Saturday, August 11, 2007

Phoenix: A Story of Vietnam, the Prologue to "Saint George and the Dragon"

Robert Komer with Lyndon Johnson, 1967; "Blowtorch Bob" Komer created Operation Phoenix, a CIA "counter-trerror" program that murdered over 40,000 innocent civilians in Vietnam in 1968-9

CIA officer William Colby, who administered Operation Phoenix and helped torture suspects

Phoenix: A Story of Vietnam, the Prologue to Saint George and the Dragon

Aldo Ray as the killer Sgt. Croft in The Naked and the Dead (1958)--see my post Captain Ahab and His Children for a discussion of Croft as a modern Ahab

I first conceived of the idea of “Phoenix” after reading Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead in the summer of 1974, right after completing my freshman year at Princeton. Mailer concludes his World War Two masterpiece with a famous scene known as “the gook hunt”—it describes the “mopping-up” operations that the GIs execute on the island of Anopopei (a fictional generic Japanese-held island in MacArthur’s island-hopping campaign—Mailer was a Leyte veteran). In the gook hunt, GIs shoot hundreds of captured Japanese soldiers out of hand as soon as they surrender. It’s a massacre, and it’s part of a conscious, planned policy of extermination. (“Exterminate the brutes!” as Kurtz said in Heart of Darkness. See my post on Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now.)

After reading The Naked and the Dead, you’ll never forget the scenes that pepper the book of GIs cutting the gold teeth out of the mouth of dead Japanese soldiers. It was a commonplace ritual in the Pacific War. That and collecting dead Japanese soldiers’ ears as trophies, stringing them together, and keeping the ear necklaces in your duffel bag so long that your bunkmates complained of the stench. So you see: U.S. bestiality and barbarism didn’t start in Vietnam (or Iraq). That’s one of the advantages of studying history. This kind of horrifying pathology goes back to frontier Indian-fighting days, you better believe it.

On finishing The Naked and the Dead, I asked myself, what about a gook hunt set in Vietnam? What would that be like? So was born “Phoenix.”

At least we know it's not Cheney in this picture: U.S. torture during the Vietnam War

I was just beginning the rewrite of my novel Saint George and the Dragon, about a domestic operation of the CIA set in the post-Watergate Seventies (see my previously posted chapters, “Confrontation” and “Apocalypse in Pennsylvania”), and I thought it might be a great idea to show my protagonist, George Oldman Davies, a counterinsurgency officer of the CIA, in action in Vietnam.

George Oldman Davies, whom I always envisioned as Lee Marvin

Then I began reading about Operation Phoenix in Vietnam, and I knew I had my story.

Operation Phoenix—known as Phoang Huang in Vietnamese—was a CIA “counter-terror” program that claimed the lives of over 40,000 South Vietnamese, most of whom were quite innocent. It was a mass murder program, plain and simple. After America’s crushing defeat in the Tet Offensive in January 1968, desperate U.S. war planners hoped to guarantee America’s chances of victory by instituting a Draconian program to crush any suspected opposition. The purpose of Phoenix was to root out and destroy the Vietcong infrastructure in South Vietnam—and to do that, CORDS (Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development), the American counterinsurgency umbrella organization in Vietnam, recruited a network of village informers to notify the CIA and the U.S. Army who was a Vietcong in the hamlets or who wasn’t.

The problem was, the informers were nearly all liars, as they usually are. Guess what? The people they fingered were neighbors they owed money to. Or neighbors they held a grudge against. Or men whose wife they wanted. Or a neighbor whose property they wanted to acquire.

So the PRU teams slaughtered 40,000 innocent people. The infamous PRU Teams (Provincial Reconnaissance Units) were CIA mercenaries who were notorious for their brutality. They were ex-VC, people who had lost family members to the VC, brigands, criminals, sadists, torturers—basically the kind of pond scum who in Weimar Germany filled the ranks of the Brownshirts (most of whom were convicted rapists, incidentally).

In the spring of 1976 I got into a heated public argument at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton with Robert Komer, known as "Blowtorch Bob," the former U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam. When he mentioned casually that he had been head of CORDS, I knew immediately from my reading of War Without End by Michael T. Klare (which delves quite deeply into Phoenix) that he had been the godfather of the notorious Operation Phoenix and had at least in part the blood of 40,000 people on his hands.

Blowtorch Bob with LBJ, 1967: calculating kill ratios, no doubt

In public Komer pooh-poohed my charges; when I confronted him in the auditorium with the accusations Frances Fitzgerald made about him in Fire In The Lake, his response was flatly, "What Francie Fitzgerald knows about Phoang Huang could be written on the head of a pin."

But when I approached him personally after the lecture, when there was no one else around, he first told me, in an irritated voice, "You should have known better than to ask me about Phoenix." Then, when I pressed him about the infamous PRU Teams (Provincial Reconnaissance Units), he first looked around carefully—making there was no one else around to overhear—and then he laughed and said, "The PRU teams? They were killers, they were just killers."

Maybe he had a conscience. Any takers?

To say I was freaked out is an understatement, but let’s say I felt like Prince Prospero at the end of Poe's The Masque of the Red Death who discovers that the uninvited visitor in the red cloak and the skull mask isn’t wearing a costume. I felt like Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown, who stumbles into the woods in Puritan New England in the dead of night and discovers that all of the respectable townspeople (including his wife) are in reality practicing the Black Mass and committing the most horrific and unspeakable depredations imaginable.

A broken LBJ with Secretary of State Robert McNamara, one of the architects of the Vietnam War

It didn’t help that Komer looked exactly like Sean Connery at the time in his 1976 thriller The Next Man—a handsome, tanned, rugged-looking guy with a mustache, a balding pate, and terrific personal charm. James Bond had turned into a SPECTRE assassin.

