Mentally preparing for the war

Pic Roll 1
Interview with Peter Mahoney 28/3
Peter, I wonder if you could tell me, what was your mood, and what did you think about going to Vietnam?
Peter Paul Mahoney:
Well, I I originally joined the army in um in April of 1968, which was like right after the Tet Offensive, and ah I suppose. See I ha—I had a history, and I have had a history in my life of um of idealism and of sort of dedicating myself to a cause.
Um, it started with religion. I was very religious when I was younger. I went to a seminary for three years, studied to be a priest, and um, so that sort of natural idealism just um sort of carried over into my feelings about joining the army.
Um, I had what I would consider a normal upbringing and, ah you know, um which to me, a normal American up—upbringing for an American male child almost gears you towards going into the military. The military is sort of the ultimate test of proving that you're a man, and certainly that whole idea was very much uppermost in my mind when I joined the Army.
It was like right after the Tet Offensive. I had ah, you know strong sort of patriotic feelings that were stirred by the Tet Offensive, feeling you know well my country is in trouble now and and needs me and those are the sort of ki—the things that were on my mind when I joined the Army.
Um, when I got in, um, it turns out that they had lowered the the standards of admission for officer candidates school. Um, before that you had to have two years of college, but when I joined um, you only had to have a high school diploma and pass a test that they gave you in the ah, reception station. Again, this being you know the fact that they lost so many junior off—junior officers in Vietnam that they needed, they had to replace them, so they lowered the standards.
So because I was into like proving myself, which was one of the big things that ah, that the whole military experience sort of offers a kid at that age, um, I went to officer candidate school. Um, and I graduated as a second lieutenant at the age of nineteen. And ah, you know and then right after that um, I went to advisor school, and then I went to language school, um, and then I went to Vietnam, um, almost directly.
Could you tell me what, what were you actual sort of feelings ah, as you were ah, being trained? I mean was it, was it as you expected? Were the means... I mean what did you feel about the sort of. I mean you said you'd come from a sort of religious, moral background. And yet the business of getting you to be a soldier. Did you, did you find it okay?
Peter Paul Mahoney:
Well, I'd say at the very least, I had mixed feelings about it. You know. There was a part, you know, obviously there was a part of the whole I military experience that you know like hooks right into the whole boyhood experience that that you know most American boys have growing up, you know, which is proving your manhood by proving how hard you are, by proving that you can take it.
And so then the military grabbed a hold of that whole thing and really, you know, sort of plays on that and plays it up, and uses that in in a lot of their um, their training. Ah, so there was that part of it that was sort of appealing to me, because it was giving me an opportunity to prove myself, you know, which was what I was looking for.
Um, but the other part of it, I think, the part of the training that most sort of turned me off was the really the racism that was involved in the training, particularly in Vietnam training, particularly towards the Vietnamese. You know, and, um, the way the Vietnamese were constantly referred to as Gooks, um, all the time. The way they had, the silhouetted targets had like slanted eyes, you know the the targets that you used for for for rifle practice had slanted eyes.
Um, and you know basically, you know, I mean my feeling was that it was a way, that it was a way the military used to sort of condition you to to killing Vietnamese people. In other words, if they can create in in the individual soldier's mind the idea that this person that they were killing wasn't actually a person but was actually less than human, then you know it made it, you know much eas—hopefully, they were, I think that they wanted to make it easier for for the soldier to kill. Um, but, ah I know for com...
How did, how did they express it? I mean, was it, was it verbal? Did you say about the slanted eyes on the marks? I mean what, how do they...?
Peter Paul Mahoney:
Um, a lot of it was verbal, verbal coming from the the NCO's who were doing the training, um, NCO's who had been in Vietnam and would talk about their their Vietnam experience um, and how you couldn't trust the Gooks, all the Gooks were enemies. Um, and you really had to learn to protect yourself from all Gooks in Vietnam, or else you would end up dead.
Um, and ah, it was interesting. Originally they used to call them, call them Charlie, but then towards the, you know towards the end of my training, they started calling them Sir Charles, which was at least a sort of grudging recognition of the enemy's ability to fight.
Um, but it was it was primarily verbal, you know, from the, from the instructors that ah, you know, that I took my training from. Which was interesting because this was like my my basic training, my officer candidate school training, but then I went to, then when I got my orders to Vietnam, they they sent me to to advisor school and to language school for three months to learn Vietnamese, because at that time, the time, the period of time that I was going to Vietnam was, you know the real big push to the Vietnamization program. Which meant that the whole idea was for um, the the Vietna—the Viet—South Vietnamese troops to take over the bulk of the fighting so that the American soldiers could be withdrawn.
So what they were doing at that period of time was most of the American soldiers they were sending over, they were sending then over as advisors, rather than sending them to, you know, main line American units. Um, but then when I got to advisor school, there was, it was like the whole psychology of this Gook thing was reversed, because then they stressed rapport with your counterpart, ah, the counterpart being the Vietnamese um, soldier that you advise, or the Vietnamese soldiers that you advise.
So it was like, um, this whole like turnabout of of all, of the original training that I had, which was seeing all Gooks as enemies, and seeing Gooks as someone that you were supposed to kill. Then comes the advisor training, which is well there are certain Gooks in in essence there are certain Gooks that are your friends, you know, and these you have to learn to get along with and learn their language and learn to work with.
So it was, ah confusing to say the least. You know particularly for someone, again, and I was nineteen and twenty years old at the time. I had very little world experience at all. That's what I was doing in the Army, getting my experience. And ah, so it was hard for a person like me to you know, to figure out really what was ah, you know, what was the the thrust of what was going on.

