THE MECHANICS OF A PROTRACTED WAR
The NLF was strong in the villages of My Tho because a great many peasants firmly believed in the political program it espoused. The Front stopped the excesses of GVN officials and soldiers, it involved people in the government of their communities, it built schools and developed modern medical programs. Most of all, through land reform, the NLF promoted economic equality among the villagers. Cadres seized the holdings of absentee owners and put heavy pressure on rich peasants to get them to relinquish control over some of their fields. These lands were redistributed to poor peasants, while at the same time rents were forced down and minimum wages were established for
agricultural laborers. Even observers hostile to the Front have recognized the positive impact of these programs. For example, after conducting an extensive survey in two villages of My Tho Province, former National Security Council staff member Robert Sansom concluded that land reform measures
were for the vast majority, very effective. It is difficult to overestimate the extent of these reforms .... From all the benefits it brought to the peasantry, it can probably be said that the impetus behind the Viet Cong land reform was not in the general case terror but the sanction of implied force supported by the general will. (7)
Land reform, and other changes consistent with the "general will" of the villagers, won support for the NLF and led to the exclusion of GVN influence from the countryside, thus forcing American leaders to escalate the war in 1965.
Once the war did escalate, programs of social reform had to be temporarily postponed, Indeed, some of the gains already made were wiped out as the conflict intensified; for example, recently built schools and medical stations were levelled by US-GVN bombing and shelling. The energies of the people, which once had enabled the NLF to fight and to carry on a revolution at the same time, were now channeled exclusively into the military effort. In this sense, 1965 was an important turning point in the history of the Front, separating an era of successful social reconstruction from the desperate struggle for survival occasioned by U. S. intervention. But in another respect, strong lines of continuity are apparent, since the mode of operations adopted by the revolutionaries in the early sixties very much determined how they decided to meet subsequent tests. The methods and precepts guiding cadres as they responded to increased American military pressure had been a long time in the making. In order to understand the survival of the insurgency, we should consider for a moment the nature of this deeply ingrained political practice.
The logical place to begin is with the People's Revolu-
tionary, or Communist, Party of South Vietnam, which the respondents invariably refer to more simply as "the Party." Not every active participant in the Front was a Party member. Villagers were considered for inclusion only after serving an apprenticeship in the specialized branches or in one of the three popular associations at hamlet or village level. According to the reports of many interviewees, the most dedicated revolutionaries alone could hope to qualify. As a POW put it,
When one becomes a Communist Party member one ceases to think of one's own interests - even of one's life -and one is always ready to sacrifice oneself for the Party. Those who aren't Party members are still attached to their families and to their own interests, and so they can only serve the movement to a certain extent. I wanted very much to join the Party.
Within a resistance movement which was meant to include all the villagers, the Party was thus organized to form a hard core.
Candidates for membership in the Party were frankly told what was in store for them. One respondent, a POW, remembers how he was approached by Party cadres.
I wasn't told anything about my rights, or about the benefits or the power I would enjoy as a Party member. I was told that a Party member always had to sacrifice for his own class, and that he always had to set the good example for others - he had to be the first one to do everything, and that benefits would come to him only much later.
Another respondent recalled how he had always looked forward to joining the Party. "A Party member learned about everything ahead of others; he enjoyed material advantages (food, clothing, exemption from menial work), he could always have important missions, or a key job or a position of leadership." To his dismay, this candidate discovered that, once admitted, his life was very hard.
1. 1 had completely lost my liberty. Day and night, 24 hours out of 24, 1 was at the complete mercy of the Party. Whether it rained or blew, I had to respond instantly to any demand; not a minute of delay was possible.
2. My family became poorer and poorer, because I had no time any longer to work as a tailor as before when I was just a simple Front cadre; and
3. 1 was constantly subjected to severe criticism in Party meetings. Their austerity differed totally from the flexible and gentle manner they displayed before I was a Party member.
At the same time, this informant, who so precisely lists the drawbacks of Party membership, had tried unsuccessfully for a long time to gain admittance. Dreaming of 'material advantages" and 'important missions," he was repeatedly rebuffed by cadres who told him that he was too wrapped up in private pursuits, too attached to his job and family, to endure the sacrifices of life as a Communist.
