"The whole thing was a Lie!"
by Donald Duncan
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[MEMOIRS OF A SPECIAL FORCES HERO]
MASTER SERGEANT DONALD DUNCAN left the United States Army in September of 1965 after ten years of service, including six years in the Special Forces and eighteen months on active combat duty in Vietnam. While in Vietnam he received the South Vietnamese Silver Star, the Combat Infantry Badge, the Bronze Star, and the United States Army Air Medal. He was nominated for the American Silver Star and was the first enlisted man in Vietnam to be nominated for the Legion of Merit. Both nominations are still pending. He participated in many missions behind enemy lines in War Zone D, Vung Tao and the An Khe Valley. Last March he turned down the offer of a field commission to the rank of captain. Instead he left Vietnam on September 5, 1965 and received his honorable discharge four days later.
When I was drafted into the Army, ten years ago, I was a militant anti-Communist. Like most Americans, I couldn't conceive of anybody choosing communism over democracy. The depths of my aversion to this ideology was, I suppose, due in part to my being Roman Catholic, in part to the stories in the news media about communism, and in part to the fact that my stepfather was born in Budapest, Hungary. Although he had come to the United States as a young man, most of his family had stayed in Europe. From time to time, I would be given examples of the horrors of life under communism. Shortly after Basic Training, I was sent to Germany. I was there at the time of the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian revolt. Everything I had heard about communism was verified. Like my fellow soldiers I felt frustrated and cheated that the United States would not go to the aid of the Hungarians. Angrily, I followed the action of the brute force being used against people who were armed with sticks, stolen weapons, and a desire for independence.
While serving in Germany, I ran across the Special Forces. I was so impressed by their dedication and elan that I decided to volunteer for duty with this group. By 1959 I had been accepted into the Special Forces and underwent training at Fort Bragg. I was soon to learn much about the outfit and the men in it. A good percentage of them were Lodge Act people — men who had come out from Iron Curtain countries. Their anti-communism bordered on fanaticism. Many of them who, like me, had joined Special Forces to do something positive, were to leave because "things" weren't happening fast enough. They were to show up later in Africa and Latin America in the employ of others or as independent agents for the CIA.
Initially, training was aimed at having United States teams organize guerrilla movements in foreign countries. Emphasis was placed on the fact that guerrillas can't take prisoners. We were continuously told "You don't have to kill them yourself— let your indigenous counterpart do that."In a course entitled, "Countermeasures to Hostile Interrogation," we were taught NKVD (Soviet Security) methods of torture to extract information. It became obvious that the title was only camouflage for teaching us "other" means of interrogation when time did not permit more sophisticated methods, for example, the old cold water-hot water treatment, or the delicate operation of lowering a man's testicles into a jeweler's vise. When we asked directly if we were being told to use these methods the answer was, "We can't tell you that. The Mothers of America wouldn't approve." This sarcastic hypocrisy was greeted with laughs. Our own military teaches these and even worse things to American soldiers. They then condemn the Viet Cong guerrillas for supposedly doing those very things. I was later to witness firsthand the practice of turning prisoners over to ARVN for "interrogation" and the atrocities which ensued.
Counterterror was one way of co-opting uncommitted civilians. To facilitate their political awakening, according to Manzione, "We left our calling card nailed to the forehead of the corpses we left behind. They were playing card size with a light green skull with red eyes and red teeth dripping blood, set against a black background. We hammered them into the third eye, the pituitary gland, with our pistol butts. The third eye is the seat of consciousness for Buddhists, and this was a form of mutilation that had a powerful psychological effect."
Curiously, terror tactics often involve mutilating the third eye (the seat of insight and secret thoughts) and playing on fears of an "all-seeing" cosmic eye of God. Used by morale officers in World War I, the eye of God trick called for pilots in small aircraft to fly over enemy camps and call out the names of individual soldiers. Ed Lansdale applied the technique in the Philippines. "At night, when the town was asleep, a psywar team would creep into town and paint an eye (copied from the Egyptian eye that appears atop the pyramid in the Great Seal of the United States) on a wall facing the house of each suspect," Lansdale writes. "The mysterious presence of these malevolent eyes the next morning had a sharply sobering effect."
