Phượng Hoàng: A Review of ‘Stalking the Vietcong’ by Stuart Herrington

In war, you must know your enemy. Understand how they think, what motivates them, how they fight, and test their resolve to fight for the cause. In the Vietnam War, that was the question that eluded the military intelligence community from the jungle battlefield up to the marbled halls of the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). What many astute American intelligence officers who spent extensive time in the field realized is this wasn’t at all like their father’s war. Traditional ways of identifying the enemy and fighting them on the front lines were not like that in Vietnam. Identifying the enemy’s psychology and rooting out the subversive forces that sustained their cause had to be understood and eliminated. Captain Stuart Herrington, an Army intelligence officer, volunteered to serve in South Vietnam to track down and eliminate Vietcong (VC) suspects. Throughout South Vietnam where the VC operated, they ran a shadow government to counter the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) and the Thieu administration. Permanent security would never be achieved while this shadow government existed and so the CIA launched a new program to counter this: Phoenix.

Stalking the Vietcong: Inside Operation Phoenix: A Personal Account‘ recounts Herrington’s experience in the Phoenix Program and the challenges he and his Vietnamese counterparts faced in the early 1970s as the U.S. military presence reduced significantly. I know that almost all of my book reviews so far have revolved around the Vietnam War, but this was a subject that I’ve had a lot of personal interest in since the intrigue of a CIA program compels me to learn as much as possible (at least what has been declassified). The moment this book arrived, I picked it up and plowed through half the book in just a short amount of time.

Phoenix Program shoulder patch (never officially worn or issued by the CIA or U.S. Armed Forces)

Beginning in 1966 and following the Tet Offensive in February 1968, the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), believed that the countrywide attacks had depleted the manpower and resources of the VC to near extinction. The pacification efforts of the South Vietnamese government was making only marginal progress in ‘winning the hearts and minds’ of the people who were growing increasingly anti-American. What MACV needed was intelligence on the VC; how they operated, where they were located, who were members, and how they got support from the locals. The VC relied on sympathetic populations to bring them supplies, intel, and more followers to the Communist Party. With that, they built an enormous and intricate support network that enabled them to move freely throughout South Vietnam. A shadow government of tax collectors, village chiefs, militia, couriers, spies, assassins, and political officers were right under the U.S. Army’s noses. Nelson Brickham, a CIA officer, submitted a plan to gather intelligence and compelling the enemy to defect from the Communists. Counterinsurgency and assassination would remove the rest if they couldn’t be turned. The Phoenix Program was born.

The idea behind Phoenix was centered on how to remove the support network that sustained North Vietnamese forces in South Vietnam that came down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the main road that brought manpower and supplies down south. In order to operate, they relied heavily on the VC infrastructure and so the program targeted those cadres. By removing this apparatus, the U.S. could end Communist activity in the south and seriously weaken North Vietnam’s battlefield position. Americans served mainly in an advisory capacity which consisted of analyzing intelligence and consulting with Vietnamese counterparts such as the Military Security Service (MSS) the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) and the National Police Force. Provincial Reconnaissance Units (PRUs) handled daily operations of locating, capturing, interrogating, and eliminating targets.

A Provincial Reconnaissance Unit deploys on Go Noi Island near Danang. PRUs were overseen by American advisors like Capt. Herrington. (Frederick J. Vogel Collection at the Archives Branch, Marine Corps History Division, 1969)

Herrington initially wasn’t assigned to Vietnam. His first overseas assignment was West Germany and back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a posting in Germany was the luckiest draw an officer or enlisted personnel could make. After completing his tour though, Herrington didn’t remain a civilian for long and after only a few months, he returned to the Army and found himself travelling the opposite direction; to the Pacific and to Vietnam. What he witnessed after a few days in country set the standard of how he saw his and the United States’ role in Vietnam, and everything going wrong in the struggle against the Communists.

