Blast from the past: reporting from Vietnam

Far Eastern Economic Review

Reference: Vol. 73, No. 33, 14 Aug 1971, 20

The Faces of Peace

Dennis Rockstroh|Qui Nhon

BINH Dinh province is the keystone of South Vietnam’s central provinces — which remain the political and economic hub of the country. It is the richest, the most populated and the most sought after. Its name — which means pacified in Vietnamese — is misleading: it has seen some of the bitterest fighting of the war. NLF (National Liberation Front) troops are as strong as ever here. Vietnamese authorities place their number at 10-15,000, bolstered by an estimated 5,000 troops of the third division of the North Vietnamese army. They also believe the Communists can rely on some 300,000 of Binh Dinh’s population of nearly a million for support.

National highway 19 extending west from the coast cuts the province in half and is the vital artery feeding An Khe, Pleiku, Phu Bon and a number of other potentially powerful economic centres in the central highlands. “Without that road open we are dead,” Nguyen Van Nhan, chairman of the Binh Dinh province council, declares. “And you can rest assured we will keep it open.” But this may not be so easy as it has been in the last six years. South Korean troops are slowly withdrawing their forces from the province; the American 173rd airborne brigade has orders to minimise casualties and the 22nd South Vietnamese army division, based outside the capital city of Qui Nhon, has only three regiments on hand to protect population centres.

With communist strength up and “free world” strength down, the much vaunted American South Vietnamese pacification programme is in trouble and the failure of the long struggle to the “win hearts and minds” of the population is becoming evident. Most province officials are willing to admit partial failure — but insist there has also been success, though they can offer few proofs. “In 1965 if you went 10 kilometres out of the city of Qui Nhon you were dead,” Nhan says. “Today you can travel in any direction as far as you want — but don’t get caught on the road after dark.”

The officials say most government services and development projects are continuing and improving. Vietcong-initiated terrorist incidents continue, but serious military engagements have decreased. “It depends a lot on your standard for security,” one officer explained. “If you rate security the way we do — by the number of incidents–then you would have to rate Hanoi an ‘A’ (secure) hamlet.” The number of communists in an area seemingly matters less than the level of activity they keep up.

America’s effort in Binh Dinh province began in earnest in September 1965 when General William Westmoreland, then leading US military operations in Vietnam, ordered the first airborne cavalry division to Qui Nhon and An Khe. He then ordered a brigade of the 101st airborne division to clear the An Khe area and highway 19 linking An Khe with the port city of Qui Nhon. A battalion of marines began to secure Qui Nhon port, then under development and eventually to become the main logistical supply point for central Vietnam.

Meanwhile South Vietnamese and American units, later aided by the Korean Tiger division, began to “clear” the area of insurgent forces. Since Binh Dinh province was, with Phu Yen on the south and Quang Ngai on the north, a Vietcong stronghold, clearing operations became more difficult as the area to be pacified increased.

The allies were fighting in the heartland of historical resistance. The only effective way to clear it of insurgents was to wipe out the entire population. Political and military planners chose the next best thing: they cleared the population out of the most intensely hostile areas. The result was a massive movement of refugees into the cities — above all Qui Nhon. The government was ill-equipped to handle the flow, and slum-like refugee camps sprung up all around the city. Some fugitives, like those from southern Phu My. district, had been terrorised by the Vietcong because they were Catholics and inclined to be anti-communist. They moved to the refugee camps voluntarily. Many others did not.

The presence of the newly arrived American and Korean soldiers took care of one immediate problem, employment for the refugees. They cleaned the soldiers’ floors, washed their clothes, cooked their food and served other needs. It was an ironic situation — refugees waiting on soldiers who, for many, had driven them from their ancestral homes. The arrangement has lasted, from economic necessity, until now.

But half the Americans have gone home. They have left behind buildings which scavengers have picked apart for the valuable wood. Some complexes cannot be turned over to the Vietnamese army as barracks because the buildings are in danger of collapsing. The Qui Nhon air base is virtually abandoned except for the US medical evacuation hospital. Military flights have been diverted to nearby Phu Cat air base and only an occasional Air Vietnam or Air America craft lands on the once busy airstrip.

The American pullout was speeded up by demonstrations earlier in the year which “ironically . . . resulted in better relations between the Vietnamese and American communities in Qui Nhon,” according to Eldon Ewing, chief of the community development division for CORDS (Civil Operations for Rural Development Support).

Ewing feels the massive military presence here and the largely hostile population caused problems which the American community, especially the military leadership, ignored for years. It was often said American drivers on the streets of Qui Nhon and on highway 19 caused more casualties than the war. “There was never really any convoy control,” Ewing admits. American drivers speeded unchecked on the roads, tossed things at the Vietnamese and in many cases caused needless death. The combination of reckless US drivers and careless Vietnamese pedestrians heightened the toll of injuries and deaths and brought relations to breaking point.

