Lessons from Ben Suc


mendacity and criminality of the U.S. war on Vietnam are matters
of historical record, yet easily forgotten is the role that so-called
objective, balanced, and responsible language played to defend the
indefensible. With today’s Washington planners attempting to
disburse billions of dollars in “development and reconstruction
aid” to Iraq in the midst of a heated war, the village of Ben
Suc in Vietnam serves as a prescient reminder of what “aid,”
“development,” and “humanitarianism” can mean
in the context of an ongoing foreign invasion. Ben Suc also points
toward an unsettling kinship between debased language, social sciences,
and pathologies of technocratic control. 

The use of technocratic
doublespeak as a mask for violence is perhaps nowhere more incisively
analyzed than in George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and
the English Language”: “Defenseless villages are bombarded
from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the
cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets:
this is called pacification,” Orwell wrote in 1946. “Millions
of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the
roads with no more than they can carry: this is called rectification

of frontiers


Such phraseology is needed
if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of
them.” Orwell identified four ways that truth is shrouded in
cocoons of debased speech by the perpetrators of deadly political
action: pretentious diction, verbal false limbs, dying metaphors,
and meaningless vocabulary. 

The U.S. Army’s
official account of its assault on the village of Ben Suc,

Falls-Junction City: A Turning Point


General Bernard Rogers, offers a classic case study in all four.
In May 1966 General Westmoreland ordered Operation Cedar Falls.
Cedar Falls was to be a strike at what the military called the “Iron
Triangle,” stretching from Ben Suc to Ben Cat to Phu Guong
in South Vietnam. The area was “a haven” for Communists
and so “a dagger pointed at Saigon.” The U.S. was determined
to put an end to “communist” activity in the area by “rupturing
and neutralizing the control structure” and destroying “hostile
infrastructure.” Yet the “control structure” of Ben
Suc—whose people willingly supported the Vietnamese insurgency—was
the village itself. Hence, “the objective area was to be…cleared
of all civilians, stripped of concealment, and declared a specified
strike zone.”  

“In conjunction
with the other services, the Army has fought in support of a national
policy of assisting an emerging nation to develop governmental processes
of its own choosing, free of outside coercion,” Major General
Verne Bowers explained. Ben Suc, however, had failed to resist the
“outside coercion” of Vietnamese communists, so the villagers
were now to be “evacuated” by U.S. forces to “relocation
camps” constructed by USAID. After the villagers were gone,
Ben Suc would be razed to the ground. 

Early on the morning
of January 8, 1967, 60 helicopters unloaded approximately 500 U.S.
soldiers in and around Ben Suc. The soldiers began to herd the population,
taken by total surprise, toward the village center. Helicopters
with loud speakers flew overhead, instructing the people to gather
at an old schoolhouse. There was no armed resistance, though some
sniper fire was reported and several soldiers injured themselves
when they wandered into a minefield. “[T]hose who attempted
to evade and leave the village were engaged by the blocking forces….
By 10:30 Ben Suc was securely in the hands of the friendly forces.”
The Americans quickly set up tents to dispense food and medical
aid to the villagers. “Since the inhabitants of Ben Suc had
not received medical assistance for three years and were in only
fair health, South Vietnamese and U.S. medical teams examined them
and provided medical and dental care as they awaited interrogation.”

After spending the
night under guard, nearly 6,000 villagers from Ben Suc and outlying
areas were loaded onto trucks, boats, and helicopters and taken
to relocation camps at Phu Cuong and Phu Loi. There, “Thanks
to the immediate assistance of a task force from the Big Red One
under Major Carl R. Grantham, latrines were dug, wood and water
made available, a buffalo wallow was dug and filled with water,
a cattle enclosure was built, dozens of Arctic tents were pitched,
and hardships were eased for the displaced families.” The “hardships”
had been compounded by “security measures taken during the
planning phase,” but the “systematic evacuation”
was performed “as humanely as possible.” The Army account
praises Major Generals DePuy and Hay for their “intricate planning,
rapid and decisive execution of actions, and employment of new concepts,
coupled with the bravery and skill of our troops,” which “made
these two operations the success they were.” Cedar Falls and
Junction City were “the first multidivisional operations in
Vietnam to be conducted according to a preconceived plan” and
they proved that large-scale operations “do have a place in
counterinsurgency warfare today.” 

The author of

Falls-Junction City: A Turning Point

was an eyewitness to the
event. Lieutenant General Bernard Rogers, a Rhodes scholar who studied
economics at Oxford University, was asked to write the official
Army history by General Westmoreland. The work was completed in
1973, six years after the operation—and presumably Rogers had
full access to all the relevant military documents. 

