I was once asked to accompany an officer from the division's Judge Advocate General's office who was investigating a sergeant who had branded a suspected Viet Cong soldier on the forehead with a heated wire in the shape of a “9.” I believe that I was being considered to serve as his defense counsel, but I lost my favored son status with the Judge Advocate in another incident. The sergeant had led his platoon with great competency for the better part of a year, losing few to wounds and none to death, until he was denied artillery support because of his proximity to a peaceful village, resulting in numerous casualties. His branding of Charlie was an apparent reaction to his frustration with the rules of engagement. Although we can sympathize with his frustration, his was a criminal act and he accepted his justly deserved punishment, while plastic sergeants repaired the damage to the VC.
In all probability, many such acts arose out of frustration with the rules of engagement. The massacre at My Lai probably falls into that category. Again, no excuses are being made, only understanding that hopefully would prevent competent military authorities from putting American service members in combat situations and then tie their hands. Armed forces are well-trained and adept at winning battles. They are not policemen nor nation builders. They should never be used as pawns in political games. Unfortunately, they are, more often in recent times.
War has never been civilized, but it was once fought more gentlemanly. Civilians could sit on hillsides with their picnic lunches and thrill to the gallantry and bravery of their sons engaged in pitched battles for their amusement. Indeed, one such great battle, between the Bon Homme Richard, under the command of John Paul Jones, and the British man o' war, HMS Serapis, was viewed by spectators gathered on the cliffs at Flamborough Head, England. The defeat of the Serapis alarmed the citizens of England who subsequently prevailed upon the British parliament to sue for peace with their colonies and acquiesce to their independence.
Insurgency or guerrilla warfare is fought by irregular forces who are as wont as not to insinuate themselves into the civilian population to shield themselves and their purposes. Indeed, Mao Zedong, the author of the strategies and tactics of insurgencies, schooled his disciples to disperse, to hide among the innocent population, and from there, to harass and demoralize the enemy. No leader of a counter-insurgency should miss the opportunity to read Chairman Mao's teachings. It appears that our political and military leaders never did. The rules of engagement denied us the freedom we needed to fight such an enemy effectively, until the Viet Cong made the mistake of massing for the Tet Offensive of 1968.
Officers who violated the rules of engagement frequently were relieved of command and reassigned to battalion, brigade, and division headquarters until the furor died down or their tours of duty ended. I had the opportunity to get to know a few such officers. The 9th Admin company whose officers and men staffed the division's administrative, personnel, and finance offices, was frequently commanded by such men. I remember a pair of lieutenants who were serving as the Executive Officer of the 9th Admin company when I first arrived. They were affable young fellows with little to do but drink beer and chase mama-sans around the base camp. They told stories, speaking in guarded terms of tossing a grenade into a civilian hooch suspected of harboring Charlie or hiding his supplies. I suspect that they would not have been in trouble had there been reasonable evidence to support their actions. One of these young men complained that if a Vietnamese fired on him and fled, the American could not then respond if the VC had discarded his weapon before being caught. I did not have enough information to refute his assertion.
The most controversial applications of the rules of engagement were those regulating combat operations north of the DMZ. I'm certain that the public was confused by them, but no more so than the military who suffered casualties for them. Driven by political expediency or changes in political leadership, U.S. Armed Forces were subject to constantly changing guidelines. North Vietnamese leaders openly confessed that they were on the verge of suing for peace when President Nixon declared most of the north a free-fire zone.
The most prized rule of engagement was free unobserved fire, allowing us to fire any weapons system into an area for any reason, without first obtaining permission from the headquarters that had designated an area a free-fire zone. To my knowledge, Camp Bearcat was the only 9th Infantry Division base camp surrounded by a free-fire zone. In fact, it might have been the only one in all of South Vietnam. We could return fire or fire to interdict possible enemy activity anywhere, anytime within a radius encompassing the range of any enemy weapons system. As a result, Camp Bearcat received just one rocket during the whole of the thirteen months I was there. It was a 144mm rocket launched by a North Vietnamese unit several months after the Tet Offensive of 1968.
All other division base camps had peaceful civilian enclaves within range of them. Viet Cong gunners would frequently enter innocent homes, cut holes in the roofs, and lob mortar rounds against which we could not retaliate without endangering innocents. I experienced the insanity of the situation one night while visiting our Mobile Riverine base camp at Dong Tam. I sat with the officer of the guard, watching through a starlight scope as VC's set up and aimed a recoilless rifle at us from just outside our perimeter. Being accustomed to our rules of engagement at Camp Bearcat, I wondered aloud when the artillery rounds would arrive on the enemy group, and was informed that we couldn't shoot at them until they fired on us. We ducked our heads when they fired, and the round pierced the base camp library behind us. The VC were long gone before our artillery could respond.
The simple truth is that they didn't have any rules and ours gave them an advantage. The interesting thing is that we defeated them in spite of it.