On the river 

For the next three issues, Word is presenting excerpts from Wilfred Burchett’s seminal account of the American War. A close friend of Ho Chi Minh, Burchett was the only westerner to be embedded with the Viet Cong frontlines in the early 1960s. This work was written in 1964


The Policy Towards Enemy Soldiers


I was musing over the image of a nearly full moon, framed in the delicate profile of bamboo leaves, glinting in the dark where the moonlight touched them, everything polished and gleaming like a Vietnamese lacquer painting. Suddenly there was a warning signal from our guide; the outboard motor in our little sampan was cut and we veered sharply towards a bamboo thicket on the river bank.


There was the sound of many more outboard motors coming from the opposite direction and this was disquieting. We were supposed to be in “safe” territory. Cigarettes were doused, complete silence ordered. Within a few minutes, the first couple of a long, double line of sampans appeared around a bend about 500 yards distant.


They kept rounding the bend until the first couple were only 20 or 30 yards away from our hiding spot. But long before that, we heard the sound of women’s voices and as they grew nearer we caught glimpses through the leaves of sampans filled with women and girls. Each was holding a stick with a papered-over frame on which slogans had been printed in red and black; in some the slogans were printed on cloth banners stretched between two sticks across the front of the boats.


Our sampan slid out again into midstream and jocular greetings were exchanged as the outboard motor started up again and we moved on past the convoy. By the way the exchanges were shouted back and forth and the bursts of laughter that followed some of them, it was clear we really were in “safe” territory. “They’re off to the district center for a demonstration,” explained the interpreter. “About half a dozen villages are represented here, but there are other convoys moving in by road and river from different directions.”


“At this time of night?”


“They have to travel at night to avoid planes and they like to be in the town well before dawn, before the authorities are around to give orders.”


I asked what the demonstration was about and after a few more exchanges with the boats, he explained that a few days previously a village in the district had been bombed and a new school and library had been wiped out. No one had been killed but they were going to protest about destruction of public property, as the school and library had been built by the villagers themselves. The others were coming “out of solidarity” and to protest against bombings in general. At my request, he translated some of the slogans: Apart from those demanding an end to destruction of “public,” “government” and “people’s property” there were others such as: “Higher Pay for Our Sons in the Army”; “Regular Leave for Armymen”; “Pensions for Wounded Armymen”; “Compensation for Mothers and Wives of Armymen Killed and Wounded in Action”; “An End to Beatings in the Army.”

Loading boats 

“But these are people from Liberation Front areas?” I asked. “Yes,” agreed Huynh, my well informed journalist-interpreter. “And they are demanding higher pay for the soldiers that come and shoot them down and burn their villages “That’s right,” he replied. “First of all the population never admit to being ‘Viet Cong’. They all claim to be loyal subjects of Saigon with the right to protection by the ‘legal government’. If there are ‘Viet Cong’ around, this is only because the ‘legal’ government has run away. Also it is a Front policy to gain the sympathy of the puppet troops. Such slogans also give them the idea that they ought to struggle for better conditions. But as a means of struggle it is also very effective. Troops find it difficult to repress a demonstration when half the slogans demand better conditions for them.


“This is more than just a tactic. The Front has a whole policy for such things. In cases where there are families in our areas whose sons or husbands have been killed while serving with the enemy forces, we help them materially. There is a special organization that visits bereaved families, and recommends what form the material help should take.”


We had left the last of the sampans behind by that time and had the river and the moon to ourselves again. I probed Huynh about further illustrations of political strategies and tactics and of combined military-political struggle.


“In many areas,” he continued, “there are posts which we could easily wipe out. If the soldiers don’t start shooting and plundering but listen to the explanations given by the people, we don’t shoot. If they shoot, we shoot, and we win. Almost the whole population, except for the armed forces take part in the explanations. It goes on day and night. In theory, the Saigon troops are forbidden to have any contact with the local population, even their own relatives. In practice there is contact all the time. For the past couple of years, the top brass is so worried by the disaffection rate that garrisons are rotated every three months. But that doesn’t help because if they leave one area for another, the people there will continue the good work started at the post they have just left.


Exhibition for the 4th anniversary of the formation of the NLF

“Our people live among the enemy; they have carried out land reform and work for themselves. The enemy troops are peasant conscripts. When they see this free life going on all round them, you think this doesn’t have an effect? Especially when it is drummed into them day and night by fellow-peasants, working in the fields right up to the gates of their posts. Our liberated areas sometimes reach within a hundred yards of a post and the garrison has to depend on air-dropped supplies, which fall into our area. We could prevent them collecting those supplies, cut them off completely if we wanted, but we allow two or three to come out and pick them up, although we often take the parachutes ourselves. The troops appreciate this attitude.”


