War and Peace Corps

Footprints in the Sand: My Time in Vietnam
by David Gurr (Ethiopia 1962–64)

AFTER RETURNING FROM PEACE CORPS in Ethiopia in the summer of ’64, I assisted in the training of a group of Trainees for Brazil, and then the summer of ’66, I assisted in the training of another group for Turkey, both at New York University. In between, I completed an MA that I had started before going to country myself.
     During the summer of 1966 when I was working with the Turkey project, I met an RPCV from Peru who had walked into my office by mistake. She was attempting to sign up for the Teacher Corps, a project for RPCVs that enabled them to obtain a graduate degree in education, while teaching in the poorest schools of New York City. She left my office but returned after having left a book behind. I invited her to lunch and the rest is history.
     We were married shortly after our meeting. After all, if we had survived Peace Corps Training with all of the psychological testing how could we go wrong?      In early ’67 I began to shop around for jobs back in the international sector. I had studied international economics and upon my return to the states, I had written a dissertation on Ethiopia’s first Five Year Plan. And, my new spouse wanted to go overseas again as well. However, I was turned down for two jobs with UNICEF because of my 3-A draft status. They had already had someone of my age, with two children drafted out of West Africa, and we were expecting our first.

An international job surfaces
My brother told me that the Chairman of the Political Science Department at NYU, and a friend of his, was joining the Simulmatics Corporation to conduct research on the impact of television on the Vietnamese, and suggested I apply to become part of it. The project was funded by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Advanced Research Projects Agency (OSD ARPA), the same group that Daniel Ellsberg worked for.
     I was subsequently hired for the project on a one-year contract, and left for Saigon in May of ’67, my wife followed in July, then later moved to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
     The overt purpose of the OSD ARPA project was to have teams of Vietnamese interview village residents about changes in their attitudes that were attributable to television — in essence to learn if we were “winning hearts and minds.”
     The project’s covert mission was to obtain information using the Hamlet Evaluation System, a monthly reporting system that supplied the OSD ARPA with the results of the war for “pacification,” in order to validate its accuracy. This was some of the information that Ellsberg relied on when he made his about-face regarding the pacification efforts.
     I spent six months in Saigon, Bac Lieu, An Yang, Can Tho, Vung Tao, Long Bin, Phouc Long, Dalat, Binh Dinh, Na Trang, Quin Yang and Pleiku. I oversaw each team, but stayed away from them during the day while they conducted their interviews so as not to appear to be an American effort. How’s that for naiveté! I soon realized that if someone walked into a hamlet during the day, either Vietnamese or American, they had to be government supported because the Viet Cong owned the night in all of the contested areas which at the time constituted a third of the country and the bulk of our survey sites.

TV or not TV
Our findings were the same as television surveys conducted with American audiences; TV was an entertainment medium, not an information medium. People saw the news and propaganda being presented to them, but it did not substantially change their minds, because, of course, it did not deal with the relative insecurity of the villages. After all, if villagers were overseen by the Vietnamese Government by day and Viet Cong by night, they lived in a schizophrenic environment.
     But, I also concluded that TV WAS also a pacifier. On Friday nights, “Chinese Opera” was by far the most popular program and ran upwards of two and a half hours long. While it often had overt propaganda messages, e.g., parents: don’t let you daughters move to Saigon because they risk becoming prostitutes, it was highly entertaining.
     One evening, I went with the Vietnamese district officer and the US district advisor to watch the reactions of a TV audience in a hamlet. Part way through the show, I commented to the officer about the fact that I observed viewers in uniform with rifles, and asked if they shouldn’t be guarding the perimeter of the hamlet instead of the program. He said yes, but he then subtly pointed out two plain-clothed members of the audience saying that they were suspected of being part of the Viet Cong infrastructure in the hamlet.

The Hamlet Evaluation System
On the Hamlet Evaluation System (HES) side of the survey, it was obvious that they were distorting the facts. The HES was based on all sorts of indicators (seventeen factors as I recall) of pacification, each with five indicators of success, e.g., for the factor “extent of the Viet Cong infrastructure,” the choices would range from totally intact to totally eliminated. A report was prepared each month for every single hamlet in a district by the US District Advisor, usually an Army captain, or navel equivalent.
     I soon realized that positive responses to the HES probably correlated more with negative reports in the US press that the advisors read, than with any improvement in pacification outcomes. Like any good soldier, they wished to show that things were going well, a typical outcome of surveys that lack reliable ways of validating the responses and challenging the findings.
     I also observed that the officers who were assigned to serve as district advisors were all trained in psychological warfare at Fort Bragg. However, none of the ones that I ever talked to had met a returning advisor while at Bragg, which I concluded was a big mistake. What I saw was how discouraged many of the advisors became, occasionally implying that we were working and fighting on the wrong side of the war. The level of discouragement seemed to me to be strongly correlated with how well acquainted an advisor was with his Vietnamese counterparts and how often he would eat in the local market instead of in an Army mess.

