Cage for the Innocents

The war forces the South Vietnamese out of their villages. Are they refugees? Or prisoners? The Americans are not more certain than the Vietnamese whose Kafkaesque fate they administer. Mr. Schell, twenty-seven, recently returned from his fourth trip to Vietnam since 1962. A research fellow at Berkeley’s Center for Chinese Studies, he is with Professor Franz Schurmann the co-editor of a three-volume work, THE CHINA READER.

THE Atlantic



SCORES of GI’s in combat fatigues who had been sprawled out on the benches in the Danang Air Base passenger shed started getting up and moving outside. Once outside they gathered in small knots on the rain-soaked aprons, watching. Some halfheartedly fumbled with cameras. Overhead, jets screamed off the runways into the fluffy earlymorning clouds to their targets. A large army truck had just pulled up a short distance from the shed and disgorged about sixty barefoot Vietnamese dressed in ragged shorts and faded dirty shirts. Each had a gray sandbag pulled down over his head. They clung to each other in a disjointed human chain as they were herded by shotguntoting Gl’s into an awaiting C-130 transport plane. Moving over closer to this faceless procession, I noticed that several captives had long hair flowing out from under their gray sacks. At the end of the groping line two people were limping and were being helped along by anonymous friends. A Japanese correspondent tried to take a picture and was waved off. He was told that it was against regulations. No one was quite sure what regulation it was against, so he took it anyway.

I walked over to the officer in charge and asked who these people were and where they were being taken.

“These here are hard-core V.C.,” he drawled. “You can tell just by lookin’ at ‘em.”

An assistant corrected him and said that he thought that they were CD’s (Civil Defendants). I asked what that meant.

“We don’t deal in the meanings of all these names,” he said, “but we know they’re Charlie — maybe saboteurs, collaborators, and like that.”

Meanwhile the Vietnamese were slowly being loaded through the rear door of the tadpole-shaped C-130. Since they could not see, they were moving very cautiously, feeling their way slowly up on the hanging tail gate. A GI who was jabbing them along with the barrel of his shotgun said playfully, “If one of these slopes takes off his bag, I’ll blow his fuckin’ head off.”

The officer in charge, who was not accompanying the flight, handed over the manifest of passengers to the pilot. “Well, Chief,” he said, “here are the Mexicans. They’re all yours.”

Inside the aircraft the “sacked” Vietnamese sat utterly silent on the cabin floor. Four GI guards sat on the fold-down seats on both sides of the aircraft. In the dim light of the interior the Vietnamese looked like some sort of strange hooded religious order. Except for one or two pathetic parcels wrapped in brown paper, these people carried no personal possessions. As the engines started, they shrank back against one another in terror. Sensing their fear, one of the GI’s poked the Vietnamese nearest to him in the foot with his rifle barrel. The man lunged back away from his unseen tormentor. Another guard commenced breaking his shotgun and cocking his pistol. The noise sent a wave of cringing down the line of huddling figures.

Finally the plane was cleared and started down the runway on its takeoff. As it got airborne the hydraulic system to retract the landing gear went on making a high-pitched scream. The Vietnamese clutched each other in fear.

One of the guards hooted above the noise of the engines, “Hang on, sweethearts!” Then he leaned over to me and said, “Hope none of ‘em barfs.”

I asked if they would be allowed to remove their sacks if they became sick.

“Hell, no!” he replied. “They’re so dirty they don’t give a shit, and neither do we because we’re getting rid of ‘em.”

As we gained altitude, the Vietnamese began shaking their heads and hitting their ears. They apparently did not understand how to pop their ears. Several became quite frantic. One of the guards looked toward them and then at me in feigned amazement that anyone could be so stupid.

