were burned down, knocked down
with bulldozers even the graveyards were bulldozed in, uhm and after
that the entire area was raked over by B-52 bombers and by artillery.
And the end result was the village of Ben Suc is aah inhabited...the area is an area where there
had been a very nice village simply and totally ceased to exist.
Camera Roll 702.
I think in a lot of ways the experience I had with the
village Of Ben Suc was the
beginning of a long questioning process regarding our involvement in
Vietnam. Uhm in the past, we'd done search and destroy missions search
and seal missions but we'd never done anything quite this large we were
literally taking an entire area of the countryside and just emptying out
all the people. Of course you never did get all the people because some
people would be able to break away, some people would be able to get
through the security net around the village, but uhm, for all practical
Let's start again...some people were able to get around
the security net...
Some people were able to get around the security net so
later on when this was declared a free fire zone or a free drab zone
where anyone was considered to be the enemy, there were still lots of
civilians out there and you figure whatever the ratio of military to
civilians is aah there always a lot of civilian casualties even those
theoretically aah by American military thinking aah aah the National Liberation Front
soldiers would be the only people in the area.
Uhm, it just struck me that, you know, here we'd been
on these programs, supposedly winning the hearts and minds of the people
and obviously we hadn't done that. We were told they were taking the
people out to protect them from the aah National Liberation Front and to deny them
as a resource to the National
Liberation Front and that we'd be moving them into new life
hamlets. Well, basically the new life hamlets were concentration camps.
You could take one look at them and see exactly what
they were. The people had no freedom to come and go, they were simply
ten and 2x4 construction on concrete slabs and surrounded by barbed wire
and guards and that was basically it. And I kept thinking over not only
back to the personal experience of this old women that I had met several
times but just all the villagers in general.
And then sort of expanding this to all of the other
villages that were being evacuated from the iron triangle area and
thinking well, if the Saigon government has so much support, then how
come it's necessary to take the entire population and put it into
concentration camps? And I didn't really have any answers and I found
out very quickly that it was aah not a very popular type of questioning
to get involved in. (Cough) See the problem with sales your voice is
shot by the end of the week...
That sounds very genuine.
One of the things that struck me as odd, I remember
when we first got to Vietnam aauhm, it was suggested that when we were
out dealing with the Vietnamese public, generally, aah, it wasn't really
a good idea to say bad things about Ho Chi Minh which sort of shocked me
because here we were aah the whole purpose of being there was to defeat
Ho Chi Minh and the,
you know, these terrible Communists coming out of North Vietnam as if
there were even a separate country, North Vietnam.
Aah, of course, we weren't aware of that at that
time. But, it was explained to us that many Vietnamese revered Ho Chi Minh as the George Washington of
their country because he had liberated them from the French, and then I started thinking, well,
the French are gone and now
And it it just left something of an impression. I
also remember watching several Vietnamese governments rise and fall and
for one period late '65, early '66
seemed like governments in Saigon were coming and going like revolving
doors. And I couldn't figure out, you know, why so much instability uhm
another factor was hearing on armed forces radio which gave I'm sure
rather muted version about the Buddhist riot and struggle movement in Hue
and how uhm armed soldiers, you know, the ARVN
were being brought in and literally beating up and actually shooting
Buddhist monks and that
also was a little bit incomprehensible.
Then me time I myself was down in Saigon
and noticed that there were
aah military personnel completely ringing the central square and sort of
wondering what was going on and I started taking a couple of pictures
and an American colonel who had aah some Vietnamese functionary with him
aah came up and aah told me to take my camera and get out of there quick
or I was gonna be in bad trouble. That the area was off limits and aah
no unauthorized Americans could be in that area and then the next day
hearing that there had been same pretty terrible riot down in the
central square area.
Again, Vietnamese people protesting against aah their
government's war and economic and other policies and being met with what
was certainly very substantial repression. Aah not just being told to
disperse but being aah rather violently driven off so...One of the more
interesting experiences I had involved a friend or mine who was a
policeman in Y2. Uhm, I just had kind of gotten...
American involvement as repetition of the French experience
One of the more interesting experiences I had involved
a friend of mine who was a policeman in Y2. We'd been well, basically he
was responsible for providing security on some of the Medcaps that we'd
pulled in the local area and he invited me over to his home for aah
dinner it as like late afternoon.
