On Feb. 3, 1968 I was sitting on the banks of a muddy river in the village of Thanh Canh, or as we called it, Tin Can. I never learned the name of the stream. Reflecting on that time, Tet 1968, I see a microcosm of our misadventure in Vietnam. The situation revealed lessons we should have learned but did not.
Convoys of U.S. and South Vietnamese jeeps, APCs (armored personnel carriers), trucks loaded with troops, M-48 tanks, dusters (armored vehicles with 40mm cannons) crossed the river on a pontoon bridge. The convoys looked powerful but it was an illusion. On one side of the bridge there was a French fort, an enclosure surrounded by berms, mounds of dirt. The defenders burrowed into the mounds to make fighting positions. We called it the “mud fort” because it was just a triangle of muddy dirt, a relic of the French Army’s futile attempt to control Annam. The fort was a harbinger for us. Along the river, bamboo hooches (shacks) stretched for several kilometers. The fort was manned by the Regional Forces/Popular Forces, RF/PFs, trained by U.S. Green Berets, part of our futile effort to control Vietnam. We called them “Ruff Puffs.” They hid in the fort at this crossing on the road between Kon Tum and Dak To and never came out. We were out all the time. We walked up to the French mission. There were dozens of kids, Vietnamese nuns, an exquisite Catholic church, an ascetic French priest–the lone survivor. The mission, the church, the mud fort. I doubt that anything is there anymore. Shades of Beau Geste and the Foreign Legion.
A horde of villagers came running downstream and into the ramshackle fort. The North Vietnamese were advancing. They were a short distance away. Immediately, the U.S. tanks patrolling the road formed a defensive lager next to the fort. We infantrymen had to content ourselves with holes along the banks. But all was quiet. That night one of the tankers fired H&I (harassment and interdiction) up and down the river with his M79 grenade launcher, which fires a 40mm projectile. In the morning the Ruff Puffs yelled and shook their fists at the tanks. The H&I had sunk numerous sampans, boats the villagers used to fish in the river. There went their livelihood. So much for winning hearts and minds.
In the afternoon loin-clothed Montagnards filed into our perimeter. Their leader, a dignified old man, sat down with us. I gave him a can of Coca-Cola. He drew a map in the dirt. We compared our map to his. The others were disdainful but I insisted that he was telling us something: a concentration of NVA troops. I read the coordinates and convinced one of the tankers to use his powerful tank radio to call in an air strike. The jets came in. That took care of the imminent threat. The Montagnards melted into the forest. Did they escape reprisals from the North Vietnamese?
We won every battle in Vietnam, including Tet, but lost the war. There are reasons why we lost in Vietnam and are bogged down in our present wars: We have good motives but our empire treads the path of older empires. We do not effectively engage the enemy. We are too road-bound, too inflexible. We build too many “mud forts.” We do not understand local cultures and alienate our friends. We dismiss nationalism, the impulse to throw out the foreign invader and recover past glories. Nationalism inspired by religion is what motivates our present enemies. It’s almost impossible to stamp out, and now it has terrible forms–the Taliban and the horribly twisted ISIS.
Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS, and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.