During my second tour in Vietnam, I spent most of my time at the 1st Cav Division base camp in Phuoc Vinh.
Phuoc Vinh had maybe 2,000 villagers including its farming “suburbs” and had been for most of its history an agricultural community. The French had used the area around the village as a base in the 40’s and early 50’s, and when the 1st Cav moved there, an early task was the removal of a large number of mines, some left over from the French. Also, the village became progressively dependent on commerce with Americans.
Phuoc Vinh was an “open” village. That meant that regardless of which side you were fighting for, as long as you didn’t do anything violent, everyone was accepted in the town during the day. Vietnamese friends told us that NVA troops had some dialect and accent differences and were easy to spot. I thought that there were small differences in the way they dressed, but I could never be sure. There were some accidents, but never deliberate assault while I was there.
The open village was not sanctioned and would never be publically sanctioned. It was, however, an enormous convenience for us, the villagers, and presumably the NVA troops. You could eat, buy, relax, drink, and do other things that were illegal without having to worry about being shot as you did them. This was as true for officers as it was for us grunts. Since there could be no official acknowledgment of this, it all happened without explicit effort; everyone who knew respected it and never brought it up in a way that would require any official attention. It was, as it were, an open secret.
If this implicit understanding had been violated, the town would have been cut off and would have suffered devastating economic collapse.
During this time in my tour, several members of my unit and myself decided that we would try to support some villagers in a more direct way. Basically, we saved pop cans and gave them to a family that made large trunks out of them, and a variety of other items for sale. We also encouraged other American troops to buy these. The cans were spread around through the village to people who did this kind of work, and there was a general uptick in the production. None of this was sanctioned.
This resulted in two benefits to us:
- On occasion, some of us were invited by the village mayor or other VIPs to eat dinner with them. Since we were grunts and not officers, we had to get permission to do this, though refusing the invitation wasn’t really an option. We would eat Vietnamese dishes and get drunk and stagger back singing to the main gate of the base after dark. Fun for all.
- For some weeks at the end of my tour, we would be told by villagers if there would be a rocket or mortar attack that night. The NVA always warned the villagers so that they wouldn’t be accidentally killed during the attack.
We would pass the information around but never acknowledge it publically because any official response would destroy our understanding with the village and eliminate the benefits. We would set alarms for 15 to 20 minutes before the time of the attack and go to our bunkers until the attack was over.
Does this strike you as bizarre, or somehow a violation of your assumptions about combat or the relationships between enemies in war?
You might think that these arrangements are rare. They are not. In every war, there are thousands of such arrangements customized to deal with some common good for all the participants. None of them are public even if they have components that are or become public over time. The point of the arrangements is to secure a good for all, and securing that good requires the cooperation and support of all the participants, even when there can’t be any talk ever about the reality of the agreement.
All such arrangements show the power of engagement over contempt. In my next post, I’ll explore more about how engagement can overcome contempt in any context.
Next Post: The Nuts and Bolts of Engagement