Salient. Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Volume 32, No. 19. August 6, 1969
From The Inside
From The Inside
By offering glib assurances and persuasions I managed to obtain a visa for South Vietnam without a security clearance delay.
It was necessary to sign a galling pledge of honour, political fidelity to the government in the seedy Hong Kong Consular office.
(A map on the wall inscribed unnecessarily "On the 22nd July, 1954, the cease-fire line became the Berlin Wall of S.E. Asia)', after which I could enter for two weeks, make a cultural study hate the N.L.F. and leave enlightened. We flew to Saigon via Phnon Penh, over the brown cloud smudged Mekong feverishly inventing war in the anonymous jungle where there wasn't any—a preferable condition because our pre-conceptions were consumated too fully and soon. Landing at the air-port one is immediately confronted by visual signs, concrete billow hangars stretch in columns, housing fighters and bombers camouflaged and armoured, air raid shelters crowd beneath the helicopter umbrella, a dustily austere terminal building geared to disgorging and greeting military personnel.
Monsoon season afternoons Hooded, host city for the World Buddhist Conference one poster reading "Long Live Buddha" the deceased Saigon a glut of bars and all the trashiest manifestions of war—the entire population whole-heartedly dedicated to exploiting the Americans, a virulent black market, crushing inflation (official exchange rate is U.S. 51—118 piasters but its possible to obtain between 180 and 250 p. s.
Possession of greenbacks is against the law and service men are paid in Military Payment Checks, supposedly negotiable only within compounds but this measure has simply stabilised inflation at around 100 per cent. One of the many distress-sing features of American occupation is the absence of social and civic improvements Although American aid introduces regrettable increases in bastard children. Coca-Cola assaults and Old Grandad, a veneer of prosperity, paved streets and modernity can be expected But Saigon, like Naha in Okinawa, is a mess-, the troops using the city as everyone does, to spread a giant corruption, heavyweight khaki trucks vying with the thousands of exhaustspewing cycles, Lambretta buses and cyclists for final right of way impossible not to be consumed by the desperate pace. When the physical scare are added the spectrum is complete and depressing. Road blocks, armed guards, military policemen cruising the bar districts in machine gun mounted jeeps, napalm victims object, barbed wire and sandbag are so prevelant that they almost seem to be integrated architecturally. And at night the sounds of war. Checkpoint deaths. More non-halt warning shot-killing, shot dying, a rigidly enforeed curfew, occasionally saboteurs break the cordons and deposit their lethal loads at choice spots. Vietcong rocket and mortar attack the city every night while B52's bomb surrounding suspected strong-holds, the 100 lb explosives radiat-ing tremendous concussion waves, I hitch-hiked on one of the few safe roads to My Tho Mekong village and stayed with Daoist monks on their island tributary, ferry and sanpan across the huge heavy water to see at dusk helicopter gunships strafing the already defoliated jungle, a half-mile distant air-force base under attack, tares keeping the river light and a patrol boat creeping into our island fur sanctuary. Outside the cities the war becomes even less comprehensible, more tragic—a feeling in incredulity at the effect of military activity transposed on rural peace, a whole landscape artificially conditioned so that the situation could not conceivably be worse. Hell communism isn't a threat. The peasants aren't touched by politics and in fact few that I spoke to had any knowledge of either capitalism or communism—they live. The only Vietnamese who had ideas of preference, other than politicians and government employees, were Saigon profiteers—bar girls, black market pimps, both criminal and criminally uniformed who believe the absurd propaganda posters spread over the city, ogre Vietcong committing lurid atrocities, bloodied bayontes, mass hysteria showing that the Munich festival set a durable precedent despite their illogie. To travel north Saigon one has to fly and the best way to do so is by American military aircraft. "MacV" accredition is required which means obtaining official travel orders. I did so and flew to Nhatrang. Danang and Hue. Scorched earth. Rubble cities replaced by corrugated iron and uncertain survival. This is Vietnam—what is seen of the war—projections are endless and reflect hopelessness—like the sub-cultures of corruption directly fed by the chaos; 1959 vintage teddy-boys with bicycle chains and switch-blades heating up G.I.'s-leading to cycle vendettas.