In a half hour we landed at Chulai Air Base in Quangtin Province. The Vietnamese were herded off the plane and led into a small barbed-wire enclosure, about twenty-five feet by twenty-five feet, out under the blazing hot sun. Here they squatted on the sandy ground and waited. Within a half hour a large pickup truck arrived. The Vietnamese were then divided into two groups and thirty were jammed into the back of the truck. The fact that the vehicle was really too small to transport the whole group in two trips seemed to disturb no one. None of the captors spoke Vietnamese, and obviously none of the captives spoke English. When a guard’s command was not immediately understood and obeyed, he would start swearing and shoving the Vietnamese as though they were some dumb stubborn animals refusing to leave the barn.

After some hesitation the driver agreed to let me accompany him to camp, and we set off across the Chulai Air Base, headquarters for Task Force Oregon. The giant runways stretched endlessly away, finally disappearing into mirages in the heat. Sandbag bunkers, gun emplacements, barracks, and hundreds of miles of barbed-wire fence were all that broke the monotony of the dry, sandy dunes upon which the base is built.

The truck finally pulled up in front of a large sign emblazoned with two crossed pirate pistols which read CHULAI POWC (Prisoner of War Camp). As the Vietnamese were being unloaded, I was ushered into the camp headquarters and introduced to the temporary commanding officer, a morose-looking sergeant from Cincinnati who had eyes like Robert Mitchum’s. I explained that I was a journalist and that I had accompanied the newly arrived Vietnamese from Danang. I said that I was interested in finding out just who these people were, what they had done, and where they were being taken. The sergeant said that until he had had a chance to look at their papers he could not be certain. Five minutes later he returned and announced that the Vietnamese who had just flown down from Danang were what is known as IC’s (Innocent Civilians). He said that this meant that they had been interrogated and found to be innocent of aiding or cooperating with the enemy. He proudly informed me, “These people will be returned to their villages just as soon as we get a chance to ship them out. And if their villages have been destroyed or lie in V.C. areas, well, then we’ll turn them over to the Vietnamese refugee authorities and let them take care of them.”

THE Chulai camp lies on a sand dune bluff overlooking the blue ocean and a beautiful beach, where GI’s can be seen riding on air mattresses in the surf and cooking barbecues. All day, low-flying jets, transports, gun ships (helicopters), and small Cessna spotters circle noisily overhead. The prisoners’ compound itself consists of four barbedwire enclosures known as “cages.” In each cage the prisoners have built a small thatched roof structure faced on three sides by rattan matting to protect themselves from the sun and rain. Besides the prisoners, a latrine, and the sandy ground, there is nothing else inside the cages. At night the prisoners are given army cots on which to sleep. In the daytime these are stacked neatly outside the cages near the cooking area, into which the prisoners are brought three times a day in two shifts to cook their own meals over an open fire. The army provides dried meat, onion soup, tomato juice, and Texas long grain rice. The reasoning behind this bizarre bill of fare is unclear. The fact that it was not Vietnamese left the sergeant undisturbed.

“Since these people like American chow,” he said, “there is no sweat. We treat these people like human beings, not animals.”

The camp medic hastened to add, “You know, some of these folks really cry when they have to leave here. [This was said to me on numerous occasions during the next two days.] We give them four squares a day and all the pills they can eat. And we try and show them the American way of life so that when they go back to their villages . . .”

He trailed off, not knowing exactly how to finish his sentence. Outside the office the new arrivals were squatting in the sand up against a barbed-wire fence. They had removed their sandbag hoods. There were six women and several extremely young looking males. They sat listlessly looking up at the bare-chested Americans towering over them. No one talked. Their faces showed no trace of any kind of feeling.

Inside, the briefing continued: There were 141 people imprisoned at the camp. Chulai POWC is the collection point for Vietnamese “detained" in the area of operations of Task Force Oregon. In some areas and on some military operations only people with weapons are picked up and brought in. In other areas where there are known or suspected hostile forces, everyone is picked up and brought in. This includes the aged, women, and children. There are no systematic rules for determining who will be a “detainee.” The decision is left up to the field commander’s judgment. I asked several people to explain the difference between a “refugee” and a “detainee.” Most of those asked assumed that the words were somehow self-explanatory. But none of them could systematically articulate the difference.

