Nguyen Van Binh: Vietcong Soldier

The residents of Nong Kinh made their living the same way their ancestors had – they grew rice, which they sold in the Mekong Delta market towns of My Tho and Ben Tre. But nobody who worked a few hectares of delta alluvium, and that included the majority of farmers in Nong Kinh, ever got rich. There were too many forces working against them. If a peasant owned his own land, the French colonial government in Saigon taxed him so heavily that he never saved enough money to enlarge his land holdings or improve his capital stock.

Those peasants who worked for absentee landlords living in nearby My Tho or distant Saigon were worse off than the small freeholders. They paid such exorbitant rental rates that they became perpetually stuck at a subsistence level.

Nature also worked against the peasantry.  In the delta, the Mekong River’s annual floods stole a man’s livelihood as regularly as the tax collector or the French landlord. Deprived of the wherewithal to improve their lives; and blocked from attaining social and economic mobility by a narrow-minded urban elite, the people of Nong Kinh lived as they had since the region was first settled by the Vietnamese in the 1800’s.

Nong King’s residents built simple thatch huts from palm leaves, fitted out their primitive homes with the crudest of furniture, and planted fruit trees next to their huts to shade them from the punishing delta sun. Their orchards provided them with some variety in a diet dominated by white rice, fish, and nuoc mam. They raised pot-bellied pigs and scrawny chickens, making sure to keep their domesticated animals close to their huts – and sometimes even indoors – to prevent pilfering by passer-by. The bulk of the peasantry’s waking hours were spent in planting, cultivating, harvesting, and marketing their two annual rice crops. When knee deep in paddy mud, they sang songs about the land, the local rivers, birds, and fish; and sometimes they sang about love and loss.

Peasants did not live long. They usually died in their forties from one of the many diseases that rose up out of the delta swamps and felled them in a flurry of fever and pain. They lacked the most basic medicines to combat malaria, encephalitis, cholera, and influenza.

Rural Vietnamese buried their dead in white concrete crypts on the few dry high points scattered across the delta. The survivors kept on with their daily routine of rice cultivation, child-rearing, and ancestral worship. Few of them could read, even fewer could write, and only a handful knew anything about the world beyond Nong Kinh. In the absence of telephones, radios, televisions, newspapers, or books, villagers developed a parochial outlook on life and outsiders. Xenophobia and stifling ignorance went hand-in-hand. During their rare moments of leisure, everyone from teenagers to the elderly partook in the age-old practice of gossip. In Nong Kinh, everyone knew everyone else’s business.

Nguyen Van Binh was born in Nong Kinh sometime in 1947. His childhood mirrored that of millions of other peasant kids. From an early age, he helped his mother and father with daily chores, gathering kindling for cooking fires, hauling water from the village well, feeding the family’s chickens and pigs, and helping his father repair the thatch siding and roofing on the family home. By the time he reached his late teens, he was a veteran of years of paddy work. The First Indochina War, fought mostly in Tonkin and Annam, came and went without much effect on the lives of delta farmers. By the early 1960s, Binh’s life in Nong Kinh was on a trajectory little different from the majority of South Vietnamese peasant males his age. He could look forward to toiling in the rice paddies for years on end, marriage to a local girl, an array of family obligations, the absence of any upward mobility, and an early death. His wasn’t a life a Westerner would have wanted to emulate.

In 1965, the Americans came to Binh’s village. They arrived on the wings of silver fighter-bombers. Determined to root out the Vietcong amongst the rural peasantry, U.S. pilots dropped high explosive iron bombs on the thatch huts, vegetable gardens, and orchards of Nong Kinh.

The same bombs that blew apart Nong Kinh, turned young Binh’s life upside down.  His father and several of his relatives and friends died in the American attack.  Powerful shock waves and flying shrapnel knocked over his family’s house and ripped apart the family’s small orchard. Stunned by the speed and violence of the bombardment, and with his previous sense of order and security now lying in the rubble of his hamlet, Binh soon realized his life would never be the same. The bombing represented an irrevocable break with his past. If he remained in the hamlet and tried to rebuild, he risked future American air strikes. If he fled to a Government refugee camp, he would likely endure unemployment, boredom, the emotional difficulties of dislocation, and the ill-treatment at the hands of Government officials who viewed refugees as a nuisance or worse – Vietcong sympathizers. However, Binh had another option.

