by Michael W. Cotter
Michael Metrinko’s interesting article on Foreign Service life in rural Afghanistan brought back memories of the experience I, and several hundred other FSOs, had in Vietnam a generation ago.
Fresh from junior officer training in 1968, I was detailed to USAID and assigned to the CORDS (Civil Operations, Rural Development Support) program in South Vietnam. CORDS was the civilian advisory component attached to MACV, the military assistance command in Vietnam, as distinguished from the combat forces of USARV. In the late 1960s most newly minted, single FSOs were assigned to CORDS. Along with the many officers with longer service records, this reflects the State Department’s commitment to the Vietnam effort.
Preparation for most of us began with ten months of intensive training in the Vietnamese language. Because of the number of students, Vietnamese training was not located with the rest of Foreign Service Institute language training, but rather occupied part of the garage of the Arlington Towers, an apartment complex in Rosslyn, Virginia. Rudimentary is the best word to describe the facility, but it prepared us quite well for the future. Our training included offsites at Fort Bragg for weapon familiarization, and at a remote site in Virginia where we played a very realistic game involving issues we would later deal with. In the days before video games, this exercise literally involved all of the rooms and other facilities of a large conference site and included simulated ambushes. Students played the parts of South Vietnamese villagers, American advisors and Viet Cong.
Because we had some say in our assignment, I asked for the Mekong Delta. Among my reasons was the fact that there were no U.S. forces assigned there. (The U.S. Army’s 9th Division, which had been assigned to the northern fringe of the Delta left in late 1969). I arrived in Saigon for a week of orientation around Christmas 1969 and then traveled to Can Tho, the administrative center of the Mekong Delta region of South Vietnam, arriving on New Year’s Eve.
My first assignment was as the deputy district senior advisor (DDSA) of Ben Tre District in Kien Hoa Province. Kien Hoa, located on the South China Sea and separated in several parts by the northern-most two main channels of the Mekong River, was best known in those days as the home of Madame Binh, the “foreign minister” of the Viet Cong’s United Front. The capital, Ben Tre, was already known as “the town we had to destroy in order to save” because of fighting there in the 1968 Tet Offensive. Our advisory team lived in a dirt-walled compound out in the country several miles from Ben Tre. The team consisted of an army major, a captain, a lieutenant, three NCOs and yours truly.
My job had several aspects. One was to distribute materials such as rebar, tin roofing, and soy-fortified powdered milk to remote villages. Another was to coordinate other assistance such as improving the local breed of pig (pork being a major protein source in Vietnam), introducing new types of rice, paving roads, and so on. A third, major responsibility was to assess the security situation in the district and then to prepare the monthly and quarterly “Hamlet Evaluation System” questionnaires. This much-maligned tool actually produced useful information, although it lent itself to both misinterpretation and “spinning.”
Although we civilians worked on reconstruction there was no mistaking the fact that we were involved in a shooting war, as my colleagues assigned to districts in central Vietnam can confirm perhaps more eloquently than I. Of the seven villages in Ben Tre District we advisors could safely visit only three or four, and even then safety was relative. For instance, once a week we traveled down a dirt road to a remote, but “pacified” village. A local Vietnamese militia force was assigned to that road with orders to sweep for the mines that regularly killed civilians traveling along it. The idea was that the local forces would not want to have American advisors killed in their area of responsibility, so that our weekly unscheduled trips would keep them honest. Armored HumVees weren’t even a gleam in the Defense Department’s eye in those days, and we traveled in a jeep not that much different from the one used in WW II, with sandbags piled on the floor covered by flak vests.
We all carried weapons because of Viet Cong activity in the coconut groves not far from the road. As a civilian I was not issued a weapon. Because traveling without one would place an unreasonable burden on my military colleagues, however, I requested and was given a World War II-era M-2 .30-caliber carbine. The M-2, by the way, was, even at this late date the principal weapon supplied to the South Vietnamese regional and popular forces, the militias responsible for security in areas like ours with minimal Vietnamese Army presence. (The M-2 carbine, incidentally, was a much inferior weapon to the Kalashnikov assault rifles used by the Viet Cong.)I was lucky that we never hit a mine. My successor, an army captain, was not so lucky and was killed when thrown from our same jeep when it hit a mine on this road. Nor were all FSOs in CORDS so lucky. As I recall, two assigned to Kien Hoa received serious injuries and a number of our colleagues died in Hue and Danang during the 1968 Tet Offensive.
Our living quarters in Ben Tre were rudimentary. We had limited electricity, provided by a small generator that ran only in the evening. We four officers had bunks in one room and the NCOs in another, with one common room for living and eating. Our bathing facilities consisted of outdoors toilets and showers operated at first with buckets of water and later from a 500 gal. water tank salvaged from the former U.S. 9th Division base and jury-rigged by an NCO to provide “running” water
After five months in Ben Tre, I was reassigned to Ba Tri District in the same province. Ba Tri was a “pacified” district right on the South China Sea, and because of that fact our advisory team consisted of only three people: I as the senior advisor, a lieutenant, and an NCO medic. Our quarters there were a cement brick building on the edge of the district seat of government. We had intermittent electricity provided by a generator operated by a Vietnamese militiaman. Air conditioning was not even a dream, and our floor fan obviously only worked when there was electricity, resulting in many steamy nights.
My work in Ba Tri was similar to that in Ben Tre, although we had access to all of the villages and I could work much more successfully with local village chiefs. As a result, most of our work involved reconstruction and improving the quality of life of rural people. Our major military task was supporting medical evacuation helicopters that regularly came to the assistance of a U.S. Navy SEAL detachment assigned to the mangrove swamps in the eastern part of the district.
For the final eight months of my tour in Vietnam I moved to Saigon where I served as staff aide to the deputy ambassador. The several staff aide positions at the embassy were regularly filled by officers with experience in the field, adding significantly to the Embassy’s information resources.
Halfway through my next assignment, to embassy La Paz in Bolivia, I, along with more than a hundred other Vietnamese-language officers, was called back for a six-month temporary duty assignment in Vietnam after the signing of the cease-fire agreement in early 1973. Once again I was sent to the upper Mekong Delta, this time as a vice consul assigned to monitor the cease fire in three provinces of the upper Delta: Go Cong, Dinh Thuong, and Kien Hoa. My work primarily involved coordination with the Canadian, Indonesian, Polish, and Hungarian military serving on the International Control Commission. On this occasion I shared a house in My Tho, the major city in the upper Delta, with two other FSOs on the same mission. Interestingly, between 1971 and 1973 the Viet Cong insurgency in that part of the Delta, formerly its stronghold, had ended. The 1972 Tet Offensive had decimated Viet Cong ranks, and the North Vietnamese had been forced to send in Northern troops who were viewed by the Delta people as practically as alien as we Americans.
I can only sympathize with my Foreign Service colleagues now serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. I know how difficult their duty is and how frustrating it can be to know that one’s countrymen cannot and do not understand how hard they are working to bring about positive outcomes in those places. At least they can take satisfaction in knowing that they are carrying on the long Foreign Service tradition of serving their country on the front lines in war, as well as in peace. We who have been there before understand and our hearts and prayers are with them.
Amb. Mike Cotter served in the Foreign Service for twenty-eight years, retiring in 1998. He is vice president of the American Diplomacy Publishers board of trustees and associate publisher of American Diplomacy.