Like so many other terms in the Vietnam War lexicon, these words are adopted out of administrative necessity, although they may have very little relation to reality. In Vietnam the situation is very different from any previous war situation in which there have been “detainees” and “refugees”: every Vietnamese in the field is potentially hostile. Yet the army needs categories to handle and process these people efficiently even if the categories do not accurately describe the people involved. Every Vietnamese encountered by U.S. forces must fit into one of the previously determined categories. The words “refugee” and “detainee” are really words without meaning. They bring with them old meanings which are irrelevant as designation for the people they are describing. For instance, both “detainees” and “refugees” are “generated” by U.S. and ARVN forces as they move through the countryside on operations destroying villages. These people are not fleeing Communism. They are forced to leave by an invading army. Their designation usually depends on a hasty battlefield decision. It is this decision which makes a person a “refugee” or “detainee.” Often a suspect is questioned briefly in the field by a team of ARVN interrogators. But under combat conditions this intelligence-gathering can become extremely indiscriminate and brutal. The emphasis is on getting quick information which may save American lives as the operation moves on. Torture and intimidation are common. After this field interrogation, any villager who is still suspect is bound, blindfolded, and taken back to Chulai to be questioned at greater length and then finally classified. Until this time he is treated just like a prisoner, since there is no way to ascertain whether a “detainee” is hostile or friendly. He is guilty until proven innocent; then if found innocent he suddenly becomes a “refugee.”As one colonel in J2 (intelligence) at the Saigon Pentagon put it, “Our job concerns us with the intelligence we can get so that we can take a hill or save a life — this is our interest. But we do respect the dignity of others and treat them in a humane Christian manner. But you mustn’t forget that there is a war going on out here.”

At Ghulai, 52 out of the 127 prisoners (not including the 59 new arrivals) were designated as IG’s. Throughout all of Vietnam 65 percent of all detainees finally prove to be IG’s. In other words, two out of three suspects brought in from the field are innocent. There are only two other possible designations besides IG; PW (Prisoner of War) and CD (Civil Defendant). North Vietnamese regulars, Viet Cong, or any other person who has committed an act against a “friendly force” is designated as a PW. But an average of only 7 percent of all detainees prove to be PW’s. These prisoners are turned over to Vietnamese Army-run PW camps, of which there are now six with a capacity of over 10,000. One camp which is under construction on Phuquoc Island on the Cambodian border will have a capacity of 20,000 when finished. These camps are technically built according to Geneva Convention specifications, and the inmates are theoretically under the jurisdiction of the Treatment of Prisoners of War section of that convention. But because it is extremely difficult to gain access to these camps on anything more than a short formal tour, it is impossible to be certain of what conditions in them are really like.

The third possible designation for a detainee is GD. This is the vaguest and most poorly defined of the three categories. Officially, someone who is suspected of being a “spy, saboteur, or terrorist” comes under this category. But actually it is a convenient designation for anyone about whom the interrogation teams cannot make up their minds. These unfortunates fall into a limbo category. Since they have not committed a belligerent act against a friendly army they cannot be classified as PW’s and therefore do not fall under the protection of the Geneva Convention. They are treated as criminal or political prisoners and thrown into local provincial jails, which are under the jurisdiction of the national police. Treatment is rough, and conditions are indescribably squalid. Such prisons are prime targets for raiding Viet Gong units. For instance, on August 29 the Viet Gong hit the capital city of Quangngai Province and sprang the local jail, freeing 1200 prisoners, many of whom were CD’s, A national average of 28 percent of all detainees are finally designated as CD. During the time I was at the Chulai camp 30 out of 141 fell into this category.