Not long after the bombing, and still deeply upset by the loss of his father and his home, Binh visited with local members of the Vietcong, who persuaded the 18-year-old to join what villagers in the delta knew as “The Resistance.”  In a rural world disintegrating under American bombs and artillery shells, the Vietcong offered Binh order and direction, something he and the hundreds of thousands of other Vietnamese displaced in the conflict in 1965 desperately needed in their lives.  On December 9, 1965, Binh became a Vietcong infantryman.[1]

Binh’s military training emphasized small-unit tactics, camouflage and concealment, evasion, village defence, the construction of fortifications, and the proper handling of small arms. During his first months in the Vietcong, he and the other new recruits came under constant supervision by political and military officers. His commanders, as well as the unit’s political commissar, looked for any signs of flagging morale amongst the men. If a soldier showed a weakening of resolve, or in any way shirked from combat, the cadre intervened to correct his behaviour.  Such quick action on the part of the cadre prevented the spread of corrosive attitudes throughout the unit.

Intrusive supervision and self-criticism sessions played an important part in maintaining the men’s morale. A further check on individualism and its potentially negative consequences for unit cohesiveness and fighting élan came in the form of the three-man cell. Each infantryman belonged to a cell. The three men lived, fought, and sometimes died in combat together. Essentially, the three-man cell created a tiny band of brothers who looked out for one another, promised to retrieve each other from the site of future battle – whether dead or alive – and propped up one another’s morale by sharing their fears and daily hardships. The system was so effective that Binh never avoided battle. He fought in every engagement undertaken by his unit during his years of service.[2]

Communist commissars reinforced Binh’s patriotic fervour by regularly meetings in which they railed against the Americans and their allies in the South Vietnamese armed forces. During these sessions, the cadre downplayed Communist ideology as a cause belle. Instead, they emphasized the war as a struggle for Vietnamese independence.

Binh firmly believed the Vietcong fought to liberate the Vietnamese people from the Americans and South Vietnamese who sought to enslave them.  Like his comrades, he fought to protect the poor from oppressive landlords and Government officials. He also saw himself as a soldier in the cause of justice, equality, and freedom.[3] He was convinced that a Vietcong victory over the Saigon regime would bring peace, prosperity, and happiness to the peasantry as well as the urban dwellers of Vietnam, both North and South. He once stated, “I myself do not know much about Communism. I do not need to know about it. As long as my country is occupied by the Americans, my people suffer daily from American bombs and shells.”[4]

According to Binh, no one needed to fear Communism; Ho Chi Minh’s version of Communism was neither murderous nor totalitarian.  Rather, it offered a path toward a more just and equitable society.  Binh made no secret of the fact that he, and everyone else in his unit, was willing to die for The Resistance, “…the most precious thing to me is freedom and independence for the country. I would rather die for the country than accept foreign domination and see my people suffer.”[5]  Binh revealed his devotion to the Vietcong in a motto that he repeated to himself before going into battle, “Live Great, Die Gloriously.”[6]

Although Binh admitted that he knew little about Communist ideology, a year into his service with the guerrillas he became a bona fide Communist.  Party membership meant he had achieved the status of a cadre – one of the Vietcong’s well-trained, highly-motivated leaders.

Binh felt a certain pride in his combat battalion and its 550 men. The 261st Vietcong Battalion had an illustrious history. In January 1963, the battalion fought the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) and its American advisors at the Battle of Ap Bac in the delta province of Dinh Tuong. At Ap Bac, the outnumbered 261st not only repelled the superior ARVN forces arrayed against it, it effectively countered the ARVN’s U.S. supplied high-tech equipment, including the new UH-1 Huey helicopter and M-113 Armoured Personnel Carrier. Ap Bac revealed to the entire Vietcong army that the lowly guerrillas had the ability to counter America’s vaunted technology.

During the Tet Offensive, the 261st took part in the assault on My Tho. In the first hours of the offensive, the Vietcong came within a hare’s breath of seizing that strategic delta town, located five miles east of the gigantic U.S. Army base at Dong Tam. Only a massive U.S. aerial bombardment, in conjunction with a series of intense artillery barrages, drove the 261st out of My Tho.[7]

In the months after Tet, and during the height of the U.S. counter offensive to retake rural South Vietnam, the battalion was constantly on the move, trying to avoid detection by U.S. aerial observers. Marching at night in small, dispersed groups along a secret network of trails and waterways, and bivouacking during the daylight hours, the battalion’s evasive manoeuvres worked, thanks in part to local peasant support. The rural population provided the insurgents food, places to sleep, and vital intelligence on Allied infantry patrols and aircraft sightings – all of which enabled the guerrillas to stay out of sight of the ever-prying eyes of the Americans.