Zardoz (1974): Komer was Connery's spitting image, I swear to God

At Princeton in 1974, I had a long talk with Dr. Ray Cline, the former Deputy Director of Intelligence of the CIA (the Number Two spot) who played a major role in the Cuba missile crisis of 1962. Ray had served under every President from FDR to Ford and knew quite a few very well personally.

Ray (right) with CIA chief Allen Dulles (left), also wanted for questioning concerning his proximity to the grassy knoll on November 22, 1963

A Harvard graduate and ex-OSS veteran, Ray had just outed Henry Kissinger in the pages of The New York Times as the man who’d plotted the murder of Salvador Allende, and he was very shaken up. Because he’d been honest and identified Kissinger as a killer, he had been frozen out of the Washington power nexus. I also had the feeling that it was dawning on him that although he had started out in the Cold War wanting to save people, he had ended up killing them. He was very nervous, his hands were shaking, and I had the acute feeling that he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I realized that I was in the presence of my protagonist George—George who’s having a nervous breakdown at the end of the book.

Vice-President Hubert Humphrey and LBJ getting bad news from General Abrams

There were some damn fool Trotskyite students in the auditorium who were jeering at him and screaming at him that he was a war criminal, and all I could think of was, You idiots. You’re never going to learn anything from him that way.

Instead, I tried to be sympathetic with him, and when I asked him questions from the floor, I tried to approach him from his point of view. I figured that was the only way I was going to learn something from this encounter.

To a degree, he had a point—when he spoke movingly about how America felt it had to halt Stalin and world Communism after the Berlin blockade and airlift of 1948-9, I understood where he was coming from.

Mao, 1949: plotting how to murder fifty million of his fellow countrymen and eviscerate the most populous nation of earth, which is why China is so fucked up now

But when he began talking about “the excesses” of Vietnam and the massacres that followed the toppling of Allende, I had the distinct feeling that he was aware of the moral contradictions inherent in the statement, “We destroyed the village in order to save it.” In the Cold War, America had ended up adopting the methods of its enemies and wound up massacring millions of innocent people.

But Ray still didn’t want to face the truth squarely in the face: he had lived his entire life for a lie, and I’m sure he sensed that, as the great Richard Condon would say, America isn’t the land of the free and the home of the brave—it’s a hard-headed corporation hell-bent on rubbing out the competition, by any means necessary. We aren’t going to give up Coca-Cola sales territory without a fight.

After his talk, I approached Ray personally, and I swear to God, he gratefully grasped my hand and said, “Mr. Wheeler, thank you very much for the things you said. It’s because of people like you that I talk at events like this.”

My friend Ray, in earlier days

And then he told me something really fascinating. I asked him what it had been like working for Richard Nixon.

LBJ watches CBS newcaster Walter Cronkite, who was instrumental in turning American public opinion against the war when he declared the war unwinnable after Tet

And he said: “You want to know something about Nixon? All the Presidents before him based their foreign policy on that of their predecessor. But Nixon, he just made it up as he went along.”

Leaving the country in safe hands

It turned out that after 1974, Ray did not turn his back on the CIA and its bloody heritage—he ended up going to work for lovable right-wing fanatic Ronald Reagan, beloved of nun rapists, death squad pistoleros, and torturers everywhere. In 1986, he published an admiring book about the Agency, Secrets, Spies and Scholars: The CIA from Roosevelt to Reagan.

After I walked away from my encounter with him, I was in a daze. I realized I just not only met my protagonist George, a Cold Warrior with shattered nerves and an uneasy sense that he was a mass murderer—I had also met George’s boss Frank Carson, the head of the covert section (the “Black Department”) of the CIA, the cold, shrewd intelligence chief who sends trusting, naive gladiators like George into the field to get chopped up into hamburger.

George's boss, the cold-blooded, manipulative Frank Carson (Henry Fonda)

One theme in “Phoenix” is something I’ve noticed that America has done ever since we got into bed with Chiang Kai-shek in China in the 1940s. America is this na├»ve idealistic ultramodern Boy Scout who purports to be spreading freedom around the world, but instead we keep getting suckered by these feudal Third World despots out of the Middle Ages into doing their dying for them.

It happened in the Korean War, it happened in Vietnam, and now it’s happening in Iraq. Soldiers in Syngman Rhee’s army refused to fight for their own country in Korea, so American boys ended up doing the dying for them. Ha ha! (Or LOL, as the kids like to say today.)

The Dragon Lady in Milton Caniff's classic 1940s comic strip, Terry and the Pirates, taking a cue from Chiang Kai-Shek and his successive Generalissimos who suckered the United States: laughing up their sleeves, indeed

The South Vietnamese leaders pulled the same stunt on us—we were the cat who gets tricked by the monkey into pulling the roasting chestnuts out of the fire in the famous fable of the Cat’s Paw; a hundred thousand American boys died (including the 50,000 who’ve died since 1975) because the cowardly South Vietnamese army refused to fight for its own freedom—and now American boys (and girls this time) are dying needlessly by the thousands in Iraq to perpetuate a society that should have died in the Middle Ages, because the Iraqi Army refuses to fight. It’s terrible, and it doesn’t stop.

I should add that I first wrote this story back in 1974, five years before Apocalypse Now. Certain scenes in “Phoenix” might remind you of some scenes of Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War epic, but please realize that I imagined these scenes years before the greatest American film of the 1970s was released.

The point of the story—which is the opening of Saint George and the Dragon, told as a flashback—is pretty simple: if George can do what he does in July 1968 at the end of this story, he’s capable of anything. So don’t be surprised by anything he does stateside in the course of his experimental domestic operation in June 1976.

You should realize the same fact about America—if a nation can do what we did in Vietnam, then we’re capable of anything. As we’ve learned.

