The Peace That Never Was 4

Tchepone, already wrecked by earlier American air strikes, was now reduced to rubble by U.S. bombers. Some South Vietnamese troops finally captured the worthless target, but most were pinned down by Communist artillery in shelling and ground assaults. In March, Alex¬ander Haig was sent out by Kissinger to survey the situation. He reported that Thieu’s commanders were reluctant to continue fighting; the task now, said Haig in soldierly style, was for the South Viet¬namese to retreat “in an orderly and tactically sound fashion.” But the retreat had already been going on for weeks, and it was a virtual rout. With the North Vietnamese in pursuit, government soldiers clawed their way back to Vietnam along a route littered with corpses and ruined vehicles, walking when their trucks ran out of fuel. They tried to crowd onto the American helicopters sent to evacuate the wounded, and many dangled from the skids, their bodies ripped to shreds as the choppers skimmed jungle tree tops. Four American pho¬tographers died when one helicopter crashed, among them Larry Bur¬rows of Life, who had been covering the war in Vietnam for nearly a decade. We had first worked together for the magazine in France in 1950.
The operation not only failed to destroy the Ho Chi Minh Trail but exposed the South Vietnamese army’s deficiencies. The govern¬ment’s top officers had been tutored by Americans for ten or fifteen years, many at training schools in the United States, yet they had learned little. In part, they had been taught conventional methods unsuited to the war in their own country, but, more significantly, they represented a regime that rewarded fidelity rather than compe¬tence. Thieu, like his predecessors, lived in constant dread of a coup d’etat. He wanted loyalty above all else, and his military subordinates conformed, realizing that promotions were won in Saigon, not in battle. And vital to advancement was the avoidance of risks, even at the price of defeat. The glory of death in action paled beside the wealth and prestige to be acquired by genuflecting to authority. The prospects for Vietnamization therefore seemed bleak.
“Tonight I can report that Vietnamization has succeeded,” pro¬claimed President Nixon in a televised speech on April 7, 1971. He could hardly say otherwise without acknowledging that his policy was failing, and as usual he attacked the news media for focusing on a few horrible scenes during the Laos operation. He later recalled that Kis¬singer had shared his optimism. But Kissinger concluded afterward that the venture had fallen “far short of our expectations” and blamed the fumble on myopic American planning, poor South Vietnamese execution and even Nixon’s warped leadership—everyone, charac¬teristically, except himself.
Whatever the truth, the Laotian episode ignited different passions in Saigon and the United States. In Saigon, where rumors ripened and spread with the speed and extravagance of tropical vegetation, accounts of the setback in Laos were exaggerated. Nevertheless, the distorted tales struck a nerve, especially among young people, who saw the South Vietnamese army falter in its first big test. They were becoming skittish at the likelihood of a future without the presence of the United States, and their uneasiness sparked anti-American out¬bursts. Students demonstrated in front of American offices and sab¬otaged American vehicles, and they pasted up posters such as one showing Nixon astride a mound of dead South Vietnamese soldiers, its message alleging that Vietnamization meant the sacrifice of Vietnam by America. Minor traffic accidents involving GIs and Vietnamese flared up into major confrontations, and resentment against the United States began to be apparent even within Thieu’s inner circle. One of his confidants was now Hoang Duc Nha, a young cousin who had returned from school in the United States with a smart-aleck manner and an animus toward Americans. “The Americans are businessmen,” he warned Thieu. “They’ll sell you out if you can no longer assure them of a profit.”
The growing rancor toward the United States among urban South Vietnamese was mirrored in the sense of futility that seeped through the ranks of the American armed forces, its most serious symptom a growing narcotics addiction, which one official study linked to “idle¬ness, loneliness, anxiety and frustration.” The U.S. command in Sai¬gon estimated that sixty-five thousand GIs were on drugs in 1970. Fred Hickey, a helicopter pilot at the time, later recalled that almost entire American units, including officers, were “doing heroin.” “The majority of people were high all the time,” he said. “For ten dollars you could get a vial of pure heroin the size of a cigarette butt, and you could get liquid opium, speed, acid, anything you wanted. You could trade a box of Tide for a carton of prepacked, prerolled marijuana cigarettes soaked in opium.” The American military authorities in¬troduced measures to halt the epidemic. “They harassed everybody,” Hickey went on, “making them take urine analysis tests any time, day or night. They had no regard for human dignity.”
And there was “fragging”—fragmentation grenade attacks by men against their officers. More than two hundred incidents were recorded in 1970, and Hickey recalled the case of one lieutenant whose arrogance and incompetence antagonized his men. “The first time, they booby- trapped his hooch with a smoke grenade, yellow smoke, which was a warning. But he didn’t take any heed. Then they tried another, red smoke, which said the next one was going to be a hand grenade or a white phosphorous grenade. He obviously didn’t believe it. The last one was a hand grenade, and he was eliminated and replaced. Grenades leave no fingerprints. Nobody’s going to go to jail.”
As morale deteriorated in Hickey’s unit, the GIs split into factions, “the rednecks from Texas and the Deep South who hated the Cali¬fornia and New York liberals, and vice versa.” Racial tensions mounted. “The blacks were moving into their black power thing, and they got militant. They removed any black who wasn’t militant, then they moved in on the whites.,” A minor civil war erupted within the First Cavalry division based at Bienhoa and the ringleaders were ar¬rested. But the friction would begin again, sometimes instigated by “juicers,” alcoholics high on drugs, who would pick fights. “Every¬body seemed to be at everybody else’s throat,” Hickey continued. “You had to speak softly, mind your own business, sleep with a weapon at all times and only trust your closest buddies, nobody else. I had a knife attached to my boot.”

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