In a situation where every Vietnamese is potentially hostile, the United States, as the figures suggest, is forced to the desperate tactic of picking up vast numbers of questionable cases. A large number of civilians are simply shot in the field by scared trigger-happy GI’s who have learned that it is risky business to trust any Vietnamese, especially any Vietnamese near or in a combat area. Of course, any dead Vietnamese is conveniently considered V.C., thereby raising the unit’s enemy KIA (Killed in Action) body count, the summa of progress in Vietnam. As one enlisted man in Ducpho District, Quangngai Province, said, “Anything dead that’s not white is V.C.”

For instance, on an operation a unit may take sniper fire from the direction of a village. This is sufficient justification for calling in an air strike and wiping out part or all of the village. (The casualness with which Americans put air strikes on “suspected enemy positions” is disturbing.) The Vietnamese have learned to build bunkers under their huts for just such an eventuality. But when the ground forces finally do move into what is left of the village, anyone who is caught hiding in a bunker is automatically treated with great suspicion. He or she is usually detained.

In the month of June 10,000 Vietnamese were detained. In July the figure rose to 15,000. Only 2.5 percent of the July detainees were finally designated as PW’s. This is a very small return and a very large catch. In the last six months in I Corps, where combat had been most intense, this mass detention of tens of thousands of people and the attendant disruption of rural life have created a critical but largely ignored social problem. These people are taken forcibly from their farms (which are usually burned), separated from their families, and taken to collection centers like Chulai to await interrogation and designation. Frequently they are moved again because of overcrowded facilities. It often takes weeks before a detainee is finally declared innocent and released. Then he is usually released into one of the badly overcrowded refugee camps. A military police spokesman in Saigon from the Plans and Policy branch, when asked what effect he thought this mass detention was having on “winning the hearts and minds of the people,” merely said, “Bringing in so many people is just a problem which is necessarily inherent in this type of war. But it has not yet been presented as a problem area.”

For the detainee it is a “problem area.” At Chulai, no one had told any of the prisoners or detainees with whom I talked why they had been picked up. I talked to several Innocent Civilians who had no idea why they were being held, and had not even been told that in fact they had already been designated as IC’s and were only waiting to be transported to refugee centers. The Americans seemed totally oblivious of this piteous information gap. It was blandly assumed that somehow these small unintelligible yellow-skinned people were different, that they could live anywhere, eat anything, and not be disturbed by common American emotions and concerns for one’s family, oneself, and the future. None of the Americans I met spoke Vietnamese. They were totally dependent on the seven ARVN interpreters who had been assigned to them for communication with their captives. The only real communication took place during the interrogations. At this time the Americans asked all the questions, never the other way around.

BEHIND the “cages” at the Chulai camp, four small open interrogation huts have been constructed out of plywood. The head of Interrogation assigned one of them to me for interviewing some of the inmates. Then, accompanied by an interpreter and a Press Information Officer, we walked down to the cages to select some subjects.

Most of the prisoners were lying on the sand in the shade of the thatched roof shelter when we arrived. As we entered the cages they all stood up. One old man jumped to his feet and saluted in a pathetic attempt to please. He wore the black pajama-like garb which is the traditional peasant mode of dressing. Like all the other inmates, he had a large white cardboard tag fastened to his shirt which identified him not by name but by number. The prisoners stood uneasily as we walked between them checking their tags.

Two IC’s were finally chosen and led out of the compound.

Nguyen Mê, the first of the group of prisoners whom I interviewed, is forty-six years old and comes from Phuongdong village in Quangtin Province. He has been told that he has been designated an Innocent Civilian, but he does not know what that means. He is a slight man, under five feet tall. He wore a dirty pair of black cotton shorts and a black cotton shirt, which was fastened in the front by the large safety pin which secured his white numbered identity card. His feet were bare, archless, and splayed out from years of working in the fields. His skin had been burned a dark brown by the sun. During the whole interview he sat very upright. He smiled only once, when the PIO major offered him a life-saver (which at first he did not know what to do with). The rest of the time he listened intently and spoke simply and directly. He betrayed no hostility or any sense of having been wronged. His whole tone was so matter-offact that if it had not been for the brief moments when a mixture of pain and bewilderment would cross his face, one might have assumed that he was narrating the story of another person.