Stalking the Vietcong‘ unquestionably reads like a spy novel as the book’s back cover states. Herrington lived in a country where violence and death was a daily occurrence, as common as eating breakfast and tying bootlaces. People lived dual lives with dual identities and determining one’s loyalty was a Herculean task. Herrington, like other American advisors, were overwhelmingly frustrated in their duties as they dealt with incompetent and corrupt South Vietnamese officials. Lax security and a general unwillingness to do anything that placed them in danger gave the enemy unrestricted movement; all the while the South Vietnamese produced rosy reports on how secure their provinces were. Reports versus reality signified the everyday stress placed on U.S. intelligence efforts. A handful of Herrington’s superiors wanted to do all the Phoenix work themselves and leave the Vietnamese out, but the truth was when the U.S. left, the Vietnamese wouldn’t be up to the task and succumb to the Communists. Herrington reflected on this frustration:

“…I had been disturbed by Colonel Weissinger’s impatient demand that if the Vietnamese were not up to the task of eliminating the Vietcong organization, we Americans should do it for them. I believed firmly that one of the major shortcomings of our overall approach in Vietnam had been the tendency to do things ourselves rather than to train the Vietnamese to do them…I went to Hau Nghia determined not to make this mistake, but wound up ill equipped to cope with the frustrations of advisory duty…”                                       

                   ‘                                                          ‘A Model Revolutionary Village’

Whether your position on the American presence in South Vietnam is positive or negative, ‘Stalking the Vietcong‘ infuses a personal account of one of the most dramatized and scrutinized chapters of the Vietnam War. Academic studies and government reports highlight Phoenix’s atrocities on human lives; torture by beatings, electrocution, waterboarding, and summary executions were damned by the public as war crimes. Herrington doesn’t revel in these acts as a means to an end in defeating the VC, but he pushes for a different path. Persuasion and rallying defectors through humane treatment was the best way to win the support of Communist defectors. Herrington focuses on three captives that he relied on for information: Nyugen van Phich, Hai Tiet, and Do van Lanh. Each had a different position in the VC organization, but they all provided valuable information in their roles, purpose, and how VC operations worked in the south. Their stories were incredibly insightful and integral. If every VC prisoner was cooperated with the Americans like they did, who knows how they war might have ended. There might still be a Republic of Vietnam and Saigon would not have been named Ho Chi Minh City. Stories of enthusiastic and strong-willed South Vietnamese officers like Colonel Thanh dissolve the notion that the ARVN, MSS, and National Police Force were full of incompetent officers. They wanted the American’s help and did their job to best of their abilities.

A Vietcong prisoner awaits interrogation at the A-109 Special Forces Detachment in Thuong Duc, 25 km west of Da Nang (Photographs of American Military Activities, ca. 1918 – ca. 1981, Record Group 111:
Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, 1860 – 1985, National Archives and Records Administration)

Accounts of brutal torture were not the norm, but they weren’t an aberration either. Some PRUs and South Vietnamese used the Phoenix Program as a cover for personal vendettas. A single accusation or suspicion of a individual with Communist sympathies made them a target, whether or not they were a VC. Phoenix’s targeting was only as good as the intelligence upon which it was based and that varied widely. Of over 20,000 Vietnamese who were executed, estimates as high as 50% claim that victims were innocent.

Herrington claims in ‘Stalking the Vietcong‘ that these violent methods were not his own. He dissuaded those from getting violent with their prisoners, but there were those who had no scruples:

“Were mistakes made, and did abuses occur? Yes, if what I witnessed was representative. Some Phoenix cadre did commit excesses against the peasantry in the name of the anti-Communist campaign. The provincial reconnaissance unit in Hau Nghia was infamous for this during the early part of my tour. I once saw four of them decide that a nineteen year old girl was lying about something and subject her to repeated near suffocation with a rubber poncho in a cruel and vain attempt to force her to talk. That was the last time we entrusted that unit with such operations. What I saw that day shocked me, though it was the exception rather than the rule.”

                                                                                             ”Nam was a Bummer’

Overall, ‘Stalking the Vietcong‘ was informative and personable in a way that made the Vietnam War a more human and noble endeavor from an individual perspective. Capt. Herrington maintained an attitude of optimism in helping turn the Communists to the American side, but still recognized the systemic frustrations and pitfalls. He gave his diagnosis of the wider problem and had his own remedy, but this view was not shared by the America public by 1973 when he returned to the United States. They wanted to get out and leave the South Vietnamese to their own devices. Unfortunately, this sealed the South’s fate as they had no proper procedure in place and still suffered from personnel problems such as corruption. Combined with the rapidly deteriorating Vietnamese economy, the Republic of Vietnam collapsed just two years later. The Fall of Saigon was witnessed around the world, but Capt. Herrington did more than watch;  he helped evacuate South Vietnamese officers and their families then boarded a helicopter at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon on April 29th, 1975 and headed out to sea.

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