The Party was especially careful to explain its position concerning domestic ties. Members were not asked to renounce family loyalty, but they were required to put other obligations first. As a female cadre explained to potential recruits reluctant to leave home, "Only the Front's success could help my family and theirs to overcome misery and starvation in the future." Another confronted a youth, who felt he was honor bound to care for his parents, in the following way:
Comrade, your words show that you are a son filled with filial piety, but in the face of the loss and destruction of the country, you have to choose between filial duty and duty towards your country. In this war, the people and your family too have to suffer. We all know that as a man you have to do your duty towards your parents as well as towards your country. How could you do both? If you fulfill
your duty towards your family then you'd fail to complete your duty towards your country, and vice-versa. But, if you fulfill your duty towards your country, then by the same token you will have completed your duty towards your family, because if the South is liberated then your family will no longer be miserable and exploited.
A third cadre who had set aside family obligations affirmed that "he had only one family, but there are hundreds of families in the Nation." The decision was not an easy one to make, but Party cadres argued that people had to choose an exceptional set of priorities if they hoped to serve the revolution.
This line of reasoning was widely understood among the villagers. 'I think that the majority of (the local officials) are worthy cadres," observed one respondent. "Only a few of them are bad since they are still strongly attached to their family relationships. Consequently they have sometimes neglected their duties." Another conceded that 'I have not joined the Communist Party because I did not carry out my duties actively. I don't want to join it because I still love my family." In this spirit, many defectors testified that they finally abandoned the Front because they could not stand to see the fortunes of their family decline while they were absorbed in political activities.
Once recruited, Party members were introduced to the intricate mode of operation within the guerrilla movement. NLF success depended on the ability of its militants to apply the Front's "line and policy," which was formulated on a national level, in their own villages and hamlets. The process began with meetings involving representatives of all the villages in a particular district. Cadres from district and province level opened these sessions by laying down general guidelines concerning a selected topic. These policies were usually very complex. For example, Front revenues came for the most part from an income tax, and cadres had to master an elaborate set of tables linking assessments to the income of individual villagers, while supplementary documents explained a complicated variety of contingencies: what kind of exemptions were permitted,
when villagers in distress could appeal for a reduction in payments, what to do with incomes coming from commerce and other non-agricultural pursuits, and so on.
Participants were expected to master the policies being presented so that they could successfully implement them on the local level. Since the whole process of guerrilla war depended on the results of such meetings, the atmosphere was serious and intense, with daily sessions lasting "about six or seven hours." Cadres usually took notes, and those who did not know how to read and write quickly found themselves at a loss. 'I was invited to be a Party member," confessed one respondent, "but I did not accept, arguing that I was illiterate.... The cadres urged me to learn to read and to write but I did not do it." The pressure was too much for some participants. A disgruntled respondent reacted in this way:
I got irritated because they pushed me too hard. They said that when we got back to our villages we had to do this and do that. My intellectual capability was not that high, it was tiring to my mind but they kept on jamming things into my head.
Only those who adjusted to the almost classroom-like atmosphere of these meetings would be able to work inside the Party.
Local cadres had not been assembled just to learn a few slogans and formulas. Since it was generally understood that a cadre who left the meeting with reservations would not be effective later on, all participants were expected to voice questions and criticisms, so that province and district cadres might hear about problems and have the opportunity to review the arguments in favor of the policy under consideration. Debate continued until all uncertainties had been cleared up to everyone's satisfaction, "Did you carry out long discussions in these courses? " one interviewer asked his subject, a POW. "Of course, '" was the reply; 'I had to let the trainees discuss till they understood the policy. The discussion only ended when the policy had permeated the trainees' minds."
Village cadres were also expected to describe conditions
in their home areas, with stress on the failures and weaknesses of the local organization. Those who presented such reports had to be prepared for the worst. If many village Party Chapters fell short of target goals, the district might decide to lower its expectations. But usually such reports were answered with stinging rebukes. One respondent, a defector, gave this example of the kind of criticisms he had heard at such sessions:
Our countrymen are suffering from the cruelty of the Americans and the GVN but what have we done to relieve the people from such calamities? We claimed we are fighters for the liberation movement but what are we doing? We have dodged our duties, we have left the people to their sufferings. We receive everything we need from the people, the rice we eat, the clothes we wear also come from the people. We rely on them to live and we dodged the fighting when they were killed by Diem and the Americans. It's a shameful thing, and unless we change, we don't deserve their support and their sympathy.
No wonder many local cadres were less than candid in describing problems in their villages - 'In times of trouble, they concealed their errors so as to avoid blame and to be left in peace."