I have found it difficult to feel that any conclusions reached would he responsible. Vital that things be recorded accurately but instead the confusion made the situation uncertain. I had been invoked morally and emotionally in opposition to the war, for a long time; actually being there forced a reappraisal of all my ideas. Of course, this didn't mark a change to militarism, in fact a more emphatic pacifism, but most significantly, in considering the protagonist I could no longer cast the Americans as the arch-villains The helplessness of their dilemma served in every way as critical as that of the country. Victims all, of some terrible mismanagament for which Johnson, or his advisors who advised him so badly, are accountable. In the debased context of that struggle I could only make observations, and that is all I attempt to do in this article. No pretence balanced reporting or an analysis of the war. I want to make some unrelated comments about the Americans because in many ways they provided the most interesting study. The extent of the opposition to the army and American involvement was over-whelming—I spoke to several hundred G.I.'s in three weeks and 80 per cent were opposed to the war. "Vietnam sucks" the most often expressed and succinct opinion — lives measured in remaining service commitment. They were a representative selection: non-combatants, volunteers, draftees, a few "lifers" others down from the north on fake sick leave, and deserters. Battle-shocked soldiers telling of ambushed companies "C" company lost 67 men out of 110 friends '"blown away" as death is described—a strangely gentle evocation which makes the figures harsher. An odd dichotomy expressed by some C.I.'s—they wore opposed to the war so much so that they gave money to resistance organisations, but thought the draft an excellent system for the following reasons.
The idea that everyone should contribute to their country a debt settled by service, and that America needs conscription to alleviate ignorance and get the apathetic majority off its arse. The draft crystallises the unbearable tensions young Americans face—overwhelming numbers are so disenchanted that they are not returning home—I found this trend on the road right through Asia. Moustaches sprout gloriously—stripped of free expression, reduced to army Zombies, soldiers take advantage of this, their only luxury to demonstrate individualism. Another incredible feature is the incidence of pot-smoking. All the disputed figures provided by "Time" can be supported and added to. As many were dissenters—80 per cent regularly smoked though it would be foolish to suggest that there is any further correlation. I mention this because I'm sure the numbers returning from Vietnam to America must have some affect on present put legislation.
There's the shit, too, which perpetuates anti-American feeling. The despised "lifers"—professional soldiers, and those who volunteered "to kill some commies" show marked fascist tendencies. It is as if violence begets violence—they tally battle "kills and meet any question about the morality of the war with savage rebuttals.
Apart from the inflation there has been an inevitable price hike as a result of their occupation. The night I arrived in Saigon I had to pay for accommodation—street sleeping is out because of the curfew—and the cheapest available was a room in a flophouse for $10. In any other Asian city it is possible to sleep for 50 cents or less. And the acme of insensate Americana—an Officers club in Saigon serves cellophane wrapped cigars inscribed "Happiness is a warm Napalm." Incidentally, no service man I spoke to in Vietnam was aware of the presence of N.Z. troops. This will undoubtedly upset patriots but New Zealand's contribution goes unrecognised.
I told people indignantly that we are represented by 500 troops, four fields guns and a Hercules, but it seems that this is either an elaborate myth constructed to appease our allies, or that the 500 unfortunates have been misplaced.
The Americans, of course, speak of "the united struggle against Communism" but are only dimly conscious of the role of New Zealand. Anstralian and Thai and Korean forces.
I arrived in Saigon the day the first troop withdrawals were announced Every where there was a mood of profound scepticism As I have said, the whole country is immersed in the hopelessness: no "issue" can be defined just as no "solution" can be definitive. Particular issues are only part of an underlying madness, of which the chain of wars is one symptom.
I don't mean to sound portentous, but in Vietnam one is inclined to think in terms of universal philosophy rather than what that immediate situation represents. A million foreigners, thirty million Vietnamese, most of whom are reluetant, a vast and intricate material commitment are inextricably involved in this pointless, ruinous debacle. Do you realise that today's wars aren't even "wars to end all wars." That used to be the reason that justified millions of sacrificial dead. Now people accept the theory of necessary pressure valves, small puffs of insane catharsis. Vietnam seemed to me when I was there, to be the long-term victim, beyond promise of resolution. But suddenly I feel that there could be effective de-escalation, cessation.
If Nixon's indication of large scale withdrawals by the end of 1970 is true, the war may end. The Arvins—South Victnmese troops—are not capable of filling gaps left by the Americans. Internal stirrings, both in Hanoi and Saigon, suggest honest peace probes (needless in say, no-one has faith in Paris peace talks —they are considered farcial and many feel that they simple give the N.L.F. licence for increased activity) and again I'm beginning to believe in groups resisting the war.
The G.I.'s at present serving should have refused the draft. If they return to America and encourage future deserters, if their peculiar sense of social consciousness is directed towards united opposition—regenerating "ifs".
It is too much to hope that moral arguments will triumph but I have to think that a combination of the above circumstances permits hope.