To appreciate the "sobering effects" of the "malevolent" and "mysterious" eye of God, it helps to know something of the archetype's mythological origins. In ancient Egypt, the eye of God was plucked from Horus, an anthropomorphic sun-god with a falcon's head. Pictured as the morning sun cresting a pyramid, the eye of God represents the dawn of self-awareness, when the ego emerged from the id and no longer required human sacrifice to overcome its primeval anxiety. Awed by the falcon's superlative sight, talons, and flight, the Egyptians endowed Horus with the bird's predatory prowess, so he could avenge the murder his father, Osiris, whose name means "seat of the eye." Set on high, scanning the earth for the forces of darkness, the falcon as sun-god -- as the manifestation of enlightenment -- carries out the work of organization and pacification, imposing moral order on earth.
The eye of God assumes its mysterious "counterespionage" qualities through this myth of the eternal cycle -- the battle between good and evil -- in which, if the perfidious gods of darkness can guess the sun-god's secret name, they can rob him of his powers and trap him forever in the underworld. Thus a falcon emblem was placed above the gates of all Egyptian temples, scanning for the sun-god's enemies, while the sun-god relied on code names to conceal his identity.
Oddly enough, the eye of God was the symbol of the Cao Dai sect, whose gallery of saints include Confucius, Buddha, Joan of Arc, Jesus, and Victor Hugo. Inside the Cao Dai cathedral in Tay Ninh City, the Cao Dai pope divined upon his planchette the secrets of the Great pyramid; over the temple door loomed a huge blue "all-seeing" eye surrounded by snakes and trees. For this reason, some people suggest that the Cao Dai eye of God endowed Phoenix, the all-seeing bird of prey that selectively snatched its prey, with its ubiquity.
In South Vietnam the eye of God trick took a ghastly twist. CIA officer Pat McGarvey recalled to Seymour Hersh that "some psychological warfare guy in Washington thought of a way to scare the hell out of villagers. When we killed a VC there, they wanted us to spread-eagle the guy, put out his eye, cut a hole in the back [of his head] and put his eye in there. The idea was that fear was a good weapon." Likewise, ears were cut off corpses and nailed to houses to let the people know that Big Brother was listening as well.
"Now everyone knows about the airborne interrogation -- taking three people up in a chopper, taking one guy and saying, 'Talk,' then throwing him out before he even gets the chance to open his mouth. Well, we wrapped det [detonator] cord around their necks and wired them to the detonator box. And basically what it did was blow their heads off. The interrogator would tell the translator, usually a South Vietnamese intelligence officer, 'Ask him this.' He'd ask him, 'Who gave you the gun?' And the guy would start to answer, or maybe he wouldn't -- maybe he'd resist -- but the general idea was to waste the first two. They planned the snatches that way. Pick up this guy because we're pretty sure he's VC cadre -- these other two guys just run errands for him. Or maybe they're nobody; Tran, the farmer, and his brother Nguyen. But bring in two. Put them in a row. By the time you get to your man, he's talking so fast you got to pop the weasel just to shut him up." After a moment's silence he added, "I guess you could say that we wrote the book on terror."
-- The Phoenix Program, by Douglas Valentine
Throughout the training there was an exciting aura of mystery. Hints were continually being dropped that "at this very moment" Special Forces men were in various Latin American and Asian countries on secret missions. The anti-Communist theme was woven throughout. Recommended reading would invariably turn out to be books on "brainwashing" and atrocity tales — life under communism. The enemy was THE ENEMY. There was no doubt that THE ENEMY was communism and Communist countries. There never was a suggestion that Special Forces would be used to set up guerrilla warfare against the government in a Fascist-controlled country.