Party discipline was designed to prevent such evasiveness. Members were trained not only to make accurate observations, but also to be completely honest in their disclosures. A cadre with a "sense of responsibility" never hid mistakes because everyone in the movement would be endangered by persistent individual errors. "We told the assembly the entire truth," remembered a respondent, 'because this is the rule. Nothing should be concealed among the (District) Committee members." Indeed, the ability to take criticism and to put it to good use was the most important quality distinguishing Communists from other people. Non-Party members were never allowed to attend Party meetings because,
If the course is only attended by Party members, the instructor can use violent criticisms which are considered very helpful in eradicating the trainees' shortcomings. But in the presence of Association members, violent criticisms cannot be used. The Association members haven't been trained to endure them, and, consequently the Party members' weak points wouldn't be corrected.
Some cadres grasped the significance of criticism and self-criticism, As one respondent explained, 'When you were wrong and you were courageous enough to admit that you had been wrong, that was a heroic action. And it was good because after acknowledging your errors, you were determined to correct yourself." But others could never get accustomed to this aspect of Front operations. One POW offered the opinion that most defectors 'were either involved in some crimes with the Front or were unable to endure
the weight of criticism from their colleagues."
The success of Communist organization was not a matter of creating paragons who never showed human weakness. The interview transcripts present us with cases of cadres who stole tax money and cheated on land reform, who were drunken and licentious, who neglected their duties and ran from the enemy. What the Party managed to do was to look for mistakes and, more important, to involve cadres in the process of correcting their own shortcomings. In effect, the whole point of Party membership was that people voluntarily accepted a situation in which their superiors regularly demanded almost superhuman achievement from them. If they thought these demands unfair, they were free to refuse Party membership. If they changed their minds once admitted, they could always resign - there are many references in the transcripts to people who quit the Front and retired to private life. But if they stayed, they had to work toward goals which seemed impossible, to be open about their inevitable failures, and to strive constantly to develop their own skills. This regime, which constantly drew out the talents and energies of its cadres, contributed substantially to the vitality of the NLF.
The point of district meetings was not simply to burden local cadres with a list of tasks to be accomplished, or to browbeat them with criticism. More fundamentally, district and province representatives aimed to persuade village officials that current policy made sense and would bring the desired results. The meetings served to heighten enthusiasm as much as to convey information. 'The cadres' speeches ... stirred up the fighters and cadres' morale," recalled the respondent whose description of the criticism session was cited above. "As a rule after the reorientation courses, the trainees' morale is much improved."
Morale building was vital because the village representatives would in turn have to inspire or, as the respondents put it, to "motivate" the peasants back in their own villages. Arriving home from the district meeting, local cadres did not simply send out a few memos to get the tax campaign or the recruitment drive under way. First, they assembled all the other Party members in the village and carefully went over the materials they had brought back from the
district. The representatives were expected to answer criticisms, clear up misunderstandings, and most of all to convey a sense of confidence about the proposals under discussion. And in turn, village Party members had to listen attentively, take notes, ask questions, explore their own reactions and bring up any possible problems. The meeting would go on until all were satisfied with their understanding of the new "line and policy," and were ready to present it convincingly to others.
During the next phase, Party members sought out the "backbone elements," those villagers who were most active in the various popular associations, and introduced them to the Front's latest plans. In such meetings, the former students became teachers. Local Party members described the policy they had just studied, while the backbone elements were asked to make criticisms, to raise objections, to take responsibility for examining the directives until they too gained confidence in their basic soundness. If the village Party leaders had not been fully convinced by the first courses, if they did not feel strongly in favor of the new line and policy, they would never be able to mobilize the backbone elements, to answer their objections, and to convince them that the Front still deserved their trust.
These meetings of Party members and backbone elements were not concerned solely with problems of "motivation." Local cadres had received nothing more than a vague set of guidelines from the district. These general recommendations had to be refined to fit the circumstances of the village. It was at this point that the local background of the cadres came into play, since in practice it turned out that no two hamlets, indeed no two peasant households were exactly alike, and the policy suggested for a "typical" village never quite seemed to fit actual circumstances. Only cadres who knew intimately the community they were dealing with, and who were exceptionally resourceful in figuring out how to get things done would be able to take the abstract directives of their superiors and apply them successfully within a village full of real human beings.
When cadres and backbone elements were content with the results of their discussions, the rest of the villagers
assembled to go over the new policy, It would be wrong to imagine Party members lecturing or, as the RAND translators put it, indoctrinating, a silent and passive audience. The term used in this context by the NLF means to teach, to instruct, to enlighten. What RAND calls an indoctrination session would be more accurately rendered as a study session. (8) From the transcripts, we can see that what many respondents describe is not 'indoctrination" at all. As with Party meetings, peasant assemblies were intended to promote real discussion in the course of which villagers grasped the logic of the directives under examination and gained confidence in their fundamental soundness. The Front would prosper only if large numbers were persuaded to enter enthusiastically into its campaigns. Mass mobilization, and not mere obedience, was what the cadres aimed to stimulate.