Verbal Subterfuge 


are several things we may note about Rogers’s writing. First,
it is filled with pretentious abstractions and meaningless phrases
that convey an air of scientific objectivity where none exists.
Consider the boast that Cedar Falls and Junction City were “the
first multidivisional operations in Vietnam to be conducted according
to a preconceived plan.” Eliminating the redundant word preconceived
reveals that this was the military’s first combined operation
conducted according to a plan. More disturbing forms of verbal subterfuge
follow. “Necessitating this increasing commitment of U.S. forces
and resources to South Vietnam was the concomitant growth in the
size and quality of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese cadres in
the south,” Rogers writes. What he means but cannot say is:
the communists were winning so we had to send more troops. 

“Some small
arms fire was received but was quickly suppressed” we read—and
with effort can decipher: People shot at us, but we killed them
or scared them away. Meanwhile, “Those who attempted to evade
and leave the village were engaged by the blocking forces.”
Engaged? Blocking? It seems that villagers who tried to flee were
assaulted by the attacking forces. 

When language is
being used to hide the truth, Orwell pointed out, pretentious, hyphenated,
and Latinized words choke the page, “like tea leaves blocking
a sink.” Thus: “Operation Attleboro introduced the large-scale,
multi-organization operation to the war [and] proved that, within
a matter of hours, well-trained and professionally led organizations
with proper logistic support could deploy large numbers of battalions
to an active operational area.” The war “required superimposing
the immensely sophisticated tasks of a modern army upon an underdeveloped
environment and adapting them to demands covering a wide spectrum.”
And so forth. What is not truism is gibberish. 

Much of

Falls-Junction City

is written in either the passive voice or
with slovenly verbal phrases rather than with simple verbs. Often
we cannot determine who is acting or upon whom. “By the spring
of 1963 President Ngo Dinh Diem was being accused of provoking an
adverse reaction among the people. Especially were the Buddhists
unhappy.” Who was accusing Diem? The Buddhists? The people?
Or were the Buddhists the ones being provoked? It is impossible
to say. “Finally, on 1 November 1963, Diem was overthrown and
assassinated. There followed a period of political instability which
featured many coups and countercoups.” But who killed Diem?
The people? Unhappy Buddhists? The Viet Cong? Propriety does not
permit Rogers to write that Diem was murdered by his own Vietnamese
generals after their Washington controllers gave them the green
light. But there is no need to lie when passive verbal constructions
will do. Therefore, “It was then [in the late spring of 1965]
that U.S. ground forces were requested and, starting in July, began
to arrive in substantial numbers. By August 1965 U.S. forces were
being committed to combat.” Who requested the ground forces?
Who committed them to combat? We are never told and the text doesn’t
leave many clues. The fact that additional U.S. soldiers were requested
by the U.S. government is not a matter the historian wishes us to
think about. 

Where Rogers tries to enliven his
prose, he invariably resorts to stale metaphors and clichés.
The “airborne-waterborne, one-two punch made the Saigon River
a boundary they could not afford to come near;” “the regiment
knifed toward its objectives”; the “Iron Triangle”
was “a dagger pointed at Saigon”; the Army began to “hammer
the enemy against the anvil”; “Hurting from the whipping
it had taken, the [Viet Cong] 9th Division once again disappeared
into its sanctuaries to lick its wounds…”; etc. 

Orwell observed, “of whatever colour, seems to demand a lifeless,
imitative style.” This can take the form not only of dying
metaphors and clichés, but of ideological stock phrases. Peoples
of the free world, challenges ahead, struggle for democracy, imperialist
aggression, class conflict, bourgeois interests, neoliberal order

can hardly speak about politics without resorting to such vagaries.
The words communicate no clear meaning, but people continue to exchange
them knowingly, like secret handshakes at a fraternity initiation
rite. Such euphonious sounds, Orwell suggested, are primarily noises
to “anesthetize a portion of one’s brain.” 

