The Phoenix Program Was a Disaster in Vietnam and Would Be in Afghanistan--And the NYT Should Know that

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Mr. Kuzmarov is assistant professor of history at Tulsa University and author of The Myth of the Addicted Army: Vietnam and the Modern War on Drugs. He spent months pouring over the files of the public safety division and phoenix program in Vietnam for a book he is currently working on, Modernizing Repression: Police Training and Nation-Building in the American Century.

As best expressed in Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman’s seminal 1989 work, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, the New York Times, has been a consistent champion of U.S. militarism and empire over the course of at least the past half-century along with the neo-liberal free-trade policies driving its expansion. The paper hit a new low this past Friday in running an op ed by Mark Moyar, a professor at the U.S. Marine Corps University, in which he heralded the CIA trained Provincial Reconnaissance Units (PRU) in Vietnam as a model irregular guerrilla force, which the U.S. should strive to recreate in Afghanistan in order to wage the war more effectively.

In actual fact, the PRU’s served as one of the most brutal and corrupt colonial proxies of the United States in its history. They were notoriously ineffective in fulfilling American imperial ambitions and participated in the torture and killing of thousands of innocent civilians. The PRU’s were trained by the CIA and USAID’s Public Safety Division as “hunter-killer” squadrons to carry out the notorious Phoenix operation whose central aim was to eliminate the “Vietcong” infrastructure (VCI) through use of sophisticated computer technology and intelligence gathering techniques and through improved coordination of military and civilian intelligence agencies. Phoenix had its roots in earlier psychological warfare and police counter-terror operations designed to “bring danger and death” to “Vietcong functionaries.” It employed methods such as the use of wanted posters, blacklists, spies and disguises as well as violent acts of intimidation and terrorism.

Contrary to Moyar’s mythical view, which he presents in more depth in his 1997 book, Phoenix and the Birds of Prey, the PRU’s partook in indiscriminate brutality and failed to infiltrate the upper-echelon of the revolutionary apparatus. Phoenix was riddled by inaccurate reporting and bribery. South Vietnamese president Nguyen Van Thieu used Phoenix to eliminate political rivals, including the non-communists opposition. Internal reports on record at the National Archives point to the widespread corruption of PRU cadres who used their positions for revenge purposes and for shakedowns and extortion, threatening to kill people and count them as VCI if they did not pay them huge sums. In part because defection rates were so high in the US-created South Vietnamese army, many of those recruited were criminals or thugs who used the program to advance their own agendas. Elton Manzione, a Phoenix operative noted that the PRU’s were “a combination of ARVN deserters, VC turncoats and bad motherfuckers; criminals the South Vietnamese couldn’t deal with who were turned over to us. Some actually had an incentive plan: If they killed X number of commies, they got x number of years off their prison term.”

Some model to follow for Afghanistan. Internal reports at the National Archives point to a proliferation of “atrocities” by “VC avenger units” including the mutilation of bodies and the killing of family members of suspected guerrillas by PRU’s, provoking mass reprisals. While the quantity of “neutralizations” was reported to be very high in many districts, the quality was “poor.” At best, those killed were low-level functionaries. High ranking officials like Robert “Blow-Torch” Komer, who called for a doubling of the size of the program, lamented that there was a high number of “phantom kills” which hampered good Phung Hoang statistics. There were also “flagrant” cases of report padding, which had occurred most egregiously in the province of Long An where Phoenix advisor Evan Parker Jr. noted in an internal memo that “the numbers just don’t add up.” Throughout the country, another memo noted, dead bodies were being identified as VCI, rightly or wrongly, in the attempt to at least approach an unrealistic quota.

In 1971, a comprehensive Pentagon study found that only 3 percent of the Vietcong killed, captured or rallied were full or probationary party members above the district level. Regional reports claimed that 1 percent or less of enemy neutralizations held key leadership posts in the VCI. Ralph McGehee, who served as the CIA chief in the Gia Dinh province and nearly committed suicide due to the guilt he felt over his actions, stated emphatically in his memoirs “never in the history of our work in Vietnam did we get one clear-cut, high-ranking Vietcong agent.” One key reason for the failure of Phoenix stemmed from the popular support enjoyed by the NLF leadership who had contacts in high places and infiltrated the government apparatus.

The most disturbing aspect was its inordinately high human costs. A Phoenix advisor commented, “It was common knowledge that when someone was picked up their lives were about at an end because the Americans most likely felt that, if they were to turn someone like that back into the countryside it would just be multiplying NLF followers.” In one publicized case, a detainee was kept in an air-conditioned room for four years to try and exploit his fear of the cold. His remains were later dumped at sea. K. Barton Osborne, a military intelligence specialist told Congress that he witnessed acts of torture including the prodding of a person’s brain with a six inch dowel through his ear, and that in his year and a half with Phoenix, “not a single suspect survived interrogation.” After being called before Congress to account for his actions, CIA Director William Colby conceded that Phoenix led to the deaths of 20,000 civilians. The South Vietnamese government placed the total at over 40,000. A Phoenix operative who had served in Czechoslovakia during World War II tellingly commented, “The reports that I would send in on the number of communists that were neutralized reminded me of the reports Hitler’s concentration camp commanders sent in on how many inmates they had exterminated, each commander lying that he had killed more than the other to please Himmler.”