The development of this kind of thinking about politics took time. One respondent recalled that genuine popular support for the NLF emerged some time after the cadres began to operate openly. This support was evident from the fact that villagers 'became more eager to participate in the discussion of the situation during the village meetings." Many respondents testified to the vitality of the 'indoctrination" process. 'In order to obtain good results," explained one respondent, "a policy must be thoroughly understood by the population through study sessions directed by the cadres ' otherwise, the implementation of the policy cannot lead to good results." The Front "incessantly held many study sessions . . ." remembered another observer; "people of middle and poor farming classes positively carried out their duties and joined study sessions day and night." A third witness noted that, "During previous years, the hamlet cadres needed only to invite the people through a loud speaker. People gather for a meeting in minutes." "All they had to do was to invite the villagers two hours in advance,' stated another respondent, "and 3,000 to 4,000 persons came for the meeting."
The meetings had a profound effect on the atmosphere in many areas, Peasants who once had been excluded from the political sphere were now being asked to study the issues,
to raise criticisms, to make up their own minds about basic questions in their communities, To an uncommon degree, villages hummed with political debate. A defector reported that,
Usually, the youths in the village liked to talk politics when they attended banquets or when they sat around drinking tea or when they conversed with each other about their daily work. They talked about the world situation, socialism, Russia and China. The old people didn't like to listen to this sort of thing because they thought the youths didn't even know what went on in the village let alone in the world, Russia and China. This used to irritate the old people.
People "joined study sessions day and night," they could not get enough of politics. Official meetings often did not satisfy this new appetite. According to the report of one defector,
(The villagers) were so fond of attending the village meetings that, sometimes, they were regretful that some meetings ended so soon. During these sessions, they lingered around the meeting places, discussing the Front's policies, the cadres' behavior and the cruelty of Diem's regime until late at night.
These passages show that NLF "control" in a particular area was not simply a matter of replacing one kind of "indoctrination" with another, but instead involved the development among peasants of a wholly new way of dealing with political power. The rise of the Front paralleled in fact depended on, the beginnings of self-government in the villages.
Along these lines, one defector thought it was easier to collect taxes in "weak" than in 4strong" villages.
The people's comprehension in the "liberated" area is somewhat higher than that of those living
in "contested" areas, and therefore they are less afraid of the cadres. They will protest against the cadres if the classification of the fields is unjust or inaccurate, and this has impeded the collection. a lot.
The longer an area was liberated, the harder it became for cadres to act in a high-handed manner. Another defector offered the following view:
When the Front emerged, the people didn't know what it was all about, so they were very afraid of it and treated the cadres very well out of fear. But starting in 1963, if the cadres said something that the people didn't like or didn't agree with, they weren't afraid to argue with the cadres. Some even dared to insult them. After the people understood more about the Front's line and policy, they criticized or insulted the cadres whenever the cadres acted contrary to this line and policy. They were, of course, invited to attend indoctrination sessions for this. The people still like the cadres, but they don't like them as much as they did at the beginning. Before, the people were so afraid of the cadres that they had to butter them up. For example, whenever the cadres came to their houses, they poured tea in cups and set it in front of the cadres. Now, when the cadres come to them, they just ask the cadres if they would like some tea. If the cadres say 'no, " then they let it go at that, and no longer respect the cadres as much as before, because they know more about the Front and are no longer afraid of the cadres.
What people learned from exposure to the NLF was to make up their own minds, to speak up when they disagreed with decisions, to hold cadres to the commitments they had made. Even more fundamentally, a process of demystification is at work here. The Front brought political authority down to earth, stripped leaders of any super-natural aura, encouraged peasants to see them as ordinary villagers who
do not have to be "buttered up." The better people understand the organization, this witness seems to be saying, the less they have to fear from its leaders. The more the Front asserted itself, the more sure people were of their own judgment and power.
