Backstory

The “Hearts and Minds” Guys

The United States never did understand the Vietnamese 40 years ago -- and should do everything possible to avoid making the same mistake in Afghanistan today.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Today, there are nearly 100,000 U.S. soldiers hiking around the dusty villages of Afghanistan, battling a tenacious insurgency. Winning "hearts and minds" is once again the order of the day for the U.S. military. The war may have moved to the other end of Asia, but in thinking of the Afghanistan war, I find myself returning to the lessons I learned as a young man in Vietnam.

I was not a soldier during the Vietnam War, but one of four State Department civilians working for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in our province, Binh Long, 60 miles north of Saigon. We were the counterinsurgency workers, the "hearts and minds" guys, a mixture of young do-gooders fresh out of college, midcareer Foreign Service officers, and a great many random misfits: men escaping nagging wives and boring jobs, adventurers, boozers, soldiers of fortune, profiteers, ex-military personnel hooked on war.

If one were to conduct a survey of the civilians plying their trade in Afghanistan today, I do not doubt that it would consist of a similar mix of people. We worked in the villages so that the Vietnamese people would side with us, not the enemy. We thought we could win the war by being nice.

What we learned was that "nice" has a variety of meanings in wartime. The day after the battle of Loc Ninh, in October 1967, we visited a village that had been hit by friendly fire. The village, 40 or 50 thatch and stone homes set close together and connected by dirt paths, spread down a gentle slope below us in the bright morning sun. It was impossible to imagine anything bad happening in this pastoral landscape. I took the door gunner’s helmet, spoke to the pilot, and pointed to a clear area at the top of the rise. The pilot nodded and eased the chopper down as gently as setting a teacup and saucer on a side table.

The villagers told us no one had been killed or injured by the errant gunfire; three houses, however, were destroyed. We promised to bring aluminum roofing sheets, bulgur wheat, rice, old clothes from Catholic Relief Services, CARE packages — the usual stuff. We got back on the chopper and flew over to Loc Ninh, where the main battle had taken place.

That evening back in An Loc, the provincial capital, one of the many spies working in our province sidled up and said "Got a report."

"Yeah?"

"That village today?"

"What?"

"Squad of VC there. Said, ‘We want to kill these Americans.’ People said, ‘No, don’t; they’re just here to help us.’" The spy jerked his head up, grunted a half-laugh, and turned for the Special Forces club. The villagers had saved our lives.

 

Even though I spent a lot of my time visiting the villages, they remained a puzzle to me. Every time we flew or drove into one, like the village outside Loc Ninh, I felt we were entering a no man’s land. Who "controlled" this place? Where did the people’s true allegiance lie? Was there even such a thing? I was clueless. A village, it seemed to me, was entirely at the mercy of whoever was there at the time: the Americans, the Viet Cong, the ARVN (the armed forces of South Vietnam), the NVA (the armed forces of North Vietnam). Villagers couldn’t prevent their coming, and they couldn’t prevent them from doing whatever strategy or caprice demanded: burning houses, fouling wells, confiscating food, rape, murder — or perhaps nothing more than a handout of aluminum roofing and bulgur wheat.

That night, after we visited the village near Loc Ninh and after the spy told us of our close call, the VC began shelling An Loc — first mortars, then big 122-millimeter rockets. The place we lived in was a former French office building designed much like an old-fashioned, one-story motel. A long veranda ran along its facade. The offices of the French leading off the veranda served as our bedrooms. Stone and concrete bunkers with slit gun ports squatted at either end of the veranda. When a barrage began, we’d rush to these bunkers. They would at least protect us from the mortars, but probably not from a direct rocket strike — and certainly not from a concerted ground attack.

We lived in fear of the rumored ground attack that we thought was coming, just like in Loc Ninh. By this time I’d been in An Loc for 17 months and was getting jittery, afraid I’d be killed at the last minute of my tour. I was 26 years old and had maudlin feelings about my young life ending violently and pointlessly.

Living with unintentional irony in a former colonial office, we were virtually defenseless. None of us had military training, and our weapons were a pitiful collection of scrounged antiques. I had a World War II-era carbine, another of us carried a Western-style six-shooter; a third had a grease gun and two clips ("It’s all I need; if they keep coming after that it’s sleepy time for me," he said); and the fourth fortified himself with a generous supply of Scotch whisky.

If we weren’t killed outright in the attack, we could be captured and possibly tortured. A Vietnamese captain told me with some relish about an American captured in another battle. The VC had cut off his arms, stuffed his testicles in his mouth, and ran him up the flagpole.

 

The rocket and mortar attacks on An Loc continued on and off through the end of the year and into the next. One January afternoon, a Special Forces captain — an amiable rumpled man who acted more like a helpful gift shop owner than an intelligence officer — told us An Loc was surrounded by four VC and NVA regiments. "Tonight looks like the night," he said matter-of-factly. "Ground attack."

The rockets came again, high teakettle whistles descending in slow motion toward us. When they hit, everything shook. Acrid smoke drifted in the bunker. I was too terrified to feel anything but numb. I looked out the gun ports through the smoke for men with guns coming up the street. When the barrage let up and no men with guns appeared, we sat on the veranda with glasses of our colleague’s Scotch whisky. I guzzled mine like a canteen. It was my last night in An Loc. I flew out to Saigon the next day.

I was gone, home free, safe, out of there. Later, I received the standard-issue "Medal for Civilian Service in Vietnam." Of course, the villagers I’d tried to help were not gone, not out of there, and they didn’t get medals. It was those villagers I’d abandoned — and I do think of it as abandoned — who had saved my life four months earlier. It was probably the closest I’d come to being killed in Vietnam.

That particular event — the visit to the village hit by friendly fire — has played out in my imagination in the years since I left Vietnam. I see it before my eyes and try to puzzle out the meaning beneath the images. The chopper descends in a leisurely spiral toward the sunny idyllic village, I point to a clear area, the pilot nods, chickens dash about, the pilot sets the chopper down, we get out.

In my imagination, the squad of VC huddles behind a home. They see the chopper descending, see us get out and start toward the village. Clutching their weapons, they talk to the people; the people shake their heads. "No," they say. "They’re just here to help us." Do the VC press the point? Do they argue? Do they acquiesce?

Maybe we were just not that important, not even worth assassinating. Maybe the VC shrugged and muttered the equivalent of "whatever" — perhaps suggesting that importance of our counterinsurgency strategy in the eyes of the enemy was somewhat less than we’d hoped.

I’ve also imagined what would have happened if the situation were reversed. Our troops spot a VC cadre. The villagers ask us not to kill them. Would we have acquiesced? Almost certainly not. That was the very point in our war of attrition: killing the enemy, racking up the body count.

Yet the Vietnamese, in this instance
, were far more discriminating. Americans during the war often denigrated the Vietnamese, calling them "dinks" and "slopes" — saying things like, "They don’t value human life like we do." But here, they did.

I spent nearly two years in Vietnam, from 1966 to 1968. The years before those two, and all those afterward, have been years of comfort and ease, of predictable days and safe nights. It was only in An Loc, down in the bunker at night when the rockets whistled in, or out in no man’s land during the hot and rainy days, that I got a hint of the pit-of-the-stomach helplessness the Vietnamese lived with for years. Because of the generosity and graciousness of those Vietnamese peasants during wartime, the lives of four silly Americans were spared.

May we have a better appreciation today for the trials of the Afghan people, and respect for our enemies, than we did for the Vietnamese then.

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