In the Mekong Delta
It became a standard joke during the latter phase of my travels to ask from time to time whether I was in “liberated” or “controlled” territory and, if troops were around, to ask if they were “theirs” or “yours”. On numerous occasions I stayed in hamlets which were “liberated” while on the other side of a river or strategic highway was another hamlet belonging to the same village which was “enemy-controlled”. In one such case, I asked the head of the local village committee if the enemy ever came over to have a look.
“Yes,” he replied with a broad peasant’s grin, “in this region we let them send in a patrol from time to time and even the district chief may come because officially they pretend this is their hamlet and we do, too; in fact they know it’s ours. They round up a few local people and threaten them: ‘We know you’re all Viet Cong here. You just watch your step. We’ll fix you some day.’
“But the people say: ‘What can we do if you abandon us? How can we help it if the Viet Cong come? Why don’t you come back and have a garrison again?’
“The district chief can only fume and rage. He knows very well that if a garrison is reinstalled, it will be the very people he’s speaking to who will either win the troops over by propaganda or will wipe out the post one night. But he dare not play too tough. He remembers what happened to his predecessor who was a thorough despot and murdered many patriots until he was dealt with himself. He also knows that if his troops start any rough stuff, most of them would never leave the hamlet alive. He can do nothing about that either.”
So, “living integrated with the enemy” was not only a phrase I was often to hear, but it was a habit to which I was becoming accustomed. The situation around the Saigon area seemed complicated enough, but this was nothing compared to that in the Mekong Delta, as explained to me over a map by Nguyen Huu Tho, the Saigon lawyer who as President of the National Front of Liberation, qualifies as “Viet Cong No. 1” in Western press terminology.
He is a mild, professorial person of great charm, with much of the city-bred, liberal intellectual about him. When we met for the first time, deep in a patch of jungle which had taken me many months of tough travel on horseback, on foot and by sampan to reach, it was he who wore the silk shirt and slacks of a Europeanised Saigon host, and I who wore the black cottons and rubber-tire sandals of the Viet Cong.
My mind went back to almost exactly 10 years previously when another Vietnamese leader had emerged from the jungle shadows with similar outstretched hands. A cape thrown over his thin shoulders and brown cottons of the North Vietnamese peasants, his famous wispy beard straggling down from a gaunt face, it was Ho Chi Minh; the place, the Tay Nguyen jungle of North Vietnam; the time, the beginning of the battle of Dien Bien Phu. Six months after that meeting, I entered Hanoi with the first units of the victorious Vietnamese People’s Army. I mentally noted that I must not ask President Nguyen Huu Tho if six months later I would be entering Saigon with the first units of a victorious Liberation army.
As to my question about the Mekong Delta, Nguyen Huu Tho showed me how, for military and administrative purposes, the Front divides the Mekong Delta into two parts, Zones 1 and 2, which roughly correspond to Saigon’s Fourth Tactical Zone. With the main channel of the Mekong as the dividing line, Zone 1 lies to the West, Zone 2 to the East.
In Zone 1, President Tho explained, there were 368 villages of which only 36 were completely liberated at the end of March 1964. But these villages comprise 3,200 hamlets of which 2,500 were in Front hands. In the liberated hamlets lived 2,000,000 of a total of 3,100,000 inhabitants of Zone I. “We can collect taxes and recruit for our armed forces in the liberated villages,” explained Nguyen Huu Tho, “The enemy cannot touch our populations and is having increasing difficulties in trying to collect taxes and conscripts in the 700 hamlets under his nominal control.”
The situation was similar in Zone 2, where of 494 villages, a little over 100 were completely liberated, 91 under Saigon control and the rest “from half to two-thirds liberated.” Of the total population of 2,700,000, about 1,800,000 lived in liberated hamlets; another 400,000 in urban centres, provincial and district capitals, and the remaining 500,000 in “guerilla zones” controlled by the Front — “at least at night”.
This sort of situation is possible only under conditions of “special war” which has to look different from the old type colonial war, since it has to operate under a “national” government and army. The fact that during the decisive Ap Bac battle, the villagers of Ap Bac could march off to the local provincial governor to protest that their village was being attacked by “their” government is another example of the “other side of the medal” of the American “special war” invention.
In the first resistance war, it would be impossible to march off to protest to a provincial governor — he was French — and each side mutually accepted the other as the enemy. That was clear. But the Ap Bac villagers could protest to the governor: “You represent the government. Your job is to protect us. Why have you sent planes and artillery to destroy our village? We demand compensation for every house and tree destroyed.” I do not know the results of the Ap Bac protests, but in very many cases, the population from liberated villages did extract compensation for property damage during “mopping up” operations and enemy raids. In such demonstrations people from “liberated” and “controlled” hamlets often took part together and the local authorities had no way of distinguishing them.
“The pretense that the Saigon regime is a national government,” said Nguyen Huu Tho, “opens up unlimited possibilities for coordinating military with political struggle.”
One of the forms of “coordinating political with military struggle”, as Nguyen Huu Tho explained it, was that of mass demonstrations to thwart enemy military activity, or to support that of the Front. From one early spontaneous example, a whole system was worked out.
Villagers of Trang Bang District of Tay Ninh Province had been tipped off that troops were on their way to their village on a “mopping up” operation. The whole population left en masse, old people and children, everyone with all the belongings they could carry, driving their pigs and buffalo ahead of them and poured into the district centre — with 800 buffalo.
They occupied the whole town, paralysed traffic and at the office of the district chief, they said: “We heard troops are coming to destroy our village. We don’t dare remain there. You are the government, you must protect us. Find a place for us to sleep. We must have rice and food for the children.”