It would be a long time before I would look back and realize that this conditioning about the Communist conspiracy and THE ENEMY was taking place. Like most of the men who volunteered for Special Forces, I wasn't hard to sell. We were ready for it. Artur Fisers, my classmate and roommate, was living for the day when he would "lead the first 'stick' of the first team to go into Latvia. "How about Vietnam, Art?" "To hell with Vietnam. I wouldn't blend. There are not many blue-eyed gooks." This was to be only the first of many contradictions of the theory that Special Forces men cannot be prejudiced about the color or religion of other people.
After graduation, I was chosen to be a Procurement NCO for Special Forces in California. The joke was made that I was now a procurer. After seeing how we were prostituted, the analogy doesn't seem a bad one. General Yarborough's instructions were simple: "I want good, dedicated men who will graduate. If you want him, take him. Just remember, he may be on your team someday." Our final instructions from the captain directly in charge of the program had some succinct points. I stood in shocked disbelief to hear, "Don't send me any niggers. Be careful, however, not to give the impression that we are prejudiced in Special Forces. You won't find it hard to find an excuse to reject them. Most will be too dumb to pass the written test. If they luck out on that and get by the physical testing, you'll find that they have some sort of a criminal record." The third man I sent to Fort Bragg was a "nigger." And I didn't forget that someday he might be on my team.
Delivered 6 coolers of cocaine to SLN. Met Barry Seal in C-123. Ramon Navarro was with Seal. Asked Seal what was up with the cocaine being made in contra camps. Said it was a CIA OPN. This shipment was going to Calif to make a drug called crack. Seal said that the CIA planned to get all the niggers in the U.S. hooked on it & then throw 'em in prison. Said the $'s for the crack goes to buy weapons for the contras. Asked him who is involved -- he said it goes all the way to the white house. Said I could talk to the boss -- he'd be here (in Honduras) in a couple days. Took notes on back of AA. Msn request for RMTC. Will include with this flight plan. Msn RQ dtd 6 April.
-- The Chip Tatum Chronicles: Testimony of Government Drug Running, by Chip Tatum
My first impressions of Vietnam were gained from the window of the jet while flying over Saigon and its outlying areas. As I looked down I thought, "Why, those could be farms anywhere and that could be a city anywhere." The ride from Tan Son Nhut to the center of town destroyed the initial illusion.
My impressions weren't unique for a new arrival in Saigon. I was appalled by the heat and humidity which made my worsted uniform feel like a fur coat. Smells. Exhaust fumes from the hundreds of blue and white Renault taxis and military vehicles. Human excrement; the foul, stagnant, black mud and water as we passed over the river on Cong Ly Street; and, overriding all the others, the very pungent and rancid smell of what I later found out was nuoc mam, a sauce made much in the same manner as sauerkraut, with fish substituted for cabbage. No Vietnamese meal is complete without it. People — masses of them! The smallest children, with the dirty faces of all children of their age, standing on the sidewalk unshod and with no clothing other than a shirtwaist that never quite reached the navel on the protruding belly. Those a little older wearing overall-type trousers with the crotch seam torn out — a practical alteration that eliminates the need for diapers. Young grade school girls in their blue butterfly sun hats, and boys of the same age with hands out saying, "OK — Salem," thereby exhausting their English vocabulary. The women in ao dais of all colors, all looking beautiful and graceful. The slim, hipless men, many walking hand-in-hand with other men, and so misunderstood by the newcomer. Old men with straggly Fu Man Chu beards staring impassively, wearing wide-legged, pajama-like trousers.
Bars by the hundreds — with American-style names (Playboy, Hungry i, Flamingo) and faced with grenade-proof screening. Houses made from packing cases, accommodating three or four families, stand alongside spacious villas complete with military guard. American GI's abound in sport shirts, slacks, and cameras; motorcycles, screaming to make room for a speeding official in a large, shiny sedan, pass over an intersection that has hundreds of horseshoes impressed in the soft asphalt tar. Confusion, noise, smells, people — almost overwhelming. My initial assignment was in Saigon as an Area Specialist for III and IV Corps Tactical Zone in the Special Forces Tactical Operations Center. And my education began here. The officers and NCOs were unanimous in their contempt of the Vietnamese.
