Escalation 12

The cadres were usually Communist party members and often Viet- minh veterans of the war against the French—seasoned revolutionaries with a lifetime of experience behind them. Most of those assigned to Vietcong detachments were native southerners who had hidden in the south after the 1954 partition or had gone north and returned later. Tensions occasionally arose later, when North Vietnamese cadres were infiltrated into the ranks of the Vietcong. Many dynamic northerners lacked the patience to deal with the slower pace of their southern comrades, and some were too sectarian to adjust to the political climate of the south, where much of the population was hostile to Communist doctrine. After the war, a senior North Vietnamese official candidly disclosed to me that regional differences had been a problem, recalling that “it wasn’t easy to find and train northerners to adapt to conditions in the south.”
But most of the cadres, whatever their origin, earned the respect and admiration of the troops. North Vietnamese and Vietcong pris¬oners interrogated during the war repeatedly evoked the image of “big brother” to describe their cadres, who from their viewpoint resembled trustworthy, loyal, honest, courteous, kind, cheerful and wholly vir¬tuous scoutmasters. In contrast to South Vietnamese army officers, who regarded themselves as a privileged class, the Communist cadres ate and slept with the men, joined them in battle and shared their hardships. They invited ordinary soldiers to debate and even criticize operational plans so that, as a North Vietnamese private recollected, “we always knew why we were fighting.” Another testified to the effectiveness of his unit’s cadre: “Twelve of the eighteen men in our company were killed during an enemy sweep, including the com¬mander and the cadre himself. But we survivors weren’t scared or demoralized, and nobody thought of defecting—probably because of the way the cadre had motivated us.”
Along with encouraging troops or listening to their troubles cadres monitored them closely—like Orwellian “big brothers.” This practice was partly intended to prevent malingering and desertion, and it also safeguarded against such violations of Communist puritanism as flir¬tations between soldiers and peasant girls. Its more serious purpose was to deprive individuals of privacy and, as all armies do, reinforce their fidelity to the unit. A further refinement of the collective ap¬proach, again acquired from the Chinese Communists, were three- man cells whose members assumed responsibility for each other. The device worked well in combat, where soldiers rely on their buddies for help. In particular, North Vietnamese and Vietcong troops chron¬ically worried about being left wounded on the battlefield, and an obligation of their teammates was to rescue them.
Still other mechanisms employed to cement the Communist forces were criticism and self-criticism forums, also learned from the Chinese. As in group therapy sessions, officers and men alike were licensed to denounce each other candidly or blame themselves for mistakes; again, judging from prisoner interrogations, the procedure usually contributed to cohesion. A North Vietnamese sergeant ex¬plained, for example, that discipline in his company invariably im¬proved after he had submitted to the barbs of his troops, and a Vietcong private compared his confessions of error before his com¬rades to looking at himself in a mirror, saying that “I was able to see the dirt on my face and clean it up.” But the Communists were not always lenient. They executed informers and traitors, sometimes sum¬marily, and they harshly punished soldiers for gratuitously molesting peasants whose cooperation they needed. Yet they could also be flex¬ible, as in the case of a noncommissioned Vietcong officer who threat¬ened to retire to his native village to marry his childhood sweetheart. After considerable haggling, they appointed him to a sedentary clerical job in the village. A captured Communist cadre explained philosoph- ically: “We observed the principle that nobody is perfect.”
North Vietnamese and Vietcong troops resorted to various maneu¬vers to offset their military inferiority. They tried to “cling to the enemy’s belt”—their term for engaging in close combat so that the Americans could call in air and artillery strikes only at the risk of endangering their own men. They were constantly darting out of tunnels and bunkers to ambush American patrols, and they also relied on an assortment of ingenious mines and booby traps. Nevertheless, they sustained ghastly losses—less often in battle than as a consequence of the bombing of “free fire zones,” sectors that the Americans de¬clared open to indiscriminate air raids, or “harassment and interdic-tion,” the relentless shelling of supposedly hostile areas by U.S. artillery. Nor could they easily withstand massive American search- and-destroy drives such as Operation Cedar Falls, launched at the beginning of 1967.
The sweep, conducted by sixteen thousand American and an equal number of South Vietnamese troops, was designed to wipe out a Communist stronghold northwest of Saigon known as the “iron tri¬angle.” After evacuating at least ten thousand civilians, the U.S. forces bombed and shelled the area, then leveled its four principal villages in an effort to eliminate the Communist base which the Vietminh had built twenty years before during the war against the French. Fore-warned, most of the Vietcong soldiers fled to nearby Cambodia, leav¬ing some seven hundred dead, and those who stayed to cover the retreat were badly mauled. Dang Xuan Teo, a Vietcong guerrilla interviewed in Vietnam after the war, recalled how for days the Amer¬icans besieged him and his comrades in a tunnel, where they barely survived on roots and leaves until, one night, they finally managed to escape. The U.S. command hailed the operation as a triumph. But, by the end of the year, the Communists had returned to the devastated region and reconstructed the sanctuary, which they used as a spring¬board for their assault against Saigon in the Tet offensive of early 1968.

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