The district chief, who always combines the functions of district military commander, had to call off the operation and spent the next few days getting the town cleaned up from what the pigs and buffalo left behind them.
Word of this soon spread and similar actions started to take place on a more scientific basis. Le Thi Thieu, a dimpled, peach-skinned young beauty from Ben Tre Province — southwest of Saigon and justly famed for the beauty of its women — is known throughout the Delta as an efficient organiser of demonstrations.
“After the success at Trang Bang,” she said, “we in Ben Tre decided to calculate the exact space of the streets and squares of all district centres and even the provincial capital. It took some time, but we had to know how many people were needed to fill up the whole space. Then we could organise the necessary number from the countryside. This had to be done carefully, too, so the exact numbers would arrive from different directions to be in the town by 5am. The leaders of each group had to know which streets and squares they were to occupy. We arranged things so that every square yard of space was occupied by our ‘human sea’ so the target town would be paralysed by dawn. In this way it was impossible to repress us, because troops and police couldn’t move; nothing could move, in fact, except us.
“We organised demonstrations of up to 20,000 people, almost all women, in my province and neighboring My Tho. If the authorities were able to call out troops and they threatened to open fire, we had special spokeswomen, with high political consciousness, usually from the Soldiers’ Mothers organisation of the first resistance. A conversation would go like this:
“‘Sons, you could all be my children. My two lads are in your army!’ She would pull out a couple of photos of soldiers in Diemist uniforms. ‘They look just like you,’ she would continue. ‘If you shoot at us, it would be like shooting at your own mother. You shoot at the young women behind me, it would be like shooting at your own wives. Their husbands are also in your army. Why have we come here? To stop people getting killed. Maybe your mother is in a village being bombarded at this very moment. Or your wife is being raped by Diemist troops. If you don’t believe that such things happen, I’ll introduce you to two soldiers’ wives from our hamlet who were raped a few weeks ago.’”
One particular demonstration Le Thi Thien described was at the Ben Tre provincial capital and was to protest the use of air-sprayed chemicals to destroy crops and livestock. “Villagers carried branches from fruit trees, leaves from banana palms withered by the chemicals; dead pigs, ducks and chickens — a real exhibition of destruction. They hurled them into piles in front of the troops and shouted:
“Look at that. That’s why we’re here, to protest about that. We don’t carry arms, we’ve not come to harm you or cause trouble. Keep your bullets for the enemies of the people, for those who are killing your own mothers and wives. But if you feel some glory in shooting at us, do so. But in shooting at us, you’ll dishonour your own wives and mothers.”
All this has a devastating effect on the morale of the soldiers who are all peasants and some of whose wives and mothers may very well be in the crowd. It is another aspect of “special war” which General Maxwell Taylor probably did not take into account when he laid down the principle of using exclusively local troops under a US command.
Once the war started to go badly these “local troops” were wide open to disaffection and the Front’s “chignon battalions” — as they were called because of the chignon style of hairdo favored by the women of the South — exploited this to the full. Saigon officers were said to be more terrified of the “chignon battalions” and their activities than the Viet Cong proper. Certainly, desertions made up a high proportion of Saigon’s monthly casualties and these were largely the work of the skilled women propagandists.
Apart from those who organise or participate in the actions at district and provincial centres, there are in every village groups of women known as “cannon-spikers”.
In one cannon-spiking operation I heard of, the village women and children raced towards the artillery team as they were making their preparations, driving pigs and buffalo ahead of them, carrying chickens under their arms; within minutes, chickens were all over cannon and shells, pigs and buffalo were milling around. Women and children jammed in around the guns and squatting on the piles of shells were wailing and shouting: “If you’re going to shell our village, this is the only safe place for us to be.” Such incidents multiplied by the thousand build up to a terribly effective politico-military weapon, wielded with consummate courage and skill.
Every night in some part of South Vietnam or another, wherever there are Saigon posts there are hundreds or thousands of girls, megaphones in hand, seeping around in the grass or trees around the posts. Whenever possible the girl at any particular post will have a relative inside. She starts the evening “programme” by chanting a poem, evoking memories of home and village life. There may be a couple of shots fired in her general direction, as the first response. She will call her relative by name:
“Chanh, Chanh, it’s your cousin Thi Lan. Why do you shoot? I’m only a village girl. I don’t have any arms. I thought you and your friends must be lonely and bored there, so I came to chant some poems.”
The programme continues with softly chanted poems and songs, carefully chosen village tearjerkers.
Then: “Chanh, Chanh. Are you listening? There’s good news from your village. Little Chi has done very well at school. By the way, your village has been liberated and a nice bit of paddy field along the river has been set aside for you. Some of your friends in the army, too.”
More songs and poems. “Chanh, why don’t you give up this dishonourable life, leave the bad road you are on and come back to your village. Be on the side of the people, before it is too late. Why should you get yourself killed for the Yankees?” There may be more shots at this, but the real shots have gone home, not only in the mind of Chanh, but in those of the whole garrison.
The next time he is called out on an operation, Chanh will be thinking of that bit of rice field down by the river, bent only on surviving to sink a plough into it. And very probably he — like 45,000 other Chanhs and Nguyens in 1963 — will slip away one night to contact the Front forces, either to join them or to get a pass to return to the bit of rice land down by the river. The poems outside the posts never fail to produce deserters, I was assured by both poem-chanters and deserters themselves. An incredibly effective form of “special counter-warfare!”
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 who broke 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 place names in this piece have been changed to reflect their modern-day spelling