Cu Chi, 25th Infantry Division base camp.
Much is made of the "secure Green Zone" in Baghdad as applied, in theory, to some future American civil war scenario. The principal malefactors, it is postulated will be able to live safe behind their walls while the rest of us are ravaged by their minions. "Resistance is futile!" cries the Borg.
I dealt with my insomnia last night by taking in a few pages of The Tunnels of Cu Chi by Tom Mangold and John Penycate. Here are some pages for your edification and amusement about the "impregnable" (in the words of one of its commanders) base camp of the 25th Infantry Division at Cu Chi, RVN, circa 1966-1969.
But despite the distractions the 25th was at war -- and not just with an unseen enemy outside the wire. There was a fifth column inside as well, an enemy that found it easy to operate within the comparatively lax security system that took into account the entertainment needs of the soldiers and the necessity to use local labor to service the huge complex. The Vietnamese workers on the base lived in nearby strategic hamlets. In theory they were screened by the national police. In fact, some were guerrillas using tunnels round the base, and most workers were in touch with their local NLF organization. The Viet Cong cracked down heavily on fraternizing with the Americans, except on a commercial basis. For example, a Vietnamese girl who worked in the PX was known to be seeking permission to marry a GI. One morning her head was found on a post outside the main gate, with a note that said, "This is what happens to Vietnamese people who go around with the enemy." A special mobile punishment unit of Viet Cong was responsible for such executions.
The Vietnamese workers on Cu Chi base lined up to be counted and checked as they arrived and left each day. However, an explosive device or booby trap was found inside the base once or twice each week. Mess hall walls seemed to be a favorite place to leave them. One such bomb caused dozens of casualties in a mess hall on 5 January 1969. Today, few of the civilian workers are happy to admit that they ever worked for the Americans. Mrs. Le Thi Tien, for example, is a self-employed seamstress with one child in the village of Phuoc Hiep, a short distance up Route 1, north of Cu Chi town. During the war she worked as a waitress in the officers' club on the base. She recalled: "I had to work there because my family was so poor. Most of the villages in the area were destroyed by bombs, so we all had to live temporarily in the villages along the road. I was forced to work for the Americans to support my mother, who was blind. I was told to observe everything in the base and report it to the local cadre." The man to whom she reported was Ho Van Nhein, who is still the party cadre in Phuoc Hiep today. (1985) "Each village sent in spies," he said. "I had many report to me. Some were laborers filling sandbags. They reported whenever the Americans launched an operation. The bar girl (Mrs. Le Thi Tien) reported whatever conversations she overheard. I reported back to the district committee so that they could prepare to deal with any attack." He described how intelligence messages detailing future search-and-destroy operations were written on small sheets of paper, wrapped in nylon, hidden in the hair of women couriers, who attracted less suspicion from the police. Another of Ho's agents worked at the graves registration point, the mortuary on Cu Chi base, preparing American dead for shipment home. By this means, the Viet Cong had a far more accurate picture of American casualty figures than was ever made public. The camp barbers, too, were well placed to gather intelligence.
Sergeant Arnold Gutierrez recalled an episode concerning a barber. He and a patrol were in the Boi Loi woods and came under sniper fire from a tree. Gutierrez had the radio and was the prime target; he was wounded in the elbow. The patrol sprayed the tree with machine-gun fire and brought the sniper down. It turned out to be a thirteen-year-old girl, and -- worse still -- the daughter of one of the camp's barbers, a friend and confidant of the men. The girl had been in the tunnels since she was ten. That night the barber was hanged. In January 1967, during Operation Cedar Falls, tunnel rats found a VC document that named dozens of sympathizers working inside Cu Chi base. It included all fourteen of the camp's barbers.
Map of Cu Chi base.
For attacks from the outside, Cu Chi's intricate defensive perimeter turned out to be well-justified. Because of the formidable American presence that descended on the area and the semipermanence of the buildings and structure, as well as the wholesale devastation and depopulation of the surrounding countryside, the Viet Cong always saw Cu Chi -- like other U.S. bases -- as an affront and a challenge. Truong Ky, a top Viet Cong staff officer, announced in 1967: "We will continue to encircle and hug their bases wherever they establish them." The interrogation report of Viet Cong prisoner Ngo Van Giang (made in January 1968) bears this out. He said: "Some permanent U.S. troop bases are near VC areas. Prostitutes around these camps make it easy for us to learn the defensive system and the strength of the post. At night, the Americans fire flares to assist in their observation of the area, but unconsciously they also help our sappers observe how to enter the post."
