Little Wars

In Dirty Little Secrets of WWII, wargame-legend-turned-CNN-talking-head Jim Dunnigan wrote of post-1945 conflicts: “This lingering combat occurred because, as usually happens in a major war, there were also a lot of little wars going on at the same time. While the big nations were slugging it out, the simultaneous little wars tended to go unnoticed. But when the principle nations decided to declare the war over, many of the minor players fought on.”

I thought of this passage many times while reading Peter Scott’s fascinating book Lost Crusade: America’s Secret Cambodian Mercenaries. The author was an American officer in Vietnam in the post-Tet era. He was a liaison to a group of “Kit Carson Scouts”, former Communist soldiers that had turned themselves in and were rearmed and trained as American paramilitaries. While many of the scouts were Vietnamese, the Americans also recruited heavily from various ethnic minorities, like the Montagnards and the Nung, who had their own grievances. Scott served near the Cambodian border, in a region known as the Seven Mountains, and his scouts were Khmer Krom, ethnic Cambodians who had been living in Vietnam for a long time.

The Khmer Krom had faced their share of oppression at the hands of the Vietnamese, who they called “yuons.” Like many ethnic minorities in similar positions, they longed to be free from this yoke. This led them into a series of alliances, none of which worked particularly well for them. They aided the French colonizers, which led to severe Viet Minh reprisals during the 40s. Later, they joined the Viet Cong, hoping that Communism would set them free. After years of taxation and privation under the Communists, they rose up and killed their Communist officers and began to fight directly for their own freedom. It was during this era that the Americans got involved. The Khmer Krom were desperately poor and ill-equipped and faced hostile Vietnamese from both north and south. By joining the Kit Carson Scouts, the Khmer Krom got American arms and support.

Scott’s book is part personal memoir and part illuminating history of a little known part of the Vietnam War. He participated in something called the Phoenix Program, a rather nauseating enterprise that also featured a young Oliver North (though not in this book, thankfully). The idea of the Phoenix Program was to root out the Viet Cong by identifying the eliminating their infrastructure in South Vietnam. Scott defends the strategy but even he admits that it wasn’t executed with finesse. High command was interested in body counts and they were expected to be bagging a continuous stream of Communists. Little to no proof was required and it is certain that many thousands of innocent villagers were killed and counted as Communists.

The Phoenix Program largely takes a back seat to the Khmer Krom, their culture, and their struggle and that’s the most fascinating part of the book. Their identity was tied up with that of the region, which used to be part of Cambodia and is rich in mythology. Scott paints a fairly sympathetic picture of the Khmer Krom and their “little war” makes you look at the larger war in a different light. For example, when the US was beginning to reduce its presence, it instituted a policy called Vietnamization. The idea here was to train South Vietnamese troops to US standards and slowly put them in place of the Americans. In short, to teach the Vietnamese to better fight their own war. You can imagine how the Khmer Krom reacted to this policy. The last thing they wanted was to be put under the command of the South Vietnamese! You can also see how an American pull out put people like Khmer Krom, Montagnards, and Nung in a terrible position. They had believed in the American promises and suffered because of it.

In 1970 there was a coup in Cambodia, as General Nol ousted Prince Sihanouk. The Khmer Krom thought their time had come. The North Vietnamese had been running troops through Cambodia for years, despite the secret US bombing of those cross border sanctuaries. General Nol said he was going to kick the Communists out. The Americans agreed to covertly send six units of Khmer Krom soldiers to join Nol. They left with the highest of hopes; few ever returned. Nol squandered these well-trained troops in a series of disastrous campaigns. This paved the way for the Khmer Rouge takeover and the well-known Killing Fields of Pol Pot. Back in Vietnam the Communist victory was not kind to the Khmer Krom villages either. Many were killed, others imprisoned and tortured for a decade or more.

The Lost Crusade is one of the best-written war memoirs I’ve read. The end of the book also had an interesting twist. In the early 90s, through a fluke meeting, Scott was able to track down several of his old Khmer Krom comrades. It turned out that 40 or so families from the villages of Seven Mountains had settled in the USA. He found them in Tacoma, which is all of 30 minutes from where I live. Survivors of these horrific events are practically in my backyard. The world is sometimes frighteningly small.

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