Leadership in hamlets, villages and the country
There was one success that I did observe that could be replicated in Iraq. The CIA organized Revolutionary Development teams recruited from strategic hamlets, i.e. ones that showed an inclination to fight the Viet Cong. They would take a group of 55 residents of a hamlet and give them training. Upon completion of training the group was issued small arms and returned to their hamlet not only to serve as a local security force, but to undertake community development projects — strengthening the hamlet through both activities. The teams enjoyed support from their fellow residents because of their twin commitments to security and development of the village.
      When President Dimh was elected in 1954, he dissolved all village councils and replaced them with officers from elsewhere. These councils had been democratically elected, and replacing them with officers who were not residents of the villages alienated many of the residents. Villages were very insular and really governed themselves. With ancestor worship and other animist beliefs, residents felt that it was in that village that all of their ancestors resided and that they must reside.
     These traditional values governed even the most educated. As an example, Hein, the overall team leader of our three survey teams, was educated at the University of Saigon and raised as the off-spring of a French Vietnamese officer. I asked him who he would vote for in the election for a new president in the fall of 1967. The candidates were the current president and a neutral candidate who was perceived as being able to mediate between the Viet Cong and the South Vietnamese government whose philosophy Hein had espoused on many occasions. Hein responded that he could not vote for that candidate because one of his ancestors had been cheated out of a piece of land by an ancestral relative of the candidate.

The war in action
In general, the war was very low key at the time that I was there. I would occasionally see smoke from a nearby bombing. I would also hear H&I (harassment and interdiction) artillery fire that was allowed in what were designated as free-fire zones — areas that if there was any movement seen, artillery could be fired without higher approval. Obviously, this did not go over well with the residents of those areas.
I witnessed one incident while in Bac Lieu that left an indelible impression on me. A spotter plane, called a Bird Dog, piloted by a Navy ensign, was flying west of the town and the pilot reported that a resident of a hamlet had come out of his home and fired a rifle at him. The pilot contacted the district base in Bac Lieu and requested an artillery response. Two 105 mm Howitzers fired more than 20 rounds at the hamlet, destroying the man's house, boat, and generally made a mess of things. I asked the US district advisor what each round of 105 mm cost and he said about $120, in essence a $2400 response to a rifle round. He also alleged that more rounds had been fired than necessary because there was a leak in the tube of the barrel, causing some inaccuracy, but this did not stop the fire. This encapsulated our overall response.
     Later that day, I met the ensign who had been flying the Bird Dog. He was an Academy graduate, but out there, he was a cowboy. He carried an M-16 with him in the air and was known for shooting it at targets while flying. I could understand how someone could turn into, or revert back into what they have been before entering the Academy. Shades of our leadership, where a good education seems to have had no effect on attitude.

During my days spent in Bac Lieu, I met the only civilian psy-war [psychological warfare] district advisor — who was from USIA. He took me to an interview with a Viet Cong captain that had just turned himself in — hoi chan, as it was called. Because the government offered money for hoi chan, it was suspected that many who were doing it were just trying to escape being caught in the middle of a war and needed the money. In this case however, the advisor thought that man was an officer because he was carrying a .45 automatic pistol, still in use by the American forces. The reason that he gave for turning himself in was that he was being passed over for promotion by “regroupees”.
     When a million Vietnamese went to South Vietnam after partician in 1954 and the election of Ho Chi Minh, about 400,000 went north. These were being infiltrated back into South Vietnam and according to the officer, taking over the command of the Viet Cong. The advisor thought that this would be a great message to capitalize upon in leaflet drops and posters.