Q. How long has it been since you were detained?

A. I don’t know. I can’t exactly remember how many days. Each day is the same, so they are hard to count.

Q. How were you captured?

A. I was captured in the morning time when everyone was still in the village. We began to hear some shooting and then bombs started to fall [probably mortars]. So we all ran into the shelters under our houses.

Q. Did everyone in your village have a shelter?

A. Yes, every house has one. We dug them two years ago when the bombing and artillery fire first started coming. We really need our shelters.

Q. What happened after you went into your shelters?

A. We couldn’t see much or hear much. It was difficult to tell what was happening outside. I was with my wife and children. After a while we heard someone yelling into our house with a voice that we did not understand saying something about Chieu Hoi [the official name for defectors from the Viet Cong]. They fired some shots. I was very scared, but I came out anyway. I thought that it must be the Americans because we had seen helicopters flying over our village earlier. When I came out they pointed guns at me and grabbed me. I was afraid because I could not understand them and didn’t know what would happen to me. The Americans are very kind, but these Americans were very rough and hit me. They pushed me back into my house and gestured for rne to call my family out of the shelter. I had no choice but to call them.

Q. What did they do after you were all out?

A. They ran off to get a Vietnamese soldier who asked us where the V.C. were and where the V.C. kept their rice. I told them that the V.C. came through our village every four days or so to get rice. But the soldiers were in a big hurry. They tied our hands and put sacks over our heads and led us away someplace. I couldn’t see where we were going.

Q. Where was your family?

A. We got separated. We were led away someplace where there were lots of other people. I couldn’t see and didn’t dare call out to them. They never came to the camp. Now I don’t know where they are.

Q. Was your rice already planted when you were picked up?

A. Yes, but now I don’t know who will harvest it.

Q. What happened to everything that you owned, like your house, buffalo, et cetera?

A. I am not sure. We were not allowed to bring anything with us at all. Our hands were tied. How could we?

Q. Do you have an extra change of clothes with you?

A. No. I haven’t been able to wash my clothes since I have been here.

Q. Did the soldiers destroy many houses?

A They were burning many when they caught me. Do you know if they burned my house down? [Inmates constantly assumed that since I was American I must have some sort of authority and could help them.]

Q. How many houses had been destroyed before the day you were captured?

A. Six.

Q. How many houses were there in the village?

A. Twenty-seven.

Q. Why were the six houses destroyed?

A. They were near the mountain and the airplanes bombed them.

Q. Were many people killed?

A. Yes, quite a few because they didn’t have time to get into their shelters.

Q. Where are they going to take you from here?

A. I don’t know. Someone said to the Hoiduc refugee center. But I don’t know if my family is there. I want to see them very badly. But that is up to the higher people.

NGUYEN Luc, who is seventy-seven years old, came from Phuctien village, in Tienphuc District, Quangtin Province. He had also been designated an Innocent Civilian and was waiting to be shipped out. He was probably the oldest inmate in the Chulai camp. Although his hair was not completely gray, he was hunched over from years of bending down working in the rice paddies. He walked extremely slowly and finally had to be helped up the steps of the interrogation hut. I reached down to give him a hand. His wiry body could not have weighed more than eighty pounds. A major from the Press Information Office thrust out a glad hand in welcome. But Nguyen did not know the significance of shaking hands. Instead he placed both hands together in front of him in a prayer-like motion, which is the traditional form of Vietnamese greeting. The major gave a nervous laugh and then tried to clasp him around the back like a public relations man squiring a big client into his office. But Luc had already begun to sit down. His eyes were riveted to the ground the whole time. He wore an oversize pair of sawed-off army fatigues, and sat quietly on a small wood stool. He seemed neither nervous nor scared, just weary. I had the feeling that even if I had wished to, I could have done nothing which would have elicited any emotional response from him.