The loss of idealism

What struck you when you first touched on Vietnamese soil? I mean what were your first impressions?
Peter Paul Mahoney:
It was hot, more than anything else. Overwhelmingly hot. Um, I mean, I went to Vietnam in February of nineteen sev—or early March of 1970, and you know, so I’d been in the Sta—I'd been in the military and in the States during the period when the really sort of, at the height of the anti-war movement, and I mean I was part of that generation, so certainly I was affected by the kinds of things that other people in my generation were saying in the anti-war movement.
Um, but I had...I guess I made a choice at a certain point um, which was that any feelings I might have against the war I was simply going to put aside, you know, for the time I was in Vietnam. And that for the time I was in Vietnam, um I was, you know, I was a soldier, and I was going to pursue my job as a soldier.
I was able to rationalize in my own head to a certain extent um, that the job I was doing had some worth. Because as as I was able to view my job as an advisor, that I was trying to help the South Vietnamese gain the capability to defend themselves. So I was able to use that as a rationalization of you know, that the job I was doing was something that was worthwhile.
So when I, when I first hit Vietnam, I was like, again, I was in that idealistic kind of mode that I talked about before, that I I I was looking at the positive aspects of what I was going to do, and sort of looking forward to what I was going to do. Interestingly enough, I found that ah, I was almost the only one, only American I came in contact with who had any kind of really idealistic idea about, left about the war. Um, and to say the least my ide—my idealism was crashed in very short order after I have been in Vietnam for a while.
How was it crashed?
Peter Paul Mahoney:
It was...There were a var—it's hard to pinpoint exactly one thing, but there were a variety of things. Perhaps the thing that most got to me was the ide—the whole thing about lying, and how pervasive lying about Vietnam was, you know. Lieutenants lied to captains, captains lied to colonels, colonels lied to generals, generals lied to politicians, politicians lied to the people. Right on up and down the line, you know.
It was like a complete and total, not a total lie, but just like so much, it was like PR, in other words it was like okay, we've got to sell the war to the American people; therefore, we have to put the best light on it. So we're not going to tell the people what's going wrong; we’re going to tell them what we th—we're going to make it look like everything is going right.
And, you know, from my specific experience, you know, where that came into was in terms of reports and they had like a hamlet and a a district grading system. In other words, the the Vietnamese hamlets – the little villages – were like graded, either green, yellow or red, depending on, you know, what was considered their degree of friendliness or hostility to, towards the South Vietnamese government.
Um, but just the the manner in which this grading system was done, of course, this was something that I was personally involved in in helping to like, you know, towed up the marks for the individual hamlets in our area. And um, just the manner in which, in which, you know, all kinds of lies were perpetrated to, of course, you know, it was important that the program look like it was succeeding, so whatever was necessary, whatever lie was necessary to tell in order to make the program look like it was succeeding was told, and then the lie just went on up the line.
Can we just stop for a minute? How much have we got on there?

