Newsweek¸ June 19, 1972, pp. 42-3.

 Pacification’s Deadly Price

After ten weeks of fighting, the North Vietnamese have yet to capture Hué, Kontum or An Loc. And because of that, U.S. officials in Saigon argue that the Communist offensive in South Vietnam has failed to achieve its objectives. Left unsaid is that the North Vietnamese have scored a success of a different kind: they have begun to unravel the cherished pacification program. In such provinces as Binh Dinh, Kontum, Pleiku, Binh Long and Tay Ninh – as well as in parts of the Mekong Delta – Saigon’s once firm hold has been eroded. And in a war whose principal aim is to achieve control of the population, the Communist gains are critically important.

Even when pacification was heralded as a great success, however, it was often misinterpreted by Americans who saw it wholly as a benevolent program. In fact, it was a campaign that included improved farming techniques, bridge building and lessons in democracy. But NEWSWEEK’S Kevin P. Buckley, who recently finished nearly four years of reporting from Indochina, found a darker side as well. Below, Buckley’s report on how the war to win the "hearts and minds" of the Vietnamese was actually fought:

"Defenseless villagers are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set afire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification." George Orwell wrote those words in 1946 in "Politics and the English Language." But he could have been describing the way the U.S. waged war in Vietnam more than two decades later. It has now become generally accepted that the American use of massive firepower has caused the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians – perhaps, some U.S. officials admit privately, as many as 100,000. Aside from such aberrant incidents as the massacre at My Lai, the commonly cited culprit is "indiscriminate use of firepower," a phrase that means American military recklessness. But in my opinion, the U.S. military has been guilty of more than recklessness. It can, I believe, be documented that thousands of Vietnamese civilians have been killed deliberately by U.S. forces.

That is a very serious charge. But any doubts that it is true were dispelled in my mind after an exhaustive examination of one of the most representative – and most "successful" – episodes in the history of pacification in Vietnam. Late in 1968, the U.S. command in Saigon launched an "accelerated pacification program," a sort of government "land rush," as officials dubbed it. In support of that campaign, the U.S. Ninth Infantry Division mounted a six-month operation code-named Speedy Express, focusing on the Mekong Delta province of Kien Hoa. In my investigation of Speedy Express, I examined the military record of the operation and interviewed pacification officials familiar with Kien Hoa; I talked with participants in the fighting and combed through hospital records, and I traveled throughout Kien Hoa – on foot, by jeep, in boats and by raft – to talk with the people. All the evidence I gathered pointed to a clear conclusion: a staggering number of noncombatant civilians – perhaps as many as 5,000 according to one official – were killed by U.S. firepower to "pacify" Kien Hoa. The death toll there made the My Lai massacre look trifling by comparison.

When Speedy Express began, Kien Hoa had long been a Communist bastion, an area as symbolic to the National Liberation Front (NLF) as Boston was to the American revolutionary movement. Many prominent Viet Cong leaders – and indeed the NLF itself – had been born there. NLF control was so strong that many residents regarded the Saigon government as an alien power. But while the Viet Cong had organized a well-trained army in Kien Hoa, the area was much more than a military zone. The children of the soldiers attended NLF schools, and old men and women checked into NLF hospitals if they were ailing. Thousands of families made a living from the flat rice land that makes up most of the province. But to the U.S. command, the areas under Viet Cong control were a theater of war, "Indian country": where any suspicious movement was justification for opening fire. The residents were "enemy supporters" who could become "citizens" only after an area had been pacified.

Pursuit: The Ninth Division put all it had into the operation. Eight thousand infantrymen scoured the heavily populated countryside, but contact with the elusive enemy was rare. Thus, in its pursuit of pacification, the division relied heavily on its 50 artillery pieces, 50 helicopters (many armed with rockets and mini-guns) and the deadly support lent by the Air Force. There were 3,381 tactical air strikes by fighter bombers during "Speedy Express," most of them in Kien Hoa. One old man in a village near Ben Tre, the province capital, recalled one B-52 strike that "plowed up the earth" in his village, killing many people.

"Death is our business and business is good," was the slogan painted on one / 43/ helicopter unit’s quarters during the operation. And so it was. Cumulative statistics for "Speedy Express" show that 10,899 "enemy" were killed. In the month of March alone, "over 3,000 enemy troops were killed … which is the largest monthly total for any American division in the Vietnam war," said the division's official magazine. When asked to account for the enormous body counts, a division senior officer explained that helicopter crews often caught unarmed "enemy" in open fields. But Vietnamese repeatedly told me that those ‘enemy" were farmers, gunned down while they worked in their rice fields.