Our examination of NLF methods of mass mobilization would be incomplete if we dwelt on an image of peasant assemblies seething with enthusiasm. The eloquence of the cadres was not intended to persuade villagers to storm out of meetings and to throw themselves on the nearest GVN post. Deepening commitment was harnessed to a daily practice characterized by patience, caution and steadiness rather than headlong audacity. The militance the Party worked to arouse was just the opposite of recklessness, and in fact the reason why people responded to the NLF "line and policy" was precisely because Front cadres did not ask them for impossible feats of courage, but instead confined themselves to requests which they knew were within the capabilities of the villagers, Approaching the task of waging guerrilla war in this spirit, NLF cadres broke down the process into smaller and smaller steps, until the human participation which it entailed at any one moment was within the purview of the peasants who would have to carry the burden of the struggle.
We can observe this finely differentiated tactical approach at work right from the first days of the NLF. In 1960, when the Front began, the old Viet Minh organization in the Province had been badly damaged by Diemist repression. The survivors who, along with other discontented villagers, started to resist had no army and no base area outside of the Plain of Reeds, a traditional guerrilla sanctuary in the northern part of My Tho. According to a POW, in the beginning all the insurgents in Cho Gao District together could muster only seven rifles. The new organization had to figure out how to mobilize a group of frightened, discouraged peasants and help them develop into a military force capable of standing up to the Diem dictatorship, At first, the small band of insurgents, their faces hidden, moved only at night. One respondent recalled how
they appeared suddenly in the people's houses, forced
them to turn off all the lamps, then introduced themselves as members of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam and requested the people to contribute money to feed the troops, Before going to see a family, the cadres studied the financial situation of the family and determined how much they would have to contribute ...
Sitting in the darkness, wondering how to respond to these unidentified intruders - who nonetheless seemed to be well acquainted with the village and its inhabitants -the peasants were "frightened out of their wits." An interviewee recalls that, "At night when they saw shadows passing by they bolted their doors in a hurry, pretending to be asleep, and didn't dare to talk loudly." In their recollections, the respondents almost seem to go out of their way to stress the early insignificance of the movement. At the beginning, the Front had been nothing more than disembodied shadows, a few muffled voices in the darkness.
One of the first things the cadres asked villagers to do was to beat on drums or wooden fish. Why? One respondent explained.
This was to create a fighting atmosphere among the villagers and to make everyone feel that the people were determined to resist the GVN and very united in their actions. Moreover, if we did not force everyone to make noise, no one would dare to carry out our instructions because they were still afraid of being arrested by the GVN. So, forcing everybody to participate in knocking on wooden fish and drums at the same time relieved them from the fear of being denounced by their neighbors.
Intended to create 'a fighting atmosphere," these instructions were carried out by villagers almost paralyzed with fright. "Many of them were so scared of the GVN they closed themselves in their rooms to knock on the wooden fish." But, as the cadres no doubt expected, perplexed Saigon officials did nothing at all in response to these unor-
thodox provocations, and the insurgents had won their first small victory.
Now the cadres were ready for the next step, Here is one account.
The cadres returned at night and went to every house to call on the people to attend their meeting. Each family sent two or three of its members to the meeting while an elder member would stay home to beat the drums or metallic barrels. Whenever they stopped at one house and succeeded in inviting some villagers to their meeting they would take them along to the next house to invite the other villagers to the meeting. They went on that way until they stopped at every house and the crowd of the villagers became really large up to the place of the meeting. The cadres got the villagers used to meetings by working one whole week on each family as I've just mentioned. On December 1960 they held a large scale meeting at which the cadres put up the Front flag (it is the first time) and announced that "Today the Front is born."
At this point no shots had yet been fired - in fact the NLF still had almost no guns - but, as the respondents looked back, it seemed to them that the noisemaking had marked a beginning. There had been no dramatic mass uprising, no spontaneous storming of the Bastille, but instead a carefully planned very gradual process by which people were, step by step, being encouraged to get together, to think of themselves as a collective force with the ability to defend itself and eventually to fight actively in its own interests. By devoting as much as "one whole week" to each family in an effort to persuade its members to attend a meeting, the cadres were acting on the expectation that the struggle would take a long time to develop, and that their movement would have to be built with patience if it were to be built at all.
The drums and wooden fish were the Front's first weapons. (9) As one respondent put it,
My confidence stemmed from the fact that every night sounds coming from the knocking on everything that could produce a sound, arose from the dark countryside all around my hamlet. This created a diabolical concert which gave all of us a frightening thrill. It made me think the whole population had decided to stand behind the Front and that huge manpower would give the Front the necessary punch to overcome anything.