Training and working with the South Vietnamese forces

SND 2813 Side 1
Sound 3, Pix 2
Peter, you were telling me you went over there to train people? To get people to fight.
Peter Paul Mahoney:
How did they respond to your training? What was it like?
Peter Paul Mahoney:
Well, when I got to Vietnam I was assigned to what was called to a mobile advisory team which was, um usually it was, supposedly a five man team, a five-man team of Americans, although I never worked on one that had more three Americans. Um, but they were basically assigned to a Vietnamese district and then the district senior advisor would assign you out to what—whatever job or how, in whatever capacity he felt he most needed that team.
Um, one of the jobs that I had while I was there was um, was a training mission. Um, at that time, part of the Vietnamization program was a program called um, the People's Self Defense Forces um, which was basically a program instituted by the South Vietnamese government where they were trying to train um, like, local civilians in the hamlets to, like, protect their their own hamlets from NLF or VC infiltration, um, and supposedly this would free up the ARVN troops, the regular ARVN troops to take over American unit positions somewhere else so that the Americans come home. So, it's part of a whole upgrading system.
Um, so there was a particular incident um, where we had, my advisory team was um, was assigned to train a group of twenty-nine, they were mostly kids, you know, between the ages of probably fifteen and seventeen because these were the people, you know, other than the older people and the women, um, you know, with with young kids, they were the only ones who were really left in the hamlets at that time. Um, so they were the ones, you know, were given the job of joining the the People's Self Defense Forces.
So we had this group of twenty-nine, they were from like three very closely um, located hamlets along this river, um, and we put them through like a six week training program um, and, you know, basically teaching like, you know, teaching use use and cleaning of weapons, ah, small unit tactics, ah, how to develop defense plans for their own hamlets, that kind of thing.
And um, I mean, during the time of the training, this was, you know, at the time that we were going through the training, I was feeling very exhilarated by what was happening because I was feeling um, that this was something, you know, that I was really sort of fulfilling my mission. You know, I felt very good about the fact that I was fulfilling my, you know, what I conceived to be my mission at that time.
Um, and like the Vietnamese that that were training were very responsive, they asked questions, they were very interested in, you know, in what was going on and this, you know, made me feel good because, you know, the standard rap on on the South Vietnamese was that they they just weren't interested, they were lethargic. Um, and this particular group seemed like very involved in what was going on. Um, so it made me feel good. It made me feel as if I was accomplishing something.
Um, we put them through a six week training program. At the end of the training program, the province um, chief came down and there was a big graduation ceremony and they all got these little colorful neckerchiefs as sort of souvenirs of the whole thing and you know, it was like this whole sort of media um, publicity thing about how, you know, these people had been trained and everything.
Um, there was about a month after the training program was completed and this graduation ceremony happened that um, three NLF cadre came into the vil um, one night and all twenty-nine of those people self defense force that I trained walked off and joined the NLF, taking all their weapons and all their training with them.