Not only did the Viet Cong lob mortar shells and rockets into Cu Chi base camp but, incredibly, they executed daring raids on it from the surrounding tunnels. These were carried out by parties of thirty or forty guerrillas at most, and often by smaller groups, even by the classic Viet Cong three-man cells. Some caused enormous damage, to helicopters and tanks for example, and loss of life among the American soldiers. The raids were profoundly unsettling and of psychological and propaganda value far beyond their military importance. The Viet Cong demonstrated to the Americans that none of their installations was impregnable; that their adversaries were self-sacrificially brave; and that the Viet Cong would keep coming back, even after the annihilation of their villages and apparently fearsome casualties. Twenty years earlier, Ho Chi Minh himself had warned the French: "You can kill ten of my men for every one I kill of yours, but even at those odds, you will lose and I will win."
Once the Americans had succeeded in blocking up all the tunnels that ran underneath Cu Chi base, the Viet Cong created a complex structure of tunnels, trenches, and firing positions all around it. This ring of tunnels they called the belt. (The same technique had been used against the French at the siege of Dien Bien Phu in 1954.) The belt connected most of the villages surrounding Cu Chi base, including Trung Lap, Nhuan Duc, and Phu Hoa Dong. Every fifty meters, branch tunnels headed off toward the base itself. . .
The belt was constantly used for infiltration by main-force Viet Cong from the more secure areas of War Zone C in Tay Ninh Province or from Cambodia, to attack Cu Chi base itself or to proceed to other attacks in or near Saigon. One of those who worked and fought in the belt was Mrs. Vo Thi Mo, the one female guerrilla who survived the squad that stayed behind in Nhuan Duc. In 966 she was still a teenager but dedicated to the cause she had espoused. "Our fighting area was the belt around Dong Zu (Cu Chi) base. My duty was to lead the way for the regular troops from Nhuan Duc to Dong Zu. In the daytime I went to Dong Zu openly by myself to obsevre the road, the fences, the terrain -- the ways by which one could penetrate the base. Then at night I guided the reconnaissance group to observe the base. The regular forces mounted attacks. My duty was to guide the troops on their way back and help carry the wounded. Sometimes I went there legally, with puppet identity cards, on a Honda moped. Inside the base I was guided by liason agents. I collected information from women inside the base, like cleaners and prostitutes, about the Americans' activities. I ran fifteen secret cells. That way we knew in advance the names and times and places of some of the big operations like Cedar Falls."
As late as February 1969, after three years of Cu Chi base's existence, the camp was the victim of a daring and destructive Viet Cong attack that penetrated right inside its security perimeter. It came from the least expected quarter: not from the notorious Ho Bo woods or Fil Hol sides, but from the side facing Cu Chi town, which was normally government-controlled. Local guerrillas like Mrs. Mo had guided the Viet Cong main force around the belt to the side chosen for the attack. They slept the previous day in the tunnels. In the dead of night, Dac Cong, or special force, sappers crawled forward to clear a path through the protective minefield and barbed wire, unobserved by the patrolling sentries. Then the thirty-nine Viet Cong, three squads of thirteen, some of them women, entered the base. Their main aim, as with so many Viet Cong attacks, was to destroy their enemies' most feared and hated weapon -- helicopters. They knew exactly where to find them. Using satchel charges, the guerrillas blew up fourteen of the big troop-carrying CH-47 Chinook helicopters on the ground, all those in Cu Chi at the time. The realization that the Viet Cong were "inside the wire" created some panic. The defenders fired ghostly parachute flares into the air to illuminate the base and help spot the attackers. Firing broke out on all sides; there was the whoosh and boom of rocket grenades. A medical orderly in the 12th Evacuation Hospital later recalled that night: "Guys confirmed that the VC were inside the base. They said the enemy had killed some of our people and had blown up some helicopters. That the VC were inside our wire scared the wounded guys pretty bad. It scared me, too, and for the rest of the night, whenever the door opened on either ward my heart flipped and I froze, half expecting it would be VC. The shooting and the rockets and the flares kept up for hours." Thirty-eight Americans were killed, but all but thirteen of the attackers escaped safely and unharmed when they melted away before dawn. They left in a direction different from the one they had taken to reach the base; they knew that artillery fire would rake the area from which it was thought they had traveled. -- The Tunnels of Cu Chi, pp. 143-147.
Diplomatic Spook: I don't like it. First time out a whole battalion gets massacred?
Army Intelligence Officer: You think this is a massacre?
Diplomatic Spook: I call losing a lot of draftees a bad week. Losing a Colonel's a massacre. -- We Were Soldiers, 2002.
Mind you, the VC here were still playing somewhat of an attrition warfare game. With perfect intelligence of the layout of the base, they could have used small teams to target the intelligence and operations shops and personnel, the commanding general's quarters, and the POL stocks as well as the helicopters. And if Lyndon Johnson and the Joint Chiefs happened to visit, a 4GW attack would have made certain to get them.
And if it happened in the first week of the war? On our soil? Where the enemy speaks the same language and is not color-coded for suspicion?
Remember this if nothing else:
There is no Green Zone that cannot be violently redecorated in red by an intelligent and determined 4GW opponent.