The moral void we
detect at the heart of Rogers’s history therefore stems from
an essentially linguistic betrayal. This betrayal of honest speech
leads Rogers to an even more fatal cognitive failure: a failure
of imagination. His detached and pseudo-scientific vocabulary does
not permit him to enter into the lives of the people of Ben Suc.
So he discerns no ethical or logical contradiction between the Army’s
destruction of the village on the one hand and its “humanitarian”
provision of food and medicine to the “evacuees” on the
other. The actions are simply two sides of the same managerial goal:
power and control. He writes that “hardships were eased for
the displaced families,” and on the same page: “All that
remained for the 1st Division troops was the razing of Ben Suc after
its inhabitants had been removed. As the villagers and their belongings
moved out, bulldozers, tankdozers, and demolition teams moved in.”
On occasion, Rogers does feel tinges of unease. The sight of the
“natives of Ben Suc…waiting to be transported to the temporary
camp” was “pathetic and pitiful.” But a rush of stock
phrases quickly fills the interpretive gap. Difficulties “faced
during the evacuation” were “relatively few and small
in comparison with those problems facing the members of the U.S.
Office of Civil Operations who were charged with assisting the South
Vietnamese in preparing and operating the relocation center.” 


her “report on the banality of evil,”



, Hannah Arendt observed
that Adolph Eichmann appeared at his trial less a “monster”
than a victim, in some sense, of his own speech. “Officialese
is my only language,” he apologized to the court. It is hardly
surprising that political power should corrupt honest speech. What
is important to observe among the managers of state-sponsored violence
is the necessity of a peculiarly dissembling and technocratic language,
not only to deceive others, but also to deceive themselves. 

It is vital to see the technocratic
dialects of policymakers in terms of indoctrination and thought
control in liberal societies. One cannot mouth—or passively
accept—a phrase like “hostile infrastructure” to
describe a civilian village without having first achieved a fairly
high level of education. The tricks of language-masking contained
in Rogers’s mendacious history of Ben Suc are the essential
ingredients of respectable scholarship. They may be found in almost
every academic article, in every leading journal, across all academic
disciplines. Noam Chomsky observed in his 1967 essay, “The
Responsibility of Intellectuals,” they tend to proliferate
in the social and behavioral sciences where linguistic posturing
allows “experts to imitate the surface features of sciences
that really have significant intellectual content.” 

A recent example
from the journal

World Development

illustrates: “Technological
change leads to access to crops that are high in nutrients and empowers
the poor by increasing their access to decision-making processes,
increasing their capacity for collective action, and reducing their
vulnerability to shocks, through asset accumulation…. Literate
farmers are more able to assimilate information and make effective
use of the new technologies that become available.”


To some extent, the
obtuseness of the quote might be the regrettable but unavoidable
price of its precision; “vulnerability to shocks” and
“asset accumulation” might convey well-defined ideas to
policymakers that cannot be replaced with clearer English. Still,
how much meaning would have been lost had the writer simply said:
“New technology helps farmers to feed themselves and literate
farmers learn how to use this technology most effectively?”
The political correctness of the article and its author is not in
question. But why is it that the linguistic conventions of otherwise
responsible scholarship in the social and policy sciences in general
seem to foster, even demand, a kind of grammar of disingenuousness
not far removed from the language of the Washington architects of
the Vietnam war? 

For Chomsky, the
answer has much to do with relations of power and particularly the
privileged role of intellectual specialists in modern societies.
There are legitimate things to be learned and explored within the
social sciences, Chomsky allows, but he insists that the idea of
an “expert” in social theory is almost entirely self-serving
and fraudulent. The “Welfare State technician finds justification
for his special and prominent social status in his ‘science,’
specifically, in the claim that social science can support a technology
of social tinkering on a domestic or international scale.”
The academic turned policy consultant “argues that the special
conditions on which his claim to power and authority are based are,
in fact, the only general conditions by which modern society can
be saved.” Hence the need for an abstract, technical-sounding
vocabulary—not to make the facts more clear, but to make them
less decipherable to the uninitiated while at the same time inducing
conformity among the neophytes. Hence also the need to suppress
those humanistic categories of speaking and writing—forthrightness,
indignation, by which the veneer of “objectivity” might
be punctured even when the specialists themselves reject the idea
of objectivity in principle. Yet for those genuinely concerned with
“moral issues and human rights, or over the traditional problems
of man and society,” Chomsky maintains, “‘social
and behavioral science’ has nothing to offer beyond trivialities.” 

The extent to which
the U.S. Army’s rendition of what happened in Ben Suc reads
as a sober history reveals the extent to which our own speech habits
rest on insincerity—on decadent and finally treacherous modes
of communication. These ways of thinking and talking, inculcated
primarily through institutions of formal learning, are what allow
sane and reasonable people to condone acts of unimaginable savagery
with perfect equanimity. 

Real Meaning 


Wittgenstein, Foucault, and Derrida, the idea that words are merely
vacuous effusions of power relations—that there is no “truth,”
only “discourse”— has become something of an academic
commonplace. I do not stand in this line of thought. It seems to
me that any coherent critique (as opposed to sheer deconstruction)
of language must finally rest on what George Steiner describes as
a wager in “substantiation,” an assumption of the “necessary
possibility” that language can convey real meaning. To say
that there is debased speech is to imply that there is such a thing
as truthful language as well. 