Um, the interesting thing, I mean, you talk about the lies that happ—that were happening in Vietnam that, you know, this incident was reported that these twenty-nine people had been kidnapped. You know, when it was very obvious to us who were there that they had just walked off and joined the NLF.
It, I mean, this for me, this was like one of, when you talk about a turning point experience for for me in Vietnam, this was certainly it because I was totally disillusioned um, by the, because, like I was really into what I was doing with, you know, training these these kids. And um, it was unbelievable to me that this kids, knowing what the American military could and did throw um, at at the NLF and VC, that these kids would make the choice to to leave, you know, what at that time could be considered the relative saf—safety of their hamlets and go out into the mountains and join the NLF.
It was just unbelievable to me that they could do this. You know, I mean, one thing it said to me was that these kids, you know, whether I, whether I agree with them or not, must really believe in whatever it is that they're doing. You know, and then from that point, I was able to say, well if they believe in that, then who am I to tell them not to believe in it, you know.
Could you tell me what sort of a war was it, I mean, the engagements that you were engaged in, the lives that you saw that were lost or won? How did that, I mean, the visions of war that we see on television? Do they figure with what happened to you?
Peter Paul Mahoney:
Um, my vision of war, it was a very particularized, peculiar war in my area. This was in '70 and '71 and it was, and I was in the lowlands also, which made it different. In other words, in '70 and '71, there was still major fighting, major large unit fighting going on in the highlands, out in the mountains, in the A Shau Valley, places like that.
I was up in I Corps, near the city of Hue, about twenty miles north of the city of Hue. Um, and for the, for the most part, it was very low level, or one-sided combat. Basically, um, like we, they booby-trapped us and we ambushed them was what it boiled down to.
That the war, um, again, one of my jobs as an advisor was get the South Vietnamese troops to be more aggressive about the way in which they ran military operations. I mean, the classic South Vietnamese military maneuver which the American troops had finally learned by '70 and '71 was the search and avoid mission where the the Vietnamese w—South Vietnamese would norm—you know, if they ran an operation, they would run their their military operation in an area where they knew there wouldn't be any contact.
Um, unfortunately, the area that that I worked in was heavily booby-trapped and so most of our operations, um, basically when when I was able to bribe my counterpart and it, and it usually boiled down to that, it usually boiled down to bribery, that I would give him parts for his jeeps or I would give him, you know, ammunitions for his weapons, you know, but some sort of a way that he would say, okay, I’ll, I'll run an operation in such and such an area and the way the operations normally ran would be that the Vietnamese would sw—would sweep through the area until one of the South Vietnamese troops hit a booby trap and then he would be dusted off and the, and the operation would be over.
Um, there w—very, very seldom did we ever have any contact, you know, direct contact with the enemy. We had, there were a couple of VC in our area who about once a month would would lob a couple of mortar rounds at our, um, at our compound, but it was, they never, it wasn't like something tr—necessarily trying to do damage. It was just like sort of letting us know it was there.
It seemed like the area we worked in was primarily considered by the NLF and and NVA as a re-supply area, and what normally they would, you know, so the level of fighting was kept low, but then there was a lot of infiltration in and out of the hamlets at night in order to get supplies for the troops out um, in the mountains.