Peasants who had a healthy respect for the repressive power of the Diem dictatorship would almost certainly not have responded if the cadres had called for an immediate assault on the GVN. The Front asked them to beat on drums and wooden fish because it understood that villagers were not ready for more aggressive collective action, and that noisemaking was one thing they could be persuaded to do together. Subsequent campaigns were marked by the same scrupulous attention to the peasants' mood. Each time ambitious measures were set aside in favor of more modest steps forward, the final moment of victory was pushed further away into the distant future. But even as they began, cadres were convinced that they could mobilize the people only by going slowly. The "diabolical concert" which in 1960 4arose from the dark countryside" thus signaled the beginning of a protracted war.
Front cadres were formed by this kind of political experience. The American media has left us with a "military" image of the "VC" creeping about in the jungle or launching suicide attacks on U. S. bases. Simplistic as descriptions of its soldiers, these stereotypes are particularly unhelpful when we are considering the real work of the NLF. We should see the cadres as "civilians," as attentive students of politics and of village social life. Their interview responses often show a mastery of detail and a highly developed capacity for taking complicated issues, breaking them down in a logical way, and discussing them clearly and convincingly. Some of the more cautious interviewees are noncommittal at first. But as the sessions go on, many are drawn out, they cannot resist the temptation to describe lo-
cal politics, we sense their delight with the complexity of a social world in which they had painstakingly learned to function as administrators and leaders.
Most of all, these cadres are talkers. Molded by a routine of constant discussion and collective study, they approach questions in a self-consciously formal way, organizing complicated responses which go on for page after page, leaving plenty of room to explore all facets of the issue under discussion. The RAND translators betray an often uncertain grasp of English grammar and vocabulary, but even so we can feel the impact of these discourses, arresting in their way of reaching out, engaging the attention of the listener, inviting comment, objection - and eventual concurrence. Some cadres repeat word for word whole paragraphs from speeches they remembered hearing, and their versions still ring with eloquence and passion. Fighters in the resistance, these people are formidable not because of their physical prowess or great marksmanship. The Front drew its strength from their ability to think things out together and to 'motivate the people".
By 1965, thousands of peasants had participated in many study sessions and minutely organized campaigns. Time after time, by careful planning, exhaustive group discussion, and well-controlled attacks on Saigon power, the movement had gone forward, always keeping its own casualties to a minimum while inexorably chipping away at the position of its adversaries. This long collective experience gave to the NLF an unparalleled cohesion, discipline and self-confidence. Because it had been nurtured so deliberately, the insurgency had been able to develop a rare solidarity. This was the movement American leaders hoped to crush by escalating the war.
BOMBARDMENT OF THE COUNTRYSIDE
Within the Front, harsh or arbitrary cadres ran the risk of acquiring an unflattering nickname: "Little Ngo Dinh Diem." With its regime of forced labor and unjust jail sentences, its ARVN troops marauding through the countryside, raping and disemboweling innocent villagers, Diemism was a byword for wanton cruelty among the peasants of My
Tho. (10) And yet, for all their ferocity, Saigon authorities had done little to oppose the rise of the NLF. According to one respondent, when the concerted uprising broke out in 1960, "The OVN) hamlet and village officials did not have any reaction worth mentioning," and many other transcripts contain similar testimony. There was a brief counter-attack in 1962, when the first large-scale use of U. S. helicopters temporarily slowed the Front, but in 1963 the guerrillas once again seized the initiative, After the fall of Diem in November of that year, the NLF regained all the ground it had lost, and asserted itself even in areas of the Province where Saigon authorities had exercised unbroken control all the way back to 1946.
The American response to this situation did not involve any attempt to restore GVN officials to their former positions in the villages, and there were no new programs to win peasant support away from the NLF. Some American infantry units were sent to My Tho in 1967, but on the whole American ground troops in this region did not play anything like the role which was assigned to them in the northern sector of South Vietnam. Instead, US-GVN authorities began to rain down bombs and shells on the countryside.
This new tactic represented a sharp break from former practice. Early in the war, bombing and shelling had been linked to GVN sweep operations, and occasional harassment fire was directed against Front strongholds, Sometimes, when guerrillas shot at a post or a convoy, the nearest Saigon installation retaliated with a barrage of shells. "Since 1962, the GVN artillery has never stopped pounding my village " a defector observed in 1965. He meant that shelling occurred "once every two or three months." Later on, villagers were sometimes shelled without provocation, but even in these cases a certain restraint was exercised. The bombardment took place at a fixed time of day, so that the villagers learned to anticipate and to take shelter at the appointed moment.