There was a continual putdown of Saigon officials, the Saigon government, ARVN (Army Republic of Vietnam), the LLDB (Luc Luong Dac Biet-Vietnamese Special Forces) and the Vietnamese man-in-the-street. The government was rotten, the officials corrupt, ARVN cowardly, the LLDB all three, and the man-in-the-street an ignorant thief. (LLDB also qualified under "thief.")
I was shocked. I was working with what were probably some of the most dedicated Americans in Vietnam. They were supposedly in Vietnam to help "our Vietnamese friends" in their fight for a democratic way of life. Obviously, the attitude didn't fit.
It occurred to me that if the people on "our side" were all these things, why were we then supporting them and spending $1.5 million dollars a day in their country? The answer was always the same: "They are anti-Communists," and this was supposed to explain everything.
As a result of this insulation, my initial observations of everything and everyone Vietnamese were colored. I almost fell into the habit, or mental laziness, of evaluating Vietnam not on the basis of what I saw and heard, but on what I was told by other biased Americans. When you see something contradictory, there is always a fellow countryman willing to interpret the significance of it, and it won't be favorable to the Vietnamese. This is due partially to the type of Vietnamese that the typical American meets, coupled with typical American prejudices. During his working hours, the American soldier deals primarily with the Vietnamese military. Many (or most) of the higher-ranking officers attained their status through family position, as a reward for political assistance, and through wealth. Most of the ranking civilians attained their positions in the same manner. They use their offices primarily as a means of adding to their personal wealth. There is hardly any social rapport between GI Joe and his Vietnamese counterpart.
"Negroes do not go into white bars except at the risk of being ejected."
Most contact between Americans and Vietnamese civilians is restricted to taxi drivers, laborers, secretaries, contractors, and bar girls. All these people have one thing in common: They are dependent on Americans for a living. The last three have something else in common. In addition to speaking varying degrees of English, they will tell Americans anything they want to hear as long as the money rolls in. Neither the civilian nor military with whom the American usually has contact is representative of the Vietnamese people.
Many of our military, officers and enlisted, have exported the color prejudice, referring to Vietnamese as "slopes" and "gooks" — two words of endearment left over from Korea. Other fine examples of American Democracy in action are the segregated bars. Although there are exceptions, in Saigon, Nha Trang, and Da Nang and some of the other larger towns, Negroes do not go into white bars except at the risk of being ejected. I have seen more than one incident where a Negro newcomer has made a "mistake" and walked into the wrong bar. If insulting catcalls weren't enough to make him leave, he was thrown out bodily. There are cases where this sort of thing has led to near-riots.
It is obvious that the Vietnamese resent us as well. We are making many of the same mistakes that the French did, and in some instances our mistakes are worse. Arrogance, disrespect, rudeness, prejudice, and our own special brand of ignorance, are not designed to win friends. This resentment runs all the way from stiff politeness to obvious hatred. It is so common that if a Vietnamese working with or for Americans is found to be sincerely cooperative, energetic, conscientious, and honest, it automatically makes him suspect as a Viet Cong agent.
AFTER MY INITIAL ASSIGNMENT in Saigon, which lasted two and one-half months, I volunteered for a new program called Project Delta. This was a classified project wherein specially selected men in Special Forces were to train and organize small teams to be infiltrated into Laos. The primary purpose of dropping these teams into Laos was to try and find the Ho Chi Minh trail and gather information on traffic, troops, weapons, etc. This was purely a reconaissance intelligence mission, but the possibility of forming guerrilla bases later was considered. There was some talk of going into North Vietnam, but not by Project Delta. Another outfit. Special Operations Group (SOG) was already doing just that. SOG was a combined forces effort. The CIA, Air Force (US), Navy, Army and detached Special Forces personnel were all in on the act.
Project Delta was paid for by Uncle Sam from CIDG funds. We had to feed, billet and clothe the Vietnamese. Free beer was supplied and lump sums of money were agreed on, money to be paid after completion of training and more to be paid when the teams returned.
