Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Back to the Future

During my tour of duty in Vietnam (1969-70) my assignment was Deputy Base Commander for Materiel, Binh Thuy Air Base. Location was 75 miles south of Saigon on the Bassac arm of the Mekong River, close to the City of Can Tho and adjacent to the Can Tho Naval Riverine Support Base. One of our primary missions at Binh Thuy was to provide forward air support to army and naval forces operating out of numerous small outposts throughout the Mekong Delta (IV Corps) area. This included area air surveillance in small low and slow flying aircraft, responding to ground controllers requests and marking targets for fast, higher flying heavy ordinance carriers.

The Riverine forces patrolled the waterways and supported ground operations of the 9th Division and Special Forces units as well as the South Vietnamese Army. This area was studded with criss-crossing canals through the rice paddies. Extremely heavy tree cover and elephant grass which grew to heights of 15 feet and more provided effective concealment for movements of the Viet Cong. They were operating pretty freely due to their ability to move in small parties through the fields and paddies in sampans disguised as fishermen and locals wearing the universal and typical black pajama garb.

The Viet Cong relied heavily on terrorism tactics to instill fear and gain support from the citizens of the small villages. Their mode of operation was to enter a village and extract whatever they needed… food, medical aid, and the drafting of local mercenaries by intimidation. If threats didn't work, the villagers would awake to find an elder or their mayor hanging from a tree, or perhaps beheaded, impaled on a stake or with his bowels wrapped around his grotesque body as a warning not to cooperate with the local government. It's easy to see with these tactics why villagers were reluctant to cooperate with our military or the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN). We see similar tactics being followed today in Iraq.

That's why one of our most important missions was called Military Civic Action. This was conceived as a way to gain support and allegiance from the locals, but it was a difficult thing to do given the tactics practiced by the enemy. A typical civic action mission would be to go out to a village with our medics and technicians who would provide direct help in treating illnesses, giving shots and inoculations, build schools and shelters, help to improve sanitation, provide food or provisions and help to organize villages to defend themselves against the VC.

We found a close ally in the Catholic Relief Organization. They were well organized and had been around a long time in the area. There were a number of very dedicated village priests - staunch opponents of the Communists - who worked diligently within their villages to stiffen resistance to the VC overtures. I met on numerous occasions with a village priest whose village had never been penetrated by the VC. Father Ahn wore a black habit but a cocky campaign hat. He was a wiry little guy who had earned the respect of his and numerous nearby villagers. The VC feared and avoided him and his villages because it was widely known that no VC who had ever entered his village had managed to emerge alive.

With Father Ahn and the Bishop of Can Tho I was able to set up a logistics support operation whereby we would funnel aid and supplies to numerous villages in our area that were actively working to resist the Viet Cong. This worked very well until we were pulled out under the guise of what was called Vietnamization; better called…. simply move out and drop the ball. It was politically expedient and wildly popularized as a way to end the war. All over the country similar actions were put on hold and all military operations were turned over to the Vietnamese military forces. Without our continuing support, it marked the beginning of the end.

Our military civic actions were the kinds of thing that didn't get the press coverage in those days. Likewise today in Iraq, these kinds of things don't make the headlines but are being carried out in great numbers by our forces in an attempt to win the hearts and minds of the people.

I'm afraid that after the elections on January 30th if they do take place, we will be on the bug-out trail again. It won't be publicly acknowledged as such but the result will be the same. Soon Iraq will be engulfed in a major civil war with the attendant blood letting, and we will be blamed and regarded as the losers. I hope I'm wrong. I'm afraid the stakes will be higher this time around and the results of our bug-out will be more troubles elsewhere.

© 2005 David Agniel


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