Donald Duncan-Vietnam was a lie, 1966
Donald Duncan “The Whole Thing Was a Lie!” was published in Ramparts magazine, the New Left’s most prominent publication, in February 1966. As a former member of the Special Forces in Vietnam, Duncan lent credibility to the antiwar movement’s claim that the United States was not fighting for freedom in Southeast Asia and that it was acting in an immoral manner, analogous to the role played by Russian tanks that put down a rebellion in Hungary in 1956. Duncan’s article contained some of the most riveting firsthand descriptions of the fighting, which contrasted sharply with the largely favorable coverage the war was receiving at the time by the mainstream media. Indeed, although the antiwar movement has often been portrayed as anti-GI, this article suggests that the relationship between active soldiers, Vietnam veterans, and the antiwar movement was quite complex and certainly should not be caricatured as one of antiwar protesters spitting on GIs, as has often been the case.
Donald Duncan, “The Whole Thing Was a Lie!” Ramparts 4, no. 10 (February 1966), pp. 12-24.
When I was drafted into the Army, ten years ago, I was a militant antiCommunist. Like most Americans, I couldn’t conceive of anybody choosing communism over democracy. The depths of my aversion to this ideology was, I suppose, due in part to my being Roman Catholic, in part to the stories in the news media about communism, and in part to the fact that my stepfather was born in Budapest, Hungary. Although he had come to the United States as a young man, most of his family had stayed in Europe. From time to time, I would be given examples of the horrors of life under communism. Shortly after Basic Training, I was sent to Germany. I was there at the time of the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian revolt. Everything I had heard about communism was verified. Like my fellow soldiers I felt frustrated and cheated that the United States would not go to the aid of the Hungarians. Angrily, I followed the action of the brute force being used against people who were armed with sticks, stolen weapons, and a desire for independence.
While serving in Germany, I ran across the Special Forces. I was so impressed by their dedication and élan that I decided to volunteer for duty with this group. By 1959 I had been accepted into the Special Forces and underwent training at Fort Bragg. I was soon to learn much about the outfit and the men in it. A good percentage of them were Lodge Act people—men who had come out from Iron Curtain countries. Their anti-communism bordered on fanaticism. Many of them who, like me, had joined Special Forces to do something positive, were to leave because “things” weren’t happening fast enough. They were to show up later in Africa and Latin America in the employ of others or as independent agents for the CIA.
Initially, training was aimed at having United States teams organize guerrilla movements in foreign countries. Emphasis was placed on the fact that guerrillas can’t take prisoners. We were continuously told “You don’t have to kill them yourself—let your indigenous counterpart do that.” In a course entitled, “Countermeasures to Hostile Interrogation,” we were taught NKVD (Soviet Security) methods of torture to extract information. It became obvious that the title was only camouflage for teaching us “other” means of interrogation when time did not permit more sophisticated methods, for example, the old cold water-hot water treatment, or the delicate operation of lowering a man’s testicles into a jeweler’s vise. When we asked directly if we were being told to use these methods the answer was, “We can’t tell you that. The Mothers of America wouldn’t approve.” This sarcastic hypocrisy was greeted with laughs. Our own military teaches these and even worse things to American soldiers. They then condemn the Viet Cong guerrillas for supposedly doing those very things. I was later to witness firsthand the practice of turning prisoners over to ARVN for “interrogation” and the atrocities which ensued.
Throughout the training there was an exciting aura of mystery. Hints were continually being dropped that “at this very moment” Special Forces men were in various Latin American and Asian countries on secret missions. The antiCommunist theme was woven throughout. Recommended reading would invariably turn out to be books on “brainwashing” and atrocity tales—life under communism. The enemy was THE ENEMY. There was no doubt that THE ENEMY was communism and Communist countries. There never was a suggestion that Special Forces would be used to set up guerrilla warfare against the government in a Fascist-controlled country.
It would be a long time before I would look back and realize that this conditioning about the Communist conspiracy and THE ENEMY was taking place. Like most of the men who volunteered for Special Forces, I wasn’t hard to sell. We were ready for it. Artur Fisers, my classmate and roommate, was living for the day when he would “lead the first ‘stick’ of the first team to go into Latvia.” “How about Vietnam, Art?” “To hell with Vietnam. I wouldn’t blend. There are not many blue-eyed gooks.” This was to be only the first of many contradictions of the theory that Special Forces men cannot be prejudiced about the color or religion of other people. . . .
My first impressions of Vietnam were gained from the window of the jet while flying over Saigon and its outlying areas. As I looked down I thought, “Why, those could be farms anywhere and that could be a city anywhere.” The ride from Tan Son Nhut to the center of town destroyed the initial illusion.
My impressions weren’t unique for a new arrival in Saigon. I was appalled by the heat and humidity which made my worsted uniform feel like a fur coat. Smells. Exhaust fumes from the hundreds of blue and white Renault taxis and military vehicles. Human excrement; the foul, stagnant, black mud and water as we passed over the river on Cong Ly Street; and overriding all the others, the very pungent and rancid smell of what I later found out was nuoc mam, a sauce made much in the same manner as sauerkraut, with fish substituted for cabbage. No Vietnamese meal is complete without it. People—masses of them! The smallest children, with the dirty faces of all children of their age, standing on the sidewalk unshod and with no clothing other than a shirtwaist that never quite reached the navel on the protruding belly. Those a little older wearing overalltype trousers with the crotch seam torn out—a practical alteration that eliminates the need for diapers. Young grade school girls in their blue butterfly sun hats, and boys of the same age with hands out saying, “OK—Salem,” thereby exhausting their English vocabulary. The women in ao dais of all colors, all looking beautiful and graceful. The slim, hipless men, many walking hand-in-hand with other men, and so misunderstood by the newcomer. Old men with straggly Fu Man Chu beards staring impassively, wearing wide-legged, pajama-like trousers.
