August 4, 2015

1965. The Desperate Situation in Vietnam

Terror Tactics and the Viet Cong
Viet Cong fighters crossing a river in 1966. Source: George Esper: The Eyewitness History of the Vietnam War 1961-1975, Associated Press, New York 1983.
Bill Downs

ABC Washington

September 27, 1965

The tragic execution of two more American soldiers by the Viet Cong—a brutal reprisal branded by the US government as "acts of wanton murder"—naturally stirs feelings of anger, disgust, and sorrow in all of us. And, although more than six hundred Americans have died in the undeclared war in Vietnam, the deliberate execution of Captain Humbert Versace and Sergeant Kenneth Roraback exposes all the brutal viciousness of the kind of personalized struggle that characterizes that communist-led guerrilla war to take over the country.

Intelligence reports indicate that the increased casualties suffered by the Viet Cong in the past six months of the intensified fighting have forced the guerrilla leadership to resort more and more to terror as an instrument of their control. The shootings, garrotings, and beheadings of village leaders, the reprisal murders of the families of men who defect from the Viet Cong and give the communist commanders a fearful hold over some forty percent of the countryside and about twenty-two percent of the South Vietnamese population.

The fact that leaders of the so-called "National Liberation Front" found it necessary to slay two captured American soldiers in reprisal for the Saigon government's trial and execution of three Viet Cong terrorists has the earmarks of an act of desperation—although this will be little comfort to families of the dead men.

It could be that the Viet Cong is beginning to lose some of the latent sympathy for their cause among large sections of the civilian population. By killing two US soldiers, the Viet Cong clearly sought to remind the people of the power of communist terror. Ironically, most of the US men fighting in Vietnam make no secret of their professional respect for the combat ability of the Viet Cong guerrilla soldier. They rate him as a skilled and courageous enemy.

A recent study of Viet Cong prisoners sponsored by the government revealed that the ordinary guerrilla fighter—which means most of them—knows and understands very little about the communism for which he is supposed to be fighting and dying. Their motivations for fighting are usually concerned with their own brand of nationalistic patriotism. The Viet Cong guerrilla has learned from the past to have a great contempt for the history of corruption, and the bloody hands of former would-be warlords and obese rice millionaires who ruled him from Saigon. But only the Hanoi-trained, hardcore guerrilla commanders know much about communist ideology. The war prisoners said that morale in the Viet Cong battalions now was beginning to suffer—not so much because of the intensified ground battle they are forced to fight, but because of the relentless, never-ending attacks from the air, night and day, that keep them ever on the move and give them little time to rest.

US intelligence experts here in Washington and in Saigon are now receiving reports about the military posture of the guerrilla forces following the Viet Cong's only partially successful Monsoon offensive. The dispatches are so encouraging for a change that there's reluctance to believe them. For example, out of thirty-three engagements fought with the Viet Cong a week ago, the guerrillas initiated only one battle. While last August the South Vietnam troops were killing three Viet Cong to every one of their own soldiers lost, the rate of killing last week was six to one.

The South Vietnam army has almost tripled its draft call-up since last January. In the past, the number of volunteers has been roughly equal to the draft call. Now more than two South Vietnamese youths are volunteering for everyone one who is drafted. And the most encouraging sign of all, for the first time this year the number of Viet Cong captured has exceeded the number of South Vietnamese troops missing in action—meaning gone over the hill—battlefield desertions.

American authorities explain that the past high rate of desertion from the Saigon army does not necessarily reflect on the courage of the Vietnam fighting men, nor does it mean enemy propaganda has won the AWOL soldier over to the communist cause.

They cite several instances where a man, sent from his delta home to fight in the highlands, will suddenly turn up missing. He might even join up with a Viet Cong guerrilla band going South and fight with them for a few weeks, but when he gets within striking distance of his village, he would desert the Viet Cong unit and rejoin his family. The reason? The AWOL soldier knew that it was time for planting—or harvest—in the family rice paddy, a fact of existence more important to him than a mere war.

In some cases, after the planting was done, the so-called deserter voluntarily reported again to the South Vietnamese army, ready to do his duty and not understanding why his absence caused an excitement at all.

All wars are unbelievable tragic. But the one in Vietnam is stranger and sadder than most—and it's not even an officially declared war.

This is Bill Downs, substituting for Edward P. Morgan, saying good night from Washington.