Fortuitous trip to KL
Both fortunately and fortuitously, I went to Kuala Lumpur to be with my wife while our first child was being born. My wife, having not heard from me for nearly a month because I was in the field, insisted that her doctor induce birth, even a month early because she wanted me to be there for the event. Ironically, while helping the staff to move her from the bed to the birthing table, I felt a sharp pain in my abdomen and the next day, I was operated on for appendicitis. I spent the next week in the same bedroom as my wife, with our daughter between our beds. We were the talk of the hospital, a Catholic one no less. Ultimately, it turned out it was not appendicitis but rather an intestinal virus that was unknown at the time. Years later I read that a journalist had had the same experience in Vietnam.
     When discussing my views about the war conveying the skeptic views that had been expressed to me by some district advisors, I was roundly criticized by some of the other researchers in essence saying why didn’t I go home if I did not share both governments’ line about the war. At least one researcher, who had done work in North Vietnam in 1953 defended me saying that it was always appropriate to question research findings and beliefs.
     Given my illness and fact that the firm had spent two thirds of the grant funds on one third of the survey, and the first of three waves of interviews with respondents, I was let go to return to the States.
     I returned to Saigon from KL in mid-December and left on Christmas Day. A week later, the Tet Offensive occurred, forever changing the image of the war for the TV audience back home. One of the last things that I did before leaving Saigon was to cancel a rent-a-car that I had planned to drive with my wife and daughter to Phnom Penh. It had been expected that everyone would take a vacation, even the VC as had occurred during previous Tet observances.
Back to school
That same researcher who had supported my views about the war encouraged me to return to NYU and study for a doctorate, and when I returned home I followed his suggestion and re-enrolled in a graduate program. It was a slow process and, as I learned later, risky. It seemed that at least one member of the department was opposed to my being readmitted because I had worked in Vietnam. In fact, he ended up on my dissertation committee, and with my own challenges, he helped me to not get the degree, but the department chairman having sympathy for me awarded me an M Ph as a consolation prize. All of this is to underscore how divisive the war became in our lives.

I had maintained my belief that the best ways to understand the world and to have it understand us was in fact-to-face exchanges. What I was beginning to find was that this was somewhat idealist given the preponderance of alternative US policy towards others.

In retrospect
What is so striking to me now is the absolute comparison between our attitude toward Vietnam then and our attitude toward Iraq today. This might not have occurred to me had not Kerry and the Swift Boat guys restarted the war, 40 years later. It is as if no one read the history of the war in Vietnam. I think that it is because 1) we as a nation are in denial, with neocons believing that we lost the war because of the bad press, and 2) as George Bernard Shaw so well stated it, “what we learn from history is that we don’t!”
     A third axiom comes to mind: “generals fight a current war the way that they fought the last one.” However, in the case of Iraq, the civilians rather than the generals now think this and direct the war. The generals, at least those who express their hunches, are right, i.e., we should never have taken this one on. In the case of Vietnam, we had a plan for after the war with Arthur Smithies and another colleague working on such a plan. In Iraq, there now appears to have been no post-war plan and the military has privatized reconstruction, as well as supply lines with catastrophic and expensive results. In addition, the military has dropped its community development assistance that it had used for years. Just look how an occupation force entered Japan after WWII and turned the lights and the water back on, resulting in Japan becoming a dominate economic power. This was largely because of our ignoring the aftermath of WWI and the result of that action being WWII.
     Another lesson for me is that the US never grasped the differences among the North, Central and South Vietnamese that they held for each of them. This was largely attributable to the fact that France oversaw all three as political entities and administered them in vastly different ways. Again, shades of Iraq with Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites.
     Overall, I have always reflected on the fact that I spent years avoiding the draft, first by joining the Peace Corps, as well as having one of my U.S. Senators contact my draft board when I received my induction notice on the day that I had informed my draft board that I would return to the US from Peace Corps service. And then I end up going there voluntarily as a social science researcher!
     And, like My Lia, we end up killing the very people we want to institute a western form of democracy. One of my wife’s students from the United Arab Emirates, when I asked, said that western democracy does not work for them because each of the clans, tribes, whatever, have wise men who arrive at agreed upon decisions. As one American diplomat once observed on a morning following a request for a decision, looking outside, he could see the many “footprints in the sand.” And of course, this is the sand that we and they are drowning in today.

David Gurr works today for AmeriCorps/VISTA, Corporation for National and Community Service. As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, he taught Auto Mechanics and Shop Management at the secondary level, Economics at the undergraduate level, and played flute with the Ethiopian National Symphony. He is the father of two children, a daughter who is an Episcopal priest and a son who is a somatic psychologist and Celtic harpist.