* * * * *

In Iraq, why do they hate freedom?

(You’ll notice some photos of the beautiful and lovable Madame Nhu sprinkled throughout this post.

Madame Nhu was known in the American press as “the First Lady of South Vietnam” before JFK murdered her brother Ngo Dinh Nhu, the feared head of the South Vietnamese secret police and professional opium addict, and her brother-in-law, President Ngo Dinh Diem, on November 2, 1963.

The bloody handshake: Nhu meets then Vice-President LBJ

A devout Catholic celibate, Ngo Dinh Diem instead turned his energies to ravishing his own sorrowful, hapless country

Madame Nhu was an authentic Dragon Lady-type who loved to say zany, outrageous things.

For instance, when several Buddhist priests immolated themselves in 1963, protesting the fact that Diem and Nhu’s brutal regime was routinely murdering and torturing the opposition, Madame Nhu made the papers by laughingly referring to the burned monks as “barbecues.” "Let them burn and we shall clap our hands," she added.

But she earned her place in the hearts of the American people with the ultra-sensitive telegram she sent to Jackie Kennedy on November 22, 1963, after JFK encountered an unexpected delay in his motorcade in Dallas. “Now you know what it feels like,” she jeered at JFK’s newly-widowed wife.

The Wink: LBJ exchanges a knowing wink with an aide during his swearing-in--"You made it, hoss!"

Then she added this chilling, prophetic statement: “Anything that happens in South Vietnam will find its counterpart in the United States.”

You can’t make this jazz up. Isn’t American history amazing?)

* * * * *

If you believe you sighted this woman anywhere in the vicinity of the grassy knoll on November 22, 1963, please don't hesitate to contact this office


Phoenix: A Story of Vietnam, the Prologue to Saint George and the Dragon

For three days the warrior searched out the mountain, his stout heart urging to battle; he climbed up on foot, he cast down the mountain, he destroyed their nest, he shattered their host. Two hundred of his fighting men I cut down with the sword; their heavy booty I carried off like a flock of sheep; with their blood I dyed the mountain red like wool; with the rest of them I darkened the gullies and precipices of the mountain; their cities I destroyed, I devastated, I burned with fire.

Ashurnasirpal II of Assyria, 876 B.C.

It was a violent ride through the jungle. Our bulky Jeep, surging down the chopped-up road crudely improvised from a muddy footpath, jolted with every rut, and in a jerky green flash the dense foliage closing in shot by. Each time we hit a bump, the Jeep rocked, and we all swayed to one side at the same time, our spinning wheels splattering black sludge on our pants. Once, when we dropped into a shallow ditch, we bounced, the uniformed driver cursed, and we leapt out with a lunging start. General Linh was thrown against me and the silver fillings in my molars received a jar that left them aching the rest of the day. I muttered some comment about bronco-busting, and we lurched on our merry way.

I was seated in the back with General Linh, a weighty Thompson resting on my knees, while in front, next to Kim, the Arvin driver who served as the General's bodyguard (and God knew what else), Corporal Rice rode shotgun with his M-16, scanning the passing treetops for concealed Vietcong snipers. Originally General Linh had interdicted my request for an uncovered Jeep, but at the last minute I countermanded his order; a cover only gives you a false sense of security. For the same reason I neglected to tell him to expect road mines along the way. This was his first visit out to the provinces. Why disturb him about something he was helpless to prevent?

We hurtled along in the creaking Jeep, bucking over the narrow trail. Through the overspreading treetops towering above us peeked brief flashes of an early morning sky blue as an alcohol flame. Inside the rainforest canopy, it felt like we were plowing through a palpable tunnel of muggy air oozing with humidity. Disconnected fragments of sunlight lay glowing on the roadbed ahead, and as we jounced along, I watched golden tiger stripes slap General Linh's face. He never blinked.

I sat back and silently endured being tossed in my seat when I least expected. My large hand glistened on the smooth wooden stock of the Thompson. Sweat lay on my skin like a fine dawn dew. Now that the tropical Delta summer was pulsing through the sluggish air like feverish blood shooting through a swollen vein, the Asian heat was bloating like a body decomposing in the mud by the side of the road. For the moment, at least, the blazing sun shone and cottony elongated clouds traversed the clear sky. But not for long.

Soon, before we knew it, with the arrival of the monsoon season, we would think the Mekong was being dumped out of its bed and over our heads. Yet come sunshine or downpour, the air would still be suffocatingly hot and damp, it would seethe with sticky humidity. After six years the swelter was not even an irritation for me anymore, now I saw it as a convenient means of lubricating my limbs. True, it dulled the mind, it threw a wet blanket over my brain, but I found that more an aid than a hindrance in the performance of my line of work. Actually the climate reminded me more of rural Mississippi than anything else.

The smeared windshield shivered as we rounded an easy turn, and Kim shifted grinding gears and we roared ahead. Rice lifted his cropped head, and it turned slowly like an artillery gun pivoting in its turret as he studied the endless wall of the rainforest sweeping past. He knew as well as I how vulnerable we were to an ambush, and he knew to anticipate one after every curve. The long barrel of his rifle stuck up like the numeral 1.

We hit another bump and it lifted us all about an inch in our seats. I winced, clutching my Thompson, and we shuddered on. One of these days a wheel of a Jeep of which I was a passenger would encounter a mound that would not be a projecting rock, and when I rode over it my ass would get tossed about ten feet in the air. In fact it might be the next bump. The possibility didn't seem to disturb any of the others. Kim was intent on negotiating the road, Rice was scrutinizing the terrain like a hungry chicken hawk, and at my side General Linh shifted his buttocks with boredom. I used to worry about death in the field, but I seemed to be placing my faith in a Providentially-ordered world these days. Lately I found myself reading extensively from the Scriptures and memorizing striking passages.