From April to October 1968, Binh’s unit fought only five battles. In each of the engagements the Vietcong came out on top. The most notable battle during those months occurred in September at the village of Cai Be in Dinh Tuong Province. Two American battalions tried to dislodge the 261st from a nearly impregnable system of village fortifications. After several failed attempts to push into Cai Be, the Americans abandoned the field of battle, leaving the village in Vietcong hands. The Vietcong claimed to have suffered only two wounded at Cai Be, while the Americans lost what amounted to a platoon of men.[8]

Not long after the daylong engagement at Cai Be, an Allied helicopter crew spotted Binh trekking across the countryside. When the helicopter came within range, a gunner opened fire on him with one of the chopper’s big guns. A large round found its mark. Severely wounded and unable to flee, Binh spent the night after the shooting in thick undergrowth, hoping to avoid capture by the Allied troops operating in the area. But on the next day, October 5, 1968, an Allied unit discovered his hideout and took him prisoner.[9] At the beginning of 1969, Binh found himself behind the wire at the Bien Hoa POW camp. There, on January 9th, a Rand Corporation interviewer, working on contract for the U.S. Department of Defense, questioned Binh.

During the course of the interview, Binh revealed the reasons why the Vietcong were such effective and fanatical fighters. He also told his interviewer that the Communists would never quit the struggle in South Vietnam. They would fight on until victory. As for why the U.S. had been unable to destroy the insurgency after three years of combat, and why the superpower would fail do so in the future, Binh had a simple answer – the Vietcong and the rural people of South Vietnam were one and the same. No amount of U.S. military power could defeat South Vietnam’s peasantry and its guerrilla army. Binh considered the conflict in South Vietnam a People’s War, or a mass popular uprising, against U.S. intervention. He stated, “The United States and GVN [the Saigon government] can never destroy the Vietnamese armed forces (Front Army) because we come from the people. The enemy can never destroy our people…The Vietnamese people have the ability to chase the Americans out of Vietnam…by combined military-political means.”[10]

Binh went on to explain why he and his comrades were willing to continue the war, even though they suffered such high casualties. He stated that the Americans were similar to the French.  Specifically, the Americans were intent on subjugating the Vietnamese people. His job, as he saw it, was to prevent the United States from achieving its plans for imperial conquest.  According to Binh, “The Americans are not different from the French…The French enslaved our people. So do the Americans today…Like the French, the Americans are using violence to oppress our people.”[11]

The enslavement Binh referred to may have been the raw exploitation of rural peasants by absentee landlords, something Binh witnessed firsthand as a youth in Nong Kinh.  He knew that peasants across the delta worked their whole lives only to die with nothing to show for all of their labours, victims of a vast pyramid scheme centred in Saigon.  Binh also understood that a high percentage of GVN officials and South Vietnamese Army were absentee landlords who relied upon American military power to maintain their economic and political standing.

When the Rand interviewer asked Binh if he approved of anything the Americans were doing in South Vietnam, Binh remarked, “I don’t know what they are trying to do. But I do know what they are doing. They are bombing, shelling, spraying, killing the people, the animals, and the crops as well.”[12] Binh felt strongly that the Americans had to be ejected from South Vietnam in order to halt the widespread destruction of the land and its people.

The interview ended with a statement of defiance. Binh proclaimed, “…no matter how long it is, we shall fight until the Americans pull out of our country. It could be five years, ten years, or longer. My children and grandchildren would continue to fight until final victory.”[13]

Endnotes

[1] Konrad Kellen, “Conversations with Enemy Soldiers in Late 1968/Early 1969: A Study of Motivation and Morale,” RM-6131-1-ISA/ARPA, (Santa Monica, California: Rand Corporation, September 1970), 52.

[2] Ibid., 47.

[3] Ibid., 80.

[4] Ibid., 77.

[5] Ibid., 47.

[6] Ibid., 48.

[7] Ibid., 71.

[8] Ibid., 10.

[9] Ibid., 59.

[10] Ibid., 62.

[11] Ibid., 96-97.

[12] Ibid., 96.

[13] Ibid., 100.

 

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