When there are holidays the villagers visit the troops, Huynh told me. They are not too cordial towards them, but courteous and explain things to them. “They might even bring some small gifts, fruit or cakes. They will tell them that if they come to the village to stick to the main ‘traffic lanes’ and if they come without shooting or pillaging everything will be alright, they will be well received and given tea. But if they leave the main tracks and start uninvited towards the houses, the pigsties, poultry yards, orchards, etc., then they will be in for trouble with the traps. And if they start shooting, they will be in for even worse trouble, if not on that particular occasion then certainly the next time they move out of the post. The troops know by bitter experience that this is true. “The chief of garrison often knows who are the activists in any village. Posts are always built on an elevation; he has good binoculars and can see who sticks up posters or writes slogans on the wall or addresses meetings. But if he is in a position to send in a patrol to interrogate the people they will reply:


‘Sure, there are some “Viet Cong” here. Come and arrest them if you like. But in fact they do no harm and if bullets start flying innocent people may get hurt. You might get hurt, too, because it seems they have good military training.’ If troops do come and kill someone, the body will be carried to the post and the whole village will turn out in a big protest demonstration.


“These are important tactics,” Huynh continued, “but are only possible because although the people oppose the administrative, political and ideological positions of the Saigon regime, they are still technically in enemy-controlled territory; they have to maintain a correct legal position to keep alive. So we encourage them to tell the officers in the posts all sorts of things. ‘Yes,’ they will say, ‘we have guerillas in our village. My husband is a guerilla. My son is a guerilla. Yes, they have guns.’ But when they are asked what is the strength of the unit, where the guns are hidden, this they ‘don’t know.’ Before, people would have been slaughtered for admitting such things. But once the worst of the tyrants were dealt with, this is possible. So we encourage the villagers to pass on certain facts — it is good propaganda — but never to reveal the strength of units or locations of weapons.


“When the armed resistance first started, the villagers encouraged their sons to escape from the villages and join the guerillas. The enemy then started hunting the fathers of sons who had disappeared. We countered this by protests, claiming that the Diemists themselves had killed or kidnapped the sons. A mother would sit up half the night, preparing her lad’s clothes and food for a few days’ journey to the mountains; pack him off in the small hours of the morning and a few hours later lead a delegation of wailing women to the district chief demanding the return of her son who must have been arrested. Or complain about the lack of security in the village when the ‘Viet Cong’ could come in and ‘kidnap’ young lads and demand that the past commander send a patrol to ‘rescue’ him. The people’s initiative and ingenuity in such matters has no limits,” Huynh said and went on to explain that in virtually every village, including the Saigon-controlled ones, there were special propaganda teams and they exchanged experiences between them as to the most effective way to get the “line” across with the minimum of danger, in the most disarming way possible.


“The enemy knew for instance,” he continued, as we lay stretched out under the brilliant stars, the water rippling by and the outboard motor softly puttering away, “that virtually everybody in the village takes part in making traps. When they are charged with this, they will speak up: ‘Yes, the “Viet Cong” make us do that. We have to do it.’ If they are asked where they are, they will show one or two, but not the main ones. They will show some spikes, for instance. ‘These are rejects,’ they will say. ‘The “Viet Cong” refused to pay for these. All the best ones they have taken away.’ They can reply like this because of our strength now.


“This sort of work never lets up,” Huynh said, “and it helps to compensate a lot for the enemy’s overwhelming superiority in arms.” He recalled that before the armed resistance had become general, he had worked for a time in the coastal plains area of Central Vietnam. “At that time we had no arms at all,” he said, “but we knew the tribespeople in the hills had started to defend themselves. Punitive expeditions used to pass through our areas on the way to the mountains and people used to work on the troops, warning them in the most tactful way possible not to start committing atrocities against the tribespeople:


‘We know them,’ some old chap would say. ‘They are proud, courageous people; if you do anything wrong they will certainly kill you. They have terrible traps full of spikes and poison arrows that make you suffer terribly for a few minutes and then you are dead. A pity for fine young chaps like you. We only give you a friendly warning because we are Vietnamese.’ And when they came back again, carrying their wounded and with plenty of them not coming back at all, our people would be full of sympathy, tend their wounds, give them tea and make plenty of remarks: ‘What did we tell you? Better never go into those places. Keep away from their villages or you’ll all be killed.’ It was the best sort of propaganda,” Huynh concluded, as our sampan headed into a little cove, “because it was true.”