Another bump. But no boom.

And by my Accutron it was only 7:27 A.M. on this memorable day of Saturday, July 13, 1968. Back in the States plastic alarm clocks must be detonating, little girls in rumpled flannel pajamas were brushing their teeth in front of bathroom mirrors, at breakfast tables fathers in white button-down shirts were wiping their mouths with paper napkins, and at sunlit bus stops boisterous schoolchildren were filing into hulking egg-yolk yellow buses monstrous as any prehistoric saurians, ready to trundle them away. At the end of the claustrophobic jungle road, the hamlet of Phoun Loc lay in wait for us like a hand outstretched at the end of an arm.

"End of the line," I announced, and we slowed to a halt on the outskirts of the tiny village. Swinging my big feet laced in heavy paratrooper boots out of the Jeep, I clambered out and stretched my cramped legs. Shaken in the course of the long trip, my breakfast eggs, once hardboiled, were now scrambled. Kim the driver (a Korean?), a dark intense boy, slid out from behind the wheel while General Linh picked his fastidious way out of the back seat and joined me to emit a delicate belch.

At home with the Nhus

"Rice, you stay here," I said and got my trusty Thompson out of the back. "If anything comes up over the shortwave, you let me know right away, you hear?"


Glenn Rice had been my aide since Tet. He was a lanky farmboy from East Texas with a sober, mildly numbed face that was pure Southwest. He was a nice enough kid, but a little dull. Basically he was a hick. To him "the mysterious East" was not Bangkok but Philadelphia.

Sir? I had forgotten I was wearing silver colonel's wings: pinned on the lapels of my combat khakis above the gold letters stitched across my heart that read U.S. ARMY.

For this occasion General Nguyen Van Linh was wearing his sky-blue dress uniform, replete with epaulets and sagging with gold braid. His pigeon chest was dripping with tinny medals that clinked together with each step. Slim and natty, he about came up to my sternum. Freshly barbered and shaved and sporting a neat French mustache, he wore pungent cologne and a purple-black ascot wrapped around his sleek neck. The soft sheen of his slicked-back hair matched that of the light coat of gun grease on my Thompson. To complete the effect he modeled goldrimmed sunglasses with mirrored lenses, like my own, and an ivory cigarette holder.

In his mannerisms he was embarrassingly effeminate; he affected aristocratic languor, and he spoke with a lisp so thick you could make fudge out of it. In private I called him Herman Goering's French Stepdaughter. He carried a perpetually distracted air about him that irritated me immensely; a bicycle bomb could explode down the street, killing a dozen children and maiming a score more, and he would take no notice. I had arrived at the conclusion that he was as stupid as a water buffalo. As far as I could tell he had attained his position solely through the connections of his wealthy Catholic family; they didn't know what to do with him and so they made him a general.


But he held a dangerously high rank for such a fool. He was no military commander, he was a playboy. Why I had been saddled with him I had no idea—possibly because I had a reputation for diplomacy (or patience), probably because on this trip he only had to function as an observer, and they figured he couldn't get into trouble doing that. Maybe he had gotten restless pinching secretaries in the office they kept him stashed away in. But just before we set out, I discovered he had seldom ventured out of Saigon before, from fear of assassination. Would I have to explain what a Strategic Hamlet was? And this was his country?

He isn't even carrying a sidearm, I noticed and patted the Colt .45 I was packing in my belt holster. Well he has his bodyguard to do that.

"Shall we go now?" he inquired in his best St. Cyr accent. He might have been asking me to join him in a leisurely stroll around the magnificent garden of his palatial villa outside Saigon. A white smile defined by thick red lips and massive gums expanded across his golden moon face. I wondered whether he had used the same smile on the French fifteen years before.

"Sure, let's." We struck off, with Kim covering our rear.

"Mister, ah, Davis, is it?"

"Davies, George Oldman Davies."

"You are associated with the CIA, are you not?"

"I'm a counterinsurgency officer." I drill little brown men in little brown uniforms.

As I ruminated over the demonstration we were about to watch, considering it seriously for the first time today, I got a little nervous. "You understand, of course, that I'm only here as an observer."

"What did you say the name of this village is?"

"Phoun Loc."

"Ah yes," he said, and made his vacant smile. When they smile why must Asians so resemble their monkey demons? After six years it was making me uncomfortable. Along with a lot of things. "And am I to understand that you have been serving with this unit in an advisory capacity?"

"Right, I trained them."

"I am also told you were somewhat instrumental in devising this Operation—oh, what is it?"

"Phoang Huang. Operation Phoenix."

He beamed. Monkey demon. "I knew it was some sort of bird."

"Yes, as a matter of fact I helped draw up the original contingency plan two years ago. We've only begun to implement it in the past year. So you might say I came here to witness the birth of my brainchild."

"These are not standard Counter Terror Squads?"

"They consist of the same Provincial Reconnaissance Units, but their purpose is much broader, much more comprehensive."

"May I ask who is in charge of this operation?"

"Mr. Robert Komer, as head of CORDS, is overseeing it, but the program director is a man from my Agency who has worked here many years, a Mr. Colby." I paused to lend emphasis to my next words. "A Princeton man. A graduate of the Woodrow Wilson School of International Affairs."

In Congressional hearings, it came out that during Phoenix torture sessions in Saigon, when the CIA was short-handed, Princetonian Bill Colby was more than happy to pitch in with a pair of electrodes

I thought he would be suitably impressed, and he was. He pursed his liver lips and said, "My, my." However, I didn't voice my follow-up thought, which was that if Woodie Woo School men designed these kinds of operations, they were carried out by retreads from Columbia like me.

"So you believe this Phoenix will be different? You have faith it will turn the tide against the Communists? I hope you appreciate the gravity of our predicament, after Tet..."