The claim cannot,
of course, be proven, but it can be illustrated. Jonathan Schell,
a reporter for the

New Yorker

who accompanied “Charlie”
Company to Ben Suc, describes the same events as Rogers. But his
report, “The Village of Ben Suc,” stands in relationship
to Rogers’s history as a photograph to its negative. Schell’s
prose is personal, journalistic, concrete, and imaginative—all
of the things policy stylists strive to avoid. Yet for precisely
these reasons, it shines a truthful light on Ben Suc where Rogers’s
“objective” style casts only disorienting shadows. 

Schell’s ability
to imaginatively empathize with the lives of the people of Ben Suc
is clear from the first lines of his article, in which he describes
the village prior to the U.S. attack. The details he selects, inadmissible
within most frameworks of “responsible” policy analysis
and debate, reveal what the detached words target, secret base,
and fortified supply center actually mean—and what bomb navigators
and strategic planners cannot afford to think about if they are
to sanely keep their jobs. 

Before 1967, Ben
Suc was a village of some 3,500 people inside “a small loop
of the slowly meandering Saigon River,” about 30 miles from
Saigon. Most of the villagers were rice farmers “engaged in
tilling the exceptionally fertile paddies bordering the river and
in tending the extensive orchards of mangos, jackfruit, and an unusual
strain of large grapefruit. Some were merchants of Chinese ancestry
who ran restaurants and hair shops or sold medicines, herbs, bicycles
and other items in the village center. Ben Suc had no electricity
and few machine tools. Labor was done by hand and with teams of
water buffalo. It was, however, a prosperous village that sold rice
and vegetables to neighboring areas. Some of the marriages in the
village were arranged and some were love matches. Although parents—particularly
the girls’ parents—didn’t like it, couples often
sneaked off in the evenings for secret rendezvous in the tall bamboo
groves or in glades of banana trees.” Most of the people of
Ben Suc were Buddhists. Some were Confucians. Politically, almost
all were Communists. They voluntarily supported the National Liberation
Front (NLF)— which had routed government troops in the area
in 1964 and which the U.S. called the “Viet Cong”—by
paying taxes of up to 10 percent of their harvests, carrying supplies
for NLF troops, staffing a hidden hospital in the jungle, building
blockades across roads, and teaching their children not only reading,
writing, and multiplication tables, but also revolutionary slogans. 

When the U.S. attacked,
Rogers writes, “Those who attempted to evade and leave the
village were engaged by the blocking forces.” Concretely, this
is what Schell witnessed: “A Vietnamese man on a bicycle appeared,
pedaling rapidly along the road from the direction of the village….
He had, it appeared, already run a long gauntlet of American soldiers
without being stopped. But when he had ridden about twenty yards
past the point where he first came in sight, there was a burst of
machine-gun fire from a copse thirty yards in front of him…he
was hurled off his bicycle into a ditch…. The man with the
Minolta camera, who had done the firing from the vegetable patch,
stood up after about a minute and walked over to the ditch, followed
by one of the engineers. The Vietnamese in the ditch appeared to
be about twenty, and he lay on his side without moving, blood flowing
from his face…. The engineer leaned down, felt the man’s
wrist and said, ‘He’s dead’…. Then the engineer
said, with a tone of finality, ‘That’s a VC for you. He’s
a VC, all right. That’s what they wear. He was leaving town.
He had to have some reason.’” 

We now have a clear
picture of what Rogers means when he writes that “the enemy
was unable to offer any cohesive resistance.” We also have
good reason to fear what is actually contained in the sentence,
“During the two and one-half hours since the initial landing,
a total of forty enemy had been killed in action.” The logic
is inescapable. They tried to escape so they must have been Viet
Cong. They were Viet Cong so we killed them. They must have been
Viet Cong because now they’re dead.