Here we are in South Vietnam to help these people "preserve their freedom, etc.," willing to risk our lives to that end and here we are paying them to help themselves. These were men already being paid their regular pay in the Vietnamese Army and we actually had to pay a bonus each time they went to the field on training missions or made a parachute jump, all of which was supposed to be a normal part of their duties.
Originally, it was thought that the teams would be composed of four Vietnamese and two Americans. Although many of the people we were training had natural aptitudes for the area of operations, strong and effective leadership was lacking. It was emphasized constantly to the Pentagon and to the ambassador by those intimately involved in the training program, that if any degree of success was to be realized it was imperative that Americans must accompany the teams.
When at the last minute we received a firm "No Go" for the United States personnel, we asked, "Why?" The answer was that it was an election year and it would cause great embarrassment if Americans were captured in Laos. Anything of that nature would have to wait until after the election. The reaction to this decision on the part of the Americans was one of anger, disappointment and disgust.
The one thing that made it possible to accomplish the things we did was the relationship we had established with the Vietnamese. Each man took it upon himself to establish a friendly relationship with the men on the teams. We ate the same food, wore the same clothes, lived in the same tents, shared the same hardships. We worked more hours and carried the same loads. We made ourselves the guinea pigs in experiments. The pitch was, "We don't ask you to do anything we won't do ourselves." It worked. We had dedicated teams.
After the decision to eliminate Americans from the drops, the Vietnamese felt that they had been cheated. Petty complaints became rampant; e.g., if we do not get wool sweaters and better watches we will not go. They felt this was one more example of Americans standing back advising Vietnamese on how to get killed without risk to themselves. We started getting an increase in A.W.O.L.s. The Americans had to watch their teams board the infiltration aircraft without them. Hands were shaken but with eyes averted. "Good lucks" were said but with bent heads. We felt guilty. We had strongly advised that the teams not be sent until the Americans could go, but to no avail.
Like everyone, I was disappointed. This was the one thing, if I had to single one out, that made me really start questioning our role in Vietnam. It suddenly occurred to me that the denial of American participation was not based on whether it was right or wrong for us to be going to Laos. The primary concern was the possible embarrassment to President Johnson during an election campaign. Toward this end we sent people on a mission that had little or no chance of success. It became apparent that we were not interested in the welfare of the Vietnamese but, rather, in how we could best promote our own interests. We sent 40 men who had become our friends. These were exceptionally dedicated people, all volunteers, and their CO showed up drunk at the plane to bid the troops farewell — just all boozed up. Six returned, the rest were killed or captured.
As it turned out, the mission found damned little. Most teams didn't last long enough to report what, if anything, they saw. The six survivors came completely through the areas and observed no troop movements, no concentrations of troops, and little vehicle traffic, day or night. In the final stages, two of the project helicopters flew two missions a day for four days, looking for the teams. They saw nothing and were not fired at. As for the highway from Tchepone to Muong Nong, one helicopter flew the highway, taking pictures with a hand-held 35mm camera. It was low enough to take straight-on shots of people standing in doorways.
To many in Vietnam this mission confirmed that the Ho Chi Minh trail, so called, and the traffic on it, was grossly exaggerated, and that the Viet Cong were getting the bulk of their weapons from ARVN and by sea. It also was one more piece of evidence that the Viet Cong were primarily South Vietnamese, not imported troops from the North. One more thing was added to my growing lists of doubts of the "official" stories about Vietnam.
When the project shifted to in-country operations Americans went on drops throughout the Viet Cong-held areas of South Vietnam. One such trip was into War Zone D north of Dong Xoi, near the Michelin plantation. There is no such thing as a typical mission. Each one is different. But this one revealed some startling things. Later I was to brief Secretary of Defense McNamara and General Westmoreland on the limited military value of the bombing, as witnessed on this mission.