Monkeys and Bees


The question of original and ingenious forms of propaganda was one which cropped up all the time. On one occasion, I had been talking with some tribespeople about their hunting methods and Kpy Plui, a famous Jarai hunter from Kontum province, after an exciting account of how his people hunted tigers and elephants, came to the less dangerous business of the monkey hunt. Once a monkey colony is discovered, usually in a dense grove of bamboo on a slope, big converging swathes of bamboo are cut out at each side, leading up from the bottom so the monkeys are concentrated in a triangular-shaped patch. Another swathe is cut out at the tip of the triangle. While the “hunters” start hacking their way in the triangle itself, working their way down from the top, the rest of the village turns out with gongs and drums and start working their way up from the base of the triangle; the terrified monkeys, with an ever diminishing number of bamboo stems and branches to swing from, are concentrated in an ever smaller place. “They will break off bits of branches to fight back and chatter and jump about,” said Kpy Plui, a compact, muscular figure with high cheekbones and a wisp of black beard, “but the noise continues from the bottom and bamboo and undergrowth is hacked down from the top. Eventually the old man of the tribe comes down to earth, and that means the whole tribe has surrendered. All the rest then come down and we can just pick them up as we like, 500 to a thousand and more.” I wondered what they did with such a quantity of monkeys.


“We keep them in cages,” said Kpy Plui, who spoke some French from having served for a brief period in the French army, “and eat them as needed. The bones are boiled down for medicine. But the bigger ones, we hand over to the cadres for their propaganda teams.” A Vietnamese cadre who was present explained that medicines against anemia and impotence were developed from the monkey bones.


“And what about the propaganda aspect?” I asked.

In the printing shop of the education department 

“We choose the biggest ones, about 30 to 45 pounds. We dress them up in black pants and shirts, color their faces up a bit to make them look like caricatures of Diem in his time, or it might be Harkins, draw more caricatures on the back of their shirts, tie slogans to their legs and smuggle them into Saigon and provincial capitals. We turn them loose around the market place early in the morning, or in main centers as people are going to work. The monkeys are a bit puzzled at first, but then they start leaping around with their slogans. People are delighted as they always are with monkeys and the police don’t know what to do. It is awkward shooting at them, because it is like shooting at the President or Harkins. Anyway it would be ridiculous to shoot them. They start chasing around trying to catch the monkeys and rip off the slogans and the more they chase them the more the people enjoy the spectacle.”


Even lowlier creatures than dogs and monkeys figure in the fantastic arsenal of weapons the people of South Vietnam are using — and not only for propaganda — in this nuclear-age war. There are Front- controlled villages — in Mo Gay district of Ben Tre province, for instance — the defense of which are primarily entrusted to bees. Chi Nguyet (Sister Moonlight), another of those flawlessly beautiful girls from Ben Tre, explained how from 1960 on, the Diemists had tried to convert her village into a strategic hamlet. “A lot of us women and girls went in protest to the provincial capital, but we were all arrested,” she said. “Then all the women of the village came to Ben Tre with their children, demanding our release. They kicked up such a row that the governor was glad to get rid of us all. The Diemist troops kept coming to our village, stealing pigs and chickens and always trying to force us to build fences and dig moats. We refused.


“In our area, as in many others, there is a specially big fierce type of bee. They are more than twice as big as ordinary bees; they don’t store honey, but their sting is terribly painful and the sting of half a dozen can be fatal. We studied the habits of these bees very carefully. They always have four sentries on permanent duty and if these are disturbed or offended, they call out the whole hive to attack whatever disturbs them. So we set up some of these hives in the trees alongside the road leading from the Diemist post to our village. We covered them over with sticky paper, from which strings led to a bamboo trap we set on the road. The next time an enemy patrol came, they disturbed the trap and the paper was torn from the hive. The bees attacked immediately; the troops ran like mad buffalo and started falling into our spiked traps. They went back carrying and dragging their wounded.


“From the post, they must have radioed for help, because the district chief sent a company by road from another post and some more by helicopter. By that time we had set up quite a few more hives. When the enemy came, they saw piles of dirt that looked like freshly dug traps so the officer ordered the troops to clear away the earth and uncover the traps. But the hives were hidden under the earth and there was a terrible commotion when they were disturbed in such a rough way. They attacked, many hundreds of them, and in no time at all, 30 enemy troops were out of action. They had to withdraw again.


“We were very encouraged by this and started to rear the bees specially for our defenses. When I left,” she concluded, “we had over 200 hives and the enemy had not dared come near us for a long time.”


When I met Sister Moonlight she was far from her native village, taking part in a regional conference where experiences of such us usual types of warfare were being exchanged to see to what extent they could be applied in other areas. The use of monkey propagandists and bee garrisons are further illustration of just what a “people’s war” entails. I doubt that any general staff in the world, including that of the Liberation Front, could plan from on top the employment of such weapons. It is the grass roots nature of the struggle in South Vietnam that produces them. But once they are developed and used successfully, the word quickly passes round and they are used extensively.


