Reviving Vietnam War Tactics

The top counterinsurgency adviser to Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq advocates practicing a "global Phoenix Program," alluding to the notorious Vietnam-era CIA operation that provoked a worldwide uproar because of the detention, torture and execution of thousands of Vietnamese.

The mainstream media has never reported on the use of the "global Phoenix program" in Iraq, perhaps because the explosive terminology has largely disappeared from the writings and rAf(c)sumAf(c) of Lt. Col. David Kilcullen after he first being referred to it in a forty-eight-page strategy paper, "Countering Global Insurgency" published in the obscure Small Wars Journal in September-November 2004.

Kilcullen, an Australian PhD who served for twenty-one years in the Australian army, was the "chief adviser on counterinsurgency operations" to Petraeus in planning the 2007 US troop surge. He also served as chief strategist in the State Department's counterterrorism office in 2005 and 2006, and has been employed in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa and Southeast Asia.

In the section titled "A Global Phoenix Program" in his 2004 article, Kilcullen describes the Vietnam Phoenix program as "unfairly maligned" and "highly effective." Dismissing CIA sponsorship and torture allegations as "popular mythology," Kilcullen calls Phoenix a misunderstood "civilian aid and development program" that was supported by "pacification" operations to disrupt the Vietcong, whose infrastructure ruled vast swaths of rural South Vietnam. A "global Phoenix program," he wrote, would provide a starting point for dismantling the worldwide jihadist infrastructure today.

Phoenix was far from an "aid and development" program. To achieve deniability, the CIA trained and transferred operational authority to the South Vietnamese national police, who tortured suspects indiscriminately. CIA officer William Colby, founder of the program, told a Congressional committee in 1971 that the Phoenix operation had killed 20,587 Vietcong suspects in two years. An official Pentagon evaluation in 1968 found that "the truncheon and electric shock method of interrogation were in widespread use, with almost all [US] advisors admitting to have witnessed instances of the use of these methods...[and] 'turned their backs on them.' " A Naval Institute historian later found that "the large majority of South Vietnamese interrogators tortured some or all of the communist prisoners in their care" as well as Vietnamese suspected of collaboration with the Vietcong.

According to recently disclosed documents, Colby went to laughable lengths in trying to cover up the real nature of Phoenix. Lloyd Shearer, editor of Parade, wrote Colby in 1972 "wondering if you would care to say flatly that the CIA has never used political assassination in Indo-China or elsewhere and has never induced, employed or suggested to others that such tactics or devices be employed," adding that he would "tango with Dick Helms in Garfinkel's largest show window" if proven wrong. The documents I received from the CIA last year include no less than nine drafts of Colby's reply to Shearer, including handwritten revisions. One top CIA official wrote, "I suggest we let the whole thing drop" on an official routing slip. Another, Angus Thuermer, recommended against saying that Vietcong were killed while resisting police arrest, as follows: "'resisting police arrest'" will get you, with the press, nothing but snide snicking cracks.... and as we're really not going to win too much in a short letter anyway, why not skip the 'occasional abuses' bit."

"Officers with PhDs Advising War Effort" was the Washington Post headline for a 2007 article on Kilkullen and others. The history of university-based counterinsurgency operatives stretches back to the Michigan State University Vietnam project in the 1950s, which involved covert CIA officers training and arming South Vietnamese police. Stanley Sheinbaum, for decades a respected progressive leader and fundraiser, coordinated the MSU project and later, in disgust, broke the story to Ramparts magazine (April 1966). Nearly fifty years later, Gen. Petraeus is still recruiting academic anthropologists and systems theorists. Among them are professors at Harvard's Carr Center, which formally collaborated with him in writing the current Army and Marines' war-fighting manuals. According to a 2005 New Yorker report, American psychologists and psychiatrists are enlisted in Behavioral Science Consultation Teams to design strategies to "exploit the physical and mental vulnerabilities of detainees." Anthropologists are recruited to study tribal cultural patterns in what Kilcullen calls "armed social science."

Carefully disguised programs that use American funding and training to employ local police in torture, death squads and mass detention had continued under US sponsorship in Vietnam, the Shah's Iran and Central America before taking root in Iraq and Afghanistan. The torture revelations at Abu Ghraib prison came to public attention only through photographs posted on the web, and the official spin was that the abuses were the irresponsible behavior of an isolated few.

The evidence continues to mount that torture is being practiced in Iraq. One of Petraeus's top associates, Col. Theodore Westhusing, committed suicide in June 2005, leaving a note saying, "I cannot support a mission that leads to corruption, human rights abuses and liars." The Jones Commission reported to Congress last year that the Iraqi national police are "highly sectarian," almost entirely Shi'a, and should be disbanded. The New York Times has reported that there are as many as ten secret prisons under the Interior Ministry in Baghdad. The Los Angeles Times has described the same ministry, funded and advised by Americans, as responsible for torture and ethnic cleansing. A BBC reporter in 2006 showed footage of tortured civilians and said "it's all happening under the eyes of US commanders who seem unwilling or unable to intervene." In a July 2007 report to Congress, even the Bush Administration acknowledged that "target lists," emanating from the highest levels of the Iraqi regime, contain the names of Iraqis that are suspected of sympathizing with the insurgency. Baghdad has been turned into an urban counterinsurgency theme park with blast walls, barricades, concertina wire, checkpoints, interrogation centers, retina scans and fingerprinting, door-to-door searches--the whole panorama of police controls. The Pentagon refers to these areas as "gated communities."

Kilkullen sees the problem in terms of a biological model of disease control. In a flattering 2007 New Yorker interview with George Packer, he compared the US military surge to extending the use of antibiotics after the disease is apparently suppressed: "you keep taking it as long as possible, even after the symptoms are gone, to kill the underlying infection."

Now in his 80s, Sheinbaum shakes his head about such analogies. As he wrote in 1966 in Ramparts, "Where is the source of serious intellectual criticism that would help us avoid future Vietnams?... Our failure in Vietnam was not one of technical expertise, but of historical wisdom."

Tom Hayden is a former state senator and leader of Sixties peace, justice and environmental movements. He currently teaches at PitzerCollege in Los Angeles. His books include The Port Huron Statement[new edition], Street Wars and The Zapatista Reader.

Copyright (c) 2008 The Nation

© 2023 The Nation