'Have We Forgotten Anger in the Eyes?' A Vietnam War U.S. officer looks at Iraq
ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Sun Aug 17 20:52:34 MDT 2003
Have We Forgotten Anger in the Eyes?
By James L. Larocca James L. Larocca, a professor of public policy at
Southampton College, was a naval officer in Vietnam during 1967-68.
His Vietnam-based play, "Penang," is being presented Thursday evening
at Guild Hal
August 13, 2003
Ordinarily, our boats patrolled Vietnam's rivers in pairs. But on this
night we had several teams operating together as we launched the
Pentagon's latest ingenious scheme for winning the war in the Mekong
The concept was simple enough: instead of surprising people with
conventional gunfire during raids, the boats would first set the
houses and buildings on fire with bows and arrows. The brass called
this early version of "shock and awe" Operation Flaming Arrow.
Of course, the flimsy huts burned like matchbooks, leaving the
families homeless and destitute. The next day, civil action teams of
GIs would arrive bearing sheets of corrugated tin for new roofs and
bags of rice to help the villagers get started again. There would also
be bars of Dial soap and clothing from church groups in the states.
I remember a particular time when, with the fires still smoldering in
the stultifying heat of a Delta morning, the teams distributed boxes
of heavy sweaters.
I'm sure the church folks back home felt good about their gifts. But
we shared with the villagers a sense of absolute mystification at a
policy that would burn down people's homes in the middle of the night,
then give them tin and soap and sweaters to rebuild their lives.
Our government called it "pacification." We called it madness. It all
has come back to me while watching the news from Iraq, where we should
be applying more of the lessons so painfully learned in Vietnam.
Instead, we seem to be repeating our mistakes.
What I remember most from those nights are the faces - and the eyes.
The children would be terrified, but also oddly fascinated in that way
that kids have.
The mothers, beyond ordinary fear, would be wildly angry, often
unleashing a flood of invective that, of course, none of the Americans
could specifically understand because no one spoke the language.
The old widows - there seemed to be one in every hut - would look at
you with the cold, dead eyes of people who had been violated forever
and seemed to expect always to suffer.
But mostly I remember the men, who, if they hadn't slipped away when
the mess began, would be taken by the American troops for
Usually, several young soldiers would throw the man down while yelling
the few Vietnamese phrases they knew. At least one would hold a rifle
to his head. Another might stand on his neck. His hands would be bound
behind his back. He would be wrenched up into a kneeling position.
Many times he would be blindfolded.
Eventually a "pacification" team member would come along and question
the man in Vietnamese. He would be asked to show his papers -
documents which, more often than not, had been lost in the fire. He
would be yelled at, cursed at, and sometimes spit on. Many times he
would be kicked and punched.
Those lucky enough to have the right kind of documents and otherwise
convince the Americans of their innocence (of what?), would be
Then you would see it. In the eyes. The clean, white fury of men who
have been reduced to abject humiliation and powerlessness in front of
their families. The hatred in their eyes would be as pure as any you
would ever see. It would last forever. You would never forget it.
I saw those eyes again the other day on the evening news. A group of
young American soldiers, sent by their government to go house to house
in a sweltering Baghdad suburb, had kicked in a door and rousted a
family. The children were terrified, crying. The mother was furious,
screaming. The eyes of the GIs were filled with confusion and shame at
what they were being made to do by their government.
And the father, down on the ground in front of his house with a kid
from Arkansas or Detroit or California standing on his neck, showed in
his eyes the kind of white-hot hatred that will take a thousand years
President George W. Bush, who spent almost all of his military service
out of uniform and involved in political campaigns in the South, and
Vice President Dick Cheney, who never served at all (he had, in his
words, "other priorities"), would do well to consider the lessons of
We did not win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people because
we occupied their country while we burned down their homes and killed
them and brutalized and abused them.
We will not win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people by wrecking
their towns and cities, destroying their homes, terrorizing their
families and humiliating their men. Incredibly, we have again become
an occupying army, out of touch with the realities of the lives and
culture of the people we are there to save. Not surprisingly, the
Iraqi people are striking back.
Last week, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the chief commander of allied
forces in Iraq, said that "maybe our iron-fisted approach to the
conduct of ops is beginning to alienate Iraqis." Perhaps today's Army
is remembering the eyes.
Copyright (c) 2003, Newsday, Inc.
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