combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 04 Number 02 Spring ©Apr 2006

Pass in Review
an inspection of the literature

A book may be as great a thing as a battle.
Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield

Silence Was A Weapon
by Stuart A. Herrington; Presidio Press, Novato CA (©1982)

"If there are 12 clowns in a ring, you can jump in the middle and start reciting Shakespeare, but to the audience you'll just be the 13th clown."

There are thousands of books about Viet Nam, or at least pretending to be, yet many provide the reader with little comprehension, little of Viet Nam's unique and complex realities. Worse, some simply echo liturgy from the voluminous compendium of Viet Nam clichés: invisible guerrillas, hostile natives, inept South Viet Namese, all interwoven into the implied tapestry of an unwinnable – and perhaps immoral – war. Even works avoiding this formulaic mush often leave the reader unclear as to just what was going on, how, and why. Stuart Herrington's Silence Was A Weapon, which was later republished as Stalking the Viet Cong, is a welcome and valuable work touching upon many of Viet Nam's truths and realities. It may not be a Rosetta Stone deciphering all Viet Nam's mysteries, but does serve as an index or table of contents of what can be learned from the Stone's secrets, touching upon key factors of the grand historical equation that many other books ignore out of sheer ignorance. Herrington recites Shakespeare while the twelve other clowns obscure rather than explain.

Silence is unique in many respects. The author arrived in Viet Nam late in the game, 1971, convinced that the war was an exercise in futility. He spoke Viet Namese, and was assigned to Hau Nghia province, the tenth highest producer of allied combat fatalities in the entire war. This latter fact is not spelled out in the book, nor is Hau Nghia's critical strategic significance explained, deriving from its location on the Cambodia border adjacent to VC/NVA sanctuaries, as well as its twenty-five mile distance from Saigon, capital of the late Republic of Viet Nam. Located contiguous with the famed Parrot's Beak, Hau Nghia was the proverbial dagger pointed at the heart of Saigon. Herrington did not serve with an American combat unit but rather with Hau Nghia's American advisory team. Of most importance is his intellect and character, enabling him to see matters conceptually, to fathom history's – and war's – intangible yet very real forces, unlike far too many Americans blinded by their own mental or moral shortcomings. Also, and apart from educational and war story aspects, Silence is coherently written, enabling the reader to easily understand how Herrington went from a reluctant warrior hoping for an early drop to one who extended again, and again, eventually spending forty months in Viet Nam, driven by personal, intellectual and moral imperatives, for which he makes no express or implied apologies.

On the surface, Silence is merely the narrative account of a tour in Viet Nam, and while it does not delve deeply into such themes as communist doctrine on protracted warfare, a sine qua non for comprehending what was going on, it does point out the tip of this iceberg, and many others barely breaking the surface, and typically undiscerned by many observers. The conflict, of which war was a part, is revealed as multi-dimensional, with forces of stupidity, be they impetuous Americans or corrupt Viet Namese, effectively aiding their ostensible communist adversaries. While Silence is not, and does not claim to be, an encyclopaedic dissection of the war, the events it describes and the commentary offered do illustrate many salient aspects, and its reading will provide astute historians with ample footnote material, bridging the gap between theory and practice, whether in the form of a knife in the chest, courtesy of VC assassins, or the looming threat of NVA regulars bent on decisive and strategic victory. Along the way, Herrington's account thoroughly demolishes common erroneous stereotypes of cowardly South Viet Namese, of indefatigable VC, of widespread rural support for the VC, and of clueless Americans.

Layers of accumulated mythology, derived from stateside impressions and news media, begin to dissolve when Herrington is assigned to debrief a communist defector, Hai Chua, who reveals his sense of despair and hopelessness for the communist cause, a pessimism whose seeds were planted when the U.S. 25th Division arrived and began making life very difficult for the VC in 1966. Then came the failed Tet '68 offensive and decimation of VC troops. Then came the Cambodia incursion of 1970, wiping out VC/NVA rest and recuperation areas, training facilities and weapons/munitions depots. As Hai Chua came to sadly discover, no place was safe for a VC cadre such as he. Also of interest is Hai Chua's motivation for volunteering to serve as a political officer: he wanted to avoid combat. A string of additional defectors educate Herrington, explaining not only how and why they'd joined the VC, but why they saw themselves as exploited and betrayed by the very forces they'd so ardently supported. Along the way Herrington comes to see how Hau Nghia's rural people thought, to understand the forces they were subjected to, and how communist propaganda brilliantly exploited local grievances while concealing the eventual objective of a collectivist one-party state as a matter of cosmetic political marketing. As layers of misperceptions dissolve in Herrington's mind, so does his hope for an early drop, and when one of his ex-VC intelligence sources – and friend – is brutally assassinated, it becomes a very personal war. He requests an extension. The phenomenon of an American's identifying and respecting Viet Nam and Southeast Asian counterparts is not unique, nor is it unwarranted. As Herrington illustrates, these people earned respect the hard and honest way.