And, his brother came over and we were all sitting
around the table talking and I started aah commenting on the war and
sort of got off on a kick about how vicious the VC were and maybe I was trying to sort of
ingratiate myself, I'm not sure but the policeman and his brother were
were kind of smiling at each other and I asked them what was so funny
and after giving me a very long look, aah, he mentioned that his brother
was a cadre with the NLF which
really shocked me because, you know, my first reaction was am I in
danger, is this a trick, is he also with the NLF, and it was almost like they were sort
of trying to educate me or give me a little better understanding of what
was going on in Vietnam because I I spend a lot of time with Vietnamese
people and I was very interested in Vietnam and the culture, the people,
the religion, and whatnot and always asked people lots of questions.
So, what they basically explained to me, the brother
that was the policeman with the ARVN aah he had five or six kids and he
needed the money, he wanted a secure job and he sure as the heck didn't
want to get killed, so he basically had this relatively safe decent
paying job; the brother, on the other hand, was not married, aah maybe a
little more altruistic, but he aah didn't feel the Americans had any
more right to be telling the Vietnamese what to do than the aah than the
And we kind of kicked this around. I had a lot of
questions but what the reality came down to was simply aah what both of
them expressed to me that this was a Vietnamese problem and that
ultimately it was going to be solved among the Vietnamese like the French who had left aah it was a
question of time when the Americans would leave and the Vietnamese would
settle their affairs and get on with trying to run their country in
their own interest. It gave me some aah maybe some insight into the the
nature of the struggle in Vietnam that aah probably very few people were
able to come away from their experiences with.
Sympathies for the American protest movement
I think the whole process of being in Vietnam was aah
a process of changing ideas aah I'd never had any reason to question the
policies of the country the leadership or anything like this, I'd
volunteered for Vietnam, the family had a long tradition of military
service, aaahm, it was expected that when aah, you know, when your
country needs you you go and you don't really think a lot about it. By
the time I'd left Vietnam aauhm I certainly wasn't you know in the frame
of mind to be an anti war activist, in fact I very much resented the
anti war movement because aah I perceived them as you know being against
our boys who were making these sacrifices and what were they doing
sitting around having all of the fun we weren't having.
So there was sort of a lot of resentment there and
there was also a need to justify the war. A real deep seated
psychological need to to know the...you know, maybe you had some
different impressions, but the war had to be right because if the war
wasn't right, that meant that all the people who died an both sides
maybe not died for nothing as the term, you know, that some people
expressed, but had really, you know, died in an evil situation aah, that
maybe we were wrong, that all this money and all the lives and
everything the effort that this was a total waste, so in a way you
needed to come out of the war feeling that aah while it was certainly a
mess, aah your country had to still be right because if it wasn't it
just knocked out the foundation of everything you've every believed in.
And getting back to the States and seeing the anti
war demonstrations and still wanting to know more about Vietnam and then
slowly picking up information here and there and finally starting to
seriously study it, I started to realize that aah American policy at
best had gone totally awry...at worst we were involved in supporting a
aah a small clique of special interest people against virtually their
entire country which is what...I was always impressed by what a
tremendous need there was for medical care at the aah...
Ok, start again.
I was always impressed by what a tremendous need there
was for medical care at the hamlet level. Aah, most of the people in
Vietnam had never seen a physician in during their entire lives what
they received would be basically traditional medicine, some of which
apparently worked quite well for the more minor things, but for serious
medical problems aah the only physicians were in the major cities, were
very expensive to go to and hence only the wealthy could afford medical
care as as we know it in America.
Auhm, you go into a village and someone will have a
severe abscess, it was a relatively small matter to remove the tooth,
drain the abscess, aah close the resulting wound up and provide them
with penicillin or other antibiotic so that they wouldn't have an
infection problem. But without that treatment, a person could quite
possibly die or different types of you know regular types of illnesses
or diseases that the aah that the physicians would handle... Because
people had never been exposed to Western medicine, the first time we
would go into an area aah the villages would be very apprehensive, aah
that there would always be somebody who was hurting enough that they
were willing to you know risk trying the white American doctor's way.