I was tempted to lose my temper, but I held it.

"General Linh, I was just as concerned as you were about the black pajama party the Vietcong held in our embassy. Believe me. This will work. It was drawn up by men like Mr. Komer and Mr. Colby and myself, men dedicated to the freedom of your country, for the specific purpose of rooting out the infrastructure of Vietcong infiltrators and sympathizers at the hamlet level. I promise you this: Operation Phoenix is guaranteed to be the final answer to the Communist threat in Vietnam."

I wanted to add, "And if this doesn't work, baby, nothin' will," but restrained myself. Because it had to work. Six years of my life had been invested in its efficacy. And there was another aspect of the program that was unspoken but remained understood all the same. The implications of Operation Phoenix were not to be restricted to Vietnam alone, no, if it worked here (and it would), the scope of the operation would be expanded, and Phoenix would be implemented in the rest of Southeast Asia, indeed wherever the hydra of Communist insurgency reared a head, eventually throughout Asia, and ultimately (we were sure) in Africa and Latin America. One of my co-workers on the project, a Kentuckian named MacPherson, had suggested, purely in jest, that taking into account the recent long hot summers at home, especially the nationwide King riots of only three months ago, maybe the rebellious black ghettos of Washington, Watts, Harlem, Newark, and Detroit could use a healthy dollop of our Phoang Huang, but I seriously doubted it.

All the same, the importance of Phoenix was not to be minimized. In the wake of the last world war, the Third World supplied the ultimate battleground for the worldwide clandestine conflict being waged by American democracy against international Communism; and as guerrilla wars of national liberation emerged as the primary weapon of the Reds in the underdeveloped nations, it became the responsibility of the United States to develop new and more effective methods of counterinsurgency warfare.

Vietcong: Ho Chi Minh was promised Vietnamese independence from the French by the Allies in return for fighting the Japanese, just as all former Western colonies occupied by the Axis were, but the Allies, alas, changed their minds after the war

Elementary geopolitics demanded an American victory over Communist insurgency. Otherwise, if the dominos were allowed to fall, if the Free World abdicated the Eurasian World Island, one day the United States would find itself a Fortress America, and not by choice. In recent years Vietnam had stepped forward as the first battlefield of the long twilight struggle Kennedy had envisioned in his Inaugural, and the West watched while American strength and will were tested.

The former head of Ford Motor Company, McNamara simply switched from the mass production of automobiles to the mass production to dead Asian rice farmers

Vietnam represented the trial case, the experiment. If here we faltered, if here we failed, the row of dominos would begin to collapse, and we would not be able to run fast enough to catch up with the accelerating decline and avert the preset pattern. Now, in the aftermath of Tet, we stood at this impasse; it was toe to toe.

Only Phoenix could turn the tide, could prevent the first domino from toppling. That was why this demonstration we had come to witness today loomed so high in significance. It was not inconceivable that the outcome of Phoenix at Phoun Loc this sunny midsummer morn would determine the identity of the victor of the Armageddon to come.

Artist Greg Martin''s brilliant depiction of the phoenix--the Firebird beloved of such great modernist artists as Igor Stravinsky and D.H. Lawrence, who used the phoenix as a symbol for their hope for the rebirth of Western civilization and the human spirit after the spiritual, cultural, and political crisis that triggered the First World War. Guess what happened

The two Dr. Strangeloves: Edward Teller (standing), whose strong Hungarian accent was mimiced by Peter Sellers as a Werner von Braun/German accent, and the genial old sage beloved by all (seated, right), whose unprecedented genius may have doomed humankind and all life on earth

In the freshly-minted morning of the new day, Phoun Loc could have been one of the innumerable mass-produced Potemkin villages we erected for visiting VIPs. Mr. Secretary, you'd like to inspect a courageous little village recently overrun by Vietcong? Right here. You wanted to tour a typical provincial hamlet, Senator, populated by happy, smiling peasants? Coming right up. Population Centers Made To Order While You Wait.

LBJ and General William Westmoreland (head of U.S. forces in Vietnam) visit their bosses, President Thieu and Vice-President Ky; after the fall of Saigon, Ky moved to Southern California, where he ran a brutal protection racket and terrorized the local expatriate South Vietnamese community with ex-secret policemen--the tyranny continued

With the glorious sky piped in from Colorado and the fluffy white clouds manufactured by Disney Studios, the site could have been transplanted from a Hollywood sound stage. It was authentic down to the last Technicolor detail, from the vivid green jungle brooding in the background to the picturesque rice paddy off to one side blanketed in rich brown muck. Between the two, under the searing tutelage of the sun, the mud clearing that constituted Phoun Loc had cracked and learned to grow a thin coat of dust. A circle of grass huts apparently constructed from monkey bones and bird droppings closed in around the village square, in which scrawny chickens pecked, woebegone ducks waddled, and a few gross swine rooted. In the ghostly treetops, mournful birds were crying out to one another, as if for help.

The glowering sun had already burnt the exciting springlike energy out of the youthful blush of the sweet morning air, and the impending firmament promised by noon to become the brutal dominion of a savage lord. The stifling air would throb with enervating heat, and the gentle white clouds would harden into jagged horizontal spires of platinum. But for now the temperature was only uncomfortable and the sun only annoying.

In the powdery dust of the village square were assembled fifty members of a crack Provincial Reconnaissance Unit wearing camouflage uniforms and green berets, not at attention but strung out in two parallel lines of twenty-five that opposed one another, weighted down with ammo bandoliers, knives, pistols, and hand grenades, and cradling evil-looking black grease guns. They were short stunted men with immobile faces and unhumorous black eyes who though silent were as predatory as stoats. I knew because I had spent the last year in supervising their training personally, and I had the greatest respect for them. I had no illusions about them; they were strictly Foreign Legionnaire (or Brownshirt) material: Saigon criminals, Arvin deserters, ex-VC, men whose families had been butchered by VC—thugs. They were mercenaries employed by the Arvin government and they were killers whose specific duty was to dispatch civilians, but that was okay; all soldiers are trained, and paid, to do that. In warfare there are no noncombatants. In this respect Vietnam was just another war. I enjoyed it. The great thing about combat is that you get to get down to fundamentals, to the basic issue of life and death.