But the accelerated American pullout entails some new problems. Some 5,000 Vietnamese workers at American bases have lost their jobs, and redundancies are bound to increase. Those still in work face shorter hours and smaller wages. American advisers wish the refugees would return to the countryside. The government is offering financial and material assistance under the return-to-the-villages programme. “But there are few takers,” Ewing says. “It’s still too insecure – especially for Catholic refugees.” Some Vietnamese have been misusing the programme. “Some people take the allowance and building material, build a shack out in the countryside and hurry back for more. They just see the programme as a way to make a little money,” Ewing adds.

The core of the problem is the continuing hostility to the government in the countryside, despite land reforms and better amenities. As one US official put it: “There is really no difference between the farmers of 1965 and those here today. They would support the Vietcong before any Saigon government with its American tint.”

But there are encouraging signs in Qui Nhon. While Indian merchants, bargirls and prostitutes are short of business the ordinary Vietnamese is not really suffering. Many bars have been converted into summer classrooms. There is no starvation in the province, and construction is evident throughout the city. The chief causes for optimism are the plans Japanese businessmen have for Binh Dinh’s great natural resources. Japanese engineers have surveyed the An Khe area in the hills 36 miles northwest of Qui Nhon. Construction has begun on a hydroelectric power plant capable of generating 160,000 kilowatts and irrigating 50,000 hectares of land. It will provide power for a proposed industrial centre clustered around the port of Qui Nhon.

In addition, the Japanese are talking about the timber potential, grazing land for thousands of head of beef cattle, and a Toyota plant at An Khe, which is already a Japanese “sister city”. The An Khe district chief went to Japan in June to discuss postwar plans for his area. The Vietnamese government has approved a loan for construction of a textile plant in Qui Nhon which will employ 400 people. Setting up this and other plants should take up, jobwise, most of the slack left by the American withdrawal. But these few steps do not spell a glowing future for Binh Dinh. The overriding requirement for any kind of serious industrial development is a peaceful environment. Binh Dinh is in reality still a contested province and all the power of the Americans, Saigonese and Japanese combined will not alleviate the problems of war.

One factor which strongly favours the Japanese attempt to build up Binh Dinh and thereby capture a rich market for machinery and spare parts is their ability to get on well with all factions in the Vietnamese struggle. “Whoever wins here will probably invite the Japanese to help out in the development,” an American official says. “In that respect, the province has a bright future. The real problem is solving the shooting war aspect of it all, and that isn’t even in sight.”

But the Japanese have encountered trouble with Vietnamese development elsewhere. Just off the coast of Vietnam are some of the richest untapped fishing waters in Asia. Japanese interests have offered to help outfit a fishing fleet, enabling the Vietnamese to take advantage of a source of potentially almost unlimited wealth. But nobody is interested. “The Japanese plan would require the fishermen to stay out overnight and this they refuse to do,” one government official said. “In addition, the fishermen are afraid that with the increasing number of fish, prices in the market would tumble .”

The biggest fear in Saigon recently has been the spectre of another North Vietnamese attempt to split Vietnam in half. It was this fear that originally spurred American involvement in the province. “Route 19 is the likely spot to do it,” one Saigon observer said. “It is vital to the logistical and economic maintenance of much of the highlands.” An estimated 65,000 North Vietnamese soldiers in the northern provinces outnumber South Vietnamese forces there — a fact whose significance may become painfully apparent when all the American troops have departed. In Van Canh, a remote district, there are ominous signs of stalemate. The only industry in the area is charcoal-production, which American officials say is controlled by the Vietcong. Van Canh Used to be a Vietcong-controlled area — which so embarrassed province officials that they made it a part of Tuy Phuoc district and thereby eliminated a “Vietcong district”.

The paper change meant little. The Koreans brought temporary security to the area but they have already begun withdrawing. A single dirt road runs through the district and every bridge on it has been blown up at frequent intervals. Along the railway tracks lie the rusting hulks of demolished trains. Large shrines dot the road commemorating the deaths of dozens of villagers killed when their bus hit roadmines. At the end of the road, the government has offices and maintains a show of control but villagers point out that hills on three sides are inhabited by the Vietcong. American and Vietnamese officials agree the hills are full of the enemy in unknown strength.

Yet nothing is done to root them out – perhaps because not much can be done. Binh Dinh has never been successfully controlled by anyone — French, Saigonese or American. Control is no longer the American objective. “Our primary trust . . . is to bolster the territorial forces,” an American official admits. The territorial forces are essentially the militia — farmers by day, soldiers by night , like the Vietcong they oppose — who constitute one of the untold stories of the war in Binh Dinh. As in any civil war, families have been split, with father and son or brothers on opposing sides. “Here in Binh Dinh this has become a blood war, a war between families, and that will be the hardest thing to cure,” Ewing says. Others disagree, holding that once the war is over the hatred generated by years of fratricidal war will diminish.

But on one point everybody agrees: Binh Dinh province, with peace, could have a very rosy future. The fish, timber and rice, combined with an industrial base, could bring new prosperity there — if Binh Dinh lives up to its name.


About drockstroh

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