In Phoenix and the Birds of Prey, Moyar tried to refute claims about the program’s brutality by claiming that K. Barton Osborn and other veterans who testified about torture and abuse were psychological scarred from their experience fighting in Vietnam and hence not credible witnesses. This is a common tactic of the swift boat crowd which is simply not true. Deborah Nelson and Nick Turse’s work, based on their survey of hundreds of declassified files at the National Archives, shows that the army in fact investigated many of the allegations of atrocities by antiwar veterans which turned out to be almost all accurate. My Lai was the tip of the iceberg. My own research and that of Jerry Lembcke has shown that the stereotype of the psychologically scarred veteran embraced by Moyar is a construct of right-wing politicians, the mass media and Hollywood. With regards to Osborn, William Colby himself stated that much of what he had said was “likely to be true.”

In the face of all the available evidence, Moyar’s claims simply do not stand up to scholarly scrutiny.Moyar’s argument about the need to replicate the success of the Phoenix program and train the Afghan equivalent of the PRU’s is a-historical, morally debased and intellectually worthless. The New York Times accordingly has done a disservice to its readers by publishing him as an authority on this topic, particularly given the paucity of antiwar and anti-imperialist views represented in the paper. The Times ironically ran a number of well-documented exposes on Phoenix and the draconian character of the South Vietnamese prison system in the early 1970s. More than anything else this latest decision reflects its own ideological bias and complicity in the major crimes against humanity now unfolding in Afghanistan.

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More Comments:

Arnold Shcherban - 9/26/2009

Mr. Kuzmarov,
I'm sorry to interfere, but let me mention just one fact about such Sig- Heil-US types as Bill Heuisler: this one still insists that the US troops did find WMDs over Iraq invasion.
Need I continue his introduction to you...? This zealot of American imperialism is just not worth your (or any even modestly honest observer's) response, sir.

Bill Heuisler - 9/7/2009

Mr. Kuzmarov,
An amusingly trite response. Your rote condemnation of someone you don't know betrays you and your linguist manque pedagogue. Also, your choice of words betrays a torpid intellect: you slander brave men who fought in Operation Phoenix, but call me slanderer for exposing liars; you write of overwhelming evidence, but can only parrot obvious lies from men who weren't involved; you brag of documents at our `National Archives you never identify; last, but most foolish, you prate of scholars and veterans while you are plainly neither and I am assuredly both.

I will assume you read the article by O'Daniel, a Viet Nam veteran who served as a small part of Phoenix.
I will further assume you were unable to either understand or refute his statements, references, names and dates. And everyone reading your response will notice you were not able to defend Chomsky, Manzione or Osborn (the men your original article quoted and depended on).

Your final comment about monuments in Vietnam was contemptible in light of the millions of Vietnamese who either fled those shores or died at the hands of a Communist dictatorship after we left. Our U.S. "monuments", however, are more than 53,000 young Soldiers and Marines who gave their lives in vain for someone's freedom in a land they had never been to and a place we will never forget.
Semper Fi.
Bill Heuisler

Jeremy A. Kuzmarov - 9/7/2009

This is just slanderous nonesense that you are writing, typical of right wing war mongerers who in the wake of overwhelming evidence and no credible knowledge of the war or argument of their own try and attack the character of scholars and Vietnam veterans baselessly.

Much of my evidence furthermore comes from primary documents at the National Archives. You can examine those sources yourself if you are interested in learning the facts about Phoenix and its horrors. Colby's testimony at the Church hearings was also illuminating. If you weren't aware, there are monuments across the South Vietnamese countryside commemorating the victims of US atrocities in that conflict.

Jeremy Kuzmarov

Bill Heuisler - 9/7/2009

Mr. Kuzmarov,
The link to Larry J. O'Daniel (above) apparently will not work. Try:

Sorry about the "bad reference".
Bill Heuisler

Bill Heuisler - 9/7/2009

Mr. Kuzmarov,
You need better sources on Phoenix.
Try Larry O'Daniel:

Chomsky? Manzione? Osborn? These so-called witnesses harm your thesis.
Chomsky defended Mao and Ho Chi Minh against the U.S. and remains a friend and defender of Fidel Castro.
Manzione was a member of Vietnam Vets Against the War, and was never in Phoenix or even in Viet Nam.
Osborn was never in Phoenix and refused to give names/documentation for his accusations.

More on Manzione:
By Joe Johnson | <joe.johnson@onlineathens.com> | Saturday, May 24, 2008
"A Clarke County grand jury this week indicted a former Athens journalist on 20 counts of sexual exploitation of children for child pornography that investigators say were stored in his computer."

"The Georgia Bureau of Investigation first charged Manzione in February 2007 with 10 counts of sexually exploiting children for images agents found in his computer in his Newton Bridge Road home. But investigators later found another 10 images - including one of a girl who was bound and gagged and another of an infant being sexually assaulted - according to the indictment returned Wednesday."

Operation Phoenix has been attacked for years in order to smear American fighting men, but your smear merely makes you look foolish for relying on such men as sources.

Bill Heuisler