When I thought about it, as a professional fighting man I was proud to feel myself part of the great warrior tradition, the oldest in humankind. Yeah, that was me, George Oldman Davies, counterinsurgency officer of the CIA and modern Captain Ahab: urbane psychopath, intellectual maniac, apocalyptic raconteur, fanatical leader of men, stoic warrior hero, and insightful commentator on Western civilization.

As General Linh and I approached, Colonel Phoung, the PRU Unit commander, met us with a flat stare. He was reserved, even cold, but efficient; he got the job done, and fast. He was a fierce Vietnamese patriot who went all the way back to Dienbienphu. With his steelrims he was a short well-knit man in his late forties with an ascetic face and unrelenting eyes. A devout Buddhist as a youth, he had almost become a monk. He had a poet's face. He had served under Nhu in the secret police.

Nhu, who murdered and tortured thousands

To General Linh he snapped off a crisp salute, then offered me his cool dry hand. "Mr. Davies," he said with a curt nod of the head. The two spoke English for my benefit, even though I had a firm command of Vietnamese.

After I introduced the General to the colonel, General Linh said, "So this is the village, Colonel."

"Yes sir."

Fenced in by a crude wooden corral, a noisy shifting agitated press of five hundred chattering peasants crowded together, clad in clean pajamas. They jostled one another, straining their bright dark eyes and craning their scrawny necks, to catch a look at us. Soft cries of concern emanated from them, carrying smothered hysteria. The PRU teams were lined up on either side of the corral to box them in.

"Phoenix," General Linh murmured. "Operation Phoenix. I like the name, Mr. Davis. Really I do. It is fitting." A smile of delight stretched across his face and eloquence seized him. "For, like the phoenix, from this and operations like it will emerge our country, re-born, from the ashes." His reedy voice swelled with glory I imagine he generally saved for parade-ground speeches. "It is an awesome thought," he added quietly.

Raquel Welch was an incredibly popular pinup girl for American GIs in Vietnam: why?

When I first sighted the teeming corral, the round, blank faces were golden blobs that multiplied to make up the rectangular mass. But the longer I stared, the sooner the amorphous mass broke down into component parts, and then unique features came into sharp focus. No longer were they a faceless body of skinny little yellow people. The variety I discerned disconcerted me a little. There was a chunky boy of twelve with a face of bronze. A gaunt old woman with rotten teeth. A robust farmer with soiled hands and a look of defeat. A young woman with lovely long glossy hair and an ugly face. Each one my eyes passed over was different, an individual.

But their eyes were all the same: liquid black marbles of obsidian glass. And they all stared back at me, accusing. Searching. Angry. Threatening. Terrified.

General Linh sighed deeply. "Well let us get on with it."

"As you wish, sir." Colonel Phoung led us off to the side. I lingered to take one last glance. Their faces were in constant motion, grimacing, slackening, tightening, luminous eyes darting. But I soon recalled heartsick memories of bursting booby traps and pointed bone-white punji stakes smeared with shit

These were the enemy.

A beautiful female VC

When we were safely out of range, General Linh asked mildly, "Are they all Communists?"

Colonel Phoung shot me a sidelong glance, then said, "We work with informers, and our intelligence reports total Vietcong infiltration, sir."

"So there is no need for interrogation." I cleared my throat. "Normally, under the new program, we would question suspects, but as you can see, in this case there's no need."

"A shame."

Inside the jampacked corral, which the PRU Unit had probably forced them to construct, the block of Vietcong infiltrators and sympathizers shifted and throbbed with renewed restiveness, like a drove of bees swarming over a honeycomb. In form it resembled a jumbled jigsaw puzzle. Someone jumped up and yelled at us. A young man. Probably VC.

For no apparent reason a playful tune entered my head. "Get Along Little Dogeys."

"Fire!" Colonel Phoung shouted (in English), and the two teams (which I had trained) opened up. Over the thunder of the automatic fire I shouted, "Not yet, not yet, you fool," but I was drowned out, and I was too late. Colonel Phoung was oblivious to me, immersed in the same spectacle as General Linh.

It was restrained pandemonium. As the first volley of shots struck, a keening wail burst from the crowd. At the unexpected thunderclap of uproar, ducks and chickens exploded into the air and swine fled squealing in alarm. Even as the grease guns rattled on monotonously, the initial barrage threw the front lines of the cattle on opposite sides back, slamming the herd together, compressing it. Bodies twisted and a woman dropped to her knees. Arms flapped like the wings of hysterical flamingos. Shrill screams, as if from a nightmare catfight, tore through the air. Limbs thrashed furiously; everyone seemed to be fighting one another. It was all hotly-concentrated chaos. Gleaming brass shells tumbled around the boots of the PRU men.

Then the struggling mob was detonating in all directions and the sturdy corral was breaking apart and collapsing under its mad charge, the fear had changed to frenzy. Running amok, the wild swarm engulfed the second PRU team (on the farther side close by the jungle wall) even as the horrified men emptied their clips in a steady belching stream. One merc went down, mouth hanging open, wearing a mute look of helpless panic, until the rioting wave of humanity sucked him under and he was crushed. With grim determination the members of Team One blasted murderous gunfire into the roiling mass before it could wheel around and turn on them. The clamoring tumult boiling up from the earth with the pale clouds of dust sounded like the heavens themselves renting open.