US-GVN tactics from 1965 on were qualitatively different. This new bombing and shelling was neither linked to individual provocations, nor confined to predictable hours. Instead, vast areas of the countryside were subjected to a more or less constant series of attacks from guns and
planes. Earlier, villagers sometimes used to flee deeper into liberated territory to avoid the danger. But by 1967, as a defector indicated, "Nobody dared to run deeper into Front controlled areas, In the villagers' eyes, fleeing that way was equivalent to staying, in that one would run the same risk of getting killed by mortars or by strafing." The firepower was supposed to underline a political point. As a defector put it, "The village was completely liberated. Therefore it was continuously bombed and shelled." The aim of the Americans was not simply to harass or to retaliate against NLF initiatives, but to annihilate those communities in which the Front had sunk such deep roots.
Eventually, many areas were being subjected to incessant attack. Villages were bombed and strafed during the day and shelled at night. In some areas, helicopter gunships hovered overhead ready to strafe any moving individual. In others helicopters circled all night, their powerful searchlights illuminating the terrain ("so bright that you can see a needle on the ground"), uninterruptedly strafing the pathways so that movement was impossible. B-52s joined the assault in the summer of 1966 with bombing raids over Front villages. This relentless shelling of the countryside, the creation of free fire zones in areas where hundreds of thousands of people lived and worked, was after 1965 the central reality of the war in My Tho. (11)
The interview transcripts convey a vivid sense of what this bombardment meant to people. "One can die there any moment," recalled a respondent, "and most of the time one has to live in a shelter. Even while eating, one has to stay near a shelter because of the continued mortar- shelling. I finally could not stand such a life." Wherever they went in the village, peasants needed shelters near at hand, and as a result hours of labor time were devoted to the task of digging trenches, The villagers had to be constantly alert, since survival depended on reacting immediately after the first report of long-range guns, the sound of airplane engines, or even the hiss of falling bombs (B-52s could not be heard at ground level). At the first sound, villagers "ran into hiding, gasping for breath." They had to get used to spending a good part of their existence underground, some
even sleeping in subterranean shelters. Eventually they would almost become accustomed to the perpetual crashing of bombs and shells. As one respondent summed up: 'The villagers often said: 'Each morning, when we wake up, we don't know whether we are living until we open our eyes."'
The bombardment was aimed at the peasants. Bombs and shells fell on the clusters of houses at the center of each hamlet, and in the process people's dwellings were destroyed, 400 out of 440 in one hard hit village, according to a local cadre. Returning to his village in February 1967 after being away for seven months, a soldier observed that
the village aspect had also changed a lot. It looked sad and miserable, with burned houses and wildly grown grass everywhere. I had the feeling that I had lost my way and that where I stood looking around wasn't the location of a former hamlet. My house no longer existed. All that was left of it was a devastated earthen floor. The deserted place made me scared and I hurried to leave it.
Firepower destroyed the orchards, which in most hamlets were located near the peasants' homes, thus knocking a vital prop out of the local economy. "It takes the people from five to seven years to tend their fruit trees before they can get any income from their orchards," a respondent explained. Animal husbandry also suffered. Livestock was killed by bombs and shells, or stolen by ARVN soldiers during sweeps. As villagers moved out of their houses into the open fields to escape the bombardment, they had to sell their remaining animals, since there was no room among the rice crops to maintain them properly.
Agricultural productivity sharply declined. Buffaloes along with other animals were killed or sold, thus depriving the peasants of a major source of labor power, essential for effective plowing. In addition, the amount of cultivated land decreased because peasants were afraid to stay out in the open too far from their trenches. Work was often interrupted when villagers were strafed by passing planes, or when shells exploded nearby. Bombing and shelling completely upset the usual patterns of work. According to a respondent,
No one could farm his land on time and according to the seasons, instead he had to wait for the time when there was no bombing, no shelling and no operations being conducted. In short a quiet time before he could work on his land. There were times when we just got through ploughing and planting when amphibious vehicles destroyed all our efforts. Night or day, it didn't matter any longer, as long as there was no harassment, we worked on our land. It has been a year now that farming has become a thousand times more difficult because the war has escalated, operations were conducted continuously, bombing and shelling rained on us night and day.
After crops were planted, farmers never knew when further military operations would deprive them of their harvest. Amphibious vehicles passing across the fields tore up the rice crop, and, as a respondent explained, 'one napalm
bomb could destroy a plot of land 50 meters wide and 100 meters long." 'Right now, it's almost as though the village isn't producing anything," commented this same observer, as he reflected on the ruins of his village.