Concurrent with this educational journey, Silence profiles the honorable and brave Province Chief, Colonel Thanh, intolerant of corruption or anything less than excellent small-unit leadership and combat aggressiveness from Hau Nghia's provincial Regional Force (RF) units. Unschooled readers may fail to make the distinction between province RF and regular Army divisions, yet Herrington does indicate the RF had neither the tactical air support nor artillery available to divisional elements. They fought a war of hardball light infantry tactics, and under Colonel Thanh's inspirational leadership, did it quite well.

Colonel Thanh is also insistent upon rooting out the lower level VC operatives and networks in his province, exploiting intelligence from defectors and unleashing province forces, including an Armed Propaganda Team comprised in good part of ex-VC, to drive the VC out. For good. In this instance Hau Nghia was unique in that phase II, or mobile light-infantry combat was a thing of the past. VC main force battalions no longer existed in Hau Nghia, and local VC small units and networks were all the more vulnerable to attack and destruction. Nothing succeeds like success, and under Thanh's leadership, the residual VC presence, shrinking but still lethal, comes under increasing pressure. The VC strike back with a vengeance, killing Colonel Thanh in an ambush intended specifically for him, signaling to Hau Nghia's people and province RF/PF that no matter how honest or how capable a province chief may be, neither he nor they are safe from revolutionary justice.

The plot thickens with the onset of Hanoi's 1972 offensive and a VC defector's report that Hau Nghia is to be hit, and hit hard, by NVA regulars, an opponent that provincial forces have never had to deal with. And so they do. Inexplicably, and perhaps constrained by logistic limitations, Hanoi's bo doi are committed piecemeal, and just as handily defeated by Hau Nghia's RF who dispense with the 101st, the 24th, and then the 271st NVA Regiments, leaving scores of NVA corpses in the wake of a series of battles. Herrington's narration is straightforward and devoid of battlefield heroics, simply summarizing the achievements of Hau Nghia's RF, and including his dismay over the mindless sacrifice of so many naïve and indoctrinated young soldiers by Hanoi's ideologues. Amidst this carnage, Herrington takes on another project: the psychological disarming of a defiant NVA POW who had truly believed in the cause, yet within two weeks time realizes his patriotism was exploited for a lie. Herrington sits the wounded POW down and simply starts talking, showing the POW examples of Hanoi's lies, examples the former NVA bo doi could readily see for himself. No, rural the people did not welcome the invaders from the north, and no, he was not tortured or mistreated in any way. No, they did not fight American imperialists but rather their kindred southern brothers who, with some exceptions, did not run in terror, but stood and fought, defeating NVA legions. Using imaginative and deft psychology, Herrington gets permission to drive the young NVA soldier to Saigon, a mere two hours away, letting him see for himself. The markets are full, the people are friendly, and there are no U.S. troops guarding Thieu's palace, leaving one tragic NVA POW internally shattered in disillusionment, and eventually angry at having been deceived and manipulated.

Silence ends with Herrington's request for another extension being denied, leaving him angry at not being permitted to finish the job. It concludes with a summary retrospective chapter containing more insight, more honesty, than was, or is now, found in newspaper commentary. A brief epilogue tells of Herrington's return to Viet Nam, from 1973 to 1975, with the Four-Party Military Commission, which is fully explored in his second book Peace With Honor?, with expected frustrations as the Republic of Viet Nam, starved by U.S. aid cutbacks, died a thousand-cut death.

Silence is, or should be, a must-read for anyone seeking understanding of Viet Nam, or who is about to deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan. That it may not be read only proves the accusation that the American public is not only ignorant of its past, with ramifications for our future, but prefers this state of mental limitation. Silence is not War and Peace. It is not a full and comprehensive view of all that occurred in Viet Nam, Laos and Cambodia, which were all part of a theater war of which Viet Nam was the major element. It was not intended to be these things, yet remains an invaluable contribution, and one deserving a much broader readership than has been attained to date, it's insight being smothered by the antics and decibels of the twelve clowns prancing in the arena of sophomoric public debate. Get it. Read it. Tell others to do the same.

contributed by William S. Laurie

Table of

C O M B A T, the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones