The Road to Plei Beng

I went to Viet Nam as a 26 year-old physician and partially trained psychiatrist to study combat stress for the US Army. To do so I had to look for troops in the most stressful situations and found them among Medevac helicopter crews rescuing wounded soldiers under withering enemy fire and Green Beret units attacking enemy supply routes in the jungle along the Cambodian border. The cooperation I needed demanded that I share their lives, the risks they took and the all too real possibility of death. But I was young, eager for adventure and convinced of my own immortality. As soon as I arrived I began keeping a journal and religiously, each evening, over the next twelve months I recorded the day's events, and my reactions to them. At the end of a year I had twelve slim volumes describe a year at war.

More than forty years later those books provide a picture of a young man struggling to deal with the political and moral ambiguities of the war zone, his efforts to find his own maturity in an arena of sexual extravagance and casual killing, and his relentless pursuit of a professional career even if it cost him his life. I had volunteered to go to Viet Nam. I had no strong feelings about the war, but I wanted to be where the action was and to be able to come back with my own first-hand opinion about America's involvement. I craved the excitement and believed that in every generation the real men went to war. Over a year the harsh realities sank in; not just the horror of killing or being killed, but the ignorance and incompetence of those in positions of authority, the arrogance and racism that was used to justify the American presence, the willingness of an older generation to sacrifice the lives of the young if it would advance their own careers, and the yawning gap between what I saw on the battlefield and what people back home were being told. War, I also learned, was about much more than just doing battle. It was about men happily escaping tawdry burned-out marriages, love found in strange places, slick NCOs making fortunes by illegal gold and currency transactions or stealing and selling government property, cynical debasement of the civilian population, and the unsheathing of primitive desires that only in a war zone could be bared and satisfied without consequence. At the end I was more cynical, callous, and disillusioned, but strikingly better informed, more worldly, and confident in who I was and in what I believed. The experience had penetrated to my soul and I would never be the same again. On balance, psychologically, the entire experience probably made me a better person.

The "lessons of Viet Nam" have been cited by both supporters and opponents of the war to justify opposing political points of view. But four decades on, surrounded largely by a generation that has never experienced combat, the career-disrupting anxiety of the draft, or the patriotic proposition that one might care to lay down one's life for one's country, I believe the most important lessons have less to do with any one war than with the nature of war itself. Any war makes the quintessential demand for social and group responsibility and sacrifice. The suffering, devastation, and at times the lunacy of war have been so thoroughly documented as to be clichés of modern parlance. Viet Nam left a particular legacy of psychological devastation. But for those who survive this often primeval experience that forces men, and increasingly women, at a young age to confront the harshest and deepest questions about human existence it can breed an understanding about humankind, a clarity of values, and a premature wisdom that is thoroughly lacking in a generation for whom war is only a distant abstract concept. A society without these people may be a more vulnerable society in many respects. Perhaps this subconsciously is one of the reasons why we used to place such a high premium on having a president with a military record.

One mission through the jungles of Viet Nam became in my mind a distillation of my entire Viet Nam experience. It was thirty-six hours that changed my life. A combat patrol to attack and capture an enemy village, it probably differed little from many others, but for me every minute of the experience has remained with me for the rest of my life.

I was one of thirteen Americans in a highly fortified Special Forces camp in the Central Highlands near the Cambodian border. With us was a detachment of Vietnamese soldiers, but the bulk of our troops were primitive Montagnard tribesmen, barely out of the stone age. They fought not out of any ideological commitment but for the simple ration of rice and salt they and their families received. Despite what seemed on the surface an insurmountable gap between our cultures I had, to my astonishment, developed a deep affectionate relationship with a young illiterate Montagnard woman from a nearby village which completely transcended our language difficulties and the chasm between our different backgrounds. I had learned a stunning lesson about how powerful the natural affinity between two human souls could be with or without a veneer of civilization.

At night the surrounding jungle was owned by the Viet Cong and many nights mortar shells rained down on the camp forcing us to live like rats in sand-bagged bunkers and tunnels. The job of our unit was to attack and disrupt enemy units infiltrating men and supplies down the Ho Chi Minh trail. The life expectancy of the U.S. captains commanding these Special Forces ‘A’ teams was three months. The first commander I worked with, Richard Conway, was caught and killed the wrong side of the Cambodian border. His head was then paraded through the local villages on a pole to prove the Americans were no supermen and as a warning to those who might consider becoming our allies.