“The term ‘hostile
civilians’” Schell notes, “was a new one, invented
during Operation Cedar Falls for the people in the villages that
had been marked for destruction. The question of what to call these
villagers was one of many semantic problems that the Army had to

Another was what
to call the villagers after they had been “relocated”
under the “New Life Hamlet program.” “At the scene
of the evacuation, [the Army] usually used the phrase ‘hostile
civilians,’ which hinted that all the villagers at least supported
the enemy…. But later, at Phu Loi, the officials in charge
reverted to the more familiar term ‘refugees,’ which suggested
that the villagers were not themselves the enemy but were ‘the
people,’ fleeing the enemy.” This sliding vocabulary to
describe the villagers of Ben Suc, without any regard for essential
meanings, fits well with Derrida’s structuralism. “Human,”
we have been told, is a logocentric Occidental construct, not an
essence but the “site” of linguistic play. But in Ben
Suc, such play helped to sustain a deadly verbal game among soldiers
and policy-makers alike. “This is wonderful,” Colonel
White exclaimed to two USAID workers after the villagers had been
herded into the camp, surrounded by barbed wire, their homes already
bulldozed and (for extra measure) bombed behind them. “I’ve
never seen anything like it. It’s the best civilian project
I’ve ever seen…. We’ve got shelter up for almost
a thousand people here in one day.” Yet a single unguarded
encounter in Schell’s report reveals all: “‘You see,
they do have some, well, methods and practices we are not accustomed
to, that we wouldn’t use if we were doing it,” Captain
Shipman explained to Schell after Schell stumbled upon a tent in
the “relocation camp” where South Vietnamese intelligence
officers were torturing a man believed to be Viet Cong. 

“But the thing
you’ve got to understand is that this is an Asian country,
and their first impulse is force…. Only the fear of force gets
results. It’s the Asian mind. It’s completely different
from what we know as the Western mind, and it’s hard for us
to understand. Look, they’re a thousand years behind us in
this place, and we’re trying to educate them up to our level.
We can’t just do everything for them ourselves…. Of course,
we believe that that’s not the best way to operate, so we try
to introduce some changes, but it’s very slow…. I’m
only an advisor and I’ve made suggestions until I’m blue
in the face. Actually, though, we’ve seen some improvement
over the last year. This is a lot better than we used to have.” 

Covert Actions 


the classified U.S. government documents leaked to the press by
Daniel Ellsberg in 1971 now known as the


there is a study presented to President Kennedy on May
8, 1961 under the title: “A Program of Action for South Vietnam.”
The authors of the paper—a task force of specialists from the
White House, State Department, Defense Department, Central Intelligence
Agency, International Cooperation Administration, and United States
Information Agency—urge the Administration to pursue several
long-term “economic” and “development” goals
in Indochina. Strangely, these objectives appear not under the heading
“economic” but under the title “psychological.”
The government should “develop agricultural pilot-projects
throughout the country with a view toward exploiting their beneficial
psychological effects.” Such enterprises, the planners write,
“would be accomplished by combined teams of Vietnamese Civic
Action personnel, Americans in the Peace Corps, Filipinos in Operation
Brotherhood, and other Free World nationals.” Only in a special
annex to the report, under the title “Covert Actions,”
do we learn of other actions to be undertaken alongside the above:
“C. Unconventional Warfare: In Laos, infiltrate teams under
light civilian cover to Southeast Laos to locate and attack Vietnamese
communist bases…. In North Vietnam…conduct Ranger raids
and similar military actions…increase gray broadcasts….
Support covertly the GVN…to counteract tendencies toward a
‘political solution’.”  

The war in Vietnam,
“A Program of Action for South Vietnam” reveals, was conceived
by its architects from an early stage as being critically linked
to “development,” with “economic projects” explicitly
“designed to accompany the counter-insurgency effort”
in a complementary and parallel fashion. There was no contradiction
in the minds of the Washington planners between gray broadcasts,
Ranger raids, and napalm bombing, on the one hand, and the construction
of hospitals, schools, and agricultural pilot-projects, on the other.
Both were essential means to the same end: victory over the Communists
and integration of Vietnam into the U.S. sphere of influence and
control. At the same time, architects of the war found it necessary
to distinguish between humanitarianism and violence, both to themselves
and before the public. Development is referred to in the


as “the other half,” or “winning hearts
and minds”—euphemistic phrases that suggest both a clear
division of labor as well as a sense of moral clarity. Development
was in some sense related to the war—it was its other half—yet
it was also fundamentally different from it. In a small, rice-farming
village located in a meandering loop of the Saigon River in 1967,
these distinctions were bulldozed to shambles. 

The lessons of Ben
Suc have not been learned by today’s new Washington planners
who speak again about “winning hearts and minds,” “humanitarianism,”
and “development” as the “other half” of the
insurgency war in Iraq. Or, it may be, the lessons have been learned
all too well. History offers little hope that “aid” and
“development” will not continue to be corrupted by their
proximity to coercive power. It is left to honest women and men
to find the linguistic practices necessary for resistance.


Ronald Osborn is a doctoral student in the Program in Politics and International Relations at the University of Southern California.