Encounter with an Angel of the Battlefield

June 14, 1994|By JEFF DANZIGER

BOSTON — ''K [Kissinger] came in, and in the discussion covered some of the thinking about Vietnam and the P's [President Nixon's] big peace plan for next year, which K later told me he does not favor. He thinks that any pullout next year would be a serious mistake because the adverse reaction to it could set in well before the '72 elections. He favors a continued winding down and then a pullout right at the fall of '72 so that if any bad results follow they will be too late to affect the election. It seems to make sense.'' (H.R. Haldeman's diary of his White House service, page 221)

In one of the more miserable months of the 13 I spent in Vietnam in 1971, my job was to take North Vietnamese prisoners out into the jungle in the area near the town of Phuoc Vinh and look for hidden caches of weapons.

The army's policy at that time was to offer cash to prisoners or surrenderees for returned or retrieved weapons. I went on several missions of this type accompanied by young enemy POWs, some of them suffering from wounds we had patched up, or emaciated from malaria. In most cases they had been left behind by their own units, with the last option of surrendering to the South Vietnamese government. It was assumed that as their own mortality grew closer they had seen the futility of Marxism.

I was an intelligence officer and interpreter, trained by the army -- language school, but in truth, because of complexities and variations of dialect I could understand no Vietnamese who did not wish to be understood. South Vietnamese translators were assigned to help me, but they took exception to going out into the woods and stumbling around looking for weapons. They always memorized the precise time we were planning one of these missions, so as to be as unavailable as possible.

We were inserted by helicopter to join an infantry patrol. The plan was that we would accompany the patrol on cloverleaf operations, going out in circular routes from a central point. My prisoners were supposed to look for areas they recognized as caches. They were told that if they assisted us in a weapons search, things would go better for them. If we found anything we would pay so much per piece. So much for rifles, more for machine guns, even more for mortar tubes.

By that time the American infantry on the ground had come to a new tactical approach all by itself. It was this: On these patrols, they shut off the radio and sat still all day. It was a conclusion that came logically from objective consideration of the facts. This was 1971. No one wanted to be the last man killed in Vietnam, or even the second to last. The infantry platoon leaders I worked with had become very practical. Their men had seen enough death for nothing. They wanted no decorations and no perforation. Nothing was ever said. No objections were raised. No one ever told me that, well . . . actually, we were not going to go out on cloverleafs actively looking for a fight. Actually, we were going to sit here and play it as safe as we can.

I've always felt that there was a measure of cowardice in our actions. Even acknowledging the degenerating commitment to the war back home, and the moral confusion of searching for people to kill without knowing why, we were not acting as traditional soldiers. We were acting in our own narrow self-interest. (Most baffled were my prisoners, who wondered how they were to find caches if we sat in one place all day.)

Remember, I said this was 1971. The war was a complete mess by this time. So, were we behaving shamefully or reasonably? Was there any logic that would help square our behavior with our patriotic moral duty? It's long bothered me.

Now comes help to my tortured conscience from an unexpected quarter. According to H.R. Haldeman's diaries, published bravely after his death, the president and the man he prayed with, Henry Kissinger, were actively prolonging the war with an eye on the 1972 elections.

They planned that peace would not show up too soon. They wanted to avoid the possible detrimental effects of a North Vietnamese victory, a triumph of communism, a bloodbath, whatever. It might turn the voters against the Nixon-Agnew ticket. The possibility that additional American soldiers might get killed didn't come up in the conversation, not from Nixon, not from Kissinger, not from Haldeman, either.

Meanwhile, back in Phuoc Vinh we were being left to sit in the jungle while cynical fraudulent manipulation of the voters went on back home. And the small internal voice that told us to sit still and play it safe was more than likely a benevolent angel. We never did find any weapons caches in the jungle. We didn't go looking for the enemy. The first rule of soldiering is ''Know Your Enemy,'' and now, from the grave, Mr. Haldeman has helped us to do that more clearly.

Jeff Danziger is editorial cartoonist for the Christian Science Monitor.

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