A routine tooth extraction, for example, aah, who
would use anesthesia, and once people realized that they could have a
tooth taken out without pain, the word spread quickly and we'd go from a
half hour wait to get one person in a a chair, to having ten, fifteen,
twenty, thirty people lined up. And, after that it was pretty much of a
aah a sort of an assembly line procedure, it was good quality care, to
physicians and especially under the circumstances, but we would
literally move people through on an assembly line basis. We were able to
treat a great number of people.
Auhm, as a result of this uhm always had a very uhm
very strong feeling of how appreciative the villagers were for this
treatment and yet at the same time we were the people that were causing
them so much grief and I'm not that really clear as to the Vietnamese
themselves resolve this paradox. Aah, on the one hand they appreciated
the medical treatment and on the other hand aah they wanted the
Americans obviously to go home so that aah you know the war could end.
During the aah, during the evacuation of the
villagers aah from Ben Suc,
uhm, I was struck by a kind of a sense of resoluteness in the villagers
they understood what was happening they understood that they couldn't
really change the aah change the situation they were going to be taken
out of their homes and while they didn't know of or hadn't been informed
as a town, I'm sure that deep down inside they knew that that was the
end of Ben Suc as a village.
That we were going to destroy the village and they seemed to aaah they
seemed to accept it with a very special kind of strength.
And certainly there were people that were
argumentive, aaah, people that didn't want to go on with the program,
but aah by and large aauhm they knew that this was the way things were
and they kind of kept their chins up and went along with the program.
They didn't have an alternative but aah within that context they they
did seem to have a certain kind of dignity which is maybe a little hard
This is camera roll 705.
It's been said that in a aah people's war of national
liberation that guerrillas swim like fish among...aah, you know, in the
greater sea of humanity...simply referring to the fact that in a
guerilla war the guerrillas draw a lot of their material support, their
manpower, their provisions from the population base they're working with
then. The theory of pacification was to dry up this population base – to
deny it as a resource to the aah to the National Liberation Front. Auhm, this this
started way back under the French as the Americans become involved
initially it was the agrovilles and agro hamlets in ’59 and a type of concentrating people in in aah village
structure with a good security system.
That program didn't work out so they went into what
they call strategic hamlets and in '63 when the
Diem regime fell,
the strategic hamlet program fell along with it. Aah, that was replaced
by the revolutionary development, the new life hamlets, and when new
life hamlets became discredited they started running out of new terms so
they called them the new new life hamlets and what this basically meant
was getting the people out of the area where the guerrillas functioned.
There were a couple of ways to do this.
One way was to declare an area a free fire zone and
anything in there was considered the enemy, considered hostile, and was
to be shot at. Uhm, bombers would routinely fly over both B-52s and
fighter jets, the areas were kept under continuous artillery
interdiction and infantry sweeps would go through the areas on a regular
basis. Aah this was sufficiently demoralizing that tens of thousands of
people would leave the rural countryside and go into the urban centers
such as Saigon
other large cities aah where it was relatively safe even though they had
no employment or aah they could just barely survive there, it was
preferable to being out in the jungle with all hell breaking loose
around you all the time.
The other method was the sort of direct pacification
which involved as in Ben Suc
going in and taking entire populations loading them up moving them out
of the area, putting them into the new life hamlets or concentration
camps where they could be guarded and kept secure.
(NEW TAPE SIDE)
This would, at least in theory, prevent the National Liberation Front Front
from aauhm from recruiting new soldiers and new political cadres aah for
being able to obtain labor to maintain roads and whatnot at this same
time the villages themselves would be destroyed anything of material
value would be would be eliminated. Mattresses would be slashed, rice
would either be taken out or poisoned or dumped in the river, and so
auhm, crops would be defoliated and it made it much more difficult for
the the Liberation Front to aah to continue without aah without this
material and population base.
And this is basically what aaah what that strategy or
that part of the war was all about and in a rural population, that has
great ramifications because aaah you're really dealing with the majority
of people and there's no way to really tell who was a Saigon supporter,
who was National Liberation
Front, aah everybody wore black pajamas, they all looked the
same, aaahm, you really didn't know that somebody was on the other side
unless they actually took a shot at you. And...