Impacts of the Americans on Vietnam

Could you tell me about the...
Hang on for one second. Recast the rest...
Could you tell me about the the way in which the system worked? There's a lot of Americans there with a lot of money and you’ve got an impoverished economy. It must have led to things like sort of black marketing, and racketeering. Can you give me some examples of things that either happened to you or that you saw? The way in which... How did, how did the system work?
Peter Paul Mahoney:
Yeah. Well, I guess, you know, like I was saying before, I came into to the country with a very sort of idealistic view of what was going on, you know, which was sort of very quickly and ah, quickly sort of diminished in me and so I always continued on a certain level to fulfill my military obligationas I see, saw, as I saw it but more and more there was a side of me that was, like, sort of rebelling from it.
The rebellions, for me, took the, took two forms: the first form was um, smoking pot, that I had never really smoked pot before I went to Vietnam. And when I first got there, because I was an officer, I had this, you know, this idea well, I'm not going to involved in that because I felt that since I needed to be in a position to make decisions that I couldn't allow my my judgment to be affected by something like marijuana.
Um, but about half way through my tour, it was like I had to. I had, it was like an escape, it was something, you know, it was something to escape the realty of what was going on.
Um, the other form of sort of rebellion that for me it took, was the black market. Um, there was a lot of black market activity um, in Vietnam um, because there was, it was like the whole, the extraordinary, um, from Vietnamese point of view, rich Americans who had suddenly imposed on on the Vietnamese economy.
Um, the black market functioned, there were like three major items, other than if if you go to the black market to look for a specific thing like a jeep or something like that, you could do that, but the, I mean, the the main items – commodities on the black market were cigarettes, um, beer, and American green money.
In other words, um, American troops, Americans, when they came into the country in Vietnam, they traded in all of their American money for what was called MPC Military Payment Certificates which was like Monopoly money which was could in the American PXs and things like that. So, but that was the, that was the only money that you used when you were in Vietnam um, so that made American green money very valuable.
So um, while I was there, I found out if you could get a hun—a hundred dollar bill in American green money, you can get 200 dollars back on the black market in MPC, so this was, you know a, you know, you can double your money very easily just by having it.
So for me, it was just a matter of sending home to a person I knew in the states. I would send a money order home and they would send me back the green money in the mail and then I would be able to take that down to the black market and um, and change and and trade that in.
I mean, there was a whole publicity campaign around the fact that, you know, working on the black market was like putting money in the pockets of the NLF and the VC, but um, I was never, all I can say that is I was never affected by that and it was like the money was there to be made and it was ah, once I lost my idealism about what was going on there, it was like I'm going to get whatever I can out of it. And ah...
What did you think actually you went in with this idealism, then you were training, thinking they were all Gooks and they were likely to be against you? But, how did you end up feeling about the Vietnamese society that you saw and the things around you, I mean, how did it affect you? Were you affected by it?
Peter Paul Mahoney:
Yeah, I was affected quite a bit by it because I was, you know, the position I was in, particularly towards the end of my tour... um...
Let’s stop.
We are ready.
Peter, Picks 3.
Peter, can you tell me what you saw and what you felt about Vietnamese society, generally, and the Vietnamese that you came in contact with yourself?
Peter Paul Mahoney:
Yeah, I was, I mean as an advisor, I was in a really unique position in terms of, um, I know a lot of the American advisors didn't want to have anything to do with the Vietnamese that they worked with. It was like they contin—that that feeling of racism continued to be there. But I was, you know, I was interested in in Vietnamese culture and, you know, and in in the Vietnamese themselves.
The oth—the other thing being, the oth—the other thing is ah, that most of the American advisors I worked with were, were lifer soldiers. They were senior NCOs or or, you know, lifer captains and, whereas I did not in any way consider myself, you know, a lifer military person so I really had very little in common I found with these people and so I found myself hanging out more and more with the the South Vietnamese soldiers that I, you know, that I was advising.
You know, um, I knew a little bit of the language and it was, it was just like a really interesting thing to attempt to communicate with them. And ah, I mean they, they told me some really sort of eye-opening things, you know, when we were able to just sort of sit down and just be people together for a little while.
I mean, one of the first questions I asked them was why they always stole from me, you know, because that was one of the classic things about the South Vietnamese troops – that they would steal anything American they could get their hands on. And their response was, well you Americans, you can get anything you want, anytime you want, you know, and so if we steal from you, you'll just replace it. So ah, so from their point of view, it was perfectly alright to steal from an American because he wasn't going to miss it and he could immediately replace it.
Um, the the other real big thing that that struck me about was was the way that that, like, the worst aspects of American culture were were, like, superimposed on the Vietnamese culture. And just like, I found the Vietnamese culture to be like a really gentle sort of um, creative, poetic kind of culture that I, you know, I really got into and um, it was just like like the worst aspects of American culture were just like brought over there and just like slammed down on top of them.
It was like anything that was Vietnamese was automatically bad and this was the the idea that Americans, I think, tried to instill in the Vietnamese and that a lot of Vietnamese, you know, came to feel that, you know, if it wasn't American, if it was Vietnamese it was bad, if it was American, it was good.
And then, the other thing I saw that really freaked me out was the f—was was the American garbage that South Vietnam had no way of disposing with the kind of, you know, of refuse that Americans came over with. And, I mean, one of the really vivid sort of memories of Vietnam for me is the huge garbage piles outside of the city of Danang, just like miles and miles, of just like American garbage with, like, Vietnamese sort of picking over American garbage, trying to find, you know, something of value for themselves.

