America’s Mandarin 9

Then, as later in the war, every statement coming out of both Saigon and Hanoi repeated the same stereotype—that the struggle could not be won without the peasants, who comprised the majority of Viet¬nam’s population. About that time, accompanied by an interpreter, I wandered into hamlets and villages in the Mekong Delta, along the coast of central Vietnam, and into the highlands near the Laotian border, trying to assess peasant attitudes. Questions were more easily posed than answered, since Vietnamese peasants, like farmers every¬where, tend to distrust strangers—and especially foreigners. Even so, I learned a few things that could not be charted on graphs in Wash¬ington offices.
The lives of peasants are dictated by the arduous and endless cycle of their crops. They plow, sow and harvest, resigned to the droughts, floods, pests and diseases that blight their rice, corn, sugar, peanuts and potatoes. Their daily tasks bend their backs and age their wives far beyond their years, and the hunger of each day stunts their children. Their every waking hour is concerned with survival. But in Vietnam, along with the ancient toil and the whims of nature, peasants had borne the burden of war for a generation.
1 found them to be muddled, frightened, weary. Again and again as they spoke, one thread seemed to run through their conversation. They were not participants in the conflict but its victims. They sym¬pathized with neither Diem nor the Vietcong, only leaning to the side that harassed them less. Squatting in his muddy field, the smoke of a hand-rolled cigarette clouding his eyes, an old man in black cotton pajamas summed up the view in a metaphor: “If a son is mistreated by his father, he may adopt another.”
In some areas, I discovered, peasants welcomed Vietcong agents and referred to them as “liberators” or “resistants.” The Vietcong benefited from the image of the Vietminh, who had distributed land to the poor, and their promise of a better future was enticing. Often, too, the agents helped peasants at their labors. Even an affluent miller in a Quangngai province village had been swayed. “If they win,” he told me, “I’ll probably be left alone. They’re against the government, not the people. We have nothing to fear.”
But the Vietcong’s velvet touch often concealed talons of steel, and its terrorists were merciless in their murder of government officials and informers, their actions earning them a reputation for omnipotence and omnipresence. Yet for all its brutality, Vietcong terrorism was usually selective, as a bus driver in Long Khanh province, northeast of Saigon, recounted.
Five or six Vietcong guys stopped my bus one morning to check the identity cards of the passengers. They dragged two men off the bus, and their chief said to them: “We’ve been waiting for you. We’ve warned you many times to leave your jobs, but you haven’t obeyed. So now we must carry out the sentence.”
They forced the two men to kneel by the roadside, and one of the Vietcong guys chopped off their heads with a machete. They then pinned verdicts to their shirts saying that the murdered men were policemen. The verdicts had been written out beforehand. It was horrible to watch.
Afterward, the Vietcong guys gave the passengers back their identity cards, saying: “You’ll get into trouble with the authorities without these, and we don’t want that to happen.”
We picked up the bodies of the two cops and took them to the nearest town.
By contrast, peasants said, they had little contact with the Saigon authorities or even district chiefs. One Bienhoa province youth rec¬ollected that “Mr. Government,” as he called Diem, had once driven past his village, so surrounded by soldiers that he could not be seen. But the absence of government troops was a blessing, since they often pilfered rice, pigs and chickens. Worse yet, their presence frequently meant indiscriminate artillery bombardments against innocent villages suspected of harboring the Vietcong. As we chatted over tea in his Mekong Delta hamlet, a leathery peasant offered his opinion: “Per¬sonally, I think that the ‘resistance’ has made many mistakes. But we dread the army’s cannon shells, which fall anywhere.”
The South Vietnamese regime was then organizing the Dan Ve, village self-defense units that evoked mixed reactions from the peas¬ants. In some places, the militiamen protected villages against Vietcong attacks even though they carried antiquated French muskets and only earned the equivalent of ten dollars a month for their services, which diverted them from their own farming. Elsewhere, however, they behaved badly. Many deserted to the Vietcong, and others became petty tyrants. “As soon as one of them gets a gun, he can rob any house he wants,” one peasant complained. “One day they’re our friends, and the next day they’re enemies.”
Though few peasants identified with the Vietcong—or would admit to me that they did—few appeared to feel much affinity for the Diem government. For the regime, with its focus on security, had spent little on schools, medical care or other tangible social services. In a coastal village of Quangngai province, I encountered a peasant woman with a baby astride her hip, its face a mass of sores. She could not afford the bus fare to see a doctor, much less his fee. At a hamlet not far away, a peasant was tutoring his children, since the place lacked a school, and to send them to town by bus would be too expensive.
And, nearly everywhere, I met corruption. In parts of Binh Dinh province, huge rats were eating up the crops. Two brands of poison could be bought: one, which seemed to make the rats grow bigger, from a government agency; and the other from private entrepreneurs at twice the price. They were actually the same poison in the same bag, the cheaper version diluted by local officials who then sold the full-strength pesticide on the black market. I found a similar situation in Kontum, a mountainous province, where peasants had been reset¬tled from the poor lowlands of central Vietnam. Crouching in the doorway of his shack to shield himself against the dusty wind, one peasant explained forlornly that his rice ration had been trimmed and that he had not received the allowance he had been promised to cover the cost of building his hut. “I can’t understand what has happened,” he said.

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