Relocation of villagers and the altering of Ross's perspective in Vietnam

SR #2649
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 parking lot.
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 purposes, we...
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 we're here.
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 it 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

Start again...
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 French had.
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 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 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 to understand.
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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 or the 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.
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...