Silence was a Weapon: The Vietnam War in the Villages (a book on U.S. counter-insurgency and the Phoenix Program)

Stuart A. Herrington, Silence was a Weapon: The Vietnam War in the Villages, 1982, New York: Ivy Books

Silence was a WeaponThis book provides an intimate, village-level understanding of the final years of U.S involvement in the Vietnam War. By focusing the reader’s attention to the scale of the village, the wider war reveals itself in a way that most historical accounts of Vietnam risk missing. Herrington served as a district military intelligence advisor in Duc Hue, which had a population of approximately 29,000 people, spread across four villages. The larger Hau Nghia province is flanked by the “parrot’s beak” of Cambodia, approximately 8km to its west.

The intelligence gathering operation in South Vietnam that Herrington served as part of was known as the Phoenix Program. It aimed to gather and share intelligence on the Vietcong, or National Liberation Front (NLF). “Our job as Phoenix advisors was to assist the Vietnamese intelligence services (our counterparts) in identifying the members of the ‘Vietcong infrastructure’ (VCI) and in planning the operations to ‘neutralize’ them. Neutralize was a euphemism that actually meant kill, capture, or convince to surrender” (p.6).

Most of the early book revolves around the fate of Tan My, a village Herrington is informed is overrun with the NLF’s “shadow government” or civilian infrastructure. He is warned that Tan My is a “model revolutionary village.” Of course, as Herrington notes, the idea of a “shadow government” stretches all the way back to the French reoccupation of Vietnam, beginning in the late 1940s (and up to 1954), during which time Vietminh leaders and the wider resistance movement began to operate “underground.” After the failure of the Geneva Accords in 1956, the model of village-based resistance and militia would be exploited by the communist NLF, which inherited much of the political apparatus of the nationalist Vietminh: it was therefore able to rapidly organize the “Provisional Revolutionary Government.” This meant that at the hamlet level, the revolution was almost impossible to efface. “The Vietcong’s organization was thus the major device by which the revolution insured the silence of the people–and this silence was sufficient to frustrate our efforts” (52-53).

A more important recruiting tool for the Vietcong, however, were South Vietnamese policies–and the Diem regime in particular–whose “Strategic Hamlets” relocation program (which removed people from their ancestral homes), Decree 1059 law (which criminalized all members of the Viet Minh), and regressive land reform (which hampered the poor)–all of which proved widely unpopular (p.36-7). Indeed, throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s, these government blunders put tremendous pressure on village life. “As the people’s attitudes shifted, Communist guerilla units were reborn in the hamlets and government became less and less visible in the village” (p.38).

Rather than focus on the war with a bird’s eye view then, Herrington shows the intimate politics and frustrations that ultimately led to U.S. and South Vietnamese defeat and the success of the People’s Army of North Vietnam. In particular, what strikes the reader is that most peasants simply didn’t care one way or another for revolutionary or government forces. This wasn’t necessarily born of apathy either, just a survival instinct–or pragmatism– ingrained over generations of conflict. Loyalties switched with the shifting sands of war, and communities had to play a difficult balancing act between the NLF and South Vietnamese government forces, both of which could be integrated into village life at any one time. “For most Americans in Vietnam, the dynamics of the Vietnamese villager’s dilemma were impossible to grasp” (p.53).

Herrington initially finds the Duc Hue Phoenix program languishing in a bureaucratic malaise: South Vietnamese officials were reluctant to rock the military boat, preferring a tacit agreement between the government and the NLF. So while there was an “impressive maze of colored file cards and folders that were all aimed at the goal of establishing ‘target folders’ on identified Vietcong politicians” (p.15), the paperwork did not translate into meaningful action.

Herrington states that Phoenix made good sense conceptually: an intelligence office was opened across each of South Vietnam’s 247 districts, and any organization that collected information on the NLF insurgency could then pool it together into a central program. Targets could thus be generated from a variety of sources, and crosschecked. “The goal was simple. If the Vietcong agent was a ‘legal cadre,’ one who carried a government identity card and lived overtly, the Phoenix office would mount a police operation to arrest him. If the Vietcong was a n ‘illegal cadre,’ one who lived in a bunker by day and operated covertly at night, then the Phoenix office would plan a military operation to kill or capture him” (p.18). Other important practices of Phoenix include the distribution of “Most Wanted” posters, the establishment of “Blacklists” in each village, and the classification of Vietcong cadre from most dangerous (A) to mere sympathizers with the revolution (C).

Above all, however, no matter how well intentioned U.S. forces may have been, they were not, and could never be, Vietnamese. This meant that local U.S. intelligence efforts were nearly always up against a shared cultural reticence to help outsiders. District chiefs, for example, often just paid lip service to counter-insurgency, fearing for their own lives, and the peace of the villages they oversaw. As a consequence, the Phoenix Program in Duc Hue never really functioned as a policing operation, and instead became a bureaucratic dead-end, since South Vietnamese officials were themselves trapped in the same kind of balancing act played out across the villages in which they ostensibly policed. Frustrated, Herrington leaves the Phoenix office after just two weeks.

While remaining at Duc Hue, he becomes a military advisor on a series of projects involving extracting information from Vietcong and NVA “ralliers,” those who have deserted their former cadres for Saigon. From these characters, Herrington chronicles a series of life histories that have led young men into fighting for causes that were indoctrinated into them at early ages. Often, it was these ralliers who were vital to U.S. and South Vietnamese intelligence operation in the province.

In the concluding chapter of the book, Herrington offers a series of reflections on his experiences of his time as a military intelligence advisor. The first was the “near universal cynicism” of the people towards the South Vietnamese government, which suffered from endemic corruption (which the NLF played upon). Second, because of the perceived ineptitude of Saigon, it often created a political vacuum in the everyday lives of villagers which meant “a small number of Communist sympathizers in South Vietnam’s villages had managed to carry a big stick, and the insurgency had wielded power and influence that was vastly out of proportion to its true base of support” (p.252). Third, the American presence provided a crucial recruiting tool to the anti-colonial narrative of Hanoi and the NLF. Fourth, the linguistic and cultural barrier proved insurmountable, with translators often misleading and hindering communication. Fifth, the Phoenix Program was a failure: rivalry between different police, government, military, and intelligence agencies hampered information sharing– and “There was an almost universal lack of enthusiasm for Phoenix on the part of most Vietnamese district chiefs” (p.257). And this was hardly surprising–the more successful Phoenix was, the more a district chief would himself become a target of reprisal. Herrington does note, however, that tens of thousands of NLF agents were neutralized by Phoenix. While noting there were some abuses of power, he argues that Phoenix was not “an indiscriminate counterterror weapon that was ruthless employed by us and the South Vietnamese against a defenseless peasantry” (p.259).

Despite some of the successes displayed by the South Vietnamese counterinsurgency and Phoenix programs, Herrington admits that the one thing that neither Saigon nor Washington had was time. Time was the ultimate weapon that Hanoi wielded from the north; its hammer blow felt by Herrington in 1975 as he was evacuated from the U.S. embassy by helicopter.

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