As usual we went in at dusk — this time in a heavy rain squall. We moved only a nominal distance, perhaps 300 meters, through the thick, tangled growth and stopped. Without moonlight we were making too much noise. It rained all night so we had to wait until first light to move without crashing around. Moving very cautiously for about an hour, we discovered a deserted company headquarters position, complete with crude tables, stools, and sleeping racks. After reporting this by radio, we continued on our way. The area was crisscrossed with well-traveled trails under the canopy. A few hours later we reached the edge of a large rubber plantation without incident. Keeping to the thick growth surrounding the plantation, we skirted the perimeter. We discovered that it was completely surrounded by deserted gun positions and fox holes, all with beautiful fields-of-fire down the even rows of rubber trees. None gave evidence of having been occupied for at least three or four days. We transmitted this information to the Tactical Operations Center (TOC) and then the team proceeded across the plantation, heading for the headquarters and housing area in the center.
When we arrived at a point 100 meters from our destination, the team leader and I went forward, leaving the team in a covering position. As we got closer, we could hear sounds from the houses, but assumed these were only workers. The briefing had neglected to tell us that the plantation was supposed to be deserted. Crawling, we stopped about 25 meters from the first line of houses. Lifting our heads, we received a rude shock. These weren't plantation workers. These were Viet Cong soldiers, complete with blue uniforms, webbing, and many with the new Soviet bloc weapons. The atmosphere seemed to be one of relaxation. We could even hear a transistor radio playing music. After 30 or 40 minutes we drew back to the team position. We reported our find to the TOC and estimated the number of Viet Cong to be at least one company. The whole team then retraced the two kilometers to the jungle and moved into it. Crawling into the thickest part, we settled down just as darkness and the rain closed in on us.
Underneath ponchos, to prevent light from our flashlights escaping, the Vietnamese team leader and I, after closely pouring over our maps, drafted a detailed message for TOC. In the morning we sent the message, which gave map coordinates of a number of small Landing Zones (LZs) around the area. We also gave them a plan for exploiting our find. It was fairly simple. Make simultaneous landings at all LZs and have the troops move quickly to the deserted Viet Cong gun positions and man them. At the sight of bombers approaching, the Viet Cong would leave the housing area for the jungle. This would involve them having to travel across two kilometers of open plantation into prepared positions. We told TOC that we were going to try and get back to the housing area so we could tell them if the Viet Cong were still there. If they didn't hear from us on the next scheduled contact, they were to assume that we had been hit and hadn't made it. If this occurred it would be verification of the Viet Cong presence and they were to follow through with the plan. We would stay in the area and join the Rangers when they came in.
This time, we were more cautious in our trip across the plantation. On the way, we found a gasoline cache of 55-gallon drums. We took pictures and proceeded. Again the Vietnamese team leader and I crawled forward to within 25 meters of the houses. It was unbelievable. There they were and still with no perimeter security. Now, however, there was much activity and what seemed like more of them. We inched our way around the house area. This wasn't a company. There were at least 300 armed men in front of us. We had found a battalion, and all in one tight spot — unique in itself. We got back to the team, made our radio contact, and asked if the submitted plan would be implemented. We were told, yes, and that we were to move back to the edge of the jungle. There would be a small delay while coordination was made to get the troops and helicopters. At 1000 hours (10:00 a.m.) planes of all descriptions started crisscrossing this small area. I contacted one plane (there were so many I couldn't tell which one) on the Prick 10 (AN/PRC-10 transmitter-receiver for air-ground communications). I was told that they were reconning the area for an operation. What stupidity. No less than 40 overflights in 45 minutes. As usual, we were alerting the Viet Cong of impending action by letting all the armchair commandos take a look-see. For about 30 minutes all was quiet, and then we started to notice movement. The Viet Cong were moving out from the center of the plantation. Where were the troops? At 1400 hours Skyraiders showed up and started bombing the center of the plantation. Was it possible that the troops had moved in without our knowing it? TOC wouldn't tell us anything. The bombing continued throughout the afternoon with never more than a 15-minute letup. Now we had much company in the jungle with us. Everywhere we turned there were Viet Cong. I had to agree that, in spite of the rain, it was a much better place to be than in the housing center. Why didn't we hear our troops firing?