Bars by the hundreds—with American-style names (Playboy, Hungry i, Flamingo) and faced with grenade-proof screening. Houses made from packing cases, accommodating three or four families, stand alongside spacious villas complete with military guard. American GI’s abound in sport shirts, slacks, and cameras; motorcycles, screaming to make room for a speeding official in a large, shiny sedan, pass over an intersection that has hundreds of horseshoes impressed in the soft asphalt tar. Confusion, noise, smells, people—almost overwhelming.
My initial assignment was in Saigon as an Area Specialist for III and IV Corps Tactical Zone in the Special Forces Tactical Operations Center. And my education began here. The officers and NCO’s were unanimous in their contempt of the Vietnamese.
There was a continual put-down of Saigon officials, the Saigon government, ARVN ( Army Republic of Vietnam), the LLDB (Luc Luong Dac Biet—-Vietnamese Special Forces) and the Vietnamese man-in-the-street. The government was rotten, the officials corrupt, ARVN cowardly, the LLDB all three, and the man-in-the-street an ignorant thief. (LLDB also qualified under “thief.")
I was shocked. I was working with what were probably some of the most dedicated Americans in Vietnam. They were supposedly in Vietnam to help “our Vietnamese friends” in their fight for a democratic way of life. Obviously, the attitude didn’t fit.
. . . [W]henever anybody questioned our being in Vietnam—in light of the facts—the old rationale was always presented: “We have to stop the spread of communism somewhere . . . if we don’t fight the commies here, we’ll have to fight them at home . . . if we pull out, the rest of Asia will go Red . . . these are uneducated people who have been duped; they don’t understand the difference between democracy and communism. . . .”
Being extremely anti-Communist myself, these “arguments” satisfied me for a long time. In fact, I guess it was saying these very same things to myself over and over again that made it possible for me to participate in the things I did in Vietnam. But were we stopping communism? Even during the short period I had been in Vietnam, the Viet Cong had obviously gained in strength; the government controlled less and less of the country every day. The more troops and money we poured in, the more people hated us. Countries all over the world were losing sympathy with our stand in Vietnam. Countries which up to now had preserved a neutral position were becoming vehemently anti-American. A village near Tay Ninh in which I had slept in safety six months earlier was the center of a Viet Cong operation that cost the lives of two American friends. A Special Forces team operating in the area was almost decimated over a period of four months. United States Operations Mission ( USOM), civilian representatives, who had been able to travel by vehicle in relative safety throughout the countryside, were being kidnapped and killed. Like the military, they now had to travel by air.
The real question was, whether communism is spreading in spite of our involvement or because of it.
The attitude that the uneducated peasant lacked the political maturity to decide between communism and democracy and “. . . we are only doing this for your own good,” although it had a familiar colonialistic ring, at first seemed to have merit. Then I remembered that most of the villages would be under Viet Cong control for some of the time and under government control at other times. How many Americans had such a close look at both sides of the cloth? The more often government troops passed through an area, the more surely it would become sympathetic to the Viet Cong. The Viet Cong might sleep in the houses, but the government troops ransacked them. More often than not, the Viet Cong helped plant and harvest the crops; but invariably government troops in an area razed them. Rape is severely punished among the Viet Cong. It is so common among the ARVN that it is seldom reported for fear of even worse atrocities.
I saw the Airborne Brigade come into Nha Trang. Nha Trang is a government town and the Vietnamese Airborne Brigade are government troops. They were originally, in fact, trained by Special Forces, and they actually had the town in a grip of terror for three days. Merchants were collecting money to get them out of town; cafes and bars shut down.
The troops were accosting women on the streets. They would go into a place—a bar or cafe—and order varieties of food. When the checks came they wouldn’t pay them. Instead they would simply wreck the place, dumping over the tables and smashing dishes. While these men were accosting women, the police would just stand by, powerless or unwilling to help. In fact, the situation is so difficult that American troops, if in town at the same time as the Vietnamese Airborne Brigade, are told to stay off the streets at night to avoid coming to harm.
The whole thing was a lie. We weren’t preserving freedom in South Vietnam. There was no freedom to preserve. To voice opposition to the government meant jail or death. Neutralism was forbidden and punished. Newspapers that didn’t say the right thing were closed down. People are not even free to leave and Vietnam is one of those rare countries that doesn’t fill its American visa quota. It’s all there to see once the Red film is removed from the eyes. We aren’t the freedom fighters. We are the Russian tanks blasting the hopes of an Asian Hungary. . . .
When I returned from Vietnam I was asked, “Do you resent young people who have never been in Vietnam, or in any war, protesting it?” On the contrary, I am relieved. I think they should be commended. I had to wait until I was 35 years old, after spending 10 years in the Army and 18 months personally witnessing the stupidity of the war, before I could figure it out. That these young people were able to figure it out so quickly and so accurately is not only a credit to their intelligence but a great personal triumph over a lifetime of conditioning and indoctrination. I only hope that the picture I have tried to create will help other people come to the truth without wasting 10 years. Those people protesting the war in Vietnam are not against our boys in Vietnam. On the contrary. What they are against is our boys being in Vietnam. They are not unpatriotic. Again the opposite is true. They are opposed to people, our own and others, dying for a lie, thereby corrupting the very word democracy.
Next entry: SL-Globe-SDS and treason, 1965