The Montagnard village of Plei Beng lay northwest of our camp, Duc Co, only a few minutes away by helicopter but nearly twenty-four hours march through the jungle. Supposedly a Viet Cong stronghold it was a crossroads on the infiltration routes and as such exerted control over a significant area of countryside. Its military significance had become steadily inflated with the belief that its capture would represent a turning point in the war in the highlands. In the Special Forces sub-culture lieutenants and captains in their twenties sought desperately to justify their superior rank to crusty old battle scarred sergeants, sometimes old enough to be their fathers, by acts of often reckless courage. In this vein, Wells Cunningham, the new camp commander and my close friend, decided that he would lead a small detachment to take and destroy the village, seize major arms caches that were thought to be hidden there, capture presumed Viet Cong sympathizers for interrogation, and forcibly relocate the rest of the inhabitants.

A helicopter assault with a large number of men would inevitably alert our quarry. To achieve an element of surprise we went, instead, on foot planning our attack for dawn the following day. A third American, Sergeant Richard Gann, accompanied Cunningham and myself. Gann was as close to a real life Rambo as you could get and a reassuring figure to be with. He had arrived by helicopter in the camp a month earlier grasping a bottle of champagne. It was, he said, to celebrate his divorce coming final two weeks hence. On the anointed day I found him at 8:00am having already drunk the entire bottle himself. We were accompanied by a Vietnamese captain, Tran Din Lop, nominally the commander of the venture together with twenty-five poorly trained, resentful and frightened draftees from the Army of the Republic of Viet Nam. Seventy five Montagnard mercenaries made up the remainder of the force. From a culture of hunters and gatherers they were entirely at home in the dense forests and tall elephant grass. They were our crucial guides in the stealthy trek to Plei Beng.

We left the camp at 10:00 in the morning and arrived at Plei Beng around 4:00 am, the following day. En route, we were worn down by the oppressive heat and humidity, insects and leeches, booby traps, land mines, and a brief skirmish with a Viet Cong unit. Even more disconcerting to me was the verbal conflict between the Americans and the Vietnamese over every decision that had to be made. A complex dynamic developed between strong personalities that would be played out with near disastrous consequences. In addition the Vietnamese viewed the Montagnards as little better than animals and tolerated their involvement only as an indulgence to the Americans.




As the first red rays of dawn were appearing we surrounded Plei Beng. Undetected we, the predatory hunters, lay hidden in the tree line around the village. There was an eerie silence broken only by the thumping sound of women grinding corn and the irregular crowing of a rooster. The air was filled with the sweet smell of freshly lit charcoal fires. Those who were up, mostly women, were oblivious to the hundred or so pairs of eyes filled with malevolent intent focused on them less than two hundred yards away. For me it was a moment beyond excitement or fear that seemed to resonate with some primitive genes from a neanderthal past. No other moment in my life ever quite matched it. Suddenly the air was filled with flying bullets, screams, and wild shouting.

Eventually after the firing had subsided we moved into the village. More than a dozen bodies lay on the ground. Among the Montagnard villagers there were curiously no wounded except for a two-year-bid boy with a flesh wound. Only later did I realize that the Vietnamese moving into the village ahead of me had dispatched all the wounded with a shot to the head. On our side there were two men with minor injuries, but it was unclear whether they had been hit by enemy fire or by their own comrades in the confusion of battle. With the village secure Wells Cunningham made radio contact with the Special Forces regional headquarters in Pleiku, sixty miles away. The body count was the primary topic of interest. A thorough search had not revealed the much-anticipated cache of weapons.

As our troops continued the search and helped themselves to anything they fancied in the homes of the villagers. The survivors, mostly women and children, were assembled and told, through an interpreter, that they were to be forcibly relocated and their hamlet burned to the ground. They were given an hour to gather whatever possessions they wished to take with them. As I wondered among the simple wooden dwellings, mostly raised on slender stilts, a tropical deluge began. An older woman beckoned me into her little thatched hut out of the soaking rain. She made me sit and served me a warm tea-like drink in a wooden cup. A pretty young woman in her early twenties, either terrified or consumed by shyness, kept smiling at me from the corner of the shack. As I sipped the warm beverage I pondered what strange courtesy made a women offer this hospitality as she knew preparations were being made to burn down her home. I was sure it was because I was an American and not a Vietnamese.