Actions surrounding the awarding of the cross of gallantry

I believe...
Let, let me stop here. Cut a minute, okay?
You see it?
Peter, I believe you were awarded a medal for some daring deed. I wonder if you could tell me how that came about?
Peter Paul Mahoney:
Well, call it...Well, we won't talk about whether it's a daring deed or not but it was one incident, probably the one combat incident, that I was involved in in Vietnam where there was actually a physical confrontation with the enemy. And it was an ambush. Um, that I was, I was out alone with the South Vietnamese, basically a squad size unit, and it was a night ambush um, like right outside, you know, one of these vils...
Could you just say I was out on a night sort, or whatever, and just tell it to me as a story, as a separate story?
Peter Paul Mahoney:
Okay. Alright. We were out on a, we were out...we were out on a night ambush in a typical fashion. The Vietnamese, the South Vietnamese did not like to stay out all night, so they simply, you know, at about usually 10:00 or 10:30, they would just, every, all, everybody would fire their weapons and then they would go home. This happened that night.
We were on our way back to to our base and we were walking through um, through the vil when a soldier came up to the guy who was in charge of the patrol and he had apparently spotted three um, VC or NLF or whoever they werein one of the h—in one of the houses, so we we surrounded the house and we were there, maybe, I don—it's hard to say, but maybe three, four, five minutes before like, three three guys came out with like sacks over their shoulders and AK47s under their arms.
And, and just sort of a strange coincidence or something. They just like were headed right towards the position that I had taken up which was maybe about twenty feet from the house behind some bushes.
And the amazing thing was that, I mean, it's hard now for me to to think in terms of time span or anything like that, but um, none of the South Vietnamese who were in the patrol fired at these three guys. And, and I was scared stiff.
I was sudd—I was feeling alone because I was the only American who was there, and so I I put my r—my rifle on automatic, I jumped up, and I just fired the entire magazine at these three guys. I killed two of them, and I didn't hit the other one and he got away in the darkness.
You know, so, I mean, talking about the kinds of lies that went on in in Vietnam, um, I was awarded a medal for this. The reason I was awarded a medal was because the Americans um, gave gave a medal to the to the South Vietnamese soldier who was in charge of the patrol. This was part of the, this was considered instilling morale in the South Vietnamese soldiers so um, he was given a bronze star by the American army because this was like the first body count we had had in our area in probably eight months.
You know, and the South Vietnamese, feeling the need to reciprocate that, ended up giving me a Vietnamese cross of gallantry. You know, and I mean, you talk about a deed of derring-do for me, there was nothing gallant about shooting two people from a, from ambush, but, you know, that was my medal. Huh.

Reaction to the Kent State killings

Can you tell me, you were in Vietnam and you heard about the killings on Kent State, what did that do to you? What do you think about it? Could you have got... tell me, did you say "I was in Vietnam when news of Kent State...”?
Peter Paul Mahoney:
Yes, I was there when it happened, and it was like on Armed Forces Radio, and um, I remember for me what happened was that the, like, the feeling of all the Americans around me was "they got what they deserved," that was sort of the general feeling, which I went along with, you know, publicly.
I just, sort of, "well, yeah, right," you know, that just sort of going along with the group, even though there was a part of me inside that was really feeling, you know, like really sort of torn; cause, like, these were people who, you know, who were like my generation, and ah, you know, and it just, I couldn't see people being, you know, being killed for protesting a war, whether you agreed with them or not, you know.
And probably at the time I didn't agree with them, although my mind was changed subsequently, but at the time that that happened, I didn't agree with them, but still, I didn't see any reason why they should be shot down. But other soldiers, you know, the majority of the Americans that I was with, their feeling was that the students got what they deserved.

The effect of Vietnam on personal identity

One last question: What do you feel about things now, I mean, what do you, when you look back, what Vietnam did to you do you feel it's estranged you from America and from people around you, I mean, is there something you feel you'd like to say about that? Could you look back now?
Peter Paul Mahoney:
There's no question that my V—that Vietnam has been like a separating experience for me, in terms of like separating me from like sort of the mainstream of American ah, you know, whatever, um and I mean, just just the simple fact in terms of my job, my ability to compete for a job with my peers, that I'm three, I'm basically three years behind my peers, 'cause they had that time, the time that I was in the military um, to, like, to get ahead of me.
Um, it's it's impossible not to be a veteran. I've, you know, I've tried for a long time to not be a Vietnam veteran, to not have that as my identity; it's almost – it's it's next to impossible to do, it's always there, it always sort of colors everything I do.
I mean, I feel very ashamed by the kinds of things that I did in Vietnam; but at the same time, I feel like I really learned a whole lot from that experience, in that I'm a stronger and a better person today as a result of having gone through it, you know, because I, I've been able to look at it as a, as a mistake that I made in my life, but it's a mistake, hopefully, I've been able to learn from.