Bombing and shelling also curtailed commercial activity. 'Not everyone could do commerce in this day and age," stated one female peasant. 'Only the adventurers who weren't frightened by GVN bombing and shelling or intimidated by Front checking and taxing could do it." Moving goods to market in liberated areas, where all roads were routinely strafed, could be a fatal proposition. Thus the fire-power which prevented peasants from working their land properly and then destroyed many of the crops they did succeed in cultivating, finally stood in their way when they attempted to sell what little surplus they had managed to accumulate.
By destroying their houses and livelihood, US-GVN authorities hoped to force the villagers who were not killed by the bombardment to move out of their Front controlled communities, to "leave the VC behind." But the task of prying the people loose from their native lands required a sustained effort.
The people were afraid of bombs and bullets if they stayed in an insecure area, but they did not want to give up their land. What they really wanted was to move temporarily to the nearest GVN-controlled area, not necessarily a New Life Hamlet, then come back to their native hamlet when the GVN restored security to their hamlet.
Or, as another respondent put it, 'I think these refugees only left their villages temporarily. Sooner or later they will come back to their villages, because I am sure that they will miss their orchards, their ricefields and the tombs of the ancestors, and because they lived on their orchards and ricefields." In other words, a bombardment which appeared to be only temporary would not achieve lasting results. During attacks, villagers were likely to cluster along the nearest major highway or canal, the traditional nerve centers of GVN strength, where Front forces
were reluctant to appear and which were seldom bombed or shelled. Other peasants took refuge in a nearby military post or new life hamlet. But almost all tended to move "back to the village when things calmed down." In one hamlet, the villagers
each bought a sampan. Every afternoon they took their wives and children and brought along their belongings in their sampans and sailed for the GVN-controlled zone where they would stay overnight in their relatives' or acquaintances' houses. The following morning, they would return to the village if the situation permits. The reason is that my village has been heavily bombed and shelled at night time.
Others practiced a similar routine, sleeping in makeshift huts near a highway, a canal or a GVN post. Frightened as they were, these peasants still had not completely left their homes. Insofar as it was possible, they continued to live "out there" with the NLF.
Continuing escalation forced the peasants to set aside these expedients and to adopt more drastic measures. In many villages, the inhabitants dismantled or abandoned their homes and moved out into the ricefields where they lived in temporary huts. By scattering out across the countryside, they hoped to present a less conspicuous target for US-GVN bombardment. But, as a POW recalled, the fields were eventually to become just as dangerous as the center of the village:
They built shacks in the middle of the field to live in, but still didn't feel protected in the field. Whenever an airplane flies by, everyone stands still because if anyone runs out or into the house there will certainly be strafing. It is also because of this hanging threat that few people dare leave their children at home alone and go out to earn more money. Children aren't aware of the danger, when they see airplanes, and running here and there, thus brings much harm to the entire hamlet.
As the scope of the bombing and shelling increased, the whole village area became unsafe. In one community, the Front built "dummy houses" in an effort to draw off the bombing and shelling, but the tactic did not work because 94 the ARVN airstrikes and artillery firing were all over the village, and no place was spared." Inexorably, US-GVN military authorities were establishing their own peculiar kind of credibility. They were prepared to bomb and shell indefinitely and at an every intensifying rate all over the countryside until the people finally gave up and left their homes for good.
Gradually the peasants were worn down by this ceaseless punishment. One respondent described his neighbors' reactions in the following way:
In the beginning a great majority of people did not want to move out of the hamlet thinking that the war would end within two years at most. But when they realize that after almost six years of fighting, bombing and shelling is far from being over and, in fact, is even more violent, they seem to lose all their hopes, Worried and frightened they finally flee the VC to settle in safe areas.
Another witness testified to a similar evolution of opinion:
Eighty percent of the villagers have evacuated to government areas, because of relentless bombings and shellings and three-fourths of the cattle in the village have been killed by planes. There is a great shortage of man-power and buffaloes in the village. The situation is getting more and more critical. Two years ago, in spite of relentless bombings and shellings, people still managed to farm their land just to get enough rice to satisfy the needs of their families. Those who had a lot of land, of course, could not expect to till every inch of it because it was so difficult to hire workers. But by early 1967, the peasants began to evacuate the village. It was no use to till the land because
none could say for sure what would become of their crops under the present circumstances. If a sweep operation was launched in the area, their ricefields except those situated... in the vicinity of New life Hamlets, would be completely destroyed by government amphibians.
Even large-scale evacuation did not seem to stem the almost maniacal bombardment. 'It made no difference to the aircraft that the hamlet was deserted, remembered a defector; "they continued to bomb it all the same."