When I swung around, General Linh was staggering back, Colonel Phoung was displaying a look of astonishment, and Kim had his big automatic out but his face was slack. As I switched the loaded Thompson off safety, I shouted, "Get back to the Jeep!" I waved my arm furiously. "Back to the Jeep!"

Without hesitation they turned and fled. General Linh slipped and sprawled on his face in a mud puddle but Colonel Phoung dragged him to his feet and they dashed off in terror. Kim threw a fearful head over his shoulder to see if they were being gained upon.

The three were in no danger. Fleeing the orchestrated salvos of Team One, the village of Phoun Loc trampled over Team Two and rushed into the murky rainforest like a trumpeting herd of stampeding elephants. Team One directed sporadic fire on their retreating backs until the vast jungle absorbed the last one.

They left behind dozens of small bloodied corpses scattered around that looked strangely immature in the suspension of death. With the Thompson cradled in the crook of my arm I scanned the edge of the clearing in case any of the villagers decided to return. When none appeared, I elected to let the remaining PRU team earn their pay by guarding Phoun Loc and I pounded back to the Jeep double-time.

The engine was running and Kim sat gripping the steering wheel, a muscle at the corner of his mouth twitching. In the back seat, General Linh was sobbing with abandon on Colonel Phoung's shoulder, his face twisted and red. "Are they gone now?" he wailed.

Rice was standing up in his seat, carbine at port. "Jesus Christ! What in hell is goin' on?"

Colonel Phoung swallowed and said, "What happened?"

"We lost the village." I looked away.

"What, what are we going to do now?"

"We're doing what we can." I got on the radio.

Seventeen minutes later a HueyCobra AH-1G highspeed attack helicopter landed gently in the village square like a giant streamlined dragonfly. While the whirling blades flashed in a shadowy blur, whipping up a small cyclone, I ran under them in a crouch with my Thompson to climb into the seat beside Wilson, the black pilot, in the two-man fuselage. I rested the gun over my knees. "Where to?" Wilson asked over the loud swish of the props.

"Take her up and over the rainforest." I pointed in the direction in which the village had made its exodus. "Over there."

"Sure thing," Wilson said, and we lifted off, rotors chopping. If not for my dark glasses, the burning brilliance of the sun would have dazzled me.

"What's the word? You called in an awful damn hurry."

"Another Arvin fuckup. A real pile of shit this time. And as usual, now I gotta clean it up. Let George do it."

In no time at all we caught up with them. A mile away a broad wedge of sun-scorched scrubland interrupted the piece of jungle the VCs had escaped into. As we swept over the lofty treetops, I could spot teeming waves of animated colored toy kewpie dolls rolling out of the solid jungle and across the open field heading for the black rainforest on the other side. We had arrived just in time; a few minutes later and we might have missed them. Growing aware of our presence, the tiny figures slowed and froze in the midst of the swaying brown elephant grass. The brave ones broke quickly into a run, hoping to outrace us.

From my imposing position, suspended over the tract of grassland, I then knew how Zeus the Almighty must have felt when he drew his thewed arm back and took aim, preparing to hurl his divine thunderbolts. A passing remark the Vice-President had made on his way through Saigon last November popped into my head, and from some obscure synapse his happy voice piped: Vietnam is our greatest adventure. and a wonderful adventure it is!

Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, cheerleader for the war

"Hey, who are they?"

I was leaning forward, staring down intently through the plexiglass bubble. "They're the Injuns," I said. "VC."

"You sure? All of 'em?"

"Yeah, I'm sure. Okay," I cried over the roar of the blades. "Swoop."

Under Wilson's expert guidance we climbed in the air, then leveled off for a slow approach. We came over the field. Spread out before us, the people of Phoun Loc scattered in frantic flight.

"Over here." I pointed over to the right, where the heaviest concentration of people was forming. Wilson nodded and we closed in. My heart was beating faster and my breath was quickening. When I could feel the time was right I punched the fire button. The napalm rockets shot off and we rose straight up. Even over the chop of the rotors I could hear the soft cries of the people, growing steadily fainter. Then twin billows of orange flame, the exotic blossoms of a shattering beauty, exploded with sudden fury dead center in the heart of the gooks, a perfect hit! The plumes of hell met and formed a sheet of fire, sweeping over the dead dry underbrush in a searing rush, and oily black smoke curled up to the placid sky.

We hovered over the holocaust and watched the devouring blaze gallop across the clearing, watched the dinks try to flee it and fail. I was only an observer. It was orange and brown and black and gray, interacting, a landscape. One peasant caught fire, and given a jolt of speed by the ravenous flames feeding off his back, rushed through the tall grass flapping his arms, a human torch.

Swelling clouds of dense black smoke aspiring to the ruthless sky attracted my attention. "The Lord hath his way in the whirlwind and in the storm," I intoned, "and the clouds are the dust of his feet." Nahum 1:3. After I spoke, the only sound in the enclosed cockpit was that of the untiring rotors buffeting the air overhead.

Off to the right side of the veldt, a small group of dinks was seeking to avoid the fiery hell by flocking toward the sanctuary of the green rainforest. Posthaste I had Wilson circle around so we could cut them off, and as we dropped in on them I blasted them to fragments with the six thousand rounds per minute our riotous machinegun cannons spat out. Our firepower chopped through the elephant grass like a terrific scythe, one sweep and the undergrowth was laid bare. The thick grass would fly apart and as the shock waves hit, violent billows shot out across the prairie for hundreds of yards. While Wilson held steady at thirty feet, I mopped up, mowing down stray survivors with quick bursts of four and five from my efficient Thompson. Their confused faces shot past as blurs. Vibrating in my hands, the raging Thompson made a terrible racket, thundering in my ears BUT A BUT A BUT A. I cut them down and they dropped into the rippling waves of elephant grass, where they vanished forever.

