Monday, July 10, 2006

Cigarettes and Tea Are Your Friends


In “Lessons from Vietnam in how to 'flip' an enemy,” former Defense Intelligence Agency official Patrick Lang hearkens back to his days with military intelligence during the Vietnam War, in which prisoners of war were accorded Geneva protections as a matter of course. Lang’s job was to find Vietcong and NVA prisoners willing to work for the South Vietnam government:

I visited a number of these [POW] camps in 1972 and did not see anything very objectionable about them [from a Geneva Conventions standpoint]. When the war finally ended, these imprisoned soldiers were returned to their own side.

But as in any war, soldiers who are not so firmly anchored to one side can be persuaded to "come over." Often these men are among the most intelligent and experienced, who have come to see war itself as a cynical game played by the powerful at the soldiers' expense.

Hundreds of prisoners decided to change sides during the Vietnam War and join with US or South Vietnamese forces. One of the most useful projects that the "turncoats" served in were the "Kit Carson Scouts." These former enemy soldiers wore our uniforms, bore arms as part of our combat forces, and accompanied our own soldiers in the field. Their knowledge of the enemy's methods and habits proved invaluable. ...

I talked with a lot of prisoners that year. But one stands out. I was "scouting" in the POW camps for someone suitable for a special project that my unit was "running." We needed an enemy officer - an expert resource - to advise our intelligence analysts. We were notified that there was someone in a facility near Saigon who might be interested. I drove out there to see a North Vietnamese lieutenant.

We spent the day in a whitewashed room, smoking Gitanes (French cigarettes), drinking tea, and chatting. The lieutenant had been a rifle company commander in the 325th NVA Division. He spoke excellent French and had graduated from a good school in the North.

Like me, he had served a previous tour of duty in South Vietnam. He was an Olympic competitor in marksmanship and had been sent to the Olympic Games in Europe after his first combat tour. When he returned home, he was upgraded from a sergeant to an officer and sent back to South Vietnam with the 325th - an outfit akin to the 82nd Airborne Division in our forces. During our chat, we discovered that we had actually fought each other a couple of times in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam in days gone by. This was a kind of bond.

At the end of the day, he said that he wanted to get out of "this place," and that he had no one to go home to in the North. He asked if I thought he could live in California "afterward." He left the camp with me to work with our forces against his former comrades. ...

Lang’s experience may have been atypical, and I’m sure U.S. forces try to “turn” prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, his story highlights the fact that the pool of potential recruits will always be larger when prisoners are well-treated as a whole. This creates the opening for dignified offers of tea and cigarettes, and might even turn men who realize they once shot at each other into allies.

(Thanks as always to John Brown's Public Diplomacy Review for the initial item.)

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