Escalation 14

As they waged the war, however, U.S. troops were gradually dis¬enchanted less by grand strategic flaws than by the accumulation of their own experiences. I have compiled dozens of their recollections, either in direct interviews or from memoirs, and the stories could fill volumes. But perhaps the bits and pieces that follow add up to a credible set of impressions.
Most GIs sent to Vietnam after the first American forces arrived in 1965 went as individual replacements rather than in units. Conse¬quently, from the start many of them were overcome by loneliness. When he reached one of the American division headquarters along with a handful of other men, Dale Reich was randomly assigned to a company whose members accepted him without comment: “The old cliches about camaraderie under fire did not seem to apply. … I was crushed by the combination of slipping one step closer to combat, and finding no one to pat me on the back and assure me that I would survive. Instead, I found that even my fellow soldiers had no real interest in my welfare.”
The solitude was intensified by a feeling that they were in an alien and probably hostile environment. William Ehrhart had fantasized before leaving home that it would be like the scenes of World War II he had seen in the movies—French girls and Italian kids spilling into the streets to hail their liberators with wine and flowers. But Vietnam was taut and tense. Charles Sabatier, a draftee from Texas, had scarcely landed in Saigon when he noticed that the windows of the green U.S. army bus that transported him to his camp were screened with wire mesh as a precaution against grenade assaults. “I thought we were in a friendly country, and now I’m told that people might run up and throw grenades into the bus. And I thought, Oh my God, they’re going to try to kill me. There I was, twenty years old, and suddenly I realized that I might not live to be twenty-one or twenty-two.” Vietnam confused and confounded innocent young Americans. Many, persuaded they were there as saviors, sincerely treated the Vietnamese with concern and kindness, providing them with hygiene, roads, wells and other benefits as part of programs that one U.S. general called “the velvet glove.” But they were also chronically ap¬prehensive and rightly suspected that any Vietnamese might be hostile. They were told that some areas belonged to the Vietcong and others to the Saigon regime, but they never trusted such flimsy intelligence, as a former marine captain, E. J. Banks, recalled:
You never knew who was the enemy and who was the friend. They all looked alike. They all dressed alike. They were all Vietnamese. Some of them were Vietcong. Here’s a woman of twenty-two or twenty-three. She is pregnant, and she tells an interrogator that her husband works in Danang and isn’t a Vietcong. But she watches your men walk down a trail and get killed or wounded by a booby trap. She knows the booby trap is there, but she doesn’t warn them. Maybe she planted it herself. It wasn’t like the San Francisco Forty- Niners on one side of the field and the Cincinnati Bengals on the other. The enemy was all around you.
Soon after taking over the region around Danang in the spring of 1965, the U.S. marines embarked on “cordon-and-search” missions, later to be given the quaint title of “county fair” operations. In theory, they were supposed to surround a group of hamlets, then distribute food and dispense medical care to the inhabitants while probing for Vietcong cadres. In practice, as Ehrhart described them, the operations were less benign: “We would go through a village before dawn, roust¬ing everybody out of bed and kicking down doors and dragging them out if they didn’t move fast enough. They all had underground bunkers inside their huts to protect themselves against bombing and shelling. But to us the bunkers were Vietcong hiding places, and we’d blow them up with dynamite—and blow up the huts too. If we spotted extra rice lying around, we’d confiscate it to keep them from giving it to the Vietcong.”
As the peasants emerged, Ehrhart continued, they were “herded like cattle into a barbed wire compound, and left to sit there in the hot sun for the rest of the day, with no shade.” Meanwhile, several South Vietnamese policemen with an American interrogator and his interpreter would pass through the crowd, selecting people to be taken to a nearby tent for questioning about the Vietcong presence in the vicinity: “If they had the wrong identity card, or if the police held a grudge against them, they’d be beaten pretty badly, maybe tortured. Or they might be hauled off to jail, and God knows what happened to them. At the end of the day, the villagers would be turned loose. Their homes had been wrecked, their chickens killed, their rice con¬fiscated—and if they weren’t pro-Vietcong before we got there, they sure as hell were by the time we left.”
These were routine missions, not outrageous atrocities like the Mylai massacre that occurred in March 1968. Yet, in village after village, a fear of the unknown engulfed American soldiers. Mark Smith, a veteran of the First Cavalry Division, was fascinated by Vietnam’s beauty from the start. In coastal Binh Dinh province north of Saigon, his operational area, the lush green mountains rose from a plain of rice fields divided with such geometrical precision as to suggest that the peasants who had landscaped the scene were natural mathe¬maticians. But he felt intimidated by the “subtle, incomprehensible” villages—“whole societies right in front of us, yet impenetrable even after we had entered them, never understanding anything or seeing anything understandable, the people staring at us as if we were from Mars.”

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