Later as the dwellings were being set alight I remembered I had left my back pack inside the door of a house. Returning there I found Captain Lop standing with some of his men and several prisoners with their hands bound behind their backs. As I entered the house which was already alight I found a struggling, moaning man lying on the floor. Braving the gathering flames I rushed in and found he had his feet and hands tied and had been stabbed in several places. I yelled out at Lop,

"Are you planning to burn this man alive?" "He's dead," was his resentful reply.

I pulled out my .45 thinking that if he was near death I could at least spare him the horror of consciousness as the flames engulfed him. But he was very much alive, and as soon as I cut the ropes around his ankles he was able to stand up and follow me out of what would have been his fiery grave. Lop glared at me, spat on the ground, and walked away.

A short while later I related the incident to Wells Cunningham. He smiled and shrugged his shoulders.

"He won't appreciate that you know," Cunningham warned.
"I could not let him burn," I replied.
"You could have." And after a long pause, "But you did the right thing."

"There were twenty-three people killed here today," he continued. "I have reported them all as Viet Cong or Viet Cong sympathizers. Our losses were two wounded. That's pretty good in military terms. I don't lie like some people and jack up the body count, but Lop and I are judged on whether we produce, not on our ethics. No one up the line is going to complain about a few extra dead people. If this is wrong the whole war is wrong, and perhaps its is, but that's up to the politicians not me."

We walked on for a minute or two in silence through the smoldering ruins of the village. Finally he turned to me and said, "Write up a report on the incident and I will file it with Col. Burns. (our commanding officer at headquarters in Pleiku). “Lop's a prick anyway and it will show him who is boss." He bent down and picked up a discarded crossbow used by the Montagnards to hunt birds and other small game in the forest.

"People like you should not get into combat," he observed. "Idealism is fine but you have to be realistic and pragmatic. Its true for society as a whole. If an individual wants to make change he has to know what will work and what won't, and when to compromise and not be bullheaded. This is a terrible war. I often think we are fighting on the wrong side, but I have made the army my career and I have to make the most of it."

A month later Wells Cunningham, from St. Joseph, Missouri would die in a hail of machine gun fire as he ran from a helicopter leading reinforcement to relieve an ambushed patrol in the same area of anonymous jungle in the Central Highlands.

The villagers distraught at the destruction of their homes and the plan to take them they knew not where, were even more upset that they were being forced to abandon the graves of their ancestors. With their meager possessions they were assembled at gun point to begin walking out. An older man had repeatedly tried to get my attention. Finally I followed him to a point four hundred yards outside the village. There on a little hill was a group of four huts. Even as we approached I could see that the people, with eroded faces and missing digits were suffering from leprosy. From his gestures and my limited understanding of their language I realized that, although required to live some distance from the village, they were completely dependent on the rest of the community. If they were left behind they would starve. I ended up making these people my personal responsibility recruiting some of our captives to carry them and their possessions.

During the remainder of the day the entire population of the village was marched to an assembly point where Chinook helicopters could land to ferry them back to our base camp. There they were loaded onto trucks and taken to an abandoned village where they would be under our control. I would spend many hours with these people in the subsequent months consumed by my own personal guilt.

In particular, I see Viet Nam as a war based on naive idealism that in some respects reflected the best and the worst in America. We were not fighting a war to vanquish an enemy, seize territory, or build an empire. Although geo-politicians viewed it within the context of the overall ideological struggle of the cold war it was, especially in the eyes of President Johnson, a holding action by our military while we built the American dream for the South Vietnamese whether they wanted it or not. Blinded by our good intentions we could not see that so much of what we were doing undermined and defeated the very goals we were trying to achieve. Fed by the forceful view of Robert McNamara that there was a technological or scientific solution for every problem Viet Nam was flooded with development experts, health providers, sociologists, anthropologists, and political scientists. Although the most strident opposition came from liberal academics, Viet Nam was the only war in which social scientists were seen as an important weapon in achieving victory. At the same time our profound belief in the exceptionalism of the American experience made us certain that we must be bringing people something they truly needed and that we must ultimately triumph.


© Peter G. Bourne - 2009