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

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.