Salient. Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Volume 32, No. 19. August 6, 1969
Vietnam two views
Vietnam two views
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.
From The Outside
Since the Paris peace talks began the tempo of destruction in Vietnam has increased, not decreased. The human situation is worse than it has ever been before. On March 15 there were more U.S. troops in Vietnam than at any other time since the beginning of the war.
These facts are staled in a White Paper on Ending the War issued by the American Friends Committee in May. The Friends Service Committee has had 15 years of relationship with Vietnam, the last 4 with staff stationed variously in Saigon. Vung Tau. My The, Danang. An Khe. Pleiku. Hupe and for the last two years. Quang Ngai Since the US escalation began in 1965 their field stair have sent in regular field reports on the developing situation. The While paper records some of what they have reported.
Saigon is now the worlds most crowded city with a population density (on March 22) of 148 persons per acre, compared with Tokyo (the second most densely populated city in the world) with a population per acre of 63. The population is largely made up of refugees driven out of the countryside by the American war-action.
The intensity of the bombing in the countryside has increased since the peace-talks began. B-52 bomber raids have torn 2½ million holes 45 feet in diameter and 30 feet deep in the ground-holes that are now filled with water and serve as breeding grounds for malarial mosquitoes and other insects. In December 1968 the US from the first time began dropping 10.000 1b bombs which have been stored in military depots for 15 years and which are so heavy that they cannot be carried in ordinary bombers and they must be dropped by cargo planes or crane helicopters. The Match bombing level of 130.000 tons was the highest since the war began.
The number of troops in Vietnam was on March 15. (but still at present despite the withdrawal of 25,000) larger than at any time since the war began—540.000 plus 45,000 in Thailand and 35,000 in the navy offshore. Further, the number of battalion-size operations (figures on smaller operations are secret) has been steadily increasing, rising from 800 in November last year to 1037 in January 1969. Nlf activity has remained constant at a level of about 100 a month involving the deaths of 350-450 civilians monthly, compared by the US total of over 1.500.
By the end of January the US was sending 300-400 planes over neutral Laos daily-higher than at any other time in the war.
US battle deaths—always an inexorable barometer on the level of military action further emphasise the nature of the escalation. 600 US soldiers died in October; 703 in November; 749 in December; 795 in January; 1073 in February; 1316 in March. Renewed military offensives by the NLF and North Vietnamese forces did not begin until the last week in February.
The White paper goes on to point out that this increased activity is not leading to any progress, even on American terms. It claims that pacification attempts have failed. The US figures for the country show 75% of the countryside secure, but, the paper says, any person who knows the Vietnamese countryside would reject these figures out of hand Supposedly "secure" Quang Ngai has over the past year been regularly infiltrated at night and every house has its sand hag shelter to protect the occupants. The city has at times since February 23 been 25% occupied yet these occupations have not been reported to the military briefers. Quaker workers and Vietnamese sources have reported that anti-American feeling has never been so strong as it is now.
The Saigon Government is in no stronger a position as a result of American aid than it has ever been in the past. Many of its members fought against their own people with the French. They are not trusted and respected by the people, and are sure to go immediately the American prop is withdrawn.
The paper concludes from the facts that talk of an early end to the Vietnam war and the possibility of an imminent peace are mere illusions. The US is not in any way restraining its war effort. The Thieu-Ky government is not becoming any more acceptable to the Vietnamese and the members of the Quaker teams in South Vietnam can see no evidence of increasing security, resoluteness in carrying on the war, or a desire to institute reforms in the government.
"There is something the US can do .... As the only foreigners in Vietnam, the US and its allies have nothing to negotiate but the manner and rale of withdrawal. If our leaders were to acknowledge this and move to act on it, it would at once open up a whole new range of possibilities for the good offices of other nations to be used in mediation and in arranging for sanctuary or amnesty for those open to reprisal."
"There will be suffering and turmoil if the US leaves. There may be a government in Saigon led by Ho Chi Minh; there may not be Wihdrawal does not mean that justice will be done. It does not ensure fair elections or well protected freedoms. But whatever happens, or fails to happen, will, in our judgment, be preferable to going on with the present agony of death and destruction that is presently destroying Vietnam, undermining our own domestic social fabric, and damaging our country's name in the world community."