The political and military aspects of the struggle go hand in hand at every level. Writers, journalists and art workers, for instance, take part in military and political activities almost simultaneously. A pig-tailed girl who was introduced to me as Sister Thieu — not her real name because her family is still in Saigon and she goes in herself from time to time — told me something of the difficulties of a student paper which she helps edit. “For a long time we printed quietly in the center of Saigon itself,” she said, “right in Diemist printing shops. But things got too hot, so we bought a printing plant and smuggled it out of Saigon into the jungle.”


“You smuggled it out of Saigon?” I asked, knowing that Saigon is probably the most tightly controlled city in the world today, with military and police patrols on round-the-clock duty and police at almost every street corner.


“Yes,” she said with a cheery smile, “we took the whole thing to pieces. The type was taken out on the backs of scores of ‘market women’ — actually they were us girl students — in baskets topped off with unsold fruit and vegetables. The rollers were a bit of a problem, but we greased them well and attached them to the bottoms of sampans. They had a long ride in the water, but later they cleaned up alright. We shipped the whole thing out right under the noses of the flics. Our problem before was to print in Saigon and smuggle copies out into the countryside. Now it is the opposite; we print outside and smuggle the copies into the city. Of course we keep changing the communication channels in case of a slip up. But so far there have been none.”

Toxic chemicals 

War on Food Crops


One of the means devised by the U.S. command for its “special war” is the use of air-sprayed chemical against food crops — to destroy where they cannot control. I saw plenty of evidence of this — entire orchards where the trees were bare of leaves or fruit when those in neighbouring villages were nourishing and heavy with fruit; of papaya trees, for instance, which were mere withered stalks with fruit shriveled to the size of walnuts clinging drooped around leafless trunks; of pineapples shrunk to the size of small oranges whereas those of neighbouring gardens were full grown and ready to be harvested. I did not, however, personally witness any attacks nor was I in those areas of the Mekong Delta where attacks are most frequent. But I was able to interview a South Vietnamese woman scientist, Dr. Thuy Ba, a member of the Executive Committee of the South Vietnam Liberation Women’s Association, head of a big hospital and Secretary General of the Association for Defense of Mothers and Children. She had made a special study of the chemical warfare problem, mainly in order to plan protective measures.


“Although these poisons are aimed primarily at food crops and livestock,” said Dr. Thuy Ba, a sensitive-faced young woman, who like many of her colleagues had left a comfortable home and practice in Saigon for the rude conditions in the jungle, “they also seriously affect human beings, especially children and old people. Three thousand children were affected in the Ca Mau area in the first two months of 1964 alone. The main symptoms are skin burns, diarrhea and pulmonary complaints. Since the beginning of the year the enemy has greatly stepped up its campaign virtually all over the Mekong Delta.


“Our Public Health Committee has worked out some counter-measures,” she continued. “We don’t have any gas masks but we use handkerchiefs soaked in water and held over mouth and nose to reduce and filter the amount inhaled. We use lemon juice on skin burns. Smaller children are wrapped up in nylon sheeting when a spraying attack starts and others are taught to run up wind from the spraying areas. The enemy pretends they are spraying insecticides or only ‘defoliage’ agents, but in fact they are out to destroy food crops in the areas they cannot control. In Ca Mau, for instance, after they withdrew from a large number of posts following the anti-Diem coup, they started systematic destruction of rice crops and orchards in the whole area from which they withdrew, and this activity gathers momentum every day. It was intensified still more after Nguyen Khanh took over. Probably,” concluded Dr. Thay Ba, “because they find it more and more difficult to carry on the war by normal means now that the puppet troops have lost all will to fight.”

Working the fields 

The latest information I was able to obtain before leaving the Liberated areas was that new methods of crop destruction were being tried out, including the dropping of eggs of certain types of insects that attacked rice in the water and the use of white phosphorous in napalm containers, the napalm often having little effect in rice fields that remain water-logged even during the harvesting period.


So it goes on. A ceaseless, relentless battle waged for the minds of everyone from soldiers to students; from peasants to government officials and career army officers, with never a trick left unplayed. And this battle, the Front is winning hands down. The Saigon regime has little to offer in return and no real means of counter-attack.


Wilfred Burchett was an Australian reporter often described at the ‘rebel journalist’ for his stories about the American War ‘from the other side’. After years of being at odds with the Australian government, last year the Melbourne Press Club inducted him into their Hall of Fame. Burchett was also the journalist to break the scoop of the 20th century — the devastation caused by dropping nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.


Special thanks to George Burchett for allowing us to republish this work. Please note that some of the language in this piece has been changed to reflect its modern-day spelling


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