After I was done my work, we shot up and moved off. We rode back in calm silence, the infernal sea of flame shimmering below, until there were no more figures to be seen on the crackling field. The high-voltage blue sky rose to greet us. I was weary.

When we touched down on the village square not ten minutes later, the watchful heavens were still pouring sunshine instead of rain as a sign of their benediction. Colonel Phoung was waiting to meet us, fists on hips. As I clambered out, he asked what I had done. I explained.

Phoun Loc was utterly devastated. It was more than deserted, it was desolate. It looked as bleak as if the black plague had swept through and then gone on to the next town. The multitude of mangled and bullet-riddled Asiatic corpses strewn from the square to the dark edge of the jungle had not changed position; if anything, they looked even more unhappy. With nothing to do, the twenty-five members of Team One lounged around, bored and demoralized. There were not even any women left alive to rape. Some sat and chatted, a few smoked, others were intent on stealing livestock that insisted on scurrying away, more were busy looting the huts, whose mouths yawned open, vacant.

Colonel Phoung was pressing his thin lips together so that they wrinkled and turned white. "The operation did not go well."

"Win some lose some."

"It is hardly a laughing matter."

I was in no mood for his pissant chickenshit, not at this point, and I blew up.

"You dumb asshole, I told you to stop, but you were too busy watching. I could have warned you to surround that corral first, to seal off any exit, I was going to, but no, you were too eager, you wanted to show off to that clown."

He cast shameful eyes to the ground. "I am sorry."

"It's okay." I slapped him on the back. My anger was spent. I didn't want him to feel bad. "Look, I was in the Bay of Pigs myself, these things happen. So we iron out the bugs. No sweat. It's not like this were the end of the world or anything." I headed back to the Jeep and he accompanied me in the hot sun.

Laugh and the world laughs with you: Humphrey on his campaign plane while running for President in 1972

The Jeep was unoccupied. "Where's the General?" I asked.

"General Linh is resting. In one of the huts. He is being attended to."

Jesus Christ. I bring him all the way out here and he has to go and have a goddamn general nervous collapse on me. George, this is not your day.

I expelled a sigh. "Okay..."

Without warning Rice materialized next to me. It was kind of spooky. He was as dazed as if he had just walked out of Sunday School and encountered Gabriel blowing the Trump of Doom as a signal for the commencement of the Last Day. He was blinking in an irregular rhythm. His face was a pulsating red and his big calloused hands hung loosely at his sides, the veins blue and swollen. He swallowed; his Adam's apple shot up and down.

"He has been wandering about the village since you left." Colonel Phoung looked away, embarrassed.

"It's a ghost town," Rice said.

I leaned against the Jeep with one hand and stared hard at him.

What was this shit? This was just what I needed. First Linh and now Rice. In the crook of my arm the Thompson was pointed at the dirt.

Rice gulped again and blinked rapidly. "Somethin's wrong." His voice was cracked and whining. "Somethin's awful wrong. I oughtta be cryin' or somethin'."

"Rice, what's the matter with you?"

As if he had been waiting for me to ask just that question all along, Rice started to babble. His voice trembled.

"Didja see it? Didja see it? This isn't 1984, this is 1944. I didn't know this was what we were comin' to see. Didja know this was gonna happen?"

Then the dam broke and glistening tears burst out of his hot eyes and trickled down his crimson cheeks. He began to cry.

Colonel Phoung cleared his throat. He plainly disapproved. Couldn't I even maintain discipline over my own subordinates? So rather than lose face, I came up with an idea.

"Tell you what, Rice. How about taking a picture of the colonel and me?"


"Sure. Come on, this is an historic occasion, right, Colonel? The first raid of Operation Phoenix."

"Why yes, yes it most certainly is."

"Good, glad you think so. Then how about a picture, huh, Rice?"

"You want," he sniffed, "you want me to take a picture."

"Sure, why not? You've got your camera there, don't you?"

"Not now. I couldn't."

"Cut the comedy, Rice," I yelled. "And snap out of it. I want a picture. Now take it. That's an order."

"Yes, yessir." He stumbled back away from us a couple of yards, as awkward as Frankenstein's monster, his clumsy Kodak pendant from his neck.

To ease the tension I sensed in the air, I told Colonel Phoung, "You know, Rice is a college man."

"Oh?" Colonel Phoung brightened. "Harvard?"

"No." Rice wiped his runny nose. "Texas A&M."

With my arm slung around Colonel Phoung's shoulders, I rested the cooling Thompson on my hip and aimed a triumphant grin at the camera. As the shutter clicked and I was flash-frozen as I was at that instant, I was thinking about what General Linh had said about Operation Phoenix: From the ashes...

Six years. Six years of "nation-building." And for what? In the end, what had come of it? I recalled a remark the Bible had made about the construction of the Tower of Babel: And slime had they for mortar. After all, what was the use? What was the use of trying?

I still have the black-and-white snapshot; I keep it in my wallet. Because his hands were shaky, I guess, Rice missed Colonel Phoung completely, but he captured me fine. Really it is a picture of me. There I am, with a big confident grin, the mighty threat of the Thompson resting cockily on my hip, my face sweaty and sunburnt, wearing mirrored sunglasses, my hair darker then and crewcut, dressed in khaki fatigues, and over my right breast pocket is pinned a black nameplate, and over my proud heart the golden stitched lettering reads U.S. ARMY.

* * * * *

A new generation finds its own George

How old enemies become our friends: a group of pretty Vietnamese-American girls at a Viet-Am social function in Southern California

A vivid phoenix tattoo

No, it's not related to Phoang Huang; it's the insignia of a British drug rehab center--even so, it's a powerful symbol

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