Evidence: The staggering number of Vietnamese casualties was not the only suspicious aspect of Speedy Express. The operation yielded an embarrassingly small number of enemy weapons captured – only 748, despite nearly 11,000 "kills." One Ninth Division officer explained that the Viet Cong were shot "before they could get to their weapons," while a spokesman for the U.S. command said: "Many individuals in the VC and guerrilla units were not equipped with individual firearms." However, the first explanation is highly implausible and the second is patently false. There is overwhelming evidence that virtually all the Viet Cong were well armed. Simple civilians were, of course, not armed. And the enormous discrepancy between the body count and the number of captured weapons is hard to explain – except by the conclusion that many victims were unarmed, innocent civilians.

Records at the civilian hospital in Ben Tre provide bloody and convincing evidence of how Vietnamese civilians suffered at the hands of the U.S. military. The hospital served only one small area and received only a fraction of the wounded. ("Many of the people who were wounded in Kien Hoa ever got to any hospital," said one U.S. official, "because they died on the way.") yet in the course of Speedy Express, the Ben Tre hospital treated a total of 1,882 civilians with war-connected wounds. Of that number, only 451 were wounded by Viet Cong fire. The remainder, 1,431 civilians, were wounded by what is called, in the irrational parlance of Vietnam, "friendly fire," or U.S. firepower. In March alone, when the Ninth claimed a record body count, only 25 civilians were admitted with VC wounds – and 343 were treated for "friendly" wounds.

Suffering: The people who still live in pacified Kien Hoa all have vivid recollections of the devastation that American firepower brought to their lives in early 1969. Virtually every person to whom I spoke had suffered inn some way. "There were 5,000 people in our village before 1969, but there were none in 1970," one village elder told me "The Americans destroyed every house with artillery, air strikes or by burning them down with cigarette lighters. About 100 people were killed by bombing others were wounded and others became refugees. Many were children killed by concussion from the bombs which their small bodies could not withstand, even if they were hiding underground."

Other officials, including the village police chief, corroborated the man’s testimony. I could not, of course, reach every village. But in each of the many places where I went, the testimony was the same: 100 killed here, 200 killed there. One old man summed up all the stories: "The Americans killed some VC but only a small number. But of civilians, there were a large number killed."

How many? A precise answer is impossible. One American official, with long experience in the delta, estimated that if 10,899 people had been killed, at least 5,000 were noncombatant civilians. "Noncombatants," he explained, were always mixed with the Viet Cong."

Even for those who escaped physical harm, the pacification accomplished by Speed Express brought misery. The fabric of society long established by the NLF was destroyed. People were driven off their productive land into refugee centers. Farm animals were killed and schools and hospitals destroyed. Standing where a populous village had been until 1969, the U.S. adviser for the local pacification program scanned the ruins of houses and a seemingly endless vista of shattered coconut trees, once a primary source of income to the people. He told me: "It will be at least six years before anyone can grow coconuts around here – and maybe never."

But the "land rush" succeeded. Government troops moved into the ravaged countryside in the wake of the bombardment, set up outposts and established Saigon’s dominance of Kien Hoa. Viet Cong control was reduced from 45 per cent to 24 per cent of the province and some 120,000 people were said to have been pacified. Yet, many Vietnamese in Kien Hoa see themselves not as beneficiaries of the pacification program – but as survivors of it. And even some American officials shudder at the cost that it took to pacify Kien Hoa. As one of them told me, "The sum total of what the Nine Division did in regard to civilian casualties was overwhelming."

Did the U.S. command know what was happening? My request for an interview with Gen. Creighton W. Abrams, the U.S. commander, to discuss that question was turned down. Still, I posed some questions to Abrams’s spokesman: How did the command define an enemy soldier; how did it determine that the unarmed Vietnamese who were killed were enemy soldiers; what were the rules of engagement? The spokesman said he had no way of answering – a remarkable reply since he had at his disposal "after-action" reports," "field commanders’ reports" and other records of the operation in question.

The fact is that the U.S. command knew that a division-size operation in the delta made heavy civilian casualties inevitable. Indeed, while he was ambassador, henry Cabot Lodge based his reluctance to allow U.S. troops in the delta on that very certainty. And John Paul Vann, an ardent proponent of pacification (following story), who arrived at the end of Speedy Express, found that the Ninth Division had alienated the people in the delta. But the evidence proves that the U.S. Army ignored those assessments both before and after Speedy Express. Indeed, when he promoted the unit’s commander, Abrams noted that "the performance of this division has been magnificent."

Back to Grover Furr’s Vietnam War Page. || HTML’d 9 Oct 98