Q. How long have you been here?

A. Six days.

Q. How were you captured?

A. I was captured in the morning while out in the rice fields working. The Americans and the ARVNs came and ordered me to go with them.

Q. Did they allow you to return home and talk to your family or bring any possessions?

A. No, they were in a very big hurry. They pointed guns at me and I just went.

Q,. Had your fields been planted?

A. Yes.

Q. What will happen to them now?

A. I don’t know who will harvest the rice. I would like to go back because now there are very few people in the village. They all live underground. All our houses have been bombed and destroyed. The bombs have made big holes in our rice fields.

Q. When did the bombing start?

A [He paused.] It started three years ago — but then not as much as now.

Q. Did the people fear the V.C. or the bombing more in your village?

A. We don’t like the Viet Cong because they take our rice and sometimes make us work.

Q. But which do you fear the most?

A. We fear the bombing because we don’t know when it will come and we can’t see it. [At this point Luc began fidgeting with his pants. I asked why, but he did not respond.]

Q. Who are the Amerieans?

A. [Pause.] The Americans are like the French. The French were very cruel.

Q. Are the Americans cruel?

A. The French beat the people.

Q. Do the Americans beat the people?

A. (Luc glanced over at the agitated but silent PIO officer.] Sometimes the Americans give candy. [Again he started tugging at his baggy fatigue shorts, which I noticed were missing most of tlte buttons on the fly.]

Q. Why are you fidgeting? Are you hurt?

A. [A long pause during which time Luc stared at his feet.] I want some underwear. I am embarrassed because my pants will not fasten.

Q. Have you asked the Americans for some new clothes? You know that they give clothes to inmates, don’t you?

A. Yes.

Q. Have you asked them? [The PIO major interrupted here to assure me that all prisoners received all the clothing and medical attention that they needed.]

A. Yes, once.

Q, What happened?

A. I asked the Americans, but they did not understand me. They just laughed at me, and one struck me. He slapped me on my face. I was very scared. I didn’t dare ask again.

Q, Why do you ask now? I have explained that I am not in the army.

A. The atmosphere is good. [The PIO major acted shocked and assured me that this “oversight” would be corrected. After the interview he hurried to the office to launch his protest.]

Q. Do you know why your village was bombed?

A. The people said that it was because of the Communists.

Q. What is a Communist? Who are they?

A. [Long pause.] They are ... I don’t know.

Q. Have you ever heard of Nguyen Cao Ky or Nguyen Van Thieu?

A. No, I do not know them.

Q. Have you ever heard of Ho Chi Minh?

A. Yes, he sent troops from the North. He is well known.

Q. Why were you detained?

A. I don’t know why. They just brought me in.

Q. But has anyone explained to you the reason for detaining you?

A. No. They do not speak Vietnamese. We cannot understand one another.

Q. What did they tell you in the interrogation?

A. They asked me questions. They asked me if I was a Viet Cong and if I knew where the Viet Cong were hiding. They just asked me questions.

Q. Do you know that you have been designated an Innocent Civilian?

A. What is that? [The PIC) major moved forward on his chair ready to give an explanation.]

Q. Where are you going when you leave here?

A. I don’t know what they are going to do with us. Will I be able to go back to my village? I am very worried because no one is there to look after our ancestral tombs.

Q. Do you have a family?

A. Yes, a wife, two sons, and some grandchildren.

Q. Where are they now?

A. I don’t know. I am very sad because I don’t know what has happened to them. Maybe they are worrying about me also.

Q. Perhaps they are in refugee camps. Do you know anything about the resettlement program?

A. No.

Q. Have the Americans ever dropped leaflets on your village explaining the refugee program and warning you to leave your village because it will be bombed?

A. Yes, sometimes they drop leaflets. But I can’t read. Many people can’t read. Now there are no schools in the countryside. They are all destroyed.

Q. Do you know what is going to happen to you?

A. No, I don’t know. I need someone to help me. I am very scared here all alone.